'BECCA CRAGIN AND FRANK AQUENO ON CHOICE

AN INTERVIEW BY ROB NIXON

[ETCETERA MAGAZINE, JUNE 20, 1997]

 

'Becca Cragin (BC) is a fifth-year graduate student in the Institute for Women's Studies at Emory University. She is a co-organizer of the upcoming "Queering the South" conference, and is writing a dissertation on lesbian, gay, and bisexual viewers of talk shows.

Frank Aqueno (FA) is a writer and performance artist.

Rob Nixon (RN) is News Editor at Etcetera magazine.

The interview that follows was conducted via e-mail. Rob Nixon asked the same questions of 'Becca Cragin and Frank Aqueno. Excerpts from those separate interviews were published in Etcetera Magazine on June 20, 1997 in a story by Rob Nixon, "Queer By Choice". With the permission of all, I have combined those two interviews.

 

RN: How long have you been out as a lesbian? When did you first become aware of your attraction to other women?

BC: I've been out since my second year of college, which was the same time I realized I had a crush on a friend of mine. But the line between 'realizing I was gay' and 'becoming gay' for me is a blurry one. It wasn't that I realized I had always been gay, but that I had the potential in me to love women. The difference between those two positions is that one implies "If I am something now, I must have always 'really' been something else, even if I had no clue", while the other position implies "That is where I was then and this is where I am now.

What I've found in several interview projects I've done with lesbians is that many women who are raised--actually indoctrinated--to be straight later reject that and on some level 'choose' a lesbian life. This can happen because they meet lesbian friends, or become involved in feminism, or just do a lot of soul-searching. Whatever leads them down this path, they then usually feel compelled to disavow their entire past as if it was somehow 'unreal' (like Ellen did in her recent interviews, when she says, "I could have gone on and become married and never even known I was gay") and they also feel compelled to dig up evidence that proves they were always really gay.

Since same-sex experimentation in childhood is very common, their evidence of lesbian childhoods often ends up being pretty indistinguishable from evidence of a heterosexual childhood. They say things like, "I always liked the Bionic Woman way more than the Six-Million Dollar Man", or "My friends were all girls when I was a little girl." They can't believe they are just like other women so they somehow have to set themselves apart as different.

RN: On what do you base your position that you chose to be gay?

FA: 20 years of thinking, research, writing on the subject. I didn't always think this. There was a time when I bought the idea that I was 'born this way'. That began to change in the 70's when I began to ask questions of myself and others.

BC: For me, saying 'choose' is really just a kind of shorthand. What I mean in my case is something more like a progression or change. It's not that I consciously chose to feel love and desire for women, but that my progression from someone who had boyfriends to someone who had girlfriends wasn't in any way related to a shift in hormones, a change in my brainshape or fingerprints, or anything like that. I guess what I'm saying is that I am the same person now as I was when I had boyfriends. Some people, usually women, do say they feel they consciously chose to be gay, but for me it was more related to thinking about what would make me happy, what I would give a try and see how it went.

I realized I really liked this woman a lot, and I realized, as a feminist, that if women are truly as good as men then why would I exclude them as potential partners? I realized that I might have just as good if not better a relationship if I tried one with this woman. When I went to kiss her for the very first time I was so scared because I was afraid I wouldn't like it, that I would feel nothing and she would be insulted. I really wanted to like it, and I did. It felt like fireworks. I chose to explore and then to 'be gay' in the sense that I now call myself a lesbian and that is my world.

 

RN: When you say "chose," do you mean you chose to live life as a lesbian/gay man, you chose to make "lesbian or gay" your sexual identity, or do you mean you chose to be attracted sexually and affectionally to other women/men? What I'm getting at here is semantics, I guess, but I want to clarify exactly what you mean by choice in a way that will be as unambiguous as possible for the reader.

