Panel: On Cynthia Nixon and Choosing to be Gay

by | January 30, 2012
filed under Feminism, LGBT, Pop Culture

Cynthia Nixon

The other week Cynthia Nixon caused quite a stir when she told the New York Times:

“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not. … Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive.”

Here’s what Gender Focus contributors had to say about the remarks and ensuing controversy:

Jessica:

I don’t think the idea of being gay as a choice hurts the gay rights movement. I find myself talking about gay rights pretty frequently, and even among people who are against homophobia and bigotry, I’ve heard people say things like “It’s not even like they have a choice about it!” I understand that is meant to be nice, but it could actually be understood as pretty condescending.

That line of thinking sounds to me like, if homosexuality were a choice, then it would be fine to discriminate against homosexuals, which is absurd. It also puts heterosexuality on a pedestal, with the idea that if they had a choice, obviously they would be straight, right? It’s not their fault they’re gay, they can’t help it! If they could, they’d be straight like us, poor things. Like it’s some sort of disability. I understand that not everyone feels this way, that many people never chose to be gay the same way I never chose to be straight. But if someone wants to choose to be gay, it shouldn’t matter. They are still be entitled to human rights.

Regardless of who we’re attracted to, having sex is about choices. Starting a relationship or getting married is about choosing to share your life with someone. Adopting a baby is a big decision, and choices like those are currently under a lot of scrutiny for gays, lesbians, and pretty much everyone who isn’t heterosexual. The reasons why a person is or identifies as gay shouldn’t be the issue. What should get more discussion is why our society “chooses” to discriminate against gays, whether or not they volunteered.

Kaitlin:

The single hardest thing about being a lesbian is identifying as one. Seriously, there is absolutely nothing harder. So, Cynthia Nixon chose to be gay? Good for her. There are lots of awesome things about being gay. There are also some really hard things, but Cynthia has already conquered the most difficult one.

The term lesbian and the entire idea of gay women carry a lot of baggage in our society. Lesbians are condemned as man-haters, as being afraid of men, and as being sexually repressed. The truth is, women really don’t face that much oppression in our society for being attracted to women, or for sleeping with women. Women do face oppression, definitely, but not really all that much. That fact is owed to generations of activism, and to the activists who have fought and won many battles. However, women still face an inordinate – and growing – amount of oppression for not being attracted to men, and not sleeping with men. That is, in many ways, why identifying as a lesbian is the hardest part of being one. You can have lots of sex with women without ever having to identify that you’re not interested in men.

Sexuality may be inborn, but identity is a choice. Identity is dangerous in a way that sexuality by itself can never be. Only by constituting an identity group can people who deviate from the norms of socially acceptable heteronormativity fight for rights. This is why we have gays and lesbians and bisexuals. These identities are necessary if we ever want to challenge heteronormativity.

The importance of those identities, and their potential to subvert heteronormative society, makes them as essential to our struggles as they are dangerous to the mainstream. And the reaction to Cynthia Nixon’s bold statement that she chose to be gay is evidence of that.

The truth is, though, that choosing to identify a certain way is always just that – a choice.

That’s not a popular position, as Cynthia Nixon has probably by now found out. We want to believe that sexuality can be understood through identity, and identity through sexuality. It’s easier that way. But whatever Cynthia’s sexuality may be, she identifies as gay. Thus, whether or not she is homosexual, she is gay.

Part of me will never understand the condemnation that Cynthia has received for saying that she chose to be gay. Another part of me, having listened to the dialogue taking place now and the narratives that have persisted throughout my entire life, thinks I may. There are so many different forces at work. On the one hand, you have the argument that Cynthia is a bisexual woman who refuses to acknowledge her own privilege. It’s true that having a choice in how you identify, and in what gender of person you want to date, is a huge privilege. But, as I mentioned earlier, the single hardest thing about being a lesbian is identifying as one. Cynthia has given up a lot of privilege by calling herself gay, and I think that deserves respect, not condemnation.

It goes the other way, too. Many women come out as bi before they come out as lesbian. There are lots of different reasons for that, but the most important one is that it is so, so much safer to be out as bi than out as a lesbian. Ask anyone who has identified both ways – it can make a world of difference. It can be night and day in terms of how you are treated, and how safe you are in mainstream society. That says a lot about the realities that lesbians face, but it also has implications for bisexual women. It’s a reality that contributes to the widespread – and incorrect – notion that bisexual is no more than a stop on the way to coming out. Unfortunately, that it is just a stop on the way to coming out for many lesbians is a reality that hurts bisexual women. It hurts those women for whom bi is a true identity, and is really completely out of the closet. And it explains why a lot of bisexual women get angry at lesbians who do that, and perhaps rightly so. It also explains why the idea that a bisexual women may have chosen to be gay poses yet another threat.

