We don’t agree on what “choice” means…can we talk about it?

    Many ideas have been weaponized in our current LGBT-religious conservative conversation[1]. Choice is one of them.

    My intention here is to clarify different meanings of “choice” in a way that supports generous and open-hearted LGBT-religious conservative dialogue, like I’ve experienced for years with wonderful friends in the gay community.

    Because these kinds of distinctions are not often acknowledged in public discourse, this inquiry below could be accurately considered (in part) a push-back against a larger public conversation that remains remarkably accusatory and aggressive. In this, I acknowledge my words may be challenging for some – especially those who find the larger conversation currently happening in America quite helpful. I’m convinced if we are to find a (real) way forward in the LGBT-RC conversation, discomfort and stretching may not be optional (it certainly hasn’t been for me).

    No matter your position, let’s acknowledge this as a sensitive and super-challenging conversation for most of us.  Anyone using this piece as yet-another-weapon is not paying attention to what I’m actually saying.

    Proposing a broader conversation about choice.  Perhaps no single issue is more important, sensitive and challenging in the LGBT-RC conversation than the issue of choice itself. Disagreements over the existence of human choice has been a philosophical question central to morality, religion and public life for virtually all of human history. In this specific LGBT-RC conversation, the relevance of both competing worldviews (This-is-a-New-Civil Rights-Movement-for-a-Distinct-Community and Orthodox Judeo-Christian-Teachings-Are-Applicable-to-All) depend centrally on where people land on the question of choice (and non-choice).

    If that’s true, then maybe we should be somewhat concerned to see a public conversation about choice that has become limiting, confusing and weaponized (in both directions). The idea that some choice is involved in sexuality has sometimes been used to pressure and bully people away from “living the gay lifestyle” – while the idea that no-choice-is-involved-whatsoever has likewise been used to pressure and bully people to walk away from any faith that doesn’t “accept who you really are.”

    My overriding aim here is to summarize actual differences in how choice is currently understood in a way recognizable (aka fair) to both LGBT and religious conservative communities – all with an objective of promoting more honest, vulnerable and productive dialogue.

    If you disagree with my characterizations, I welcome your own push-back or suggestions. If this conversation is refreshing or frustrating[2], please do share. I am only one voice (with plenty to learn), and consider everything I’m doing a work in progress.

    Exploring different meanings of choice.  One near universal pattern in narratives of those who experience same-sex attraction is emphasizing this attraction as something they have not chosen. When my own dear cousin shared her coming out story with our extended family, she emphasized this point, telling us “with all the pain this can cause someone, realize this is not something I chose.”

     This is perhaps the most common way of talking about choice in relation to sexuality – aka whether or not people are choosing to feel attracted in a certain way.

    And, of course, with near universal agreement, people across the political spectrum widely agree that NO, human beings do not “choose” attraction. For many complex reasons, each of us experiences our own unique set of feelings, thoughts and sensations in the body…whether we like it or not!

    That is what I understand my progressive friends mean when they say “being gay is not a choice.”  And from this vantage point, sexual orientation is very much like race.

    Once people adopt this particular view, the central choice becomes simple: whether (or not) to be true to who you are.  In the process of seeking to live out their authentic self, many people have shared this particular phrase – “being gay is not a choice” – as part of a request for greater empathy and understanding from family members and friends regarding their (often) long experience of exploring, grappling and making sense of their feelings.

    In the context of family relationships, I believe that intention is a sincere and important one. Unfortunately, this same phrase – “being gay is not a choice” – has also been used (by others) as a kind of self-evident and damning critique of religious conservative teachings as wholly unrealistic, impossible and even dangerous for those who experience same-sex attraction.

    Perhaps you believe that yourself.  If so, please understand that it’s nearly impossible to explain another way seeing religious conservative communities without a more honest[3] conversation about choice itself.  One possible starting point for that conversation would be agreeing that there are, as a matter of fact, different ways of thinking about choice in relation to sexuality (which is not the same thing as saying we should agree all these ways are equally “legitimate or valid”).[4]

    Laying aside whether we choose to experience a particular attraction or not (that’s settled:  we don’t!), other questions remain:  How do we respond to the attraction? Do we embrace this attraction as reflective of our core identity or of the life we want? Do we follow this attraction and look to it to centrally guide our lives?

    All of these represent other varied meanings of choice in relation to sexuality.  In my second book, I investigated this larger domain of choice in relation to male-female romance – exploring, in particular, different ways to work with the common experience of “not feeling it anymore.”

    Although feelings of attraction (or limited attraction) can be overpowering for any of us, most still agree that human beings have choice in how exactly we respond to (even enduring) thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that constitute attraction. That choice is not whether to “feel what we are feeling,” but simply how to respond, work with and make sense of those feelings.

    I’ve also written recently about multiple ways people are opting to move beyond fighting or forcing attraction to a healthier, more sustainable place.

    In that sense, to these people, within this narrative, there are meaningful choices involved in sexuality – choices about which thoughtful people can come to very different conclusions.

    When conservative say “being gay is a choice,” this is what they mean.  From that vantage point, there are meaningful differences between sexual orientation and race.

    So what are you getting at?  The point here is that there are at least two viable, reasonable positions that different people can hold in this conversation.  In other words, we clearly aren’t using the word choice in the same way. If that’s true, can we at least talk about it?  Might we acknowledge that we’re coming from very different places in what “choice” means – and think about why that might be important?

    Clearly, this is not as simple as “merely talking.”  Rather than mere semantics or abstract intellectual discussions, these different meanings of choice (and whether we talk about them) have practical, real-life consequences for what happens in people’s lives.

