Preference vs. Orientation

This article is pieced together from my contributions to a Usenet conversation back on February 1, 1995. Although I have edited out the bulk of other people’s contributions, the trajectory of the argument is pretty clear.

How do I feel, looking back at this argument more than 20 years later? I wouldn’t write this article today. It’s an interesting and valid argument (if somewhat pedantic) to point out that we generally don’t “choose” our preferences, but there is no value in allowing that kind of philosophical nit-picking to derail valuable arguments about gay rights.

I am leaving my original words below, however, unedited. They are a reminder to myself of where I have come from intellectually and how I’ve grown, as well as a reminder to others that people change and mature over time, and that any life (your own or anyone else’s) should be judged by its trajectory and not by a snapshot.

Sexuality is not a choiceMany people say that sexuality is not a preference, because “preferences” are choices, and nobody ever chooses whether to be gay or straight.

But I don’t recall ever having chosen to prefer foreign films, or to prefer the color purple to the color green.  I don’t recall sitting back and thinking, “I could either prefer the taste of steak or the taste of tuna…. I think I’ll prefer the taste of tuna!”

If you say that your sexuality is not a preference because you didn’t choose who you are attracted to, couldn’t I similarly argue that since I did not CHOOSE to have my favorite color be purple, it is not a preference either?  And since I did not CHOOSE to like the taste of tuna over the taste of steak, doesn’t that mean that it isn’t a preference?

I also prefer industrial music to pop rock, though I never consciously made a choice, it was merely what I happened to like.  I never made a conscious choice about whether I am more sexually attracted to guys taller or shorter than me, yet I am in fact more attracted to taller guys.  In fact, I prefer them.  I also prefer taking philosophy courses over taking business courses, though I never sat down and thought to myself, “Which should I choose to prefer?” and in fact, if I had, and if I could choose my preferences, it would have been more economically viable for me to have chosen to prefer business courses.

These are all counter examples to a plain-text reading of the claim that “preferences are choices”.

Ultimately, of course, all of this debate is bogus anyway. There is no distinction between “nature” versus “nurture”.  All genes need an environment to be expressed phenotypically, so ALL traits are environment-based.  There is
no linear or 1-to-1 relation between genotype and phenotype.  Saying that anything is “inborn” is ridiculous in its extremism — even hair color and eye color are subject to environment, nutrition, etc.


Ultimately, I don’t think this is an issue of huge importance, except that this argument represents a methodological problem for the GLB, or any activist, community on the larger scale of things.

Many activist movements that have shot themselves in the foot by losing track of reality, losing track of good logic and argumentation style, for the sake of activism and pushing an agenda. This happened to parts of the feminist movement, and as a result, some aspects of the feminist movement have lost credibility. When you sacrifice good logic and debate style for an agenda you get statements like “People shouldn’t do scientific research on differences between men and women” which is ridiculous (I forget who, but some major feminist made that statement on TV two nights ago).

Now, this “preference versus orientation” and “choice versus no choice” thing might not be a big example, but I believe it to be an example of this same process in the gay community. Language is usage, and I was trying to show that the original poster’s interpretation of the term “preference” is inconsistent with a lot of normal usage of the word. He was insisting that people not use the word “preference” because it does not serve the GLB community under his interpretation — and making such a BIG deal out of that trivializes the true agenda of the GLB movement and takes away our credibility.

NOW READ: Atheism: were you born that way?

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