Being Gay a 'Lifestyle' Choice, Like Alcoholism? Politics of Homosexuality Flare in 2010 Campaign

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When Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck was pressed Sunday to explain his belief that being gay is a "lifestyle" choice, he compared it to alcoholism.

"I think that birth has an influence over [it], like [with] alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically you have a choice," he told David Gregory on "Meet the Press." Buck was quick to add, however, that he's no "biologist."

Buck's view -- the underpinning for conservative opposition to broader civil rights for gays and lesbians -- is hardly new. But his comments are the latest this election season to stir up national debate and draw criticism for perpetuating prejudice against gays.

Earlier this month, New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino said he does not want his children "to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option -- it isn't."

South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint reaffirmed his belief that openly gay individuals should not be allowed to work as teachers, and Delaware U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell has stood by her belief that gays suffer from an "identity disorder."

Even senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, lamenting the bullying and suicide of a 13-year-old gay Minnesota teenager in a newspaper interview, suggested that homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice" but later apologized for her "poor choice of words."

The rhetoric is particularly poignant this year given the handful of gay suicides in recent weeks and the brutal torture of two gay teens in New York City.

"When a politician makes public remarks that seem to degrade or devalue a group of people, then he or she is potentially sanctioning a view that says some Americans are inherently less valuable as citizens than others," said Vanderbilt University professor Vanessa Beasley, an expert in political rhetoric.

While the issue of homosexuality has always been politically charged, this year, with a pending repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, California's landmark same-sex marriage case, and a host of other festering state-level issues from gay adoptions to employment nondiscrimination laws, it has drawn renewed interest.

Most Democrats and liberals believe sexual orientation cannot be changed, and therefore gays and lesbians deserve civil rights protections similar to those granted for race and gender. Many Republicans and conservatives tend to believe same-sex attraction is a choice and shouldn't receive the same legal treatment.

"There may still be a residual effect of a recent Republican strategy...to frame homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular as political issues in order to mobilize a subset of politically conservative voters," said Beasley. Some candidates may be "falling back into some old habits -- habits of speech, at least, that seemed to get results just a few years ago -- as it gets closer to election day."

"Yet, the evidence of some public backlash against candidates' anti-homosexual statements seems to suggest that it won't be a good mobilization strategy this year," she added.

Fifty-six percent of Americans believe sexual orientation cannot be changed, up from 36 percent in 1998, according to a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll.

Gay and lesbian advocacy groups say the political rhetoric around homosexuality has also contributed to a culture that condones bullying and discrimination.

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