Patricia Nell Warren

Civil Rights: Does "Immutable Characteristic" Really Describe Us?

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | December 02, 2008 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: black civil rights, Civil Rights Act of 1964, gay rights, immutable characteristics, right to choose

The recent fallout over Prop 8 -- questions about whether African Americans voted heavily to ban same-sex marriage -- points up a need to redefine and strengthen the basis of our demand for civil rights. In recent decades, we LGBT people have trended towards comparing our battle to that of African-Americans. Some African-Americans, especially the churchgoing conservatives who don't approve of homosexuality, voice anger over what they see as our attempt to co-opt their struggle and their history of slavery and pain. Yet we can point to our own history of oppression and pain.

What constitutes a "civil right" anyway?

In its time, the 1789 Bill of Rights was urgent and specific about what it wanted -- free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom to demand redress, etc. Throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, further amendments to the Constitution detailed further urgent rights -- freedom from slavery, freedom of non-whites and women to vote, etc.

But the Constitution and Bill of Rights don't give us a nice neat Websterish definition of "rights." For that we can go to the legal warriors who duke it out in today's courtrooms. According to AmericanLawyer.com, "A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury... Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class."

I agree that African-Americans have been unfairly accused of swinging the Prop 8 vote by themselves. However, it's clear that some of their anger against us comes from their feeling that we're "using" their cause. And it's clear that they, and many of our own activists as well, are defining civil rights differently than the lawyers do. They consider that a "right" has to be based on some "immutable [meaning unchangeable] characteristic."

Anti-gay African Americans point out that they can't change their skin color, therefore they can't hide from prejudice and cruelty. Whereas (they say) we gay people can and do change our behavior, especially when we hide in the closet, and when we succeed in "going straight." Therefore, in their opinion, we don't qualify for civil rights. Yet many LGBT people counter with the assertion that we are born with our sexual orientation, that we can't change it even when we try. Hence the "ex-ex-gays" who eventually leave their ministries and return to living an openly gay life.

How did "immutable" get to be some people's gold standard for civil rights?

Compelling Change

It started with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mainly took aim at injustices done to people of color and women. But as Congress moved to prohibit discrimination, it actually wrote several protected classes into the legislation -- race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or sect, and gender. Analysts began defining these protected classes by three criteria: (1) a long history of discrimination, (2) economic disadvantages, and (3) immutable characteristics.

Next, conservatives hatched the belief that all the 1964 civil-rights classes depend on immutability -- even religion. In 2002, prominent religious-right lawyer Mathew Staver wrote, "Although religion is the sole category within the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that does not share the exact pattern of the immutable physical characteristics, the characteristic of immutability or inalienability is deeply rooted in the founding of the country and became part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."

Yet it's ridiculous of Staver to call religion "immutable," as we'll see.

When the gay-rights movement came along in 1969, we felt compelled to jump on that "immutability" bandwagon. We can prove #1 and #2 pretty easily. But #3 has prodded both supporters and enemies of LGBT rights into convoluted arguments about whether we do or don't fit the "immutable" criterium. Thus Mathew Staver felt able to proclaim loftily, ""Sexual orientation should not be elevated to the category of a protected civil right."

Our Founders' Intentions

But the ultraconservative legal eagles like Staver are wrong about our founders' list of rights being an expression of "immutability."

In the Bill of Rights, the earliest Constitutional amendments, none of the rights listed there are based on any "immutable characteristic." In fact, those early rights start with the actions of colonists daring to make political and economic decisions that defied the British monarchy -- that chartered their own independent course -- in a word, that made some independent choices. And the rights mostly dealt with circumstances surrounding those brave new choices.

Free speech? It's hardly immutable. My speech is protected if I write this commentary today, and another one tomorrow, and I can change the subject I'm speechifying about. Ditto my right to have no troops quartered in my house, my right to a grand jury indictment, to a speedy trial, to freedom from excessive bail, and from cruel and unusual punishment. These are all circumstances in which most people might find themselves just once in their lifetime -- but for that one time, their life might hang in the balance if they have no civil rights.

