FLICKING THE SWITCH
Wed, 16 May 2012
My flatmate told me a story the other day about a man whose sexual orientation had “switched” after having had a stroke. He had been a burly, rugby-playing alpha-male until one day after passing out, he woke up and realised that not only was he gay, but that he even wanted to become a hairdresser.
That last little detail of the transformation, while triggering an immediate eye-roll sequence from me, also strangely made the story seem more plausible. To jocks who have never interacted with gay guys before, we are all hairdressers. If this man were truly new to it all (and not pulling an ‘Oh look! I had a stroke!’ excuse to avoid having to come out like everyone else) and had been thrown into the deep end with no experience of being gay, of course the first thing he would think of doing would be to become a hairdresser. He would be completely unaware of how naïve and vaguely patronising he was being to his newfound self.
Like an old white man who’s never had black friends trying desperately to look cool at a shisanyama, he would have thrown himself into hairdressing like it’s what all the gay kids do; the catch-all blending-in career; the natural hobby of all those who are attracted to hairy asses and muscular chests. He must have been so disappointed to learn that texturising putty and volumising spray are not the keys to finding sex. If you want a job to get you laid, the rules are pretty much the same on both sides of the sexual orientation divide: become a barman, a DJ, or, if you have the time, a surgeon.
If the story of the stroke is true, then it is quite unsettling. It confirms one of my worst fears that we are nothing but chemical reactions and synaptic circuits. Our personalities and our sexuality are coded into our brains in a literal, physical way that leaves no room for souls or metaphysics. And they can malfunction. You can reset them, but they may never be the same. The idea that someone can switch from being a straight rugby player to a gay hairdresser so quickly is creepy. While I made my peace with some level of transience years ago, if there is nothing consistent or unalterable in us, then who are we, really?"What if sexuality turns out to be something you can tinker with in neuroscience?"
Does it also mean that sexuality is just a setting? Would I have been exactly the same person had I grown up straight? Would I have found sport as boring, and cried in movies?
It got me thinking about the battle for equality and how a lot of gay rights activism has revolved around us not having a choice in our sexual orientation. We are born gay, or we are turned gay by the hormones in the womb or by our early childhood experiences. We have no choice in the matter because the sexuality happened to us long before we had any say in our lives. The unfolding DNA strands could not have been disciplined. You couldn’t have convinced an embryo it will be happier turning out straight.
It is like we are the victims of our fate - and how can you discriminate against us for something over which we have no control? It is exactly like discriminating against someone because of their race – and just as easy to see how that is morally repugnant. But it is not as easy to condemn discrimination based on behaviour. We do it all the time; we discriminate against those who choose to steal, or those who choose to be hippies.
What if sexuality turns out to be something you can tinker with in neuroscience? What if, one day, thanks to brain mapping and sophisticated treatments and surgeries, people do have a choice as to what kind of sexual orientation they would like? Will it then become impossible to defend being gay? Against the weight of moral conservatism, will we be able to convince the world that we have every right to be gay even if it’s possible not to be?
I’ve always thought the gay people out there who believe sexual orientation is a choice do a huge amount of damage to the gay liberation cause. They empower conservatives to tell us to choose a straight life, to choose their version of what God would want or what is ‘African’. There are church groups out there who try to force people to become straight, through all types of inhumane and horrific treatments that only end up causing their victims to feel humiliated, ashamed and depressed.
At a time when North Carolina, Obama, and our own National House of Traditional Leaders are making homosexuality political again, and the battle lines for human rights are forming, evidence that sexuality is changeable seems to weaken our argument. But perhaps it should never have been about how little choice we had to be gay in the first place; but rather our right to be whoever we want to be, and to love whomever we want to love.