The phrase is out of fashion now, but until the mid-2000s it was common for conservatives to refer to homosexuality as a “lifestyle choice”. This view came to be roundly mocked by the left, with Lady Gaga’s hit of the early 2010s “Born This Way” held up as the sane and scientific view. “I was born this way: born sick, yet commanded to be well.” At present, nobody knows what causes homosexuality—nor are we likely to find out, since the matter is so politically sensitive that it is impossible for Western scientists to make an honest investigation into the matter; perhaps it will fall to the Chinese to crack this puzzle.
Whatever the biological causes of homosexuality, the rhetorical treatment of the issue has shifted with wider fashions in scientific and philosophical thought. In the mid-1970s, one of the most popular media homosexuals on both sides of the Atlantic was Quentin Crisp, a bohemian eccentric who wore nail polish and purple hair dye from the 1940s onwards—even if it meant he was beaten up. Crisp lived a marginal life in a London bedsit; he subsisted on a diet of vitamin powders and occasional work as a model; his eventual discovery led him to be lionised in the trans-Atlantic media as a loveable eccentric—a raconteur. Crisp helped to popularise the term “lifestyle” with his book How to Have a Lifestyle; a work not as well-remembered as his main hit, The Naked Civil Servant.
We forget now, because it is part of our vocabulary, that “lifestyle” is a relatively new coinage; its current form dates from the 1960s. Conservatives at the time scoffed at this new phenomenon: “So you’re havin’ chuffin’ lifestyles now is it? Just like that John Lennon and Yono Oko—or whatever her bleedin’ name is.” The term seems to have derived from Adler’s psychology of self-actualisation: he said people had a “style of life”, an expression of their adaptation to the vicissitudes of life. There is an analogy here with the way Foucault’s concept “care of the self”—a reference to classical Greek thought—has mutated through graduate-schooled journalists into the phrase “self care”, a phrase that refers to consumeristic self-indulgence, such as getting a pedicure, and not, as Foucault intended, a return to classical values.
Crisp popularised the idea that his homosexuality was part of his “lifestyle”; he said he chose to be that way—though arguably he referred to his bohemianism, not his sexual preference per se. Conservatives of the time took this at face value: homosexuals, by their own admission, thought they had a voluntary lifestyle.
Behaviourism, Freudianism, and Marxism still had a large influence on Western intellectuals in the 1970s: Kinsey had asserted that sexuality was a spectrum, with a very large proportion of people being “bisexual”, according to his—as it turned out—highly dubious statistics; hence the left tended to defend homosexuality on the grounds of malleability. “Hey man, that’s his lifestyle. You know I think you hate them because you’re a repressed homosexual. You need to loosen up. That’s his trip, man. It’s cool with me. Are we cool?”
From the early 1980s onwards, with the publication of the The Selfish Gene as the inflexion point, Western discourse moved to a more “hard science” approach to social issues. Kinsey, psychoanalysis, and behaviourism were out, genes were in. This shift is a reminder to always treat scientific assertions—particularly those backed up with statistically analysed data—with wry scepticism. The work of Kinsey and others fell into this category; and fashionable intellectuals asserted that “science says most people are bisexual”, a statement that was probably half-believed if at all—although it fitted with the data, as they say. And so the left flipped from homosexuality as voluntary choice—possibly a deliberate choice to subvert capitalism—to homosexuality as an innate biological phenomenon, although they do not take this assertion to its logical conclusion: if it is an innate biological condition, it is an abnormal malfunction.