Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
I could probably have lived my life quite comfortably without knowing or caring who Cynthia Nixon was, but when I read that she — an actress who made her reputation on the Sex and the City TV show — was being raked over the coals for having said somewhere or other that being Queer was a “choice” for her, I immediately got interested and wanted to see exactly what she’d had to say.
It began when Alex Witchel interviewed her for a New York Times Magazine article published January 19, 2012. After Witchel gave a history of Nixon’s professional career — her start as a child actor, her ability to make the leap to adult roles with stymies a lot of showbiz kids, her appearances in major Broadway productions with the likes of William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Jeremy Irons and Christine Baranski, and her leap into cable TV with what Witchel called “the global success of Sex and the City” — the writer started to describe Nixon’s personal life.
He mentioned that Nixon had been married to a man, Daniel Mozes — who went to Hunter College High School with her and now teaches there — and they had had two children. Then, Witchel wrote, “As Nixon has grown older, she has allowed herself to start coloring outside the lines.” What that meant in plain English was that in 2004, a year after she broke up with Mozes, she started a relationship with Christine Marinoni, who “with the help of a male friend whom Nixon will not identify” gave birth to a son, Max Ellington Nixon-Marinoni, whom Nixon and Marinoni are raising as a couple.
Witchel quoted Nixon as saying “I totally reject” the skepticism many Queer activists showed towards her middle-age change in sexual orientation. “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,’” Nixon told Witchel. “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.”
Nixon didn’t stop there. Witchel described her as waving her arms and turning red in the face as she expressed her antagonism towards the “born this way” orthodoxy of the Queer community. “Why can’t it be a choice?” she said. “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. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.”
Needless to say, the Queer Thought Police came down on Nixon like the proverbial ton of bricks. Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out — an organization designed to expose the abuses so-called “reparative therapy” programs aimed at turning Queer people straight — said, “Cynthia did not put adequate thought into the ramifications of her words, and it is going to be used when some kid comes out and their parents force them into some ‘ex-Gay’ camp while she’s off drinking cocktails at fancy parties. When people say it’s a choice, they are green-lighting an enormous amount of abuse because if it’s a choice, people will try to influence and guide young people to what they perceive as the ‘right’ choice.”
Under the lash of the criticism, Nixon backtracked — a bit — when she gave an interview to the Daily Beast Web site and identified herself as Bisexual. (Duh.) “I believe we all have different ways we came to the Gay community, and we can’t and shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into one cultural narrative which can be uninclusive and disempowering,” she said. “However, to the extent that anyone wishes to interpret my words in a strictly legal context, I would like to clarify: while I don’t often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is Bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have ‘chosen’ is to be in a Gay relationship.”
Why on earth can’t we acknowledge at least some element of “choice” in how we express our sexual desires? No Gay man is equally attracted to all men, nor is any Lesbian equally attracted to all women, any more than any straight person is attracted to everyone of the opposite sex. If we can pick and choose our partners based on height, weight, age, hair color, tastes in politics or music, or whatever weird and beautiful criteria that guide us, why can’t we pick their gender, too? Why do we have to make some hard-and-fast decision, once we’ve had our first experience with a same-sex partner, that we have to identify as Gay or Lesbian for life?
In fact, for reasons that — like much of the science of sexual orientation — aren’t very well researched, known or understood, women seem more able to have sex, or form relationships, with other women and not feel that makes them Queer forever than men are with other men. UC Davis psychologist Gregory Herek did a survey that found that 16 percent of self-identified Lesbians said they’d had “a fair amount of choice” in their sexual orientation, versus only 5 percent of self-identified Gay men. Among self-identified Bisexuals, the figure was 45 percent for women and 40 percent for men.
Another study, actually an analysis of nine studies by researchers at the Williams Institute at UCLA Law School, said that 8 million Americans (3.5 percent of the population — not Alfred Kinsey’s much-vaunted “10 percent,” which only applied to men and included Bisexuals) identify as Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual. In eight of the nine surveys Williams studied, Bisexual women outnumbered Lesbians, while Gay men outnumbered Bi men.
