Lifestyle Choices

Nissan Xterra SUV with a sign in the window saying "This is a rental; I own a Prius".
©Cyndy Sims Parr CC BY-SA 2.0 Flickr
Driving down the freeway, I noticed a bumper sticker on a Toyota Prius that read, “Draft SUV drivers first”. I chuckled at the sentiment even though I thought it was slightly offensive, as any form of discrimination is to me. As I passed the Prius, I noticed that the driver looked like a young stereotypical left-wing college professor you would see in a movie full of awkward stereotypes—the plaid shirt, wire-rimmed glasses, and hair that was red, curly, and slightly receding. I hoped that no strong, SUV-driving ex-military type having post traumatic stress disorder took offense at that bumper sticker, because the Prius driver likely wouldn’t have been able to defend himself. Then an SUV passed me, and I noticed the driver was a slight woman, probably in her mid 40s, wearing a sleeveless dress, gold jewelry, and looked the type who might carry a tiny dog around with her as she shops at Nordstrom. The incongruity between my earlier thoughts of a big bruiser of a man stepping out of a Hummer and decking the college professor, contrasted strangely with the diminutive (but probably feisty) woman in the SUV possibly macing the professor (though I’d probably put even odds on the professor in that confrontation).

After the woman sped on ahead and the professor fell behind, I reflected on the sentiment of his bumper sticker. It was obvious that he, at least jokingly, does not value SUV drivers as much as he, at least jokingly, values drivers of more fuel-efficient vehicles. Is that any reason to wish SUV drivers harm or even death, by sending them unwillingly off to fight in a war?

I suppose that if one is going to discriminate against another class of people, discrimination based on lifestyle choices is preferable to discriminating based on something that can’t be changed.

All SUV drivers who wanted to avoid a draft could simply switch to driving something other than an SUV. Yes, it probably would impact their daily activities a bit, and they would be out some money they wouldn’t have had to spend otherwise, but nothing fundamental about the person would have to be changed. After all, nobody is born an SUV driver or a Prius driver. Such decisions are based on a number of other external influences and internal value judgements, along with market decisions from automobile manufacturers. So, discriminating against SUV drivers, while still discrimination, is discrimination against a lifestyle CHOICE, and avoiding that discrimination is as easy as choosing a different vehicle to drive.

This is very different from discriminating against someone based on height, ethnicity, or handicap. People cannot change their height to avoid discrimination, nor can they change who their parents and other ancestors were. While they might yearn to change the circumstances leading to a handicap, that is impossible. Discrimination based on such immutable factors is clearly illegal in most modern societies, including the United States.

Other types of discrimination are a little trickier. What about a person’s weight? Fashion models are routinely discriminated against for either being too thin (by many in the public) or too fat (by the fashion industry). People with protruding bellies are discriminated against for being overweight. Discrimination can come in the form of rude comments like “slob”, “pig”, “over-eater”. But is a person’s weight a lifestyle choice, or is it an immutable factor in their life? Surely there are people who carry extra weight from eating more food than is healthy and not exercising enough to burn off the excess calories. But there are also many people on life-sustaining medications or who have hormonal or genetic issues that eat and exercise properly and still carry extra weight. While weight may be affected by lifestyle choices, many other factors contribute to it, and for many it is immutable and not a lifestyle choice at all.

What about religion? On the surface, it would seem to be a lifestyle choice. After all, in a typical community, there are anywhere from a couple to dozens of different churches, temples, and other houses of religions at which one may take part in a particular form of religion. In fact, there is nothing that requires anyone to participate in religion at all. Not only that, some people do change religions. Sometimes the change is minor (Methodist to Presbyterian), and sometimes it’s more dramatic (Christian to Buddhism). Despite all of that, courts in most modern societies have ruled that religion is such an intrinsic part of a person’s self-identity that it is illegal to discriminate based on a person’s religion.

Discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersexual (“gay”) people is another issue that seems to be a murky decision for many people. Is “being gay” a lifestyle choice or is it an immutable part of a person? While discrimination against someone for a lifestyle choice (as in the Prius driver and the SUV drivers) is unfair, it’s not really a legal issue since someone could escape discrimination simply by changing their actions. But is that what “being gay” is? Is it really that simple for a gay to escape discrimination by changing his or her actions? If so, then legal protections are probably unnecessary. But if not, if gayness is immutable or an intrinsic part of self-identity for a gay person, then gays deserve every bit of protection that other protected classes of people are (ethnicity, handicap, religion, etc.).

Currently in the United States, and especially here in California, the subject of gay marriage is a hot topic now. People on one side are fighting to keep the “dignity of marriage” and “protect the family” by outlawing the right of gays to marry. I don’t understand either argument.

My parents and grandparents are excellent examples of how to do marriage right. Both sets of my grandparents happily exceeded 50 years together, and my parents are approaching the same number. They do seem to be the exception, though. Today divorce tears apart about half the families in the U.S. Straight men cheat on their wives, straight women cheat on their husbands, kids end up with kids of their own. It would seem that the non-gay keepers of this solemn institution have tarnished the “dignity of marriage” quite nicely. Would gay marriages do better than hetero marriages? Who knows, but it is difficult to see how they could do much worse. One big difference is that straight couples seem to take marriage for granted, and often marry out of convenience or for economic advantage. Gay couples are fighting for their right to marry each other; they don’t take their love for advantage. Gays face public ridicule and persecution every time they say “my partner”. If their love is strong enough to fight through opposition like that, it is hard to see how “dignity of marriage” is diminished.

Likewise, gay couples are often coming together to form new families. Partners often have children from previous relationships. Denying gays the right to marry sends a message to the children that their parents are somehow less valued by society than their friends’ straight parents are. Also, many gay partners seek to have children of their own, just as straight couples do. In all these cases, the gay partners are seeking to build families, to provide their children with two parents, to care for, nourish, and grow their families. It’s very difficult to do that while also facing suspicion, discrimination, and outright hatred simply for being a family that looks a little different from what you see in 1950s television shows. Blocking gay marriage does nothing to “protect the family”, but it does plenty to harm the affected families.

Is “gayness” a lifestyle decision, like driving an SUV, or is it something deeper, something immutable within the person that cannot be changed without drastically altering the intrinsic self-identity of the person?

The first way to analyze that is to reverse the question. Is heterosexuality a lifestyle decision or something immutable? Would a typical straight man or woman suffer nothing more than a moderate impact on their daily activities by becoming homosexual? Would it be as easy for a straight person to switch to being gay as it would be to change brands of shampoo or decide to vacation in Florida instead of Palm Springs? I don’t know anyone who thinks so. Why then should it be any easier for a gay person to switch to heterosexuality?

Statistics clearly show that a very high number of teen suicides are due to matters relating to sexual identity. Surely, if gayness was a lifestyle choice, like attending the football playoffs or the prom, then it wouldn’t be something worth killing oneself over. Taking one’s own life comes from the conflict of realizing you are gay in a world that demonizes gayness, refuses to acknowledge basic human and civil rights to your kind, and is known to physically harm gays simply for being who they were born to be.

What about the anecdotal stories of success in people happily changing from gay to straight after therapy and religion? Well, I’ve never met any such people. The only place I’ve ever seen them is in testimonials from programs claiming to have implemented such changes and on conservative Christian materials that demonize gayness as a disease that needs curing. I have met several happily married straight men and women who have told me they “experimented” with people of their own gender in the past, some even maintaining relationships with such a person for a while, but eventually, they returned to their own orientation. Likewise, most gays in their 30s and older I have met have maintained relationships with girlfriends or even marriages before realizing they were living a lie and decided to end it. It would seem that many people are able to maintain relationships outside of their primary orientation, yet eventually they return to what their own internal compass tells them is right for them.

