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Feb 14 2012

Fun Video On Cynthia Nixon’s Choice, And An Announcement (I’m giving a live talk!)

This is a little late, and a little less than topical, but as many of you may have heard, earlier this month Cynthia Nixon (an actress known for her role on Sex And The City) made a very open declaration that for her, being a lesbian was in fact a choice. This directly challenged the currently prevailing queer narrative, and the increasingly dominant mantra of “Born This Way”, and she received some pretty significant negative backlash.

Kind of creeps me out. The fact of the matter is, we don’t yet have much conclusive evidence as to what exactly determines sexual orientation or just how innate it really is. For most people who are queer, our identities feel quite fixed and immutable, and we often fought very, very hard to make them conform to social expectations and went through a long period of hating ourselves and desperately wishing to be “normal” before ever accepting that this is who we are and is who we need to be to be happy. But that experience is NOT universal, and many people have a far more fluid and shifting experience of sexuality and/or gender.

And what really stands out for me is the fact that the Born This Way debate really doesn’t matter unless we buy into the concept presented by the religious right that queer identities or acts are somehow immoral, sinful, disgusting, inferior or otherwise undesirable (“But we can’t help it!”). Even if it is a choice, it’s a choice we bloody well have the right to make for ourselves.

Anyway, a couple really great ladies I know from Teh Twitterz put up this incredibly cute, insightful and fun video last week, which articulates these issues wonderfully (and with wonderful accents) and I happened to watch last night and found too awesome not to share:

(and please do check out Feminist Ire, the site where they posted it)

Also I’m very excited to let you all know that next week (Tuesday evening) I’ll be giving a short presentation in person at the Vancouver Skeptics In The Pub downtown at The Railway Club on February 21st.

The talk is entitled “Getting Skeptics To Think Skeptically About Their Skepticism”, and will be about how to turn a critical eye towards your own biases, assumptions and cognitive distortion thingies.

So if you’re in Vancouver or the surrounding area, or somewhere near-by like Bellingham or Seattle or something, please do feel free to come down, have a beer or two (or more) and maybe some food, listen to me ramble about something, and if you’d like you can come up and chat with me.

I am also more than happy to accept beers and foods myself (contrary to the brilliant deductions of a certain JG, I’m not actually insanely rich, despite the fact that I’m able to access the internet and have a blog. Shocking, I know).

The Railway Club is right downtown on Dunsmuir, between Seymour and Richards, and sort of across the street from the Granville Skytrain station’s Dunsmuir exit, and also across from a big student housing hostel thing, and there’s a big old beautiful cathedral on the corner. It’s through a big wooden door and upstairs. Sort of above a Fresh Slice pizza place. The Skeptics In The Pub gather in the big back room (you’ll know it when you find it). There will probably be signs, but the bartender can direct you there if you get lost.

Yes, I’m terrible with directions. Google maps might do a better job.

The event starts at 6:30, but I’m not sure when exactly I’ll be giving the talk. I’ll probably need to have a drink first. It will be my first ever skeptic talk / presentation, and also my first talk / presentation of any kind at all in almost four years.

I look forward to seeing you there!

(please no assassinations)

36 comments

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  1. 1
    JohnW

    And what really stands out for me is the fact that the Born This Way debate really doesn’t matter unless we buy into the concept presented by the religious right that queer identities or acts are somehow immoral, sinful, disgusting, inferior or otherwise undesirable (“But we can’t help it!”). Even if it is a choice, it’s a choice we bloody well have the right to make for ourselves.

    If your hobbies include watching fundies squirm, try asking them whether they think religious discrimination is acceptable. What with it being a lifestyle choice, and everything…

    1. 1.1
      Anders

      The scary people are the ones who say ‘yes’.

      1. JohnW

        It’s not that unusual, sadly. Sometimes it never occurs to them that they might be potential victims, and assume I’m advocating locking up Teh Muslimz.