Freedom of religion goes way beyond circumstance... it grants us that choice that our founders cherished so much. Nothing is more potentially changeable than a person's religion! People often convert overnight, and turn their worlds upside down to go in a new direction. Personally I was illuminated to the fact of choice when I looked back at my own life. I was raised a Presbyterian, converted to Roman Catholicism at age 17, de-converted to an existentialist agnostic by age 20, and gradually wended away from religion to a robust paganism in my 30s. Am I required to have an unchanging and immutable belief in order to be protected? No way. At every stage, my change of thinking was protected by the First Amendment. The law even protects my right to have no religion at all, if that's what I choose to do.

Indeed, at the time the Bill of Rights was written, establishing a person's right to go from one religion to another without the threat of being killed or tortured -- for instance, to leave the Church of England and become a Quaker or Baptist or Freemason -- was one of the big goals of enlightened people in the American colonies.

Morphing Into "Mutable"

Since the 1960s, as Congress enacted other pieces of landmark legislation, their definition of civil rights has clearly moved onward from the "immutable" landmark.

The newer protected classes include: age, familial status, marital status, disability, veterans, and any group defined by DNA. All but one (DNA) are not based on "immutable characteristics." They are classes that Americans may join for only part of a lifetime. Examples: There is discrimination against both minors and old people, but we aren't young or old forever. The same for disabled people who suddenly find themselves in that class as a result of illness or injury. People with stigmatized illnesses like HIV/AIDS are covered by disability rights, yet they were once healthy.

In spite of these recent trends, many LBGT ideologists insist on continuing to identify with the black civil-rights cause, because of the power and impact that it had. They assert that we too are born into the "immutable" class. With many in our leadership, this alleged "immutability" of ours is now a dogma. Unfortunately, the science jury has yet to return a verdict on the DNA of sexual orientation. Yes, there are a few suggestive studies that show the possibility of genetic factors in sexual orientation. However, nothing is proven beyond all doubt. If tomorrow our best lawyers had to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that we are all born unchangeably LGBT, I doubt we could win on the available forensic evidence.

Meanwhile our opponents can point out that we do sometimes change our behavior. I agree that it's unfair to cite our ability to conform when coerced by religion -- most people will conform to any dictatorship if they're terrorized enough. To me, the most telling evidence of our "mutability" comes from those LGBT people who change even when there is little or no external duress. In these cases, the pressure comes from within, from an inner realization that our nature, our sense of ourselves, is more fluid than we thought.

Most of us have known someone who first came out as staunchly gay or lesbian, then suddenly veered to being "bi" -- or who veered from bi to exclusively gay or lesbian. Older Bilerico readers will recall the 1990 uproar around lesbian feminist Jan Clausen, when she went bi and announced that she was in love with a man. Cases like Clausen don't involve coercion by ex-gay religion, yet they are far from rare. In the long run, when all the scientific facts are in, they may reveal that both nature and nurture can shape our orientation.

Then there is gender in our LGBT world. It, too, is anything but "immutable." Some of us challenge the gender identity inked on their birth certificate -- either because of physical or chromosomal variations that they were born with, or simply because they have a passionate will to be the opposite gender and are prepared to do whatever it takes to get there, including surgery. They want to be what they feel they really are, rather than what society says they are. In other words, they choose to change.

Choice vs. Chance

So my question is this: since the U.S. Constitution's amendments are so grounded on "civil rights" based on choice, why are we so determined to lock ourselves into the "immutable" class? Especially when it's not working so well for us politically right now?

Why would it be so terrible to "choose" to be gay or lesbian or bisexual? The religious right insist on "choice" because it's their position that people "choose" sin. Yet they reserve for themselves the right to "choose" their religion, the political party they belong to, even the candidate they vote for. Women fight for choice on reproductive rights. When we LGBT people ask for the right to marry, we're actually asking for choice -- the right to choose a spouse of the same sex as ourselves. Shouldn't there be equal power and dignity for us in "choosing" our orientation, rather than being assigned an orientation by chance?

