What’s wrong with this?

Updated.

I’m sorry, but what’s wrong with this answer?

MS. ETHERIDGE: Thank you.

Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?

GOV. RICHARDSON: It’s a choice. It’s —

MS. ETHERIDGE: I don’t know if you understand the question. (Soft laughter.) Do you think I — a homosexual is born that way, or do you think that around seventh grade we go, “Ooh, I want to be gay”?

GOV. RICHARDSON: Well, I — I’m not a scientist. It’s — you know, I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. You know I don’t like to categorize people. I don’t like to, like, answer definitions like that that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else that I don’t understand.

AmericaBlog observed:

Bill Richardson self-immolated tonight on live TV. I haven’t seen anyone fumble a question like this so badly…. Karen Ocamb said there were gasps, and hisses in the audience.

Huh?

The blogs are alight with this “controversial answer” to Melissa Etheridge’s question at the debate last night. Here’s Salon:

Still, no one performed as badly as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who covered himself in flop sweat. Richardson, echoing Obama and Edwards, made sure to emphasize that he understands where LGBT people are coming from, in his case because of his Hispanic heritage. At first he seemed to be the most forthright of the group, saying his opposition to same-sex marriage is because it is not “achievable” politically, while civil unions are. But, when Solmonese asked what he would do if presented with a same-sex marriage bill by the N.M. legislature, Richardson’s position fell apart. Richardson was forced, after a non-answer and a follow-up, to all but concede that one of the places support for same-sex marriage is not yet achievable is in his own heart.

Afterwards, tossed a softball by Etheridge, who asked whether he feels that homosexuality is natural or a choice, Richardson whiffed, saying, “It’s a choice.” Even after an unsubtle hint from Etheridge that, given the audience, he might want to rethink his answer, Richardson was unable to recover. “I’m not a scientist,” he said wanly.

No he isn’t and therefore Richardson is right to emphasize it since he’s being asked about whether homosexuality is biological (not “natural” as Salon put it, thus showing their equation of biology with nature and environment with…?).

Look, I appreciate that for many gays it is politically attractive to label homosexuality as something hard-coded into the genes (and many gays may still honestly believe that there is a gay gene, when there isn’t). Does AmericaBlog (one of my favorite blogs) believe that being gay is all genetic? (To its credit AmericaBlog doesn’t dwell on his answer but provides an informative summary of candidates’ positions–which makes it more confusing why they lead with the “self-immolation” tag).

If Richardson is opposed to gay marriage then attack him for that. But no doubt there are gays for whom homosexuality is a choice, and some for whom it was always a part of themselves. And sexuality is notoriously difficult to put into binaries as well.

I am not a Richardson supporter one way or the other but I just think this is weird. Look again:

I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. You know I don’t like to categorize people. I don’t like to, like, answer definitions like that that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else that I don’t understand.

Do you remember the late interview with Foucault where he says that one needs to work to become gay? Or his whole interest in practices of the self? In what way, tell me, are these different from saying that no one knows if being gay is a mix of environment/culture and biology, in which choosing or embracing being gay might play some role in different people’s lives?

Update.

In case anybody thinks I’m over-exaggerating the reaction of the blogs, consider this headline:

Richardson Apologizes, Acknowledges Outrage At Gay Debate Remark: “I Screwed Up…[The Blogs] Went Nuts”

Click through for the story and make sure to read the nearly 100 comments below which perpetuate a strong bioreductionism:

JGG…”gay agenda”??? WTF…Are you not the least bit aware of GENETICS? How about DNA? Or are you one of those people that do not believe in science? EVERYTHING about the human body is a direct result of GENES…good/bad..pretty/ugly…etc…etc…etc.

7 Responses

  1. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, homosexuality is a choice. Why shouldn’t Governor Richardson take a sophisticated, French approach?

  2. I suggest a French approach: the choice between choice and biological determination has already locked up the subject into positions like I know and want this and I can’t help. There lie the terrorism of mediatic pressure, his inquisitional questioning. And, in front of that, the senator “seems” either the honest attitude of seeing things differently or the double bind born perplexity of the schizophrenic response which is common when one have to cope with solution that are both impossible.

  3. The answer maybe a little waffly, but there are more problems with the question. Perhaps it should be asked why this question is so readily acceptable. As you suggest, it is not a disinterested question.

  4. It’s all political (obviously). But the root of the biological “gayness” idea is to counter those gay reform camp type efforts. Also, gay adoption would be seriously hurt by any claims that it is not “natural” or “biological” because people on the right are bound to start shouting, “Hey, if you give them a kid they’ll gay it up.” Well, at least louder than they already are.

    Truthfully, you can’t make claims that homosexuality is a choice without the other half of the argument, that heterosexuality is also a choice, that they are both equally socially constructed. And any politician that challenges the sanctity of heterosexuality is going to have an uphill battle.

    Besides, even though sexuality is not genetic that doesn’t make it a choice. We all have sexuality forced upon us. And before I forget even the biological argument is not fool proof, there’s been that talk of finding the gay gene and destroying it.

  5. Thanks Rob, that’s a useful summary of the political opposition or resistance there might be to the “choice” answer. There are a couple of things to remark here. First is their equation of “biological” with “natural” which is not only factually wrong but a mistake that is often made in the case of racism.

    For example, it’s common enough to say that there is no biological basis for race (true), but when coupled with many people’s (mistaken) belief that one’s nature is purely genetic, then denies them the reality of their lived, racialised, experience. It’s almost like denying that racism exists. Anthropologists as students of race are always quick to say that race is a real lived experience–and thus is part of one’s nature. So we must resist the inclination there is to equate genetics with one’s nature or with the natural. Any links (such as the purported gay gene) between genetics and behavior or character are reductionist (kind of like those phrenological arguments of the 19th century).

    Is heterosexuality a choice as well? Is it politically a non-starter to say this? Interesting. One would think that in front of a LBGT audience this argument would find some traction, rather than boos and hisses. Perhaps he just didn’t think of it at the time but that would be a perfect clarification he could have issued afterwards. It’s interesting that this view, which I would guess is held by the majority of people who have, you know, actually worked on gender, would be so rejected that a presidential candidate couldn’t say it. But that’s a reflection on the USA not the candidates.

    Finally, let’s revisit the politics of “choice.” Is it not odd that in one area usually favored by the left, that of abortion, the politics are about “choice” and increasing the scope and possibility of making a free choice, when in another area typically favorable to the left, being gay, the politics of choice are rejected? If Foucault has anything to add here, it would be that quote I offered before where he argues the goal is to expand the possibility of choosing being gay, to expand the possibility of what it means to be gay.

  6. I think Jeremy’s last comment here is the best thing I’ve read on the subject. But, in defense of the people who are all up in arms about this, consider that most people outside the academic left have little to no exposure to pro-gay positions that questioning the “it’s not a choice” logic. While it’s been pointed out that the “it’s biological” argument is also easily exploited (e.g. “finding the gay gene and destroying it”), I think few would argue that the structure for homophobic statements based on the choice logic is much more developed at present. And I think it’s pretty disingenuous to say, as the Queer Notes article you (re)posted today does, that the biology argument has been of no strategic value. All this to say, if you’re going to openly question the “it’s not a choice” orthodoxy in mainstream liberal politics, you better be darn sure you know what you’re going to say. Richardson didn’t seem to, and so I think he had it coming.

  7. […] One of the most resonant developments of the Democratic primaries so far has been Bill Richardson’s blurted comment that homosexuality is a choice (see here). […]

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