Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Born Gay: why it matters.

From the LA Times, a kick-ass editorial by two geneticists:
There was an elephant in the San Francisco courtroom where lawyers contested the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the California law that prohibits the marriage of same-sex couples. One key issue should influence every aspect of the Perry vs. Schwarzenegger proceedings yet remained unspoken: What makes people gay? Is it a choice or is it innate?

....the empirical evidence for the role of genetics in human sexual orientation has been quietly but steadily mounting over the last 15 years. ....The results unambiguously demonstrate that heritability plays a major role in sexual orientation and far outweighs shared environmental factors such as education or parenting.

...critics of sexual orientation inheritance are fond of pointing out that there is no single identified "gay gene." However, they fail to mention that the same is true for height, skin color, handedness, frequency of heart disease and many other traits that have a large inherited component but no dominant gene. In other words, sexual orientation is complex, i.e., many genes contribute...
So why does this matter?
Biology cannot be avoided in determining whether fundamental rights are protected under the equal protection clause of our Constitution. This is because "immutability" is one of the factors that determine the level of scrutiny applied to possible violations and that determine whether gays are awarded "suspect class" status, which would give them more constitutional protection. Heritability is not necessary for immutability or suspect class status (religion is the usual counter-example), but it should be sufficient; we do not choose our genes, nor can we change them.,,,polling data [shows] that people who believe that gays are "born that way" are generally supportive of full equality, whereas those who believe it is "a choice" are opposed.
In the Advocate, a commentator pushes this further, and challenges the political decision not to bring this up strongly in the advocacy for marriage rights.
Eighty percent of voters who believe people are born homosexual vote yes on gay rights. Our strategists intentionally ignore this. Economists call this opportunity cost: what we could and should be doing strategically instead of what we are. It is shocking to realize it, but the “empathy” and “letting people hear our stories” ads that Garden State Equality and the Empire State Pride Agenda use our money to run are, in their political opportunity cost, just as toxic to us as the ads run by Schubert Flint and the National Organization for Marriage. We're being killed by friendly fire because our own people dislike the fact that Bob Schieffer’s question, "Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?" moves voters. So they don’t ask it. 

Okay, but why ignore it? The commentator provocatively suggests,
Homosexuality is inborn. The problem is that this contradicts liberal ideology. The leaders of the gay rights movement are (logically) almost all liberals, and so viscerally opposed to the idea that behavioral traits are innate. Yet those 25 percentage points we get from making voters understand that homosexuality is innate are exactly what will make us win. Result: We've got a serious problem here.
A deliberate decision, he suggests, for political or ideological reasons. He goes further,

What we are doing wrong is simple. We’re failing the Schieffer test. We’re refusing to answer the only question America is asking us. This is political suicide. 

In an interview with Rex Wockner six weeks before voting day in Maine, Jesse Connolly, No on 1’s campaign manager, dismissed the other side’s strategy: "These are the same old doomsday tactics that opponents of equality have been using ... in every state."

In an e-mail to Connolly, Wockner observed, "And those tactics worked in every state."

Connolly: "Question 1 is only about fairness and equality."

Wockner: "'Fairness' and 'equality' are lovely words and beautiful high-minded concepts. But they were beyond useless ... " 

Wockner.... made the cool, ballot-box-math, matter-of-fact observation: "They like us better if we're born gay." And they just do. 

So how would the mantle of biology help counter the arguments used against us? (Used, we must remember over and over again with considerable success).
Schools can't "teach" homosexuality any more than they can "teach" handedness. (Although they can teach understanding and acceptance.) Teachers can't "promote" innate traits like being black or female, and if your TV spots claim they can, it reveals antigay forces to be the idiots that they are.
SO, time for a big change. I am glad to see this brought up--and it's critical to the argument in the Prop8 case. It is well past time to explain that for most gay people, it's not a choice. We aren't a pathology. It's who we are. So stop making such a big deal of it, give us our dam' rights, and let us work together on things that really matter.

