Being Queer is a Choice

A lot’s been made of whether or not being gay is a choice. Whatever the precise ratio of heritable to environmental factors leading to our physically attraction to some people and not others, it’s safe to say that few spend their pre-pubescent years consciously cultivating proclivities and predilections.  Because we are social beings bound up in the contingency of our relationships to one another, biological creatures regulated by neurochemicals, participants in particular political and economic systems constrained by our access to power and capital, and a million other these-kinds-of-beings in those-kinds-of-structures, any facile treatment of choice should be met with suspicion, especially when it comes to a freighted issue like human sexuality.

I think a sufficient number of philosophers, academics, pop psychologists, neurobiologists, and internet pontificators have undertaken analyses of the nature of free will and choice, so that’s not really where I’m headed here.  For my purposes, same-sex attraction isn’t a choice, but what people choose to do with their same-sex attraction is.

I’ve gone from talking about being gay to same-sex attraction and those shouldn’t be confused.  Gayness implies something more active than attraction—a performance, an identity.  Often, traits or behaviors that have only the most tenuous connection to sexual attraction are called out as gay.  Same-sex attraction is heaped in with a host of other gender non-conforming traits or behaviors, usually expected to occur together.  This understanding leads to statements like “but you don’t seem gay”.  Whether this is right or wrong or founded in logic, let’s recognize that an ostensibly narrow question about sexual attraction and sexual activity is bound up in much broader understandings and judgments about gender performance.

And, similarly to sexual attraction, the things we do that make up our gender identity are mostly light years from being freely chosen.  Sure, we can consciously cultivate a habit or mimic a normative or transgressive way of performing an identity, but most of what constitutes our gender is the results of all kinds of things we’re not thinking about and may never have thought about.

So what can we choose, exactly?  What conscious choices (even if those too are mired in murk of the unconscious and subconscious and the preconscious) are available to us?  Well, a lot of people advocate for a politics of identity.  Naming ourselves, claiming a group, organizing and acting on these identities.  I think it’s great to start there, or at least near there: finding the things about ourselves that allow us to relate to other people.  Sometimes these commonalities will be a means for coming together and celebrating and sometimes these shared characteristics will be what we’re attacked by others for and will be a rallying point where we can unite and support each other in the face of adversity, and, sometimes, it’ll be all of the above.

I don’t think we should stop there, though.  I think if we view what we have in common too narrowly, we get bogged down in parochial ways of seeing ourselves.   And so that’s why we must continue to choose not a static identity, but a posture of openness.  In the arena of sexual identity politics, ‘queer’ seems to be the closest thing to expressing this.  I think being queer is a choice that we should all make.  And I don’t mean queer in the simply in the sense of some kind of norm-transgressing sexual identity (but we should question norms and be aware of the way they operate to limit us be they straight norms or gay norms or what-have-you norms).

I mean queer more like I understand Judith Butler might mean it: choosing to look at the ways we (any we) have been marginalized and choosing solidarity with others who’ve been marginalized in similar and different ways.  Not forgetting the pain of others in our own pain.  This demand weighs the most heavily on marginalized people who have privilege and power along other axes of their identity—many gay white men, for example.  All too often, advocates of the normifying project of gay marriage fail to consider people of color, people who are imprisoned, people sidelined by an economic system that works against them.

For me, though, our queerness (read: openness to others and resistance to exclusionary identity politics) should win out over our loyalty to the label queer which will grow and change and wax and wane in relevance.  We should be wary of axes of identity that threaten to become all-consuming, that demand prostration and conformity (enforced identities that are not in short supply in the world of LGBT politics).  We must maintain our agency, preserve what limited capacity we do have for choice.  We must choose to be queer by affirming ourselves and affirming others.



  1. Jes Kast-Keat (@JesKastKeat)

    Carl, this is a great piece! Overall I love it. I do get nervous when people talk about abandoning identity politics because I don’t think we are anywhere past the point of abandoning them. I like where you point us, though, and am grateful you can be one of the voices pointing us in the way of queerness.

    • Michael Carl

      I’m there with you – I think identity politics is a starting point (or maybe that’s not the best way to phrase it). I’m all about the improv ‘yes and’ when it comes to these identities. “Yes, we are this, and we are this.” Would love to hear more online or in person about your thoughts.

  2. ajaythorne

    I appreciate the way you define queer as being openhearted and willing to hear from others. It is a powerful thing to recognize the commonalities in struggle, and as you said, to honor the differences. Your thoughts have given me something to ponder. Thank you.

    • Michael Carl

      Thank you! I’ve gotten some really helpful feedback about being careful not to minimize queerness as an identity full of potential for those people whose gender identities and sexual orientations are non-normative and I’m so glad that we can see openness and connectedness and solidarity as grounded in uniqueness of what it means to be queer.

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