So, with all due respect to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I think it's time for us to stop hanging onto "immutable characteristics" so hard.

For some Americans, the benchmark 1964 definitions continue to serve those protected classes today. But right now the LGBT community is being compelled to re-tool on Prop 8 -- plus we must re-fight all the battles coming up in states where the religious right is trying to turn back our civil-rights advances. Our own interests may better be served by invoking the signature right of the Bill of Rights -- the right to choose.

After all, "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" wouldn't mean much without the freedom to choose that life, that liberty, that happiness.


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Thanks for a well-written, well-researched post, Patricia. I think you have some great thoughts and make some excellent points. I agree that we should stop comparing our movement with the African American movement. While there are certainly parallels, every group, and every individual for that matter, has a unique experience that can often only be understand if you attempt to view it from THEIR perspective. I'm not sure I advocate stressing sexual orientation as a choice, mostly because I do not believe for a second that it is and I don't believe conceding that it is would be in our best interest. However, a new approach is definitely needed.

Thanks again, I really enjoyed your post.

As I said in my commentary, I don't relinquish genetics entirely as a contributing factor.

In fact, I think there is a population dynamic that brings forward any genes for homosexuality in times of overpopulation (since overall, as a group, we have fewer children, we can serve as a brake on population)...which would explain why so many of us are appearing right now. Biologists see a similar dynamic in some animal populations, which can regulate their birth rate to the available food supply.

But it's clear to me personally (and anyone is welcome to disagree, but it's what I think) that we should be accorded the right to choose how we're going to live, and that would include the right to express our sexual orientation.

Absolutely. Every American should have the right to choose how they are going to live (so long as that doesn't involve hurting others, obviously). I couldn't agree more!

I might suggest that the Founding Fathers may not be so pleased with the blatant lack of separation of church and state. It's embarrassing, I think.

Looking forward to your next post!

Doubt if this will get published on Bilerico because most of my posts don't. Now that I am older, sexual orientation has taken a back seat to define who I am. I join the political fight for gay rights and like Harvey Milk, it centers more around individual freedoms our country was founded on (read John Locke). We must fight religion in this country on these basis.

Thank you, Particia. I've been making this same argument about the "it's not a choice" argument for years (although much less eloquently). While it seems clear to me that genetics and biology will eventually be found to play some role in sexual orientation and gender identity, I don't want to hang my civil rights hat on that bet.

I would also argue that the full spectrum of sexual orientation is simply too complex for a simple "my genes made me do it" solution. Top, bottom, fetishism, fantasy, polyamory, monogamy, chastity, dom, sub, gender roles, physical attractions... there are just too many factors that make up our entire sexual beings to pretend like there isn't some degree of social and cultural stimuli at work. But nor can we ignore the compelling evidence of science and experience that suggests sexual orientation (for some) may be innate or at least predisposed.

Much like assimilation rhetoric ("We're just like you"), I hope that the "I was just born this way" argument begins to give room for the people in our community who feel and experience life differently.

One of the problems with "choice", is that pesky slippery slope argument which the ridiculous right come up with to obsfucate the issue.

I mean if they allow 'us' to choose, what is to keep pedophiles or bestiality from becoming a protected lifestyle 'choice'. They can come up with even more bizarre 'choices' to throw in there as well, I do not have their imagination for 'deviancy', so those are the only two I can think of, but I am sure the right can think up a few more to throw out there.

The problem we face is that the truth lies somewhere in between, and it is those 'grey' answers that people do not, or will not think about. they don't want to. They want it all to be a simple sound bite answer in which thinking and effort are not required.

diidlygirl-

Well, the choices we make can't result in the harm of others, so I don't think they would have much of an argument that someday pedophiles would want rights to practice their ways.

As far as bestiality, well, animals aren't capable of consenting to and signing a marriage license. So, again, if they brought up that argument - they might just look like fools. True to form, I guess.

