Gays, genes and politics

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).

Southern Voice, a gay newspaper, has some interesting contributions to the debate over whether being gay is a choice or biological (as the issue has been framed).

–they note a recent Gallup poll that found that 42% of adults believe homosexuality is “biologically determined,”

–4 out of 5 of those also believe that homosexuality is “acceptable,”

–only 30% of those who thought it a choice also thought it “acceptable.”

Commenting on this, Christopher Johnson, Human Rights Campaign director of public affairs says:

“Most people who are gay or lesbian can already tell you that sexual orientation is not a choice,” said Christopher Johnson, HRC director of public affairs. “Fortunately, a growing number of Americans believe that, too. Over the past couple of years, that has become a plurality. That’s important because support for GLBT Americans is much higher among those who believe we are born gay.”

This is an inadvertently revealing remark. For Johnson it’s important to believe the “born gay” argument because it leads to acceptance. This is it in a nutshell. What’s important politically is not what the science says (which cannot, or at least so far has not, offered an answer). Does anybody else detect an interesting slippage here that is being exploited? Also that there is a deep misunderstanding and proclivity on the part of people in general about biology (that it’s more “natural”)?

One can imagine a number of different ways of increasing acceptance, including the current one of biological reductionism. The trouble with this approach, I would argue, is that there is neither a guarantee it will work (the poll shows that the majority of adults still believe it’s a choice to be gay), and it comes at a high cost; not only the reductionism–we are nothing but our genes–but in fact that there is little scientific evidence that genes determine our preferences and behavior (though, like Richardson I am not a scientist and can only speak to what I’ve read, eg here and here).

In this light the SoVo article is interesting as it explores some alternative views in the gay community, showing that this issue is not settled there either.

At Queer by Choice for example, there is a whole gay community dedicated to exploring the choice aspect. Others assert the same thing:

Vera Whisman, author of “Queer by Choice: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Politics of Identity,” watched the HRC/Logo debate and said while it was obvious Richardson was unprepared for the question, it was also obvious there was only one correct answer for Etheridge and the other panelists.

“The ally answer is to say, ‘Yes, people are born gay,’” she said. “If people say they choose or can choose to be gay, that’s anti-gay. This is the same conversation we’ve had since the 1990s and it seems we have not moved anywhere on this, at least in the mainstream movement.”

In fact, Whisman contends that insisting “I’m this way because I was born this way” is a weak, and possibly even homophobic, approach to the entire “nature versus nurture” debate.

“Identifying a gay gene is absolutely no guarantee we will have civil rights,” she said. Gay rights supporters can battle anti-gay rhetoric by asserting that “homosexuality is a perfectly reasonable choice to make,” she said.

It’s also worth pointing out that what the science does say is that the binary opposition gay-straight is false (the Kinsey Report), not to mention Foucault’s argument on the construction of homosexual identity by Westphal (see eg, Abnormal, p. 168 and fn. 7).

And it’s not as if the genetic argument is an inoculation against discrimination (genes can be altered or even “fixed”).

Jack Drescher, past chair of the APA’s committee on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual issues makes a good point about all this:

Drescher said he also sees national gay organizations moving away from the biology argument by framing political issues, such as marriage equality, around basic fairness.

“If people are free to choose their religion and are protected I feel they can choose to be gay,” he said.

This was exactly the gist of my post a couple of weeks ago, linked above, about the politics of choice. The significance of this debate lies beyond its immediate context in its implications of the biological reductionist argument on other politico-genetic questions, especially race and racism (Nik Rose has a book on this, though it’s not that great).

I get nervous when we turn to biological arguments for the way we are, or that are used to explain and justify the way we are. Not only for the false naturalism of biology (nature-culture is surely another false dichotomy), but also for justification historically for racism. A intellectual history of race would shed light on this talk of genes and being and make sure we don’t endorse not just the gay gene but the race gene.


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