No, it's not a choice

October 25, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Because Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, managed to change the conversation about homosexuality to a contentious discussion of whether John Kerry smeared their daughter, there was little public discussion about the original question during that third debate: Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?

If you want to condemn gays to hell, it helps to believe they have chosen a "lifestyle" based "simply on the premise of selfish hedonism," as Alan L. Keyes, the GOP candidate for Senate in Illinois, recently said of the Cheneys' lesbian daughter, Mary. For people such as Mr. Keyes, homosexuality has to be viewed as a choice. Otherwise, it couldn't be a sin.

Science tends to dispute the reactionary Mr. Keyes. Researchers theorize that sexual orientation is determined by a complex interplay of factors, including environment, genes and hormones, and is determined so early in a child's formation that it cannot be considered a "choice."

But there is a group of folks in a position to know even better than scientists: parents of gay and lesbian children. Many of them have struggled to understand and to support and love their children no matter what. They have worried about the bigotry their sons and daughters face every day. And they know their children would never have chosen to belong to the most despised group in America.

The Cheneys - ultraconservatives though they are - surely cannot believe their daughter "chose" to be gay.

It took a lot of time and a lot of reading for Frances Cunningham to become comfortable with her daughter's homosexuality. "When she told me, I think I would have been more prepared for her to tell me she had two heads or three feet," said Ms. Cunningham. But, looking back, "I know this has always been part of her."

Ms. Cunningham now says she has not only deep love but also admiration for her daughter, Kecia, a city commissioner in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur and one of a handful of black Georgia elected officials who are openly gay.

Said Craig Washington, a black gay activist: "I think it was more difficult for my father. ... I think there is a particular challenge to a black man when his son presents as gay. I think they first think, `Well, what did I do wrong?' But gradually he came to accept my sexuality as not a failure or a flaw but just as fact."

Having his parents' support, Mr. Washington said, is "a blessing. ... I think in a lot of ways they demonstrate what it is to love someone beyond their comfort ... to love somebody even when they haven't turned out to be what they expected."

Unlike the Cheneys, who remain among the royalty of reactionary politics, many parents who publicly demonstrate their love for gay or lesbian children find themselves alienated from family, friends and community. That is especially true for black families, given the vile homophobia rampant in black America.

It's because of fears of alienation that E. asked that her name not be used, even as she spoke of her love and support for her son. "Not all of our family members know. ... His father still has a very hard time with this. He just doesn't want to hear about it."

Indeed, she says, her son could not at first acknowledge his sexual orientation even to her, denying that he was gay each time she asked. "Finally, I said, `If you can't tell your mother, who could you tell?'"

As she has sought to learn more, E. said, she has heard young black adults who are gay or lesbian speak of their fears of living openly, of being rejected by their parents, aunts and uncles. "That made me think we're just not embracing our children," she said.

Homophobia is the last acceptable prejudice in America. And its perpetrators comfort themselves with the thought that they are simply castigating a group of sinful sexual bohemians - instead of mocking and vilifying the lives of people who happen to love someone of the same sex. The bigots' self-justification doesn't make their bigotry any less cruel. It never has.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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