John R. Selig | December 3, 2008 1:02 AM

To what degree sexual orientation is a choice should be irrelevant when it comes to civil rights. After all, religious beliefs certainly are a matter of choice. That is why I always refer to religious beliefs as being "religious preference" and not as "religion." I suggest others do the same.

Great article as always Patricia!

The polygamy thing wouldn't work either that people are somewhat loathe to share with more than one person unless under duress. Sexual orientation is not a choice but a discovery of who you are. The heterosexual presentation we all are used to having from immediate family example is one thing but every human being eventually discovers and realizes that they either are that example(heterosexual), some of that example or none of that(homosexual). There is no choice involved. There may be a choice in whom you express your sexuality with but your inherent sexuality is not chosen. So we need to be careful with words.

People are inherently right handed, left handed or ambidextrous. They can learn to use the other hand and in that there is a choice to learn that. but sexuality like eye color, handedness being tall, short etc is inherent in the person and is discovered by experiences.

Interesting comment...I appreciate your thinking on these points.

The problem with "inherent" (like inherited) is that science hasn't proven this about sexual orientation beyond any argument. It HAS demonstrated that hair color, eye color, etc. are inherent in the person. This is why strict morality systems haven't proclaimed against certain hair colors and eye colors (though some of them might have liked to, like Nazi Germany). The same with handedness. The Bible doesn't inveigh against left-handed people, or fair-haired people. Nations didn't pass harsh laws and death penalties against having these characteristics.

The only place where Western culture has stepped into this prohibiting-an-inherited-characteristic area is in relation to gender. We do know for a fact that some transgendered and intersex people discover that they are born with immutable genetic characteristics, like CAIS or XXY chromosomes. Yet the Old Testament injunction against crossdressing has been solidified into a present-day cultural attitude. This attitude makes many Americans extremely unsympathetic towards people who attempt to cross over, to realign their legal gender and their physical appearance with their true genetic nature in any way...which inevitably includes wearing the clothes of the opposite gender.

Even though many states have changed their laws to allow certain people to change their legally recorded gender, many conservative Christians take a hostile and "moralistic" attitude towards anyone who tries to change their gender, even in cases where you could say that "God intended that person to be born that way."

So this is the obstacle that we face with establishing a scientific basis for civil rights for our issues. We're arguing against 3000 years of unfriendly "morality" perceptions about sexual orientation and gender.

This is why I propose that we get ourselves off the "immutability" battlefield. It isn't working for us. Whenever we try to make the "immutability" argument, the opposition can always find evidence to argue against it successfully.

The only way we will get anywhere is to establish a protected class for ourselves in the "mutable" area. Better yet, two classes -- one relating to sexual orientation and one relating to gender. I suggest "choice" because it takes that weapon out of the religious right's hands. They can't say that "choice" is an evil thing in our case, then turn around and say that "choice" is a good thing when they choose their religion.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | December 3, 2008 8:34 AM

Very well written and interesting analysis, Patricia. Coincidentally I was watching something on the History Channel the other day dealing with Albert Einstein's attempts to develop a nunified theory that tied together both forces governing galaxies as well as those governing the tiniest specks within the neucleus of an atom. Developing a "Unified Theory of Civil Rights" may well be as daunting of a task because of the "mutability vs choice" dynamics you outline.

Perhaps one ingredient may be missing here: a privacy consideration that conservatives accuse "unelected activist judges" of finding in those evil "penumbras" eminating from the Bill of Rights. Wherever it might be on the spectrum between absolute immuntability and absolute choice, sexual orientation and its manifestations deal with areas deeply personal, as I recall some of the language of "Wright vs. Texas" reflects when the Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws.

A fascinating and well constructed argument, Patricia. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I've often wondered how we got from "We just don't know" to "It's biological" in so few years without any scientific data to prove conclusively one way or another.

I find the comment about "homosexuality" as a brake on population growth." This is a very real possibility, as a built in mechanism to control population. But, humans have countered acted this "brake" by many means.

