Letter from Ron Gold

Ron Gold was one of the five original founders of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the USA, and he was the driving force behind the movement that got the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of "mental illnesses" in 1973. In his article "Morality and Homosexuality: Gays Must Take Up the Affirmative Argument," Ron Gold writes that when queer people hear homophobic remarks, "we must stop answering that we're proud of who we are, but anyway we can't help it. We must declare the truth: We have made a moral choice."

As a longtime PFLAG member, Ron Gold has written to the PFLAG National office repeatedly for many years now, asking them to stop promoting the line that people "can't help" being gay. The letter below is his most recent one on the subject, and we publish it here with Ron Gold's permission.

October 5, 2000

Dear Ms. Kingdon:

It has come to my attention that at the end of this month PFLAG's board will be deciding whether or not to revise its position on whether choice is a factor in sexual orientation.  As a long-term PFLAG member and an early gay activist (I was one of the five original founders of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a principal lobbyist for the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association sicklist), I thought I might add my two cents to the discussion.  I'd appreciate it if you'd share my views with the board.

First, about the science of the thing.  My reading of the literature gives me no cause (despite highly publicized research by Simon LeVay and others) to believe that there is any physical, chemical or genetic difference between heterosexuals and homosexuals.  Indeed, I think the current data leads to the inescapable conclusion that all human beings are born with the capacity for both homosexual and heterosexual responses.  Preferences for one or the other seem, in most cases, to be fairly fixed by the age of six, but within the species homosexuality and heterosexuality do not appear to be discrete entities, with preferences running the continuum from exclusivity at both ends to genuine bisexuality in the middle.  Even within individuals there is ample evidence that people can and do change, whether situationally (as in same-sex settings like prisons) or culturally (as in virulently homophobic societies).

So what causes sexual orientation?  My guess is that preferences for one gender or another is much like preferences for people who are dark or fair, young or old, tall or short; imprinted patterns that are usually formed quite early in life.  How these imprints occur has yet to be discovered, principally, I think because the bulk of the research has been looking for "the cause of homosexuality" rather than the cause of sexual preferences in general.  Do we choose our imprints?  No, but we do choose not only whether to act on them but whether our feelings are appropriate for our self-image.  It really isn't too hard to repress feelings that embarrass us or make us feel guilty.  It's a bit harder to try, as I've tried, to expand my imprints beyond young, short, dark men to others I might like just as well if I gave it a chance.

More important than the science in my view is the politics of the thing.  I think it's bad politics to give the radical right a monopoly on morality, and for years I've been trying to persuade my fellows in the movement to emphasize the fact that gay people have made and continue to make moral choices.  We are absolutely certain that our love, and the sexual acts that express it, are as moral as anybody's.  We're not gay because we can't help it—if we thought it was wrong we wouldn't do it—and it is perfectly possible not to act on your homosexual feelings, just like the homophobes say.  They know we could do it if we wanted to, because they have.

Years ago, when I was on the front lines of our movement, I used to do a lot of speaking before straight groups, and I'd frequently say (much to the consternation of some of my fellow speakers) "everybody has homosexual feelings."  Not once did anyone challenge that statement.  On the contrary, what would happen is that everybody would look around to see who was going to argue with me, and when nobody did, they'd breathe a collective sigh of relief.  They weren't the only ones after all.  The problem comes when I tell gay groups that "everyone has heterosexual feelings."  Then I get plenty of argument, and why is that?  I think it's because their homophobia has been so internalized that they can't admit that they chose to affirm their homosexual orientation rather than deny or repress it.  After all, "who would choose to be gay, what with all the prejudice and discrimination?"

Well, another thing that really annoys me about the 'no choice' position, is the built-in assumption that there are no advantages to being gay.  I think we gain a lot from not having to play the 'man's role' or the 'woman's role' in our relationships, and are forced to find what we have to offer as individuals; I think we are required to realize, as we form mated relationships, that personality is not a function of gender; that the people we love, of the same gender, are usually very different from us.  It's easier, I think to get to the real factors that cause problems between us, instead of the 'men are from Mars, women from Venus' hogwash that often prevents heterosexual couples from thinking they can ever understand each other.  I think, in fact, that gay people have a lot to teach the world about the real differences between human beings, that are independent of gender—if we, and the world, would stop thinking that nobody would be gay if they could help it.

So, I don't think we choose our preferences, but I do think it's important that we recognize the moral choices that we've made and continue to make.  And to that end I suggest a minor change in the PFLAG Position Statement.  After "every culture, religion and ethnic group" I'd simply omit the sentence beginning "Their sexual orientation is neither..."  And in paragraph 3, I'd change the phrase beginning "and we recognize..." to read..."and we recognize their expression of love as a natural and moral part of what it means to be human."  (natural and moral for them suggests it isn't for somebody else).

More importantly, I'd urge PFLAG to avoid the "nobody'd choose to be gay" line like the plague, and to emphasize that gay love and gay pride *is* about morality, just like Jerry Falwell says it is, only it's the bigots who fall on the wrong side of the line.  I'd be happy to expand on this if you think any of it is unclear, to speak to anybody who'd like to talk to me, and to write something for the PFLAG newsletter if requested.  And thanks for your attention.  Keep up the good and valuable work you're doing.


Ron Gold

For more of Ron Gold's writings on choice, see his article "Morality and Homosexuality: Gays Must Take Up the Affirmative Argument," reprinted with his permission on Frank Aqueno's Queer by Choice website. Although Ron Gold's view of the extent to which we have a choice differs slightly from those of some QueerByChoice activists (as indeed all the members of the QueerByChoice list have slightly different ideas and experiences about the extent to which we have a choice), it's important to note how much we're all in agreement about the remedy: we must stop using the idea that we have no choice as a way to defend our human rights. The question of whether and to what extent we can choose our sexual preferences (and please note that Ron Gold does use the word "preferences" in the letter above) is a perfectly valid topic for sheer intellectual curiosity, but it has nothing to do with the reasons why our love is good or why we deserve human rights. The reason our love is good is that all love is good. The reason we deserve human rights is that we are human. To assert that our rights or our worth depends on anything other than that is an insult to us.

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