Brad White on Christians and the gays

There’s a great discussion going on at Friendly Atheist right now. Brad White of the new group Changing the Face of Christianity answered a lot of Hemant Mehta’s questions about the organization, which aims to get Christians to stop living up to their stereotypes: intolerant, homophobic, and so on.

White has a certain amount of naïveté as regards gay issues (for example, one sticking point is the semantic difference between “gay marriage” and “civil unions”). But it’s a pleasant surprise that White seems so willing to dialogue honestly with atheists and the gay community alike, so I used the comments to respond to his response on the question, “Do you consider being gay a choice?” Here’s an excerpt of his answer:

First, and possibly most importantly, I am a heterosexual and I can’t possibly walk in the shoes of a homosexual. So, all I can do is express my beliefs based on what I’ve seen, heard, and observed. I don’t claim to have any special knowledge in this area.

… Long Answer: I’ve seen strong evidence that it is a genetic pre-disposition. That’s tough to debate. I can recall kids as early as age 10 [who] were stereotypically effeminate, and very likely went on to BE homosexual after puberty. I’ve also personally known several heterosexuals who later Chose to be bi-sexual or homosexual. I don’t know what you call them, so I simply call them “switchers.” Another person I’ve not met but I heard about a while ago, who was a very active and vocal PRO lesbian her whole life but switched later in life, shows evidence that regardless of any genetic pre-disposition, it can still be a choice.

… So, what do I believe? If I had to take an educated best guess, I’d say that homosexuality is something you are genetically pre-disposed to and yet it’s still a choice.

He goes on to make an unfortunate analogy to alcoholism as both predisposition and choice. I’m willing to give him a pass there to address his misunderstandings. First, there’s the difference between sexual orientation (internal and unchangeable) and sexual expression (external and, technically, changeable). Next is the fact that it’s so unhealthy, no matter your orientation, to feel the pressure to hide or change your expression, and hide and deny your orientation even to yourself. Last I took on his conception of “choosers” or “switchers” who supposedly demonstrate you can change your orientation, which goes back to orientation versus expression, but also pulls in the idea that sexuality can be fluid over time.

Here’s what I wrote for Brad, who has been doing his part and watching the comments:

It’s a common argument mainly from theistic circles that even if homosexual attractions result from genetics, hormones, and what-have-you, acting on it is a choice. Well, sure it’s a choice. So?

When a man is attracted to a woman, he can choose to acknowledge and perhaps act on that attraction. Even if he wants to, he can choose not to act on it, deny to himself that there is attraction, even choose to go after other men he’s not actually attracted to, to try to deny and hide his actual desires.

But in that hypothetical (absurd) homosexist world, is this any less unhealthy than a gay man in our heterosexist society who denies his attractions to other men? Does it mesh with what he really wants? Does it not foster cognitive dissonance?

Similarly, it does no good internally for bisexuals to deny their various realattractions to one or the other sex. Many will still do it, facing stigma from heterosexists and homosexists (ironic but real). They face accusations from both extremes that they are truly gay or lesbian, unwilling to own up to being gay or lesbian, unable to make up their minds, indiscriminate sluts.

The morality of any particular sexual orientation does nothing to invalidate or solve that cognitive dissonance. It isn’t a lack of desire to pursue an attraction, but actively denying there are attractions you want to act on, that is so unhealthy.

And one more thing about bisexuals and “switchers.” In many cases, no doubt, bisexuals aren’t obvious because we only notice their attraction to one particular sex, and assume they’re gay or straight. Dating a succession of people from one sex, even marrying, doesn’t erase a bisexual identity, and it shouldn’t be assumed that a wo/man who’s dating someone opposite from the sex s/he usually dates has “chosen” to “switch.”

That being said, there are lots of people who will tell you that sexuality can be fluid (i.e., that you can go from being heterosexual to bisexual, or homosexual to heterosexual, or any other such change). I have to agree. It’s easy to imagine that at different points in your life you may be attracted to one, the other, or both sexes; and how does it invalidate your present sexual orientation, that in the past your orientation was different? The fact my favorite sports car used to be the Corvette has no bearing on the fact I now want to drive a Camaro. We like different things (and people, and types of people) at different times; and some people, too, will always be solely gay or straight or Corvette fans.

Kudos to Brad for trying to reach out to both atheists and the gay community, and I hope I’ve done my part to illuminate him on the latter. A bit of Googling around will produce all sorts of surveys and explanations of sexual orientation versus sexual expression, fluid orientation over time, and so on. It sounds like his misconceptions about orientation are mainly just failures of the imagination; he doesn’t quite “get it” but he sounds a lot more reachable than many.

I encourage you to read his full response to Hemant’s questions and contribute to the discussion for Brad. One thing I really wasn’t sure I could coherently tackle was the the difference of sex and gender, and how that relates to orientation (and the terms I used above all fell back on the binary of man and woman, homo/hetero/bisexual.). That’s a whole discussion unto itself, and I’m sure someone’s out there who can adequately address it.

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