I find this an interesting concept because we know of over 600 species of plants and animals who can change their sex based on the needs of the species. We could also surmise that an increase in the trans population could be another "brake" on the population. The younger trans people who transition early, but maybe straight, are incapable of having biological children, Thomas Beatte aside. We may see an increase in all LGBT people as the strain on our planet's resources dwindle. Mother Nature has wonderful and strange ways t

(I hit the "submit" button too soon.) Last sentence is: "Mother Nature has wonderful and strange ways to make things come out right."

Patricia;
From one who truly chose to be a Lesbian, many thanks. I can form a relationship of sorts with males, I can sleep with them, but the greatest depth of intimacy at all levels for me comes from my relationship with a woman.

For me to say that I could not live In a heterosexual relationship is a lie; I simply have excercised the option to go for the greatest fufillment possible.

Again, from those of us who chose, thank you Patricia..

tammy seltzer | December 3, 2008 3:25 PM

Patricia-

The LGBTQ advocacy community traveled down the "immutable characteristic" road because it put us in a better legal position vis-a-vis the level of scrutiny a court must apply to a law or practice alleged to be discriminatory. The higher the level of scrutiny, the better chance the court will find discrimination. (Obviously, a lot of people actually believe the immutability argument--it's not just a strategy.)

Of course, this is an oversimplified description of the legal reality, which some have argued is changing. I'm sure Nancy Polikoff could explain it in more detail, as well as the other strategies being used for getting the highest level of review (or at least a "heightened" level) based on other arguments.

Often, the messiness of real life is not reflected in the legal and policy arguments put forth on behalf of most causes. We "win" on narrower grounds, which satisfies many, while others are left to the task of opening minds to other possibilities. Like, shouldn't the protections and benefits of marriage be available to everyone, not just couples?

It would be great to have a discussion about the clashes between legal and political strategies versus personal realities. Much can be learned from both sides.

A recovering lawyer

Yup.

So my question is this: since the U.S. Constitution's amendments are so grounded on "civil rights" based on choice, why are we so determined to lock ourselves into the "immutable" class? Especially when it's not working so well for us politically right now?

I think that we're becoming a culture (Americans) that defines individuals more and more based on desire. That is, we're gay, lesbian, or bi based on whom we desire, we're trans if we desire to change our biological sex or gender, and those desires make us who we are.

In that way, choice is a value judgment, and choosing one's desires would then mean that we're the sort of folks who would choose to be out or the mainstream or different. If, for some reason, same-sex desire didn't exist anymore, under our current understanding of desire, queer people would just choose to do something else to put themselves out of the mainstream. It becomes trifling and immature, and, for many people, feels like we're caving in to the worst stereotypes about us that label us all as permanent adolescents, rebelling without any specific cause.

Our culture seriously needs to examine how it conceptualizes desire and choice, because I think the way we understand those two concepts is overly simplistic. Some things that are labeled as a choice aren't as easy as choosing between strawberry or chocolate ice cream, like weight or education level. And some things that people desire to do don't define their entire personhood (an example that comes to mind would be criminals, with our justice system often assuming that a desire to break a law means that a person is dangerous, mentally ill, or simply trash).

On why religion often gets thrown in the immutable category, well, that's because if you asked them if they chose their religion (or chose to let Jesus into their heart or something like that), you'd probably get a proud, resounding yes from them. They're proud of their choice, they'd do it again, and they think everyone should make the same one. It's the only choice worth living!

Us, on the other hand, we usually just say, no, no, it's not a choice! Who on earth would choose to be gay? Are you crazy?

And that's why one choice is protected and the other isn't.

Ultimately all arguments against LGBt rights boil down to two factors, religious objections and procreation. Procreation is easy enough to dismiss given more than 50 years of promoting zero population growth, allowing the known infertile to marry and allowing women beyond childbearing age to marry. That leaves religion. And in this country (US) at least, that is supposed to be poison fruit. See Separation of Church and State. Since religions are far from universal in opposing basic LGBT rights, including marrage, using religious arguments in political context is a defacto establishment as "state" religions of those that do oppose them.