Are you listening, Rick Jacobs? Are you listening, Geoff Kors? Are you listening, Jesse Connelly? Are you listening, HRC, EQCA, Courage Campaign?

What are you going to do about it?


Erika Baker said...

I’m not sure that liberals reject the idea that behavioural traits are innate. It’s more that the question is completely irrelevant.
Isn’t what we really argue that it doesn’t matter whether homosexuality is innate or a choice, because it’s not immoral it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.

Our opponents argue that paedophiles would also say they couldn’t help themselves and the only argument here is that the morality of your life depends on the positive choices you make, whatever stack of cards you were born with.

If you argue purely on the basis of genetics, bisexual people like me should never have a same sex partner if having same sex partners was immoral.

Clearly, the findings about people’s opinions being based on whether they believe homosexuality to be innate or a choice mean I will have to re-think my approach.
But I don’t like it because genetics are one thing, morals another.

Jarred said...

I'm with Erika on this. I'm convinced that sexual orientation is an innate, immutable trait. But when it comes to questions of morality or equal rights, it shouldn't matter. What frustrates me is that it does matter, and that's a bitter pill to swallow for various reasons.

IT said...

It shouldn't matter, I agree there....but it does. And not to use it means we keep losing.

That's why much of the Prop8 case was our side explaining that most people don't choose to be gay, and their side claiming that gays don't exist as a group and justifing "ex-gay"

Erika Baker said...

I hear you!
But I hate these tactical games that mean I'm losing my own integrity. And I can't play them.
Once we have full gay rights on the grounds that we can't help who we are, do we then have to have the whole debate again about people like me?
Would I then have to say "I didn't really mean it when I said it was only not immoral because they can't love someone from the opposite sex?"

The argument just has to be twofold right from the start. People are born with their sexual orientation, that's just a fact and has nothing to do with morals.
And no sexual expression is immoral provided it's in a loving, stable adult relationship.

IT said...

But aren't you agreeing, Erika? People are born with their orientation. Once that's taken on board, then They are more likely to understand and agree to allow us our rights.

They are less likely to try to force us into "reparative therapy".

We need to get across to them that People are born with their orientation.

That doesn't mean an either/or; sexuality is not a binary (though the conservatives think that way).

Erika Baker said...

The problem is that whenever I say to people that I was born being able to love men as well as women, those who believe that the morals are derived from the inability to love people of the opposite sex rightly state that I do have a choice and that I have made an immoral choice.

IT said...

The problem is of course the conservative insistence of a binary gay/straight, black/white viewpoint. Sexuality, perhaps especially for women, is far more nuanced.

But, we have to try to win the middle and unfortunately these are the only arguments that will do that.

Erika Baker said...

they can be your arguments and they can be mine when I fight your corner.

But they cannot be my arguments.
Mine will always have to be that I can have emotionally and physically satisfying relationships with people from either sex, and that I have chosen my partner because she is the love of my life, my passtion, my soulmate and my best friend.

My arguments will have to be that it is not immoral to love, that no-one else is harmed - and all those lovely points that came out in your American court case about the emotional damage done to people if they cannot follow their hearts.

It's about love, not about the mechanics of sex - that has to be my argument, even if it's less acceptable to some.

NancyP said...

I find the "born that way" argument a two-edged sword. The public doesn't have a grasp of genetics, and should the "born that way" argument succeed in driving out the "choice" argument in the lay public mind, it isn't such a leap to imagine homophobic religionist or status conscious women (perhaps prompted by their men) opting for selective abortion based on some snake-oil claim that marker X predicts that the fetus will be gay. Conservative evangelical women do get abortions at a rate only minimally lower than Catholics, liberal religious women, and secular women. These women try to travel out of state or plead to have the abortion at a non-standard time or to come and leave through a door not visible from the protester's line - and some such women resume public anti-abortion activism.