  2. 2
    Anders

    Again, excellent post. I was interested by the talk about fluidity – it is something that has puzzled me for a long time. I have no knowledge on the subject of queer or gender theory, but as a cisman I’m automatically qualified to pontificate on anything. Just tell me if I’m running down any blind alleys or dead ends.

    A man comes out as a homosexual at 30. Has he always been a homosexual, maybe repressed it? Perhaps he was a bisexual, repressed one side and is now repressing the other? Or has his sexuality changed? And in that case, has it changed because of a conscious choice, because of some environmental factor, or because of some biological changes? There’s a swedish skit where one of the guys sitting in front of the TV declares he’s “gone gay.” Is such a thing even possible?

    Of course, we could ask the person. A trans woman on another forum told me she had been uncomfortable with her body since very, very early on. However, as skeptics we know how unreliable memories are. I would be very surprised if I could find a single person who does not have a number of false memories. I know I do. People alter their memories to tell a story they’re more comfortable with, and queer people are no exception.

    And again, if we find that a given explanation is true for one person that does not mean it holds true for everyone (or anyone) else. Biological theories are especially compatible with other explanations – if we have many genes determining queerness then different combinations may lead to people who are born this way, have a choice, or are at the mercy of some environmental influence or other.

    The important thing to stress – and you do so admirably – that whatever the reason a person is queer, there is nothing wrong with it. How other people identify themselves, and how they reach their conclusions, is not a threat to me. It is not a threat to my children. And it is certainly not a threat to my marriage (or would be, if I was married).

    Something like that.

    Tuesday the 21st, eh? Hey, I can be there for just a thousand Canadian dollars… :p Seriously, break a leg and be sure to TAPE IT and PUT IT ON YOUTUBE for your adoring fans. Please? It would make me happy. :)

    1. 2.1
      Aoife

      if we find that a given explanation is true for one person that does not mean it holds true for everyone (or anyone) else

      This is the important bit right here. We simply don’t know enough about why people are queer (or straight, or ace, or any combination thereof) to say. And people’s experiences are so different from each other that there really isn’t currently any consensus. So all we can do is accept that people’s experiences vary, and that my experience isn’t a predictor of what yours is.

      1. Anders

        I disagree. The important thing is that ultimately, how you got there doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is completely legitimate for you to be there. You don’t have to apologize to anyone for it, and you certainly shouldn’t be facing sterilization for choosing a way to live that suits you (Swedish government I’m looking at you).

        When it comes to individual rights, I must quote Churchill:

        Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

        1. Sarahface, who is trying to break the lurking habit

          “The important thing is that ultimately, how you got there doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is completely legitimate for you to be there. ”

          This, so much. You have just articulated all my feelings on the subject much better than I ever have.

    2. 2.2
      HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

      I can’t really tell you why I’m genderqueer/genderfluid. I identified as a cis woman up until my 20s. Then I realized that something had changed. It may alter further later. It bugs me less now than it used to.

    3. 2.3
      sjrosewater

      I think there’s a simple way to explain it: people act in their own self-interest.

      Sure, gay people can choose to be straight, and straight people can choose to be gay; and trans people can choose not to be trans, and cis people can choose to transition. We control and repress behaviours all the time. We do what makes us happy. And when we are forced to actively go against this tide, we feel discomfort or, at worst, contemplate suicide. It just depends on the degree to which that behaviour shapes our core identity.

      Who cares if it’s nature or nurture (or more likely both), like you and Natalie said: choice should be protected.

  3. 3
    Aoife

    Okay, seeing me and Ariel’s vid up here on one of my absolute favourite bits of the internet has just made my day. Eep!

  4. 4
    Sour Tomato Sand

    And what really stands out for me is the fact that the Born This Way debate really doesn’t matter unless we buy into the concept presented by the religious right that queer identities or acts are somehow immoral, sinful, disgusting, inferior or otherwise undesirable (“But we can’t help it!”).

    Been arguing this for years! With people who are actually supportive of LGBT rights! And it’s not even a valid argument against their bigotry. For example, the Catholic Church argues that everyone is sinful by nature and that they have to overcome it through God and willpower and all that nonsense. So, the argument goes, it may be natural, but you still have a responsibility to fight it.

