Friday, 18 February 2011

On Identity And Choice

Posted by Sally Outen

This post begins, as so many things do, with a Google search. This might not have been the case a decade ago; it might not be the case for somebody lacking the situational privileges that I enjoy - but an estimate of the percentage of my life I spend using Google these days would probably bring me out in a cold sweat. The thing is, Google is so very helpful. It can find over 15,000 images of "cute little naked mole rats". It can give me all the heady thrills of traversing the streets of Swindon, from the comfort of my own home (that's one £5 train ticket I'll never need to buy). It can even present me with a helpful drop-down list of predicted search terms when I start typing a standard search, just in case I wasn't sure what I was looking for in the first place.

That drop-down list does occasionally make for a fascinating (if entirely unscientific) survey of people's opinions. "My favourite animal is" yields "cat", "dog", "tiger", "rabbit", and, thanks to Fran Lebowitz, "steak". Now let's try "Being gay is a". Depressingly, the four suggestions provided are, in order, "choice", "sin", "mental illness", and "disease". OK, so the wording I used was always likely to reveal more of the usual hate and misconceptions than anything else. The point I'd like to run with is that "choice" was at the top of the list.

In this post, I'll make a quick examination of the concept of choice as it applies to sexual and gender identities; then I'll explain why I feel that such attempts at analysis are ultimately futile; then I'll explain why that shouldn't be a problem.

So, I'm trans. I talk about this in my stand-up. "I was assigned male at birth, transitioned, and now I've got an F on my passport... but that's OK because I didn't really revise." People say: how can you be a woman if you started out with a penis? I explain that I just am - I experience a sense of gender identity that might be thought to stand at odds with certain anatomical considerations. People say: but we don't have this innate sense of our gender identity. I say: well maybe there's an analogy to be made with the concept of privilege - if you benefit from a particular privilege, you don't notice it. If all's well with something, you don't need to know about it.

And, to assure people that this isn't just a lot of mystical nonsense, I find myself linking to reports examining all the evidence from peer-reviewed studies, identifying physiological and genetic roots of gender dysphoria. This is the kind of thing that legislators pay a lot of attention to when the rights of trans people are up for discussion; similarly, the health service gives much consideration to this stuff in its decisions to provide medical treatment.

At the heart of my understanding of my gender identity is the fact that it isn't a choice. I can't help the way I experience my gender, or I certainly wouldn't have put myself through all the hassle of transition, the stigma associated with being trans, the loss of privilege, or the rejection I suffered from many of those I was closest to. I transitioned because I realized that I simply couldn't go on living the life I'd been trying to live previously - any apparent "choice" was purely illusory.

So, I'm also bisexual. I've found myself attracted to people not of my gender, and to people of the same gender. In that sense, I get to choose who I sleep with. That doesn't make me "greedy", or mean that I can only be satisfied by sleeping with men and women at the same time. I'm not confused about my sexuality, or a closeted lesbian, or a straight person trying to be "trendy". Many of these misconceptions assume that people can only truly be homosexual or heterosexual - bisexual people don't actually exist. And this is an idea that has some relevance to the suspicion that some gay and lesbian people harbour towards bisexuals.

From the time of Ulrichs to the present day, gay rights activists have attempted to assure others of the legitimacy and acceptability of homosexuality by explaining that sexuality is not a choice. As with transsexualism, scientific studies are cited, giving evidence for the innate nature of sexuality, because people accept that something innate can't be helped. These ideas have helped the West to move from a situation in which gay sex was regarded as indecent, and criminalized, to one in which same-sex unions are gradually gaining acceptance. The concept of innate sexuality is perhaps most frequently invoked today in discrediting so-called 'conversion therapists'.

Unfortunately, the existence of bisexual people is taken by some to disprove such ideas. The suggestion that some people can choose between gay or straight partnerships seems to be in direct opposition to the paradigm of sexuality as something innate and unchangeable. If there's some biological switch determining whether we're attracted to women or to men, how do bisexual people explain being attracted to both?

So, I'm also a biologist - at least, that was my degree subject. Biologists find ourselves fielding all sorts of questions about genes "for" behaviour - or for particular behaviours, or inclinations. People get especially worked up about the possibility of a "gay gene", presumably an allele that flips a person's concept of "potential sexual partner" from one gender to another. In reality, such suggestions betray a basic lack of understanding of developmental biology. Let's consider a few of the problems with the idea:

- Genetics are complex. It is rare to find a single gene coding for a particular characteristic, even when that characteristic is much simpler than an aspect of behaviour. Developmental pathways work through the interaction of many different genes/proteins. Some people understand this to mean that a certain allele will help incline a person in a certain direction (the "homosexual tendencies" idea), but this isn't really an accurate simplification of what is going on;

- The way a person's brain develops is dependent upon genetics and on various external factors... and I don't just mean "the hormonal conditions of the womb", as people are fond of quoting - our neural pathways assemble themselves in response to all sorts of stimuli in early development;

- Nature vs nurture doesn't equate to Unchangeable vs changeable. Certain learnt responses, notably some of those that are coded during our first few years of life, effectively cannot be unlearnt. They're basically fixed from an early age.

If the last few paragraphs went past in a kind of haze, that's fine - it's really all just a restatement of the idea that developmental biology is very complex. I don't expect a single, independently coding 'gay gene' to be discovered, ever, because I don't think that such a thing exists. However, that doesn't mean that sexuality is actively learnt, or just a choice after all. Some people are homosexual, without choosing to be; others are heterosexual, without choosing to be; I'm bisexual, and that isn't a choice either, in itself - it just gives me a larger pool of people I may find attractive. And while I get to choose partners from more than one gender, it shouldn't be inferred that every other person is in the same position. Even if we insist upon basing our ideas of "legitimate sexuality" upon biology, biology is complex enough that more than two possibilities exist.

Similarly, my sense of gender identity as a woman should not suggest that non-binary or non-specific gender identities don't exist. When I am told that another person doesn't experience a profound sense of their gender, it's wrong for me to assume that that's always just because they don't suffer from gender dysphoria. Gender is coded in all sorts of different ways in different people; other people's experiences, however disparate from my own, don't de-legitimize my gender identity in any way.

While it can be useful to be able to provide a biological basis for our identities, we should be wary of the possibility that people will misguidedly use these ideas in harmful ways - to artificially select offspring without alleles thought to be associated with homosexuality, or to deny treatment to trans people whose brains don't fit the right mould. We should be careful not to let others fall through the cracks in our own legitimization of our identities.

In the end, maybe we sometimes place too much emphasis on what might have caused us to have turned out as we are, and how we didn't have much choice in the matter. Significantly, even if sexuality or gender were a choice for some people, who is to say that any particular choice is wrong? Our own identities should not need justification - it is those who continue to endanger our mental well-being and our lives through their intolerance of us, they are the people who ought to be justifying themselves.

And on the bright side, Google let me get as far as "There's nothing wrong with b" before providing the following as its first suggestion - yes, that's right: "There's nothing wrong with being gay".


  1. This is beautiful. I would want it on a t-shirt if it would be large enough to actually read.

  2. Oh, Sally, this is brilliant. Am very glad I read it.