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Engrossing: Reframing our discussion of marriage equality in America

Published: March 23, 2012
Section: Opinions

A common—and often uncomfortable—side effect of a university education, is that it forces us to be critical of beliefs, opinions and values that would otherwise seem unquestionable.
To illustrate this point, I ask you—as Professor Tim McCarty (POL) asked me in a political theory class last week—to consider the discourse on marriage equality in this country.
Proponents of marriage equality in America, often base their defense of same-sex marriage on the fact that sexuality is not a choice. They argue that same sex marriage should be legalized because it is wrong to deny individuals the fundamental rights of citizenship associated with marriage, due to something that is essential to their personality.
That seems fair, right?
It should, as this is the cornerstone of the gay rights movement in the United States today.
Of course we don’t choose who we’re attracted to, it would be antiquated to suggest anything of the sort.
But by perpetuating this idea of sexuality as an essential quality in human beings—something that is fundamental to their self, which they have no power to control—in our discussion of marriage equality, we are making the argument for human equality even more difficult, McCarty explained.
It’s true that in current dialogue, the only people who would argue that sexual orientation is anything other than involuntary are the same people who would ship their children of questionable sexuality off to reprogramming camps to “straighten them out.” But before you jump down my throat for challenging this precept, let’s dissect the thinking behind it.
Embedded within the logic of the statement “I didn’t choose to be gay” is the assumption that if you had the choice, you wouldn’t be. In other words, this way of thinking creates and perpetuates a need to rationalize sexuality as something that we have no control over, in order to accept it as being legitimate.
If our rationalization for why same-sex couples should be given marriage rights is because they had no choice but to be attracted to people of the same sexuality, then we are also posting the assumption that homosexuality is an inferior lifestyle that no one would make the choice to pursue.
“Sex and The City” star Cynthia Nixon recently defied this convention and stepped forward a few months ago as being “gay by choice”—consciously making the decision to be with a woman, despite the fact that she is attracted to men.
The actress received a huge amount of public backlash for announcing her decision and explained in a January interview with The New York Times Magazine: “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 … 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.”
I am not trying to argue that sexuality is something that is the product of decision, rather I am arguing, as my professor did, that it shouldn’t matter.
More importantly, I am arguing that—by making sexuality something that needs defending—we are reinforcing antiquated notions that homosexuality is an inferior lifestyle.
There is a monumental  difference between the ideas that marriage equality should be legal because homosexuality isn’t something that is a product of choice, and that marriage equality should be legal because both homosexuality and heterosexuality are equally legitimate lifestyles to pursue.
I think that it is time that we as a society become conscious of this distinction and make the critical move toward an understanding that sexuality does not illustrate personality.
If we continue to focus on the idea that people can’t choose their sexuality, we will never be forced to embrace the idea that difference in sexual orientation is not a signal of inequality.
Our need to rationalize homosexuality as being a product of biology is symptomatic of a deeply held belief within American society that homosexuality is something of which to be ashamed.
As we move toward the horizon of greater marriage equality in America, this shame is something that should be eliminated, not reinforced.