BC: I guess I kind of already answered that in the above. You can't necessarily choose your emotions but you certainly can make decisions that encourage or discourage certain feelings. People who are whiny actually feel more pain than people who decide to (or are conditioned to) tolerate it. You can decide that you will or won't explore feelings you have. Also, I tend to think of it more on a social than an individual level. It's not a question of whether individuals choose or don't choose to be gay but rather what they are told is possible in their society.

Sexuality is incredibly flexible. There are societies where homosexuality is demanded of men and all the men do it. If we had a homosexual dictatorship, the way we have heterosexual supremacy, I think the majority of people in this country would be gay and quite happy. At certain moments in US history, the conditions which bar homosexuality have temporarily been lifted, and in those times homosexuality explodes. During WWII, young men and women were pulled from their small towns and segregated by sex in big cities, and homosexuality flourished. It's not just that some people who always knew they were gay but hid it could now express it, but that many people who had no clue suddenly went into it.

The same goes on at sex-segregated, universities, camps, schools. When homosexuality comes into vogue, more people actually become gay. It's cumulative. If gayness were biological you would have the same number of people who were gay in every era in every culture, and this just isn't the case. Whether people are gay is often directly related to what's going on culturally -- in their society and in their individual world. So what I'm saying, really, more than, "I chose to be gay" is that all orientations are to a great extent constructed.

FA: I choose, for rational and reasonable reasons, to attempt to establish my most intimate relationships with men.

RN: If your attractions to other females/males occurred very early on in your life - say before puberty and complete awareness and understanding of sexuality (as is true for most of us) - then how can you argue that you made some sort of choice in the matter?

 

FA: I don't have an awareness of being attracted to either men or women at an early age. When puberty arrived, I experimented with both. So did most of the boys I grew up with. It was only when these other boys, under society's pressure, began moving away from same-sex experiments, that I felt 'different'. Now the 'born that way' crowd would say this was do to my 'gay genes'. At the time, I had no idea what this was about. Now, it's clear that I simply refused to move in some direction because others wanted me to.

What separated me from them was not sexual. It had to do with independence, integrity, continuity, strength and a strong sense of 'self'. I had access to these qualities because as a child I was given lots of privacy. I had time to think, dream and fantasize as a young child. This kind of time allows a child to step back from all around him/her and evaluate, ruminate, dream. It allows a child to separate from the monolithic forces. Children who do not have this kind of time are swept along with the tide, never having time to question where it is taking them and why.

If you ask people who talk about 'choice' if they had this kind of time as a child, most will answer 'yes'.

BC: I was attracted to females on a whole host of levels which may or may not have included sexually (it's hard to remember). I think many many people, maybe most, are bisexual in the sense that they have the potential to be with men or women, but they are directed down different paths. So the fact that I would be attracted to girls as a girl is only proof of my being typical, not atypical.

RN: Isn't this really just the age-old "nurture v. nature" debate? In other words, aren't you saying that instead of being born that way, you were really formed by environmental and behavioral factors? And don't such factors occur prior to the idea of conscious choice? Let's say, for instance, as a child you lived near the ocean.

FA: Only if you omit ME from the equation. Of course, environment and behavioral factors were there. Biological also, in the sense that we're all biological creatures. BUT, and this is a significant BUT - I am there also. The unique person that is me, is responding to all this. Whenever this question is raised it is always the individual person that is omitted from the equation. As if you could take another unique individual, give them the same environmental and behavioral factors and they would turn into ME. This is not true. We know that from reputable and replicable identical twin studies.