    So arguing “we were born this way!” not only lets the bigots set the terms of the discussion, it does nothing to refute their assertions that being gay or trans is evil. We need to be arguing that there is no secular rationale for being against LGBT rights.

  5. 5
    miller

    But that experience is NOT universal, and many people have a far more fluid and shifting experience of sexuality and/or gender.

    Pet peeve: Fluidity is not the same thing as choice. It is easy to imagine a sexuality or gender that changes, but not by one’s own volition.

    I feel like people show such an incredible lack of imagination in this area. Either people are fixed and unchangeable, and in retrospect it was “there all along”, or it was fluid, ambiguous, and a choice.

    A few times, I’ve told people that I chose my identity, and they instantly jump to the rhetoric of “homosexuality is a choice” vs “born this way”, when all I really wanted to say was that I was (and always have been) a borderline case, and I chose to draw the borderline on one side of me, and not the other.

    1. 5.1
      miller

      Looking up Cynthia Nixon, it appears that she is in a similar situation to me. She says:

      While I don’t often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have ‘chosen’ is to be in a gay relationship.

      So yes, she chose to be in a “gay” relationship. But that’s not the same as choosing one’s orientation. And it’s not the same as fluidity. And yet, here we are talking about the rhetoric of “homosexual by choice” vs “born this way”.

      If Cynthia really did mean that she chose to be lesbian in the sense of choosing to change her orientation, that would be fine. But it appears that this is not what she said, and I think we should take her word for it.

  6. 6
    karmakin

    The understanding I have of it is that it’s far from black and white. It’s a whole big spectrum, and different people are all across that spectrum. So that for some people, it’s not a realistic choice. (If you have much more attraction for someone of the same sex than someone for the opposite sex, it’s not really a choice)

    Where you are along that spectrum is not a choice, although where you are along that spectrum might lead one to individual choices. That’s where the confusion occurs. The next step is into what’s a realistic choice. The number of people who are 50-50 (to be fair, we’re probably talking about a certain range right in the middle of the spectrum, probably in the middle 20% or so) are relatively low.

    So it’s not usually a realistic choice, but in the cases where it is a choice, the fact that you’re in that position isn’t a choice.

    1. 6.1
      Anders

      It’s not really a spectrum either, because a spectrum implies two poles… I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like a huge pool in which we dip colored tablets and the color spreads. Most people will be near one of the tablets and be fairly unicolored. But some people lie far away and get this weird mixture of hues.

      That made sense in my head. I don’t know if it will make sense in yours.

      1. Natalie Reed

        I like it!

        The image I like is combinations. Like there’s a big plastic bin full of lego bricks, each representing various traits related to gender or sexuality. Each of us is built out of a particular combination of bricks, and with particular types of bricks in particular ratios.

    2. 6.2
      Kathrin

      > Where you are along that spectrum is not a choice

      It was for me.

  7. 7
    Miri

    Hmmmm… I’m not sure what I think about this…

    I understand the argument, in terms of orientation, that whether it’s a choice or not makes little difference in terms of how it is perceived by the religious right, or assorted other bigots. It really does make no difference, whether someone chooses to be in a relationship with someone of the same sex, or whether it truly is a choice, and they could have easily chosen otherwise but simply preferred this over the alternative. For me though, this brings up two issues, which are completely unrelated to the opinions of bigots (which I simply assume are rubbish in all cases).

    The first is, there has to be a reason for someone to make a choice. People do not choice between options without reason. Even if the decision was made through some random method (like rolling dice, for example), the decision to determine the choice this way would have been made for a reason. Now, the reason could be simply that they preferred this choice over the other. Which begs the question, where did this preference, which is one that the majority of people would ever (seriously) consider, come from? I have a preference for spicy foods with complex flavours (e.g. indian, thai, moroccan, etc.) over more simple foods (e.g. japanese). Why? I wasn’t exposed to these things during my childhood, but I have this preference where others with a similar childhood (in terms of food) do not. I suppose it doesn’t really matter what the reason behind this, or behind the preference for one sex for sexual or romantic partners over another, but it does seem that any preferences we hold, no matter how banal they might be, are considerably more inherent than intentional.

