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).

But hold on:  why are we even interested in bringing more attention to the possibility of choice? Doesn’t this assume that same-sex attraction is something disordered or sick that people need to get away from at all costs!?

Not at all.  I don’t believe that. Laying aside all the problems with fighting and forcing our mind and body, raising concerns with the pathologization of human experience has become a theme of almost all my work.  It never helps, in my opinion….like, never.

The people in my life who experience same-sex attraction (including those who identify as gay and those who are living in gay relationships) are not sick or disordered.  And they don’t need to be “fixed.”

On the contrary, they are some of the most sensitive and wonderful people in my life. And as a whole, they are making very different choices about how to work with and respond to this attraction, but how could it be otherwise?

Acknowledging and making authentic space for this process of choice is the point of this all – space to explore and make decisions about what feels right to each person (including people who opt to not follow their same-sex attraction into romantic relationships). My friend Ty Mansfield has shared his experience along those lines (and his belief that full-souled, non-sexualized attraction between genders is and will be a central, beautiful part of heaven)…and he’s been lambasted – raked over the coals, for betraying the dominant narrative.

These are the kinds of experiences that make me want to advocate for people’s freedom to choose wherever the peace guides them – whatever that ends up being.

My own perspective is that anything would be an improvement over a current conversation that seems dominated by 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 absolutes, 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 author of 13 peer reviewed articles exploring contrasting narratives of mental health and socio-political issues.  He currently directs the health non-profit All of Life which offers free online classes exploring applications of mindfulness for those facing mental health challenges. Jacob has (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 (Disagreement Practice, Treasonous Friendship & Trustworthy Rivalry in the Face of Irreconcilable Difference). 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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  • Reply Kim September 25, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    I love reading your thoughtful articles about difficult issues of our time. As I read your footnote about “weaponization” I saw myself and my feelings about gender issues. My thoughts have always been, “how did we move from where gender is a biological definition to gender being an opinion or a feeling?” I would be really interested to hear how those who so readily accept the idea that gender is a feeling have arrived at this conclusion, since heaven knows I DON’T want to hold a weaponized opinion! Thanks!

  • Reply Doug September 27, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    Dear Jacob,

    Thank you for writing this article that is about what is central to what many religious followers value so much: the idea of choice or agency. Most cling to the inherent right of choice fiercely. By our very birth, we are entitled to the right to happiness, as Americans can relate to, in the credo of our nation’s constitution. The LDS faith clings fiercely to each individual being born with “agency” to make choices, as a core and fundamental right and basis for existence. I appreciate that you are wanting to continue a rational and peaceful dialogue about this topic, in an effort to promote more understanding.

    I am a gay person. Formerly religious. And frankly growing weary of the dialogue about my rights. When I occasionally become irritated or impatient with some people’s behavior or comments about the LGBT community, I am reminded that I cannot expect them to fully understand a viewpoint that for them would be like living on Mars. I accept that their reality is not mine.

    In your article above, I would simply urge readers to substitute the word “straight” anywhere there is the word “gay”. Then look at the matter of choice. Most straight people would look at you blankly, like “well, there is no choice. My feelings came with me from birth”. It’s a matter of judgement — a concept that the religious can’t seem to get around. The figure of Christ, who is central to all Christians, was not judgmental. Yet Christians today seem to feel a need to draw lines in the sand to separate others from themselves and themselves from other fellow Christians.

    I am at an age and stage in my life that I no longer feel a need to affiliate with religion and more importantly, people who feel a need to rank others in a pecking order. I now laugh at a hymn that is sung in worship services of the religious, wherein a line declares about the unfaithful that they are “marshaled in their ranks of sin”. They merrily sing this line with little thought about their own choice to marginalize others. What is wrong with this picture?

    For many of us who from birth felt ‘queer’ and estranged, it has taken half a lifetime to finally stand on our two feet and feel okay in our own skin. This after a ton of private and public emotional lashings. Being made to feel like you don’t have a place in life to call your own. Some would say “boo-hoo”. All I know is that at age 63, after what seems like 2 previous lifetimes on earth, I am now alive, happy, settled and feeling stable in the world. I feel like I can honestly walk on a parallel journey with my straight friends and family, and feel of worth.

    I used to feel needy of the friendship of straight people. I now feel like I have something to offer to my straight friends, and to others in the LGBT community who are still wobbling on sea legs that aren’t so strong or confident. It comes down to several personal affirmations from a loving God, who has helped me with personal revelation and inspiration that I am on the right course for my own life. And that is all that anyone needs to answer to. No religious leader or institution can stand between you and your God.

    Last November, when the LDS church felt a need to flex it’s muscles against the LGBT among it’s ranks; it was a very difficult time for many of us who somehow still clung to a notion that the organization was still full of inspired and kind leadership. Somehow we clung to the idea that ‘Christ’s church’ still had some decency and meant what had been uttered over the pulpit about extending a hand of fellowship to LGBT members. We believed that the open invitation to return was sincere. Later, my heart went out to the few leaders who had had the audacity to speak up about kindness towards those LGBT members who were among it’s ranks. They too were now in a war over the issue, with other fellow leaders.

    As I ponder the history of Christianity, it seems that there has always been a group that has been “otherized”. It seems that it is the only way that land grabs, killing, pillaging and conquests can be justified in the name of Christ. My view is that the LGBT policy of late, is an attempt by a few aged leaders of the LDS faith to bring the Mormon faith more in alignment with other evangelical faiths in their adherence to straight marriage and family values. They assume that gay persons have no family values. Therefore, we are involved in a holy war.