BC: Yes, that's why 'choice' is a misnomer. To the extent that we choose we are able to choose who we pair up with, but a lot of that is set up for us. For me, I think the fact that I was able to shift gears is directly related to the fact that I was and had always been a feminist, as well as a kind of outsider to my small town society. I had demonstrated over and over in my childhood a willingness to stand apart (though that wasn't always chosen!) and a willingness to question and openly criticize the things around me that I thought were wrong. I think this is why, when an opportunity arose, I took it. I know many other women who played around in college, the 4-year LUGs[???], who then went on to straight lives because they couldn't take the pressure. I don't think society absolutely determines what you can be (because look at me, I'm an example of someone who was able to reject her indoctrination) only that it makes certain outcomes much more likely. Choice would only come in after opportunity -- do you as an individual have the opportunity to recognize your options, and the ability (be it psychological, economic, etc.) to choose freely. You only have a choice to make once a choice is put to you. If you've never known another lesbian, never been to a lesbian part of town, never heard anything except that lesbians are freaks, you are much less likely to make that kind of choice.

RN: Do you completely discount research into genetic/biological factors that may determine sexual orientation? Does your position totally deny studies that appear to suggest a link between genetics and homosexuality?

BC: Yes, I totally discount that research, for a lot of reasons. First of all, it has definitely not been accepted by scientific standards. research like LeVay's has been done in a very questionable way on a very small number of subjects. Even if you were able to prove that the brains of men who died of AIDS (these are assumed to be 'gay') were different than the brain of men who were presumed to have been straight, what would that prove? First of all brain chemistry and even shape can change in response to environmental factors and emotions, after the fact. It's a cycle. Secondly, what does it mean to say someone one is gay?

If you believe it means they are a genetic aberration, you are going to look for all the ridiculous things scientists look for -- different brainshapes, different fingerprints . . . A hundred years ago it was a preference for the color green and the inability to whistle. I am serious. Just as scientists once thought that you could tell a person's inner morality from their facial and cranial structure (like criminals' eyes would be closer together, for example), they think people who are gay are fundamentally different.

Let's look for a gene that makes people become Republicans, or who choose partners who are talkative. Is there a gene that indicates someone will be nice? Or brave? Or emotionally remote? To me a person who is gay is a person whose primary romantic relationships are with someone of the same gender. Period. It is only in the last hundred years that scientists have tried to name us as a different species, to reassure themselves, I guess.

FA: Yes. A quick basic science lesson for your readers: If you get up in the morning and see the Sun rise in the East and then travel across the sky and set in the West and this is observed on a daily basis for a significant amount of time, doesn't it SUGGEST that the Sun is revolving around the earth?

As you may know, this is NOT the case. The history of Science is replete with false conclusions based on good observations.

What we have today with this attempt to 'suggest a biological' link to homosexuality is a number of studies (LeVay, Hamer, the 'twin studies', just to name a few) which each individually add up to zero. So you add them together and you still get zero. But, the fact that these studies keep appearing in the media has lead many to believe that there must be something here. There isn't.

Who is making the conclusion? The 'scientist' interpreting his or her observations. Let's look at the simple Simon LeVay study. It has been challenged at almost every level. It has never been replicated. Yet it remains, in my opinion, the most often quoted study. He cut open dead brains and found a difference between 'gay' and 'straight" men in a small area of the hypothalamus. This led HIM to conclude that it 'suggests a link'.

Were these brains stagnant and unchanging over the course of a lifetime? Based on these very same observations (and let's not forget that the observations and measurements have been challenged)...these same observations could lead another to conclude that as a result of homosexual activity during a lifetime these structures are different in size. Maybe cutting open dead babies' brains will be his next work.

The idea that homosexuals are 'born that way' is a popular belief. Like the sun revolving around the earth idea, it has been around quite awhile and shows no signs of losing its popularity. As Francis Bacon wrote: "Beware the idols of the tribe."

RN: Is the issue of choice, in your opinion, different for women than for men? I think many of us are aware of women who live large parts of their lives as heterosexual before "becoming" lesbian. I'm not just talking about closeted lesbians but people (like Anne Heche!) who claim they were never attracted to women before. And there are those, particularly in a certain period of time (like the 60s and 70s), who chose lesbianism as part of a feminist political/social act or belief. Very few men, however, have claimed to suddenly become attracted to other men. Do you think women's sexuality is more fluid? Or are men socialized not to admit to or act on such life changes/choices?

