The XX Factor

Is Cynthia Nixon’s Sexuality Really a Choice?

Sex and the City alum Cynthia Nixon was profiled in the New York Times over the weekend, and the out-and-proud actress’ comments about her sexuality being a choice are drawing the ire of some critics within the LGBT activist community.

Here’s the (regrettably lengthy) section in question:

“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not.” Her face was red and her arms were waving. “As you can tell,” she said, “I am very annoyed about this issue. Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.”

And here’s the problem: In the fight for equality (marital and otherwise), a sizable group of LGBT activists have built their argument around the idea that being gay is “not a choice.” By this they mean that for many gay people, their attraction to the same sex is essentially an inborn trait—something that they have experienced for as long as they can remember—and so may be thought of as immutably biological. And from thence stem most mainstream arguments about “protected classes”, civil rights, and the like, even if science hasn’t yet entirely sorted the precise balances of nature and nurture in determining sexuality.  

Cynthia Nixon

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

While the “no-choice” line has undoubtedly been a good and effective means of garnering acceptance, Nixon’s rejection of this rhetoric evidences another way of thinking about sexuality, and it’s one that I think deserves a fair hearing.

Many of her detractors have accused Nixon of conflating what they view as her “bisexuality” with homosexual attraction on the whole. In other words, because Nixon must be a bisexual, she’s confusing her ability to be attracted to both men and women with a person’s being attracted to the same sex at all. Of course, Nixon has never called herself a bisexual, which implies a general (if not always equal) attraction to both sexes at any given time; and, in any case, her self-identification as “gay” is more a political stance than anything else. More likely than not, she found that, like many women, her sexuality fluidly shifted over the years.

But I’m not really interested in guessing at what Nixon’s “true” sexual identity is—that’s her business, and labels are always only approximations at best. What does interest me, however, is the alternate political model that her comments suggest. She asks why choosing one’s sexual orientation is any less legitimate than being theoretically “born this way,” and in so doing, Nixon questions why we depend on biology as a measure of worth as opposed to creating a society where the sexual relationships between consenting adults need no justification at all.

It’s a compelling thought, a world where grown-ups don’t have to explain away their sexual activities by way of what amounts to an unavoidably apologetic “I can’t help it.” Still, many critics will argue that appealing to biology is the only way to protect against the attacks of the religious right—if God made me this way, surely you can’t hate me. But I have to agree with Nixon that depending on biology cedes a great deal of control to bigoted people; after all, much of Christianity is based on the idea of resisting sinful bodily desires. If homosexuality is truly genetic, why not just ignore it, like good old heterosexual lust?

The only answer is that adult human beings should be allowed to choose who and how they’d like to love, regardless of any specific religious dogma. Perhaps Nixon’s vision is a harder one to achieve politically due to the touchy debates around the separation of church and state that it evokes; but then, let’s be honest about the fact that the issue here is not the legitimacy or source of an individual’s sexuality. It’s a question of strategy.