With transsexuals and the Bible it's even less cut and dry. One can argue that given that Isaiah 56 3-5 would clearly seem to say that transsexuals are a special kind of chosen people and that attributed directly to Jesus is acceptance of eunuchs by birth, made so by man and those who do so themselves...there not only is not a possible Biblical objection, it's actually approved. Of course, Duet 22 leaves the crossdressers and non-ops out in the cold..........oh well.....that leaves them stuck with the same basic separation of Church and State issue.

It's nice to be a chosen person even if I am a Pagan.

Isn't the statement by Jesus about eunuchs in Matthew 19:12? Could it be in 2 places?

As an interesting side note to this discussion, the GLAAD survey on American opinions about LGBt people released today clearly indicated, as part of the results, that those who believed that being LGBt is inborn were, by a huge margin, much more likely to support marriage equality.......just noticing.

Wolfgang E. B. Wolfgang E. B. | December 3, 2008 9:59 PM

I ran across an interesting online book at the Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology recently. It was first published in 1981. The author asserts that everyone is capable of both heterosexual and homosexual eroticism to one degree or another.

"However, we would do well to realize that, from the very beginning, these mutually exclusive categories oversimplified and prejudged the issue. Indeed, they could originate only in a repressive culture where the full range of human sexual capacities was no longer accepted. Any culture that draws an artificial dividing line between homosexuals and heterosexuals thereby betrays a highly peculiar and very narrow view of human nature. It is a view that has become blind to the gradual character of human differences, to the shades and nuances of human behavior, in short, to the natural variety of life."
--The Sex Atlas, by Erwin J. Haeberle, Ph.D., Ed.D.
http://www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/ATLAS_EN/html/homosexual_intercourse.html

The right often equates immutability with lack of choice.
In dealing with the issue of choice, I'm forced to ask, What does it mean to choose? Can I choose to hate something that I love? Perhaps it's possible, but why would I want to? It seems psychologically unhealthy to me to make such a choice. I don't think I choose to see big, beautiful male sex organs as sexually stimulating. That's what comes naturally to me. If I can choose the opposite response, such a choice would be unnatural and unhealthy. It isn't a choice I would naturally choose to make.

Does the fact that sexual orientation can change over time in some people make it a choice? I don't think so. It also doesn't mean that *all* people experience change in their sexual orientation, or that said change can be imposed, either from without or from within, without negative psychological consequences, if it can even be changed at all.

On the other hand, we can look at sexual orientation as transient thing, since we are attracted to a specific person or aroused by a specific image at a given moment in time. Because in one moment, we may be attracted to person A, and in another, to person B, it could be considered mutable in the same way that age is. But is age really mutable? Sure, it changes over time. But can I, right now in this very moment, change my age?


Ok got some background info on this bio attraction thing..http://www.skeptictank.org/homosex.htm

there was a study done in 1996 in Atlanta GA.
The Dr who conducted the study was from Western Michigan University and the subjects were college men who expressed being heterosexual. The groups were further broken down to those expressing homophobia and those not. The results were what most folks suspect. Those hetero-men expressing homophobia were discovered to have same sex attractions by a turgidity test, a device which was put on their penis to measure the turgidity when being shown erotic and it was homoerotic material. the other group showed no response to it. I know it is not the proof immutable but it does show that the response is not learned, indoctrinated, passed off, taught etc.

Personally I have no attraction to women and didn't participate in the test but found this interesting that once I met a transitioning M to F who was next going for SRS at a PFLAG meeting. Without really thinking about it we talked and it was fascinating to see how a transformation it is for people to go through. I noticed that even though the last external vestiges were all that were left my perception was that this was a woman in front of me and I knew that was true not just because of the way she talked wore her clothes etc., but that the sexual dysphoria transexuals have is real. It is a woman in the case of M to F who is working in that body and a male in case of F to M. Our physical reactions are hardwired but whatever is psychically intrinsic to people is where the sexuality is. That is why they will never find a gene for homosexuality. Your erotic response is not based in the body but the psyche and the body is hardwired to respond to the impulses the psyche experiences.. so what would we call that?