BC: This is a really interesting question to me. I really don't know. My own observations match what I've seen in many studies which is that there is this gender split where more of the people who say they chose are women. It could be the result of a lot of things, in addition to the way women are enculturated to be more flexible with their affection and to merge affection and sexuality. It could also be that the pressure on women to pair up with a man is even more severe since women are still not men's economic equals, overall. So more women would first pair up with men and later find that they preferred being with women.

FA: The question isn't different but the experience of men and women is different. For the most part, men have not lived as, or been viewed as 'second class citizens'. In our time we have seen a significant change in the way women view themselves and how they are viewed by others. Many women go through a personal and political journey that men do not. In addition, men are scarred sexually in that they are conditioned to 'perform'....to 'do it' and 'do it again'. Some of this is biological in the sense that nature provides for the continuation of the species. But we have brains now that think and we can choose what to do with our sexuality. This point seems to miss the brains of many men.

I don't know much about women's sexuality. I like to listen to them talk about it and provide me with information. But, in reality, it all starts with that blue or pink blanket they put on you after birth.

RN: What is your principle objection to the "born that way" argument? Is it more semantic than scientific? (In other words, do you think there is no way genetic factors can be determined or is it that you just hate the rhetoric of "I can't help it; why would I choose this?")

FA: My principle objection is that the 'born that way' argument is based on 'belief' and 'feeling'. There is absolutely no science to support it. I don't think this is 'semantic'. It equates some to the argument for 'a God'. You either believe or you don't.

That aside, I do hate the 'I can't help it; why would I choose this?' statements and questions. I can't think of a more homophobic question than "Why would I choose homosexuality?" What people usually mean is: with all the 'givens' (hate, prejudice, etc.) why would someone choose homosexuality. The answer to that question is that: an individual cares more about his or her own opinion of themself than the opinion of others; that they are strong, brave, courageous in spite of the givens. Because their happiness is a primary goal and it comes from doing what is true and right and not from doing what is thought to be true and right. Because we value our own judgment over that of others. Because we refuse to submit to the lie that one can only love someone of the same gender. Because we believe there is more to love than sex.

I can go on. Why would someone enlist in the Army to go to war knowing they could get killed or maimed?

BC: My principle objection is that for many people this is simply wrong. I was not born 'that way', whatever that means, and to tell me I am brainwashed, in denial, or homophobic for having the nerve to state my own personal truth even though it goes against the party line is just hateful. People who think they are being pro-gay by saying gay people are born that way and can't help it so cut them some slack are not only insulting all gays but they are slapping in the face all those gay people who don't feel we were born that way. Any movement that denies the realities of many of its members will never truly free anyone. We have to start growing a spine and learning how to say, "You know, some people feel they weren't born gay, and what's wrong with that?" Since so many of us know people who did convert one way or the other, to just cover our eyes and pretend they don't exist is foolish.

The religious right pays attention to their stories. To deny reality will not help us in the long run. After all, what is wrong with being gay? What is so deficient about women that I can be friends with them but not make lives with them? And vice versa for gay men? We'll never go all the way with this movement if we stop at "Be nice to us, we're freaks". Every single person alive has to be able to imagine themselves gay, their kids and relatives and friends gay, has to be happy when people realize they're gay, has to see being gay as an absolutely neutral choice. Granted, it will take a hell of a long time to reach that point, and maybe for now we just want special protections and tolerance, but we are hurting ourselves very deeply in the long run, I think.

RN: What would be wrong with saying I would choose this anyway?! What is it that keeps people from being able to say that?

FA: Nothing. Many do. It can be a good, valid and moral choice.

BC: Yeah!

RN: How do you feel about arguments that if homosexuality can be shown to be genetic, we would have an easier time securing our rights?

BC: Obviously this could work both for and against us. Female fetuses are already being selectively aborted off the face of the earth in some parts of the world.

