Editor's Note: Guest blogger David W. Shelton is a writer, activist, and business owner in Clarksville, Tennessee. Visit his blog at skippingtothepiccolo.com.
The discussion over LGBT rights and equality is rife with emotion, debated with passion, and unfortunately, peppered with misinformation. Many of the discussions from those opposed to LGBT equality use words like "lifestyle," "behavior," and my favorite, "sodomy." There's also the even more religious-sounding variation: sodomite.
We talk about issues like marriage, the workplace, and even walking down the street holding hands. Through it all, an astonishing number of discussions, arguments, and debates are based on the single greatest myth: that sexual orientation is a choice.
The power of a myth to be resilient even when deluged by a sea of fact can never be understated. We live in a time where an astonishing percentage of people still believe that our current president was not born in Hawaii. On the flip side, a similar number of people believe that the attacks of 9/11 were part of a conspiracy of the previous administration.
Myths surround the moon landing. The Kennedy assassination. Myths even surround rock and roll music. (Quick, did you hear the one about how master tapes are cursed by satanic witches?)
Myths are not only resilient, but they are often backed by nothing more than hearsay or anecdote ("I heard that..."). It's like a gossip column come to life! Part of the reason that true journalism is no longer respected is because of the promulgation of myths by "newsy" blogs like WorldNetDaily, Breitbart, and others.
Citation is no longer the norm. We don't confirm our stories. We dive into the thing we want to attack and dish. We might as well be reading the National Enquirer.
It's part of the reason that websites like snopes.com or TruthorFiction.com are forced to exist -- because every email that gets forwarded about those nearly-invisible spiders under the toilet seat isn't necessarily true just because someone took the time to write it out.
But why is the myth of a gay person's "choice" so resilient? More to the point, what's the point of attacking it head on?
I will reiterate what I said a few months ago: our rights should never hinge upon whether or not sexual orientation is a choice. After all, religion is very much a choice, and it's protected by the First Amendment. I could also argue that the freedom of association would protect our rights in relationships. Thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment, we have as much a right to be gay as we have a right to be Zoroastrian. Or not.
That's not good enough, though. We can't only win this argument from an intellectual perspective. We have to attack this myth from a moral perspective as well.
When I spoke with Egberto Willies, one of the leading voices of the Coffee Party, he explained that his transition from homophobe to a full LGBT rights supporter was instantaneous. For him, it was a conscious revelation of the reality that no one would willingly choose to be reviled, ridiculed, beaten, or even murdered. Therefore, who would willingly choose to be gay?
That point, while very true, doesn't go deep enough. From an intellectual perspective, it makes perfect sense. But as most of us realize, this is not an intellectual issue. It is, at its very heart, a visceral and emotional one that has to be dealt with at its core.
First, we have to separate sexual activity from sexual orientation. Sexual activity, which in every case of consenting adults, is very much a choice; we usually make a direct choice whether or not to enter into a sexual relationship with another human being. "Will I drop my pants for this person?" Yes or no. It's a choice. It is unquestionably a choice.
Trigger warning: these next several paragraphs discuss sexual violence.
For some, though, it was not only not a choice, it was an act of unspeakable violence. Rape. Molestation. Sexual abuse. For them, they re-live the horror they endured every moment of every day. They were coerced, manipulated, or even restrained. They had that choice made for them, by a monster who was nothing more than a predator.
Horrifically, these people who endured such nightmares at the hands of a person of the same sex are paraded around by insensitive religious and anti-gay groups as those who "became gay" under such destructive conditions. They claim that the choice was made, all right -- but it was made by their attacker who violated their innocence. Then they add insult to injury by compelling these victims to submit to unethical and disproven junk science called "reparative therapy."
These victims are gay, they claim, because they were molested. Or raped. Or attacked. Or raised by an overbearing mother. Or a distant father. The propaganda is the same every time.
Every bit of it revolves around that word -- a word that is heralded by the anti-gay world as the great obelisk of shame that penetrates the sky like a dagger to the clouds of reason: choice.
No, it is not a choice.
Let's be clear: sexual identity is not defined by sexual activity. Sexual orientation is not sexual activity. Just because a man has sex with a woman does not mean he's heterosexual. Just because a man has sex with another man does not mean he's homosexual.
Frankly, we may not know what root cause there is for sexual orientation for a long time, if ever. I don't know if we're born that way, or of it's a part of puberty. None of that matters. What does matter is that we do not choose the people to whom we are sexually attracted.
For most of us, we are naturally attracted to members of the opposite sex. Men are drawn to women. Women are drawn to men. Teen boys are drawn to teen girls. It's the great circle of life!
For a few of us, though, we're different. We have a different attraction. At an age when most boys were staring at girls in the classroom, I was staring at boys. When one boy asked me once if I wanted to have sex with a girl that walked by, I was repulsed by the idea, much in the same way that most men are repulsed by the idea of having sex with another man.
I didn't choose that. I never would have. Why would I want to be so different from my peers? Like most gay boys, I tried to blend in by dating a girl or two, but nothing went anywhere. I didn't know then that I was gay, but I knew I was weird. Different.
It took me until well into adulthood to finally put a word to that "difference" -- that I am, in fact, gay. For many of us, that takes much less time. No matter when the person recognizes their difference, the only choice we have is simple: to be honest with ourselves or not.
We don't make the choice to be gay or straight -- but we do make the choice whether or not to embrace every part of our own lives.
The choice myth is resilient not only because there's a "need" for it for religious purposes, but for political ideology as well.
If it's a choice, then we don't need to allow marriage equality. Every person can choose to marry someone of the opposite sex, right?
If it's a choice, then why should there be health insurance for LGBT couples?
If it's a choice, then why should we have laws tracking and prosecuting hate groups?
If it's a choice, then why should there be workplace protection?
If it's a choice, then why should we have nondiscrimination housing laws?
If it's a choice, then why should gays have basic protections for their human dignity?
If it's a choice, then why shouldn't gay people just stop being gay?
If it's a choice, then why should we treat a homosexual as a human being?
If it's a choice, then why shouldn't we criminalize homosexual behavior?
And finally, if it's a choice, then why don't we just do what the Bible says in Leviticus 20:13 and put them to death?
Every single reason for anti-gay pushback against LGBT equality is rooted in this simple myth. It is the clog in the drain that keeps the stagnant waters of anti-gay bigotry in the kitchen sink of politics, religion, and culture.
We must pull that plug and clear that clog. Truth is a hard thing to swallow sometimes, but the fact is that we all have a very clear choice in this matter: do we accept the myth? Or do we work to destroy it?
It's your choice.
Facepalm statue via Flickr.