That is why the ex-gay ministries do not work and why damage is done to folks who try to do so.

The one thing Maura said was interesting though. She could live with w man but would not be totally fulfilled. That implies choice but if you track that back it is still based in the psyche.

That is why the APA says homosexuality is not an illness as was previously taught because it is intrinsic to the person as all sexuality is.

Wolfgang E. B. Wolfgang E. B. | December 4, 2008 5:48 PM

James wrote, "I know it is not the proof immutable but it does show that the response is not learned, indoctrinated, passed off, taught etc."

Or does it? Looking at this from a purely objective standpoint, it hasn't been proven with absolute certainty that there is a biological basis for sexual orientation. The right wingers contend that sexual orientation is learned at an early age and that we don't necessarily remember learning it. They can't identify what child-rearing practices or teachings result in a particular sexual orientation. Their attempts to teach a heterosexual orientation to their children have not been proven to work, because some of their children still "turn out gay."

But, for the sake of argument, lets suppose for a moment that sexual orientation is learned. Even if that's true, is it a choice? If a child develops a particular trait, like sexual orientation, due solely to early life experiences, can it be said to be either mutable or subject to choice?

My parents definitely taught me to be a liberal from my earliest beginnings, yet I can't see how I could become a bible-thumping fundie by choice. And while some of my beliefs have changed over time, my overall liberalness has been largely immutable. So, was I born with tendency toward liberal thinking, or is it solely the result of my upbringing?

Karen Collett | December 5, 2008 8:25 AM

As an FYI, note that changeability of religion was part of the legal reasoning used by Judge Robertson in Schroer v. Billington; see the section "Is changing religion like changing sex?" about halfway through "Schroer v. Billington: What Does It Mean For Transgender Employees?".

Paige Listerud | December 8, 2008 10:22 PM

Thank you, thank you, thank you for such a well written, well reasoned, and educational article. I feel that I have tools here that I did not have before. You have done me an invaluable service.

I do not know about lesbians, gay men, or monosexually attracted transgender people, but I definitely want the bi/pan/queer/fluid sexuality communities out there to take this battle to the religious right and mainstream America.

We have to fight for our right to choose to live queer lives. As a bi woman, very little in this culture supports my desire to live openly and date individuals based on their own merits and attractiveness to me, not their gender. The bisexual community is still too underdeveloped to support me in my day-to-day choices in this regard. I get plenty of disincentives from both a homophobic society and those remaining gay and lesbian people who are still afraid of whatever implications my sexuality has for them. In order to live the life I want, I have to choose it, and choose it, and choose it some more.

Nobody has to show me any statistics. I know that there are bisexuals out there who have slipped into the woodwork of straight and gay cultures and they are not particularly motivated in coming out. The choice that I make is different from theirs. I have a right to it, like I have a right to my own body.

I'm not afraid to use the word choice to describe my sexual behavior or committed relationships. My life has been enriched by relationships with women; intimate relationships with persons of one's own gender are meaningful and fulfilling and are worthy of choosing.

I don't need to be forced by biology in order to justify engaging in same or opposite sex relationships. But I am grateful to whatever biological, sociological, and political forces made them a possibility for me. I don't believe that everyone has this possibility--I don't believe that everyone is inherently bisexual. I can't imagine homophobia existing in a world in which everyone was bisexual. For me there are obvious differences in who people are attracted to and levels of attraction. As for what can account for those differences, well . . .

More thorough studies in animal behavior over the past 20-30 years indicate that, even in nature, sexuality is not solely about reproduction. Herd animals and primates may engage in same-sex behavior in order to establish social order and cohesiveness. Same-sex behavior may encourage cooperation within a group, and therefore contribute to the group's survival.

Throw that at a fundie the next time they maintain a hardline on procreation. Just keep in mind that a lot of them believe that all of creation is "fallen", so that which is natural will hold no value for them. They get to have it both ways: they get to call us unnatural and then they get to say that we shouldn't be our natural selves anyway.