What is an "indirect choice"?

It's relatively uncommon, even among people who consider themselves queer by choice, for people to be able to point to a particular time in their life when they consciously decided, "I want to be queer." Although such direct choices are certainly not unheard of, it's more common for people to initally experience their queerness as something they have no control over—and many of them have even tried to turn hetero and failed. However, the fact that they did not initially want to be queer and that their attempts to turn hetero failed does not necessarily mean that there were no indirect choices involved: it could just mean that their technique for attempting to turn hetero was wrong, and that in order to make a free choice that will feel like a choice, one has to have a lot more information about the range of choices available, and a lot less pressure about what they "ought" to choose, than most people in this society usually have. In any case, some people who have initially experienced their queerness as something they had no control over—and even some people who have tried in the past to turn hetero and failed—do decide upon further reflection later in life that their queerness actually resulted from a process of indirect choices that they made in response to a social environment that tried to limit the range of choices available to them. And since this process of indirect choices is usually difficult for people who don't consider themselves queer by choice to understand, it may be useful to examine one possible process of indirect choices in detail here.

Let's imagine someone who didn't want to be queer at first, who questioned their sexual preference only with the most extreme terror and who tried desperately to choose to be hetero but failed. Presumably, there must have been a first time that this person started to wonder if they were "queer," and a first time that they looked at a person of the same sex a little differently than they had as a child and felt something that they labeled a "queer feeling." This could have happened for any number of reasons: maybe they just accidentally stumbled onto the same-sex sexual potential that all people—at least according to many experts, from Sigmund Freud to Margaret Mead—have within them. But in any case, once they'd already had that one fleeting moment of "queer feeling," they did not have a full range of choices open to them. They did not have the choice of being a person who had never had a "queer feeling" or suspected themself of being queer. They did not have the choice of just unproblematically taking it for granted that they were heterosexual. And it is within this context of very limited choices that all their future actions take place.

Now, this person is very much afraid of the possibility that they are queer. In fact, let's say they tried to run away from it, tried to just forget the feeling ever happened and go on with their life hoping to be hetero. But the memory of the feeling remained. Now, if you have a memory whose implications terrify you, are you going to be able to just simply forget all about it and refuse to think about it? Or are you going to lie awake every night going over and over your memory in your mind haunted by the possibilities that the memory implies? Most people in this situation would probably lie awake at night terrified, trying to figure out how to prove to themself that they were "really" hetero. But how can anyone "prove" a thing like that once and for all? Is attraction necessarily that easy to pin down and label like a butterfly in a glass case? And if you're interrupting the natural flow of your feelings to ask yourself every five minutes "Is this attraction? Am I attracted yet? Can I officially declare myself hetero now?" then it's sort of like constantly pressuring yourself to have fun. Wouldn't the pressure itself prevent you from enjoying yourself and allowing the attraction to develop?

So at this point this person is getting very scared indeed. All the uncertainty and inability to "prove" to their own satisfaction that they are hetero may very likely cause them to (reluctantly) explore, in far more depth than most people ever do, the question of whether or not they can feel attracted to people of the same sex. And what are they going to do with the feelings they discover? If attraction is an at all nebulous concept, won't their fear make it difficult for them to prove to their own satisfaction that their feelings for the same sex are not "attraction"—just as their fear also makes it difficult for them to prove to their own satisfaction that their feelings for the opposite sex are "attraction"? How can they ever "prove" to themself once and for all that they're really heterosexual and not just refusing to face their queerness? They can't—because they don't trust themself to be objective when they're trying to lay claim to being something that they so desperately do want to be. Whereas if they lay claim to being queer, it's much easier to trust themself to be objective—because after all, they know they've been fighting desperately to resist that conclusion, so if they finally give in to it, then that conclusion has a ring of "objectivity" that calling themself hetero can never have.

Most people who go through this process probably never stop to question the reasons why it's impossible to "prove" to themselves once and for all that they're hetero—to realize: hey, there aren't any absolutely clear-cut criteria laid out for heterosexuality in the first place. However, most people who go through this process do eventually at some point realize that it is impossible to "prove" to themself once and for all that they are hetero, and that continuing to try to do so dooms them to a life ruled by overpowering fears that maybe they're really not hetero. They realize that the only way to stop these fears from ruling their life is to face them and say, "Yes, I am queer," and start getting used to it. So at that point one could say they're making a choice—but it is not a free choice, because all the fear and pressure they're dealing with has restricted their options so much that the option of continuing to try to prove themself "heterosexual" really is unlivable. So it does not feel like a choice. And since it does not feel like a choice, it doesn't make much sense for anyone to go around telling them they ought to use the word "choice" to describe it unless they themselves want to use that word. However, for the people who've been through this process who do want to use the word "choice" to describe it, it also doesn't make much sense for others to go around telling us that we're not allowed to call it a choice.

Joey's mother used to tell him about collard greens. When he was a child he would say, "Yuck." His mother said, "I know, I know. But someday your tastes will change." She said that one day she had walked into the kitchen and asked her mother what that was that smelled so good. It turned out to be collard greens, which she had always thought were gross before. From that point on she loved them. The story horrified Joey's romantic sensibility. If something that fundamental could change—if he could be the kind of person who liked collard greens—what else about him might be different someday? What other person might he become? He felt the same way now about his sexuality. Sometimes he saw a woman who appealed to him, or while masturbating he accidentally thought about one. He put these thoughts away, not because he had anything against heterosexuality, but because they made him incomprehensible to himself. He also to this day did not like collards, or any greens for that matter.
—Joey Manley, "Love Will Tear," Blithe House Quarterly, Vol. 2 No. 1, Winter 1998
I must confess that Garber's very multiplication of examples browbeat me into wondering whether I myself might not have been bisexual had I lived in another era. When I was a young man, in the sixties, before the beginning of gay liberation, I was always in therapy trying to go straight. I was in love with three different women over a ten-year period, and even imagined marrying two often. But after the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 . . . I revised my thinking entirely: I decided I was completely gay and was only making the women in my life miserable. Following a tendency that Garber rightly criticizes, I denied the authenticity of my earlier heterosexual feelings in the light of my later homosexual identity. After reading Vice Versa, I find myself willing to reinterpret the narrative of my own personal history.
—Edmund White, "Gender Uncertainties: Marjorie Garber Looks at Bisexuality" (review of Marjorie Garber's book Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life), from The New Yorker, July 17, 1995, p. 81

For further discussion of direct and free choices versus indirect and un-free choices, try "The Process of Choosing: A Conversation Between Gayle Madwin and Frank Aqueno." Gayle Madwin made a direct and free choice to become queer, whereas Frank Aqueno arrived at his queerness through a process of indirect choices in which he was not always made aware of the full range of possibilities available.

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2000 by Gayle Madwin. All rights reserved.