Let’s say someone brings in a box of doughnuts into my office all in different flavours. As a real chocoholic, I would naturally be drawn to the double chocolate one, and would stare at it greedily as I waited my turn to get one. But then, someone else comes along and takes that double chocolate doughnut before I can get it. I’d have to choose something else less appealing to me, like a plain one – I’d probably still enjoy it, but not so much as that double chocolate one I’d been craving. That double chocolate one would still be in my mind, and I’d feel disappointed about not being able to get it. That disappointment doesn’t help me, in fact it’s a hindrance because it lessens my enjoyment of the plain doughnut, but still I cannot help how I feel.
This illustrates the difference between two concepts that we tend to confuse when discussing freedom of lifestyle – that of “choice,” and that of “preference.” I think that understanding the distinction between the two can help make a better case for freedom of all lifestyles, be they sexual, aesthetic or spiritual.
Sexuality is one aspect of life that it’s often asserted that we cannot choose. In other words, we are born straight, gay, bisexual, asexual or something else, and we are unable to change this.
The idea that one cannot “choose” their sexuality is sometimes contrasted with other so-called lifestyle “choices,” such as religion. Many people seem to have the perception that while one cannot choose their sexuality, they can choose whether or not to follow a particular spiritual path.
I would argue that one cannot choose one’s spiritual path just as one cannot choose their sexuality – both of these are uncontrollable to a certain extent.
That extent reflects the degree to which we can suppress our desires, be they sexual or spiritual – and this is where I see the distinction between “choice” and “preference” comes in. If we are forced, we can choose not to act upon our desires. I myself am a bisexual, and fortunate enough to live in a society where sexual behaviour with members of the same sex is not illegal. This means that I can act on my bisexual desires without any fear of punishment by the state or social exclusion (or at least I could until I got married and chose to commit to a monogamous lifestyle). But if I were to live in a less progressive country, say Britain 50 years ago, I would probably not act upon any bisexual feelings at all. I would probably have repressed any feelings I had towards members of the same sex and stuck to members of the opposite sex. In effect, I would have made a “choice,” but my “preference” would be unaltered. Deep down, I would still be attracted to women as well as men.
I feel the same way about my spirituality. Members of the Pagan and LGBT community are united by the fact that their practises are seen as distasteful by some and downright evil by others, and for this reason many members of both communities are rather secretive about their lifestyles. And for both communities, their lifestyle is not really a “choice.” Pagans cannot help the way their spiritual life makes them feel. We cannot help that we have a deep sense of awe for the natural world and an innate desire to venerate it. We cannot help the fact that taking part in Pagan rituals gives us an incomparable sense of satisfaction and fulfilment. We cannot help that we have certain beliefs and worldviews about the nature of reality. We can certainly choose not to act on these feelings if we are oppressed, but this will not change how we feel inside – it’ll simply make us feel unhappy for not being able to express who we are and live the life we want. Deep down, our “preference” would be the same. Deep down, we would still be Pagans.
This is why freedom of religious expression is so important to me, and why I feel saddened by the fact that so many Pagans feel the need to hide away their beliefs from others. Our lifestyle may seem like a “choice” to outsiders, but for us, it is simply the way we are.