Scott Walker doesn’t know if being gay is a choice—and he’s right

For all his faults, Scott Walker may be on to something when it comes to understanding gay people.

In a CNN interview about whether or not the Boy Scouts of America should uphold their ban on openly gay scoutmasters, the Republican presidential candidate avoided taking a hard stance on a matter unrelated to government policy. However, when CNN’s Dana Bash pressed him for an answer on whether or not he believes being gay is a choice, Walker delivered an unexpectedly enlightened, if not honest, answer.

“That’s not even an issue for me to be involved in,” the Wisconsin governor said from his campaign bus. “The bottom line is: I’m going to stand up and work hard for every American, regardless of who they are.” Not to let him off the hook, CNN’s Dana Bash interjected that in order to “do that properly,” Walker would have to demonstrate an understanding of who people are. He didn’t budge, instead noting that he doesn’t “have an opinion on every single issue out there” and that he still doesn’t know about the nature of gay sexuality.

Walker’s moment of honesty is refreshing, especially within a political landscape where unflinching decisiveness is a baseline expectation. It could leave a voting bloc, or a campaign manager, feeling uneasy when a candidate says “I don’t know” to anything. But the question about the “choice” of being gay is is still the subject of a decades-old identity debate that not even scientific research has answered conclusively.

Believe it or not, Walker is right. He doesn’t know, and neither do we.

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Although he’s honest about his lack of understanding, Bash may have a point, because Walker’s actual policy stances on LGBTQ Americans have been alarming—to say the least. Most notably, Walker has expressed fierce opposition to the Supreme Court ruling on making marriage legal for all couples, calling it a “grave mistake.” Scott Walker promised to push a constitutional amendment for states to decide on their own—a stance his two sons, whose cousin recently entered a same-sex marriage, disagree with. 

How could a presidential candidate possibly campaign against civil rights for people they don’t know much about?

Walker, and others like him, are better off acknowledging that it’s not their place to speak on an identity that they themselves don’t claim. Yet his conversation with Bash may have been an unwitting lesson about how to be an ally to people who aren’t heterosexual. While he probably didn’t mean it to be, his answer is actually surprisingly progressive.

The notion of doing “less talking, more listening” is informally regarded as step one of being an ally to any marginalized community. Doubtful though it may be that Scott Walker is actually listening to his LGBTQ constituents, he at least had the good sense not to rattle off a half-baked answer on a topic he likely knows very little about. And the content of his answer also matters.

The “being gay is not a choice” narrative is a terribly outdated one. It was perpetuated by gay leaders at least one generation ago—at a time when “LGBTQ+” leadership was overwhelmingly white, male, cisgender and gay—during political efforts to encourage mainstream acceptance. If existence of “the gay gene” could be scientifically proven, as some believed, then homosexuality could be considered an intrinsic part of identity, and gays a protected class under the law.

In the early 1990s, when the science of genetics took up this cause in earnest, all the conclusive studies in favor of homosexuality being innate were focused on the genes of gay men. Indeed, we now know that female sexuality is more fluid than male sexuality, as studies have shown that females exhibit greater “erotic plasticity,” while male sexuality tends to remain fixed. So far, none of this scientific work explores other queer populations at all. So the “born this way” argument was born, researched, and upheld only with regard to gay men.

Enter Cynthia Nixon, who tried to share her own, personal queer narrative in a 2012 New York Times profile. Nixon said, “I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better … And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.”

LGBTQ activists crucified her for allegedly dragging the LGBTQ rights movement back three steps, in spite of her well-reasoned clarification: “Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate.”

Walker’s moment of honesty is refreshing, especially within a political landscape where unflinching decisiveness is a baseline expectation.

However, in the years since Nixon’s comments, the broader community has come to adopt more progressive ways of viewing identity. Respecting a person’s right to self-identify has become a priority. Individuals are entrusted with telling their own narratives based on their own personal experiences. Authenticity is valued, in spite of its complexity. The “born this way” argument is no longer serving everyone. For some people, being gay is a choice. For others, it’s not.

And do we really care any more, one way or the other? Data from dating apps and public opinion polls suggest that we don’t care as much as we used to. Plus, as our understanding of gender identity broadens and becomes more fluid, sexual orientation is, by definition, going to become more fluid. There will be more choices outside of gay, straight, or bi, as we move away from the idea that gender is binary.

Is Scott Walker, a straight cis conservative guy, up to speed on queer theory and the progressive queer politics that go along with the academic tradition? Probably not. But that’s exactly why “I don’t know” was the right answer for him to give a stale question.

Mariella Mosthof is the former Entertainment Editor of Styleite, former Senior Editor of James Beard Award-nominated The Braiser, and former news writer at Wetpaint Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter, @MariellaMosthof.

Photo via donkeyhotey/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)