Is it a choice? No. Does that matter? Absolutely.

In the 18 years since I first came out as gay, I feel like I’ve heard discussions on “Is it a choice?” about a million times.

And for 18 years, my answer has continued to be the same:
You can choose your behavior.
You cannot choose your orientation.

People can choose who to date, kiss, or sleep with. They can also choose not to do any of these things.

But people don’t choose who they’re attracted to. Many people have spent their whole lives trying not to be attracted to the same sex. That’s not a choice.

So if we define “gay” as “someone who is attracted to the same sex,” then no, being gay isn’t a choice. A gay person could choose to be celibate or choose to hide what they feel, but their orientation would still be the same.

Pretty clear, right?

But if that’s true, then why are there a few gay people out there who say they “chose” to be gay?

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I’ve seen it happen from time to time; someone will write an article or make a public statement claiming that they’re “gay by choice.” And people freak out: Gay folks get angry, anti-gay folks say, “I told you so!”, and the person in question gets lots of attention for a little while.

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But if it’s not a choice, why would someone say that?

Well, there are a few reasons:

1. They don’t want to be perceived as victims. For some people, saying, “I didn’t want to be this way,” sounds like there’s something wrong with being gay. They don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, so they choose a message that sounds stronger: “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being this way! Actually, I like it! I choose it!” But what they’re really saying is that they choose to embrace their sexuality; they didn’t choose their orientation in the first place.

2. They might have had a unique experience. Some people experience “sexual fluidity” (an orientation that changes with time), or bisexuality (attraction to both sexes). They may mistakenly think this is how everyone feels, and this may actually be what they mean when they talk about “choice.” Of course, even these people didn’t choose to experience fluidity or bisexuality, because someone who isn’t bisexual can’t choose to become attracted to both sexes by force of will. (Many have tried!)

3. They’re conflating behavior and orientation. Often, it’s just a matter of confusing their terms. When you hear such a claim, look for how the person defines “gay.” If they talk about being gay in terms of sexual activity, for instance, what they’re really saying is that people can choose who they sleep with. I agree with that, but that’s not the same as choosing your orientation.

4. It’s psychology. Psychological concepts like cognitive dissonance and the illusion of control suggest that even when events are out of our control, we humans are very good at convincing ourselves that we were in control the whole time. It’s like Aesop’s fable of the sour grapes: “I can’t reach those grapes, but that’s okay, because I didn’t want those anyway. It was my choice all along.”

But imagine people making statements like these:

“I love coconut pie! And I choose to like it, because it’s delicious!”

“I don’t like coconut pie. But that was my choice, because it’s disgusting.”

What would such statements even mean? It’s easy to see how someone who loves coconut pie might believe he chose to love it, but the reality is that if he didn’t already like it to begin with, he wouldn’t have made that choice, would he? (Trust me, there are some foods I really want to love, but no matter how many times I eat them, I still hate them.)

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Anyway, does it really matter if orientation is a choice?

Yes. It does matter. Here’s why.

Around the world right now, there are many people being abused, tortured, imprisoned, and even killed for being gay. A few days ago, I talked to a man whose good friend in Cameroon died earlier this month—starved to death by his family in an attempt to make him straight.

Even in America, where we have it comparatively easy, there are people contemplating suicide because they couldn’t change their orientation, and there are people who have experienced severe psychological and even physical trauma at the hands of those who believed that putting enough pressure on them could convince them to make a different “choice.”

Claiming that being gay is a choice causes two terrible harms: It convinces some straight folks to try even harder to pressure people into making a different choice (such as through Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” legislation), and it says to the gay victims of such abuse that they could have “chosen” not to experience that abuse at any time by just “choosing” not to be gay.

This is wrong. It’s dangerous. It’s deadly.

And it’s just not true.

Yes, if you’re an openly gay man in New York City, I understand that you don’t want people to see you as a victim or to give you equality just because you “can’t help” being gay. I get that. But claiming that being gay is a choice is not the way to solve that problem.

So let me say this one more time.

Yes, you can choose how you live—who you have sex with, who you date, what you wear, where you go, and whether to tell anyone the truth about what you feel inside. You could choose to marry or sleep with someone you’re not even attracted to. Many people do.

But no, you can’t choose your orientation—the unchosen attractions we each have deep down inside. If you doubt that, just read the stories of people who spent their whole lives trying to change.

Because getting this right matters, and getting it wrong could quite literally cost people their lives.