    I have friends who experience same-sex attraction and have embraced that as central to who they are and the life they want. I have other friends who experience same-sex attraction and have embraced that experience as a part of who they are (and the life they want), but not in a central way that removes them from their religious conservative community.

    These friends talk about who they are in different ways and make different life choices that follow different guiding narratives. What if that’s okay?  What if we got curious about the different worldviews – and made space for both?

    For the former group, the Civil Rights narrative makes a whole lot of sense – and the orthodox Judeo-Christian teachings on marriage and family, not so much. For the latter group, these same religious conservative expectations seem quite workable, without necessarily seeing the gay rights movement as something they can fully embrace.

    In both cases, words matter. And how we interpret and use them matters.  We don’t just speak language – we live it out.

    Should we even be having this conversation? I expect a good number of people would conclude we’d be better off not talking much more about this question – and even considering it a danger for those who feel vulnerable in the LGBT community  (by raising questions about their new identity).  I expect an equal number of people would conclude the opposite – that without more of this conversation, we’re leaving those exploring these questions in a more vulnerable and unsettling place (by limiting viable choices to only one).

    Given this, I would suggest we do more than simply disagreeing about what “choice” means – also making space for disagreement regarding how much this is worth talking about in the first place (and recognizing not everyone thinks it’s even a good idea…thus hearing them out too as part of the conversation).

    My own perspective is that anything would be an improvement over a current conversation that seems dominated by absolute My Side Wins statements that shut down conversation – including “everything is a choice” and “there is no choice involved whatsoever.” Rather than vacillating between these kinds of absolute views, I hope we can enjoy a richer conversation that acknowledges various levels and kinds of choices AND leaves space for each of us to hold different views on the matter.

    Recap & final thoughts. So is being gay a choice? That depends on what we mean by choice.

    If we’re talking about choosing to feel or not feel something (choosing for a particular physical sensation or feeling to be something else)…well that’s silliness.

    But if we’re talking about how we respond to those feelings, those sensations – and whether we choose to follow them, embrace them and identify with them…well then, lots of people consider those meaningful choices.

    Indeed, from that perspective, we all choose the narratives, stories, interpretations, words and labels to associate with ourselves – including those who experience same-sex attraction.

    My intention here is to help contribute to a more productive conversation between religious conservative and LGBT communities – one that, at a minimum, represents what the different sides believe in a fair light. Even better, maybe we can disagree about choice (and lots of other stuff) without assuming that means the other person has less faith, less love, or less intelligence…

    Let’s start by putting down our weapons!  Different ideas about choice should not be used to pressure or badger people in any direction – whether to follow certain religious paths, to follow certain sexual paths (or to not follow them either).[5]

    In conclusion, there seem to be vastly different ways of talking about “choice” – and very little conversation about these differences.  Maybe we can start now?

    Let me know your thoughts.  If I’ve got it all wrong, be sure to tell me!

    Thanks for joining the dialogue, with special appreciation to those (on both sides) willing to sit with your discomfort.

    Jacob Hess is the co-author of 13 peer reviewed articles exploring contrasting narratives of key mental health and socio-political issues.  He leads the health non-profit All of Life which offers a free online course exploring applications of mindfulness for those facing mental health challenges (see Mindweather 101).  Jacob has authored (or co-authored) three books: You’re Not  as Crazy as I Thought, But You’re Still Wrong, Once Upon a Time…He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore and A Third Space: Proposing Another Way Forward in the LGBT/Religious Conservative Impasse. Two other projects – Red Blue Dictionary and My Science Can Beat Up Your Science, will be released this fall.  His work with Phil Neisser at State University of New York has been featured on This American Life and was recently honored by Public Conversations Project. His many wonderful writing collaborators and dialogue partners disagree in all sorts of ways with Jacob’s religious conservative views, and this essay only represents his own convictions. As a proud partner of Living Room Conversations, the Village Square and a long-term member of the National Coalition of Dialogue & Deliberation, Jacob’s life work is dedicated to making space for thoughtful, good-hearted people to find understanding (and affection) while exploring together the deepest of disagreements. 


    In a previous article, I explore some of this same terrain with many more narrative illustrations and examples:  What role does choice play in identity development and working with physical sensation or emotion?

    [1] Weaponization happens when any one of us pretends that the answer to this (or other) questions are super-simple (so much so that any ‘rational’ or ‘reasonable’ or ‘faithful’ or ‘loving’ person should agree with…well, us!). Depending on the moment, different voices can insist that the only real choice to talk about is whether to be “true to who you really are” (or not) or “true to how you feel” (or not) or “true to God’s word” (or not). Clarity and conviction are not problems, of course, as long as they don’t create an airtight, pressurized conversation with diminishing space to think or explore.

    [2] Yes, frustration, indignation and real anger are welcome in honest, mature dialogue! (especially the Non-Name-Calling kind).

    [3] “Honest” in the sense of, honest about what each of us really believe….And not mis-characterizing others’ views in a way that serves our own agenda (see here for a more extensive discussion in Chapter 6 of A Third Space).

    [4] Insinuating legitimacy or validity (or even saying you ‘respect’ someone’s views) is NOT a pre-requisite condition of dialogue. Respect for people is not the same thing as respect for their views!

    [5]  If being gay involves no choice whatsoever (on any level), then religious conservatives are clearly holding on to delusional beliefs about man-woman marriage, sin, etc. And if being gay does involve choice (on some level), then the LGBT community can be accused of just “choosing” a simple lifestyle.

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