What about bisexuals? In many ways, they are even more misunderstood and treated like outsiders than gays and lesbians. People, straight and gay, often ridicule them as gays afraid to step fully out of the closet. Others mistakenly think that being bi means being exceptionally promiscuous, since they are mistakenly believed to be sexually attracted to anything, male or female. I had a bisexual roommate and also a couple of bisexual good friends, and talking with them about it, I realized that they face all the same problems as gays, but often even more. It’s not that they are attracted to every male or female they see—they are just as choosy as anyone else about who they date—but rather they are gender-blind when it comes to seeking a partner. However, when they date a person of the same gender, they are discriminated against by a largely homophobic society, and when they date a person of the opposite gender, the gay community discriminates against them. While a bisexual who falls in love with a person of the opposite gender may not have a problem with laws banning gay marriage, if love happens to form between someone of the same gender, gay marriage rights would be very important.

Transgender people also suffer a lot of discrimination. While cross-dressing as “drag queens” and “drag kings” seems to be accepted, or even expected, within the gay culture (especially within the gay culture popularized in movies), transsexuals are often shunned. To clarify, transvestites are cross-dressers, and transvestism does not necessarily align with sexual orientation (many male to female cross-dressers are straight men). Transsexuals are people who often feel “trapped in the wrong body”, such as a man trapped in a woman’s body or vice versa. Those who feel strongly enough about it and have the money for surgery, often undergo surgery to “correct” their gender. This, too, is often separate from sexual orientation, because a preoperative biologically male transsexual who is attracted to men, does not become interested in women after corrective surgery. Was the person ever gay? As an outward male attracted to other men, it would seem so. But post-operative, the person is an outward female and still attracted to men, thus she would seem to be heterosexual now. This is one reason discrimination based on sexual orientation is ludicrous.

Back to gay marriage, if a preoperative biologically male transsexual is legally married to a bisexual woman, what should happen to their marriage after he undergoes surgery and corrects his gender to female? Opponents of gay marriage would argue that, as a now homosexual couple, their marriage should be invalidated. Nothing about their love for each other has changed, nor their love for their children. Yet, only based on gender correction, their marriage automatically nullifies.

Is it a lifestyle choice to change one’s gender? I don’t think so. Changing one’s hair color because “blondes have more fun” is a lifestyle choice. Undergoing months of therapy, hormone treatments, radical surgery, and possible alienation of your friends to match your body to your intrinsic self-identity does not seem to be a mere lifestyle choice. It is surely something much deeper.

As if there is any need to show that discrimination against gay marriage is wrong, consider the plight of an intersexual person. ADAM Health Illustrated Encyclopedia defines intersexual as “Intersex is a group of conditions where there is a discrepancy between the external genitals and the internal genitals (the testes and ovaries). The older term for this condition [was] hermaphroditism”. These are people with both male and female characteristics at a very fundamental level; they are neither exclusively male nor female, but a combination of both. To define marriage as something “only valid between one man and one woman” entirely excludes intersexuals. While religious extremists and marriage traditionalists may argue that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, a genetic condition such as this certainly is not. A law that defines marriage so narrowly is a law that discriminates against a particular class of people with a in immutable genetic condition. It does so by eliminating a fundamental human and civil right—the right to fall in love with a person and marry them.

That Prius owner may want SUV owners suffer for their decisions, but such a desire is not going to harm multiple classes of people for something they cannot change.

Revoking the right or outlawing marriage for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and intersexual people does cause harm. It encourages other prejudice and discrimination against these same people, both in legal matters and in ordinary dealings within their community. It perpetuates hatred and violence by establishing a hierarchy of those who may marry and those who cannot, and thus are not full members of society. It increases the pressure on youngsters or people of any age coming to terms with their sexual identity and discovering they are part of a class of people legally discriminated against. It tarnishes the institution of marriage by making marriage an elitist right that is only available to a self-selected majority. It destroys family values by prohibiting loving couples from coming together as married spouses and raising children in homes full of love, accepted by society as legal and normal.

Too many people seem to perceive gayness as a simple “lifestyle choices” instead of an immutable aspect of self or an intrinsic part of one’s self-identity. Either way, this perception is false, and the courts will eventually rule in favor of protecting a marginalized minority, just as they have done in the past for African-Americans, for religious followers, and for people with disabilities. In time, things will change. The question is how long must we wait? How many more people must suffer discrimination and persecution before that eventual day arrives? And how many people want to go down on the wrong side of history by being in favor of unlawful discrimination?