The USA has a long tradition of identifying some people as "useless mouths", "unworthy". After all, we were the pioneers in eugenics, not Hitler, who praised 1920s state institutionalization and sterilization of "defectives". Sterilizations by deception or coercion continued long after official policy changed, and were common into the mid-1970s; the targets were poor black or Native American women.

The Civil Rights hero Fannie Lou Hamer was sterilized as a teenager during appendectomy or some such non-gynecologic procedure. She didn't find out until she was still childless after 10 years of marriage.

I think that the USA has the ability to regress, given certain circumstances. 1981 seems distant, but I remember perfectly "respectable" people proposing mandatory segregation of AIDS sufferers AND those believed to be "at risk" (excluding the hemophiliacs, I guess). Those people are still around and running in Presidential primaries (Huckabee). I also believe that Americans would emulate the attitude of contemporary South Asian and East Asian (sub)cultural tendencies toward sex-selective abortion.

Then again, I live next door to Huckabee's state and live in a state with several organized white supremacy organizations, and remember ordinary physicians back in the late 1970s and early 1980s approvingly remembering the days when coerced sterilization of multiparous (black) women on welfare was not punished.

NancyP said...

One other point - even if the public comes to believe that gay men are "born that way", it doesn't guarantee that the public will believe the same about lesbians. Lesbians as subjects have been nearly invisible in the nature vs choice debate, in genetic and neurologic studies, and in the conservative Christian denunciation of LGBTs. I get the impression that either what the chattel thinks is of no interest to the master, or that people believe that the people calling themselves lesbians and bisexual women are merely misled by feminist ideology to refuse to perform proper womanly submission to their men.

IT said...

Good points, Nancy. But the broader argument is that we are not fighting to win over the Conservative Evangelicals; they aren't ever going to be won. The issue is the"malleable middle", the few percent of otherwise reasonable folks who are ill informed and for whom the idea that there is some biological component might make a difference.

NancyP said...

I think that the USA is getting more conservative and more hostile to violations of patriarchal roles - and meaner - over time, and I don't know if the USA will be able to deal with inevitable loss of empire gracefully. "We"* have lost the "can do" spirit, work ethic, and expansive dreams that Americans were famous for in the last century. I believe that there is a level of societal financial distress at which formerly middle class whites, including the "mushy middle" types, will be highly susceptible to scapegoating demagogic rhetoric.

If LGBTs haven't gotten to the point where the majority of people consider LGBTs as being valued people, period, fully welcome in the majority society and in the majority family structure, and worth defending, any argument that allows the majority to see us as "less than" is not a sure protection against scapegoating. "Those unfortunate people just can't help themselves" is an argument that works when people value fairness over anger. When the majority regards LGBTs as defectives, our value as human beings is contingent on majority charity, is an attribute that the majority grants to us, not an attribute inherent in our being. What the majority gives, the majority can take away.

This is all long-range (multigenerational) thinking, and not short-term strategy. There's a lot to be said for the "born that way" argument in the short term, but other approaches also need to be introduced. The majority needs to see that we are equal contributing members of our families of origin and of the general community. Homophobia, from gay bashing to familial rejection/hiding of a gay member to derogatory jokes, has to become publicly unacceptable even if privately practiced.

* "We" equals non-immigrant white mainstream Americans.

Erika Baker said...

If it really is all about scapegoating, and that's a very powerful argument, then the best thing we can do is to live as openly and normally as possible.

My daughter had another friend round for a sleepover for the first time. Another girl who woke up to a household where 2 women sit around in dressing gowns in the morning reading the paper and shoving croissants in the oven.
Another girl who will not be able to sustain the belief that all gays are morally corrupt destroyers of the family.
Another family we will eventually have round for a bog standard dinner evening.

I am continuously amazed at the normalising effect our simply living as we do has on people. My girls, with their determination to invite friends round like anyone else, have unconsciously done more to persuade the middle ground and to melt away prejudice than I ever thought possible.
Certainly more than my years of debating on the blogs has done.