What this says to me is that women are far less likely than men to regard sexual orientation as an either-or choice — either straight or Gay — and more likely to be able to experiment with Lesbian experiences or relationships without having to make a hard-and-fast decision that they can’t go back to dating the opposite gender. I’m not sure why that is, but my guess would be that for a man to have sex with men means identifying with the supposedly “inferior” female role and is therefore, in the context of a homophobic society with rigid notions of “proper” gender identification and behavior, a more wrenching psychological change and a more direct challenge to one’s own sense of identity.
Coming out as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer or what have you isn’t made any easier by the demands of the Queer orthodoxy and the “born that way” mythology that once you’ve ventured into Queerdom, you can’t go back. It has to do with the metaphor, at the root of much Queer organizing and activism since the founding of the Mattachine Society in 1950, that sexual orientation is an “immutable characteristic” comparable to race, and therefore discrimination against Queer people is as wrong — and wrong for the same reasons — as discrimination against African-Americans or other people of color.
It’s a metaphor that’s getting harder and harder to sustain as the Queer community comes to grips with the existence of Bisexual and Transgender people and tries to figure out how to integrate them within an essentialist, biologically determined concept of sexual orientation. The reality of Bisexuals — people who can, depending on the circumstances, fulfill themselves romantically or sexually with both males and females — already makes it virtually impossible to sustain a limited (and limiting) understanding of people as “born” straight or Queer.
And the reality of Transgender people drives the final nail into the coffin of the idea of sexual orientation as immutable. After all, it’s hard to think of a more “immutable characteristic” someone could have than the physical or genetic configuration of their body as male or female — and yet the Transgender community has shown us that physical or genetic gender is not destiny, that one can be physically one sex and psychologically and spiritually the other. Indeed, an increasing number of Transgender people don’t buy into the notion that there are just two genders; instead they claim one or more of a dizzying array of gender identities which is going to take a while for those of us who don’t share their gender ambiguity fully to understand.
I’ve long felt that we as a community have reached the limit of race as an appropriate metaphor for our movement’s struggle against discrimination and prejudice. Indeed, ironically enough, the growing number of mixed-race people in the U.S. (including our current President) has weakened the “born this way” racial metaphor even among the people for whom it was invented; more and more mixed-race people are sounding like Bisexual and Transgender people in their refusal to settle on one racial identity and insistence that the people around them accept the totality of their heritage, not just characterize them on the basis that they look “more” like one of their ancestral races than another.
I think religion is a better metaphor for our community than race now. One can accept the religion into which one is born, one can change to a different one — either a different denomination or a totally different belief system. One can not believe for years and then suddenly decide there is a God, or one can believe for years and then suddenly decide there isn’t. One can accept a particular faith pretty much “as is,” or one can pick and choose among the elements of different ones. Or one can make up a belief system of one’s own. All these choices are, or at least should be, protected under the broad two-part guarantee of religious freedom in the First Amendment — government can neither play favorites for one religion or another, or stop you from believing and practicing whatever faith (or non-faith) you want.
Likewise, instead of telling people they have to fit themselves, their experiences and their desires into boxes neatly labeled “straight,” “Gay,” “Lesbian” or “Bisexual,” we as a community should be fighting for the right to express yourself sexually any way you like, as long as you don’t force yourself on someone else or otherwise cause harm to others. “Our community is not a monolith, thank goodness, any more than America itself is,” said Cynthia Nixon — who, let’s face it, would have got the Queer Thought Police even angrier if her first partner had been a woman and her second one a man, instead of the other way around.
“I met Christine and I fell in love and lust with her,” Nixon said. “I am completely the same person and I was not walking around in some kind of fog. I just responded to the people in front of me the way I truly felt.” That’s the sort of freedom we as a Queer movement should be working for all people to have. It’s the openness to experience, to love, to power, to — dare I say it? — choice that will liberate us, not some crabbed orthodoxy about being “born this way” which makes a great Lady Gaga lyric but a lousy prescription for other people’s lives.