FA: Ask a black person.

This kind of silly argument mostly comes from politicos who are well known for not having any ability to think. They are too busy counting votes. They are concerned with what's expedient not what is true and right. That said, it is a dangerous argument. Why dangerous? Well, the Supreme Court has spoken on this issue very clearly. Four of the nine Justices signed a dissent in Bowers v. Hardwick written by Justice Blackmun. The whole framework of this dissent is the 'right of individuals to make choices'. The word 'choice' is used repeatedly. I have a link to that dissent on my web pages. It highlights each time the word 'choice' is used. Nowhere in this dissent is there even a reference to 'biological' factors.

It seems to me, these Justices have made clear to us how they view this issue. To proceed in the courts arguing on the basis of 'biology' is a dead-end, a waste of time and our money -- futile. Oh yeah, we can bring a scientist like Hamer to Denver to argue biology. Then what? The other side brings their scientist to Denver to argue against biology. Draw.

Oh yeah, and by the way, on this question of my rights -- what ever became of my right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'.

RN: Isn't this whole debate obnoxious anyway? I mean, why should we care how we got to be that way? No one is looking for the genetic vs. environmental vs. choice "causes" for heterosexuality. Don't you think even entertaining the subject is somehow a setback, as if to admit this is something out of the norm that needs to be explained? The problem I often see is that homosexuality invariably becomes coded as a disorder or at least as an out-of-the-ordinary occurrence in a discourse about "cause." Do you think the choice position takes care of that, by refusing to entertain notions other than personal action and responsibility?

BC: Obviously I don't think discussing 'causes' of homosexuality is a setback, since I spend a lot of time in my work doing just that, although I am more interested in studying the process by which a cause for homosexuality becomes scrutinized. You're absolutely right that no one looks for causes of heterosexuality, and that if anything, it is even more constructed/less natural than homosexuality (given the intensity of our indoctrination into it as children and at every stage of our lives), though you could hardly ever say that it was a free choice, given that indoctrination.

This is what I'm really interested in, the extent to which homosexuality is studied as a problem needing causes or study. All sexuality is constructed in the sense that it is guided and shaped and INTERPRETED through culture. Unless you are wolf boy, out alone in the woods all your life, your 'secret', 'private', 'true' deep-down sexual self is in fact a very public product. But to say that a cause for homosexuality should be a moot question doesn't mean we who are pro-gay should stop talking about, since many others in the world are talking about it.

Also, I focus on the construction of all 'sexuality' not just homosexuality. It is a very important subject to study, how sexual identities are created, because it tells us a great deal about how people become gendered, how they become sexualized. How they mobilize their identity in certain directions, how society organizes people according to gender and sex, etc. The problem isn't in studying the causes of sexuality -- the problem comes from just focusing on homosexuality. A really interesting question to me is why on earth would hordes of women 'choose' men? Given the inequities between them, a feminist project of studying the subordination of women also tells us a lot about heterosexual supremacy and the persecution of gays. So these are not questions we need to stop discussing. We need to take the religious right head on, instead of saying, 'This is a stupid question, I won't discuss it." Because Satan knows they will go on discussing it without us.

FA: "The unexamined life is not worth living." - Socrates.

Like it or not we are 'out of the norm'. Like it or not, people will ask. You know the assimilationists' creed? -- "The examined life is not worth living. Ignorance is bliss."

There is no need to go back and look for some moment in time when you chose to be homosexual. It doesn't exist. Just ask yourself, right now: If they developed a pill tomorrow that I could take and become heterosexual, would I take it and why? Would I not take it and why? Make a choice now.

It's an important question because at the psychological level having no choice, being 'born that way' in spite of any evidence, is a helpless position - "I Am What I Am" is a nice song, but a lousy position to be operating from in life. Imagine a serial killer singing it. "I am what I choose to be" puts you in control. It makes you responsible. I suspect that's why it is so scary.

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