Of course, you can’t police identities. People have tried, but it doesn’t work. And it shouldn’t. Do you really want people coming along, measuring your gayness/biness/straightness against some kind of yardstick? Some people identify as bi until they get married or enter a monogamous relationship, then choose to identify as straight or gay. Some people get married or enter and stay in a monogamous relationship for their entire lives, yet remain bisexual-identified. Would anyone say that one of these choices is better than the other?

We need identities, and we need people with the courage to identify. This is how we become political. At the same time, what we don’t need is for identity politics to become so reified that people can become the arbiters of identity. Besides, for some people, sexuality can be fluid. So can identity. Who knows which one is more fluid than the other?

Not everyone has the ability to choose to be gay. Cynthia Nixon is very lucky. But just because she is lucky doesn’t mean she can’t be gay.

Sarah:

I was a little surprised and disappointed when she later clarified why she doesn’t identify as bisexual: “I don’t pull out the “bisexual” word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals…. I just don’t like to pull out that word.”

That’s precisely why the word needs to be pulled out more often. Some people are gay, some people are straight, and some of us are somewhere in between; we all deserve respect.

I think Cynthia is a bisexual woman who’s chosen to be in a relationship with another woman. Why is that any less legitimate than being gay or being straight?

She said ” I do completely feel that when I was in relationships with men, I was in love and in lust with those men. And then I met Christine and I fell in love and lust with her.”

Her decision to not identify as bisexual reminds me of those women who don’t like to call themselves feminists, despite being pro gender equality. Feminism isn’t a dirty word, it’s the radical belief that women are people. Bisexual isn’t a dirty word either, it’s the radical belief that some people are sexually attracted to both genders. I think it’s important to stand up and be proud of who you are. I’m a bisexual feminist, I’m kinda queer, get used to it.

Roxanna:

Nixon’s statement reminds me of a gynaecological procedure I once had. Two male surgeons were all up in my lady parts and when I had the audacity to tell them they were hurting me, one of the surgeons rolled his eyes and said: “Your cervix doesn’t have any nerve endings so this can’t possibly hurt.” To which I replied that when he grew a cervix and had a couple of scalpels shoved up inside him then he’d be qualified to tell me whether or not I was in pain. That man could not negate my pain by invalidating my experience. He didn’t get to define what I felt. Just as we don’t get to define Nixon’s gayness for her.

When a prominent figure in the media makes a controversial statement it’s simple for any faction to use their words to suit their own agenda. Nixon maintaining that her homosexuality is a choice could play into the hands of the far right who seem convinced that you can pray the gay away if you just try hard enough. Or her words can be heard as an assertion of individual freedom, which everyone has the right to. As a feminist I support choice, a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. Nixon very firmly chooses to have intimate relationships with members of her own gender. Not once did Nixon assert that being gay was a choice for every person, only that it was her own personal choice. Making a conscious decision to have sex with other women doesn’t make her less gay; the end result is the same. Cynthia Nixon is homosexual and no one has the right to deny her her identity.

(photo via Wikimedia Commons)


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  • http://nogreatermalesupporter.blogspot.com Taylor

    Awesome insights here as always. I’ll add mine:

    Attaching choice to a discussion of gay rights is problematic because umm what exactly is the choice we’re talking about? Is it the choice to feel something? The choice to engage in specific actions? The choice to engage in a specific performance of gender? I’ve yet to see this one nailed down. We attach choice to the conversation without evaluating it or being specific about what the choice is. Choice is a far more blurry conversation when discussing bi/homosexuality than it is when discussing what shirt to wear, or reproductive rights.

    When gay people are being bullied and disenfranchised, choice seems like a pretty distracting conversation, and one that at best forgets and at worst absolves the real bigotry gays face from the playground to our Parliament.

    Another problem I have with the choice conversation is that like so many mainstream discussions of homosexuality it so often reduces gay people to gay sex.

    Also can we just rip the veil off the huge mistrust here of anyone that doesn’t identify as straight? Why is it that as soon as someone gay or bi makes a statement about his or her sexuality we levy so much doubt at them, especially if that person is a woman? My being a straight male doesn’t make me any more capable of monogamy or trustworthiness than Cynthia Nixon.

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