Join me in the right fight, and thank lawmakers and justices who take the difficult stand against discrimination and express your displeasure to those who don’t. The more people who do that, the sooner rights will be restored here in California and elsewhere.

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7 thoughts on “Lifestyle Choices

  1. Wow You have taken a very tough and controversial subject and really made people think. I love the way you led into it. I do personally know several people who have given up their gay lifestyle after accepting Christ. That does not mean that they are any better or worse than those who have not done so. Every person on earth needs to learn acceptance of others. I suppose that will not happen until the Lord returns. I think way too many people are way to pious. the Prius owner among them. How fitting that Prius and pious are so are such similar words. Oh well, I really just came by to see who you were. A very well put together article and obviously thought out.

  2. @Cathy Couey: LOL! I hadn't even made the connection between Pious and Prius until you mentioned it. Thank you for the compliments, too.

    @Dawn on MDI: Thank you also for the compliments.

    I generally try to communicate in as accessible a way. I know that some vocabulary, like immutable and intrinsic, might cause someone to seek out a dictionary, but I like to communicate certain ideas precisely. Besides, it never hurts to look up a word or two a day.

    As to thoroughness, I think that too many people have tried to reduce this down to an oversimplification. After all, it's far easier to communicate a very simple thought in a :30 second commercial than to delve into all the messy real-life details. But "the devil is in the details" as the saying goes. On the surface, it's easy to ask, "How does keeping marriage solely between one man and one woman affect the civil rights of anyone else?" Diving into it deeper reveals that there's a lot more to it than one might first think.

    I'm glad that my words are encouraging that kind of thinking in others. 🙂

  3. For the most part, I agree with what you write. However, a bit of nit-picking: I don't think the Prius driver's intent was discrimination. I doubt he would have actually supported a draft or would insist on SUV drivers being drafted first. No, I believe the intent of the bumper sticker is simply to point out that if people drove cars that were more fuel efficient than SUVs we might not have gotten involved in this needless war for oil. Very few people actually *need* SUVs, most of them could have gotten by with sedans or smaller cars.

  4. But it wouldn't have made for as interesting a lead-in, would it? 😉

    Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn't really thought about the potential "war for oil" aspects of that bumper sticker message.

    You're also right that a lot of people driving SUVs don't need to drive one. Sure, people who live in the mountain areas or other places with roads in poor conditions, snow, and so on might qualify as "needing" to drive an SUV on a regular basis. If I were to move to the mountains, as I have considered many times, I know I would want to trade in my minivan for an SUV simply for the 4-wheel drive (no 4×4 minivans that I know of). With my work, I have to have the cargo space. I don't know how many boxes of server equipment you could squeeze into a Prius, but I'm certain it's a lot fewer than you could in my van.

    Now if only the "Big 3" U.S. auto makers would realize that the U.S. wants fuel-efficient and/or alternative fuel vehicles like the other two big U.S. auto makers (Toyota and Honda) have, they might not need a bailout offer.

  5. Gay lifestyle is a choice, just as hetero lifestyle, monogamous lifestyle, or any other lifestyle. Lifestyle is choice. Attraction to same sex, opposite sex, etc is not a choice. I am attracted to many women. I cannot help that. If I act on it, though, I have made a choice, and have to accept the consequences (STI's, angry husbands, and most certainly, divorce by my wife.) My choices if I am to avoid these, are to either not marry and play the field, marry and cheat, or stay faithful, sacrificing my desires. We all make choices. My belief that Obama is surrounded by more corruption and scandal than any other incoming President we have had would probably lead to my physical injury were I to voice it in certain neighborhoods. I have to sacrifice what I believe is right to protect myself.

  6. Ian, you have some interesting views that I don't particularly agree with. It is wonderful that we can express those different views openly in this country, and I hope we never lose that right.

    I do think that comparing gay/hetero "lifestyles" with monogamous/promiscuous "lifestyles" is a bit of a stretch. The first grouping is something fundamental about how a person is wired. The second is more likely a factor of choice, experiences, and/or upbringing. The same factors probably led to your opinions about Obama, because I don't think anyone was born pre-wired with an opinion about that.

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