    The second issue, which is somewhat related to the first, is, as a trans woman, I find the possibility that my gender identity is something I’ve chosen incredibly problematic. Certainly, the decision to transition is a choice (however rubbish the alternative might have been), but my identity itself? Why on earth would I choose to feel a misery and deep self-loathing that leads me to choose between a lengthy, painful, and expensive medical, social, and emotional journey, or self-harm and eventual suicide? It’s quite baffling to me that this, in particular, could be deemed a choice. Given a choice, I would be a cis woman over trans just about any day (the days where I have super cis-hate are an exception), and given a choice, I would be a trans woman over being a cis man, but at the heart of it, I really don’t feel like I have any choice, beyond whether to do something about it or not. I understand that this is my experience, but I feel this links back to my first point. I suppose we could compare being something with being a particular profession. Many people make these things part of their identity. So say, for example, you have chosen to be an astronaut. Why did you make this choice? I would suggest that we have, inherent within us, preferences toward certain things, that lead us to make choices, but that these preferences strip us (to a degree which seems proportional to the social weight attributed to the thing in question) of agency in making those “choices”.

    (sorry, long comment is long, and probably not very clear, even well thought out :P)

    1. 7.1
      Miri

      Lesson learned from reading my own post(that I will probably ignore next time around): proof reading is useful if you want to sound like you’re intelligent, and not sort of stupid… *facepalm*

    2. 7.2
      Brett

      I don’t think that saying some people have choice in the matter means everyone does, so if a person felt that their preference on a particular issue (whether it be gender identity, sexual preference or something as minor as taste in food) was not their choice, I’m fine taking their word on it. I never felt like I had any choice in whether I feel like a man, or whether I was attracted to women. For me personally though, I feel like my not pursuing an attraction to men has an element of choice. I suppose you could say that means I have no choice in being a little bisexual, but I happen to not be dating any men, but at that point it seems to be functionally identical to saying I choose to be straight.

      Of course I realize that it’s only good luck for me that the parts of my identity I have no choice about are socially accepted, and I freely admit that especially when I was younger social pressures must have helped shape the parts I did get to choose.

      Honestly, I’m not sure my post made sense ;) That was my big rambling way of saying I believe that you had no choice about your identity if you say so. I think I had a choice, but I’m only speaking for me and nobody else.

      Brett

  8. 8
    nekohime

    “Even if it is a choice, it’s a choice we bloody well have the right to make for ourselves.”

    Exactly, and it’s a choice that we should not be used to discriminate against us.

    Also, Happy Valentine’s/SAD/Hearts and Hooves day! I made a Hearts and Hooves card:

    http://sadpanda.us/images/842184-RTDO1R3.png

  9. 9
    Delictuscoeli

    Yeah, religion is the classic argument for why even chosen lifestyles, identities, and/or beliefs should be protected by law. Then again, just because religion is a protected category doesn’t make it immune to criticism, as I think most of us are well aware.

    The real appeal of the “born this way” argument to activists is that it makes the inborn quality unimpeachable in a way that a chosen belief or ideology is not. And it’s true–most of us are probably more okay with someone being denied employment based on an odious religious belief (like Westboro Baptist Church) than we are with someone being denied employment based on ethnicity, at least on a gut level.

    I think the irony of the situation really is that categories of sexual orientation are socially constructed, and identifying with any category is (ultimately) a choice, even if social pressures will often play a significant role in this choice. Categories of sexual orientation were invented as descriptive ones–a way to identify tendencies in desire that superseded the previous categories that identified only behaviour (like sodomite). When the categories are then used prescriptively it then serves to deligitimise non-conforming desire. This is certainly true of heterosexual identification, but it’s also true of homosexual identification, and it can lead to a lot of backlash from the community as we see here (i.e. X is attracted to women, therefore X is a lesbian, therefore X can’t be attracted to men, therefore she is a traitor to the cause/wasn’t serious/is just conforming to social pressures). This is, I think, the primary mechanism of bisexual erasure.