    Some of us don’t want to fight. We want to live peacefully and productively in the world.

    Many of us went through a period of tears and depression over the faith of our heritage now making a public display of their displeasure at our very existence. Seems it wasn’t enough to make a young kid growing up in the faith, feel unwelcome. Families could now with full support, get rid of the vermin in their own households. Funny thing how straight folks keep making gay babies! Did they have a “choice” in this matter? Did the kid have a choice?

    One month after the LGBT policy of the LDS church came out, it was stunning to then have Elder Nelson proclaim that beyond mere policy, it was now revelation from God that LGBT persons had a substandard place in the kingdom, This is what it took for me to finally stand up, wipe the tears away, and say “enough!” With resolve that a loving God would not cast out about 18% of His sons and daughters, I finally came to grips with feelings of my own worth and entitlement to happiness. It helped me see that this man and his colleagues do not speak for God.

    Strange. The narrative that many of us who are gay, allowed straight persons to write for us for so many years. I now arise each morning with a new narrative in my head, that I am a worthy son of God. This is a choice. My narrative says that I cannot judge anyone who “chooses” ( I say laughingly ) to be straight or gay. I simply need to be open and inclusive. God will sort out the rest of the details as we walk together each day. Others are not a threat to me. My hope is that they will see that I am not a threat, as well.

    I am a spiritual person. I believe in promptings of the Spirit and an inner voice. I believe our loving God’s universe is large and He is in control, but allows so much to happen due to natural laws of physics. Occasionally I feel a need to share this with others. But I do not feel a need to proselytize or conquer others with it. It is private and informing. It helps me write a new dialogue about who I am, and where I need to be in life. It causes me to continually want to lift and help others — straight and gay.

    I was amazed at how many loving straight people reached out to me minutes, days and weeks after the shocking “policy” was announced, bumbled over and then justified by church leaders. These straight friends were tearful, kind and wanted me to know that this was not what they are about. Many said that this was the final straw for them in their journey with traditional faith and worship. I’ve witnessed many walk away as they’ve seen how nutty the reasoning was — to abandon gay friends and family members who they love. Odd how when you have real people with faces and names, it changes your heart and beliefs.

    I have sympathy for many straight and gay persons — so many that I’ve seen lately — who have walked away from religion, a belief in God, faith, hope and the principals on which they were culturally raised; due to wounds they have received in this contrived battle. The religiously faithful now use “choice” as a weapon. LGBT persons who use choice to seek an alternate lifestyle say there is “no choice”. It is simply a matter of writing a new narrative of happiness, emotional fulfillment, spirituality and a peaceful existence in their day-to-day lives. It’s odd how I don’t need a permission slip from mom, to do this. And yes, it is a choice!

    • Reply Jacob September 28, 2016 at 10:53 pm

      Thank you, Doug! Gonna digest this soon – and looking forward to it.

    • Reply Jacob September 30, 2016 at 1:51 pm

      You write with a gentleness and depth that betrays your age, Doug! (:

      I’m glad that you’re feeling new settledness and happiness, no doubt in part thanks to the divine personal affirmations you speak of…when we feel that kind of acute love, it changes a lot, doesn’t it?

      I’ve had friends feel deeply God’s love to such a degree that they decide they have no need of a church anymore…and others for whom it draws them closer to the church. I’m a bit fascinated, then, by the contrasting Stories we place on top of the experience of love…what take from them, and how we make sense of them.

      Clearly, you and I are still working from different stories, and that’s okay. For instance, you speak of the essential conflict as a matter of (un)kindness, judgment regarding a pecking order, and power. That all makes sense from a progressive narrative about the identity, sexuality, the body, choice, change, power, etc.

      From where I stand, however, some of the things you see as power-driven or unkindness driven make a lot of sense as love-inspired and generous efforts from another worldview – which holds a different view of eternal identity. From *that* worldview, there is no inconsistency in the actions of Mormon leaders in terms of love. I imagine you can see it through both lenses?

      Where we might agree is in the contrived nature of the battle – i.e., it doesn’t need to be this way: “straight friends were tearful, kind and wanted me to know that this was not what they are about. Many said that this was the final straw for them in their journey with traditional faith and worship. I’ve witnessed many walk away as they’ve seen how nutty the reasoning was — to abandon gay friends and family members who they love. Odd how when you have real people with faces and names, it changes your heart and beliefs.I have sympathy for many straight and gay persons — so many that I’ve seen lately — who have walked away from religion, a belief in God, faith, hope and the principals on which they were culturally raised; due to wounds they have received in this contrived battle.”

      As I wrote yesterday (http://www.flirtingwithcuriosity.org/?p=1469), I would argue there’s a particular socialization and process that leads a member to see the Church in this way – and interpret it as an issue of “abandoning gay friends and family members”…

      Here’s where we could really agree, I think – namely, to provide each other generous space and freedom to explore. As you put it: “I simply need to be open…God will sort out the rest of the details as we walk together each day. Others are not a threat to me. My hope is that they will see that I am not a threat, as well. Occasionally I feel a need to share this with others. But I do not feel a need to proselytize or conquer others with it. It is private and informing. It helps me write a new dialogue about who I am, and where I need to be in life. It causes me to continually want to lift and help others.”

      I wonder if you would share your thoughts about how this conversation changes depending on whether we see each other as fundamentally different people? aka here: http://www.flirtingwithcuriosity.org/?p=1462

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