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From Phyllida's Desk

Choosing to be Queer

Actress Cynthia Nixon has been generating a lot of discussion with her interview(s) in which she said being "gay" is, for her, a "choice." Lady Gaga, of course, went all-out for the opposite point of view in her "Born This Way." Most of the arguments over this concept aren't very edifying, as biographer Sir Charles James Napier said of the Duke of Wellington's sex life.

What strikes me in all this is how uninteresting it is to be "born" with something, good or bad, and how much better it is to choose—even if the possibility of choice is largely imaginary.

Today's "Social Qs" column in the Sunday New York Times leads off with a query from a mother of three daughters wondering what to do about the people who compliment the oldest girl for her beauty while saying nothing to her siblings. As columnist Philip Galanes says, being born "beautiful" is not an accomplishment and isn't worthy of praise, like helping others or learning a useful skill. It's merely a combination of physical attributes, something over which we have little control, even in today's world of cosmetic surgery.

As someone with a congenital deformity, I have only negative associations with the phrase "born this way." From my first days of nursery school at age three, where the other new kids were asked "What's your name" and "Can I play with your blocks?" the first question to me was always "What happened to your hands?" The answer I was instructed to give: "I was born this way."

Even now, more than fifty years later, reliving that frequent exchange makes me want to crawl away into a dark corner and die.

And I have other less-than-thrilling physical qualities: I'm short (5' 2"), I have wavy-frizzy hair, and my forehead is much too high for today's standard of beauty. But these attributes, which are also more or less congenital, do not make me especially unhappy, certainly not suicidal. If I often wish my hair were more manageable, or could at least be cut or combed into decent bangs, or that I could look a sexy six-foot bisexual guy in the eyes without climbing a ladder—still, it's nothing that getting past puberty can't cure.

In fact, not one of these physical attributes, or all of them together, feels much like a description of Who I Am. It's the things I do, and specifically, the one thing I chose to do starting in my early forties—writing fiction—that comes closest to a meaningful definition of me.

We know the arguments for the "born-this-way" approach, how it counteracts discrimination because we queers can't help it. And yes, I know Gaga's anthem was meant to build on the disability rights movement, of celebrating "difference" and not being seen as inferior or second-class citizens, but ultimately it all turns into what Quiet Riot Girl, commenting on Mark Simpson's blog, memorably called "concern porn." We can all be happy Tiny Tims of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, God-blessing everyone, not a dark or antisocial thought in our cheerful little pinheads, and the straight world can sentimentalize over how brave and cheerful we are and congratulate themselves on their tolerance and acceptance.

The truth is, being "born this way" is nothing to celebrate—or to despair over. Whether we're born with something we value, like the girl in the "Peanuts" comic strip who informed everybody that she had naturally curly hair, or something we reject, like my ugly and useless non-hands, the fact remains we didn't choose it. We've intoned the mantra of Who I Am vs. What I Do for so long that we've forgotten the good things about doing.

Who We Are is what we're stuck with. What We Do (choose) is what we make of it. It's where art and work, passion and joy, everything that makes life worth living, come in. There's pretty much no downside to choice. Yes, we've learned in some consumer surveys that having too many choices can be overwhelming, that if we're presented with dozens of flavors of jelly instead of a manageable five or ten we won't choose anything, or just stick with familiar grape, but having some choice is always better than having none. Even if it's a choice among unpalatable alternatives, like the current Republican primaries and most recent elections, it's still better than these outright fakes, where people are lined up at the polls to cast their ballot to give another landslide victory for the dictator. At least our phony democracy still gives us the option of writing in a name, of not voting at all, of occupying Wall Street or marching on the White House. Not choosing is itself a choice.

A recent article on Cynthia Nixon and her "choice" by Tracy Clark-Flory (in Salon)
discusses the work of Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah. Women's sexuality is, or can be, "fluid," says Diamond. We're more likely to hear stories about being same-sex oriented as far back as they can remember from men, while the people who think the gender of their sexual and romantic attractions can be a choice are more likely to be women.

Increasingly, the gender binary, the differences between "men" and "women" are being seen as illusory, much the way the concept of "race" has been shown to be almost meaningless in the biological sense. People don't celebrate having dark skin or eyes without the epicanthic fold. They celebrate the culture of the ethnic group to which they belong—yes, through birth, but in the most important ways, by choice. Culture—literature and art, cuisine, manners and customs, holidays and religious observances—this is what people do, what they study and practice and teach to the next generation. They can't help passing on their genes if they have children, but they choose to pass on their culture.

Today, as more of us are of mixed backgrounds, we're increasingly claiming identities comprised of more than one ethnicity. And as more of us embrace some sort of fluidity, like Nixon moving from "straight" to "gay,"' or by claiming a bisexual, pansexual or simply queer identity or, perhaps most radical of all, asexual, we will also be moving away from the glum resignation of "born this way" into the era of choice.

Activist Peter Tatchell has asked what would happen if we stopped identifying ourselves and others by the gender of the people we (they) love. If we were to stop sorting ourselves into the categories of gay and straight, would gay (queer) culture disappear? Perhaps we might celebrate another aspect of Pride: seeing our innate sexuality as a way of being fully human, of loving other people and forming relationships and families.

If queer becomes just another attribute, the culture will come from what we choose to do with it.
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