    1. 9.1
      Anders

      The real appeal of the “born this way” argument to activists is that it makes the inborn quality unimpeachable in a way that a chosen belief or ideology is not. And it’s true–most of us are probably more okay with someone being denied employment based on an odious religious belief (like Westboro Baptist Church) than we are with someone being denied employment based on ethnicity, at least on a gut level.

      It’s also more difficult to describe something as a sin if it’s an inborn quality rather than a personal choice. Micahel Voris, the catholic scumbag who wants to bring absolute monarchy to the U.S. (as long as the monarch is Enlightened, i.e. Catholic), doesn’t even true. His personal take is that homosexuals are chosen by God to suffer more and thus bring a more personal witness of Christ to the world. God loves homosexuals more than he loves anyone else and therefore gives them a heavier burden.

      There are few things that tempt me to violence but this misery-loving, disgusting attempt to square homosexuality with Catholic dogma comes close. I wouldn’t hit Voris but I sure would like to spit in his face.

      1. Natalie Reed

        So God demonstrates his love by how shitty he makes someone’s life? Wow! He must absolutely ADORE trans women!

        1. Anders

          I tweeted you the YT video…

          But only if you accept to live as men and suffer for Christ. Be a good example and convert people to Christianity. You must always know that you can be happy and choose misery. My identity as a man means nothing to the Lord, because it doesn’t make me unhappy. But someone constantly refusing happiness… that gets his juices flowing. And you can’t even end your miserable existence because that is forbidden. It’s difficult to imagine a more despicable philosophy, at least from my perspective.

          Now, to be fair, the Catholic church has told Voris he is not to speak on doctrinal matters, or at least that he’s not speaking for the Church when he does. But to me he is valuable because he represents the logical consequences of the faith. And that’s pretty scary.

          He’s also on record saying that the sex scandals in the Church was the result of letting homosexuals earn the priesthood.

      2. Delictuscoeli

        Except for original sin, which is inborn by definition! It does tread close to the line, though, to consider it an inborn propensity to sin, which is the official line the Church takes on this.

        If orientation is not a sin, but acting on it is, one is placed in Hitch’s classic formulation of being born sick and commanded to be well. Disgusting, to preach that kind of abnegation of the self and one’s own happiness in order to be rewarded in a mythical afterlife, but that’s religion for you.

  10. 10
    starskeptic

    Excellent video! Thanks…

  11. 11
    sidneyia

    I have no doubt that some people have fluid sexual orientations. Personally, mine hasn’t been, and I find it very useful and even empowering to view my minority sexual orientation as something I was born with. I can’t really conceive of it any other way.

    I guess the problem I have with the idea of framing orientations as a choice is that something that’s chosen can be unchosen, and we know that this is not the case with sexuality.

  12. 12
    James K

    This is a very good and under-appreciated point. To use a somewhat inflammatory example, it seems likely to me that paedophilia is as inherent as any other sexuality but that doesn’t make it OK to act on it because having sex with children is wrong, it harms a non-consenting party (or at least a party who lacks capacity to consent). While gay sex lacks an equivalent harm and is therefore not wrong, except according to certain obsolete divine commandment moral codes.

    That’s the important point, the questions of whether homosexuality (or other non-heterosexual sexualities) are fluid or fixed, or for that matter whither gay sex is natural or unnatural (which is another argument that does the rounds every so often) is totally irrelevant.

    1. 12.1
      Anders

      There is at least one described case of paedophilia because of medication. Very interesting, some medications for Parkinsson’s disease can have all manners of strange side effects.

      1. James K

        That is interesting.

        1. Anders

          Even more interesting, when you removed the medicine the paedophilia disappeared. Certain medicines lower your inhibitions, much like alcohol. Various addictions have been reported in the literature, including compulsive gambling, as the result of parkinson medicine.

          I heard of a case of advanced parkinson’s disease where they installed a valve (?) that allowed them to inject dopamine directly into the brain ventricles. After half an hour with this the patient became convinced that his neighbor was poisoning the food – a classic case of paranoia. They removed the medication and the paranoia disappeared.

          And of course there’s the case where they placed the electrodes for Deep Brain Stimulation (again, parkinson’s disease) slightly out of place and triggered a suicidal psychotic depression. It’s scary but also fascinating what you can do by messing with the brain.

    2. 12.2
      Delictuscoeli

      I agree that paedophilia probably is just as immutable as other orientations, and paedophiles that are able to have successful relationships with adults usually choose to do so in a manner similar to Cynthia Nixon’s “choice” to be gay. Their choice, of course, doesn’t affect their attractions, but only their self-identified category. In public, anyway.

      As you point out, JamesK, this choice in the case of paedophilia is morally fraught in a way that it is not in the case of homosexuality, and there are good incentives for public policy and social mores to pressure individuals to make the right choice. I think part of that is actually to destigmatise the desire without sanctioning actions. This would include relaxing bans on non-abusive material that eroticises children (such as art or fiction, not photographs) that might help people stay away from real kids. Anyone making the argument that porn doesn’t help at least somewhat in forestalling ill-advised sexual encounters is either being disingenuous or quite naive.

      There was a thread on Skepchick today that touched on this in light of the Reddit child “porn” ban, and I considered bringing this point up there but it felt a bit too much like wandering into the lion’s den with a pocket full of steak. While Reddit is a private website and are free to police content as they wish, the reality is that there are always going to be people trading this kind of law-skirting content on the internet for as long as there are people (barring a complete lockdown of the internet or a “cure” for sexual orientations…) and banning the relatively legal stuff on generally above-board sites on the clearnet is just sending more people to the darknet or, worse, real life.

    3. 12.3
      miller

      I think of typical sexuality as being fluid, in the sense that as people grow older, they become attracted to older people. And in hebephiles, it is less fluid, since they continue to be attracted to people in their teens. Fluidity != choice.

      1. Delictuscoeli

        That is another model, yes. I was referring specifically to people who feel attraction to both adults and children, as an analogue to Cynthia Nixon’s attraction to both men and women, and in reference to JamesK’s point.

        Someone who remains attracted to adolescents (not children) and whose attractions do not remain with the peer group or change over time is a different kind of case.

  13. 13
    Anders

    I wonder, when it comes to transsexualism, if we also have to deal with another dimension. I don’t really know a good name for it yet – strength is wrong and so is magnitude. Completeness has unfortunate implications. Depth? Extent?

    I’m talking about what Natalie has said many times – not all transsexuals want the whole transition package. Some see it more as an a la carte menu, and pick and choose the options that fit them. As technology advances we will find that not all trans women will want a uterus or ovaries, and not all trans men will want a fully functional penis. The advancement of technology uncovers a heterogeneity we haven’t seen previously.

    And perhaps we need another dimension still, urgency. How high a priority would a person with full insight into hir transsexuality make transition? We do not, in fact, have Belts of Sex Change and transitioning is (if I understand things correctly) a process that is painful (at least for women who have to have hair removal), expensive and takes time. A person with great urgency suffers very much from the GID and makes overcoming it top priority. A person with low urgency can wait a while.

    Something like that.

  1. 14
    On Queerness and Choice « grimalkinblog

    [...] today I read a post by Natalie Reed on Cynthia Nixon’s declaring that she chose to be a [...]

  2. 15
    Reminder: I’m Giving A Talk Tonight! | Sincerely, Natalie Reed

    [...] more details, and some directions, please see my first post about it (which also includes an awesome video by Reeders Ariel Silvera and Aiofe [...]

  3. 16
    Why I’m okay with “born this way” | sidneyia

    [...] of my favorite bloggers, Natalie Reed, wrote an entry on the controversy surrounding actress Cynthia Nixon’s statement that she chose to be gay (well, actually, she is bisexual, and chose a life with a female partner – not exactly the [...]

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