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Is Homosexuality Genetic or Chosen? Does That Matter? [15 November, 2008]

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In the swirl of Prop 8 madness, and the rush to blame the black community for its defeat, comes William Saletan’s myopic piece for Slate, about “Blacks, Gays, and Immutability.

Saletan uncritically rehashes the idea that blacks voted for Prop 8 because they’re homophobic.  I’m troubled by the patronising tone in Saletan’s piece, which condescendingly argues that African-Americans just aren’t there yet when it comes to understanding the genetics of sexuality.  “From prenatal hormones to genetics to birth order, scientists have been sifting data to nail down homosexuality’s biological origins.  As they advance, it will become easier and easier to persuade African-Americans that being gay is a lot like being black.”

Alex Blaze and others have tackled the racialised overtones of the furore by white gays who blame African Americans for Prop 8, so I won’t rehash their work.  I’m primarily interested in the nature vs. nurture issue that Saletan raises in his piece, one that comes up a lot in gay organising.

Why does the question of whether we’re born gay or not matter so much to Saletan/us?  Well, because, according to Pew: “Belief that homosexuality is immutable [is] associated with positive opinions about gays and lesbians even more strongly than education, personal acquaintance with a homosexual, or general ideological beliefs.” In other words, people are more likely to accept gays if they think their sexuality is genetic and not a choice.  In other words, if it ever turns out that we flagrantly, and without a care for decency and decorum, choose our sexuality...we’re dead meat.

But, really, why the bloody hell does it MATTER whether someone chooses to be gay or not?

Let’s take a hypothetical situation.  You’re two gay men who’ve lived together for over twenty years, raised a son, and own a house.  One day, you both decide that you’re really straight.  Maybe it’s just that something stirred inside both of you, or maybe you just chose to try something new.  What will our community do to you?

The Gay Union will send in stormtroopers to get rid of anything - elegant drapery, spectacular floral arrangements, Baccarat crystal, eighteenth-century sconces, the elegant and never dowdy heirloom needlepoint pillows - that might serve as evidence of your shameful lie.  As for your kid -- the one you thought was the classic son of gay men, with his delicate shyness; deeply ironic humour; louche elegance; and the ability to spot a fake Luis Vuitton bag from a block away?  Inauthentic.  Merely the son of two straight men who happened to stumble into good taste.  Your gay union card, the grey metallic one, with an embossed pink triangle?  Shredded.

In effect, your gayness will be foreclosed.  You will be stripped of your designer duds and banished from your turn-of-the-century fixer-upper that you fixed up so well, wearing nothing but the cheap cotton shirts and no-name mall jeans worn by ordinary men.  No more Verbena-scented triple-milled French soap for you.  No, no, no.  Yardley’s Lavender soap, found at your local Walgreens for $1.49, is the closest you’ll ever get to that experience.

Let’s stop asking whether we’re born gay or not.  Because there are real consequences to placing so much of our self-worth and our politics on other people’s decisions to think more or less of us based on how our sexuality is determined.  We keep asking questions about whether or not we’re born gay, and allowing ourselves to be defined by them, without asking: So what if someone chooses to be gay?  Do they get fewer rights if they choose?  Are they less deserving of our collective protection?  What the hell does “gay” mean, anyway, in a world where a lot of us, including supposedly “straight” people, define ourselves in ways that defy “normal” categories?

The idea of justifying our existence based on scientific evidence of our gay genes only reiterates a pathological model of gayness and, let’s face it, a revulsion towards queer sex.  After all, when someone says, “I’ll tolerate you/give you your rights because I know you can’t help being who you are,” what they’re really saying is, “Ugh, I hate that you put your cock where it doesn’t belong and/or your lips where none should go, but that’s okay - you’re just a genetic freak.  But if you actually chose to do all that, I’d be justified in stripping you of your rights.”  How is this progress?

Scientific knowledge is crucial to our understanding of how the world works.  Consider the example of Sarah Palin: that’s your brain without scientific knowledge.  But scientific knowledge, especially when it’s related to issues like sexuality and race, is itself hardly always an objective, um, science.

When Saletan writes triumphantly at the end of his essay that “being gay is a lot like being black,” he conveniently forgets that blackness has never been an immutable category, especially in the United States, embedded as it is in an intermingled history of slavery and the rights to land ownership, among other things.  Race can be both a category we seek as an identifier of authenticity, for historical and cultural reasons, and a category imposed from the outside.

Let me be clear: I’m not asking that we “embrace the diversity of all our LGBTQ brethren.”  I’d like us to be much more clear than that.  Our protections under the law ought to come about because everyone else deserves them as well, not because we’ve had to justify ourselves as the purest and most authentic of the lot.  And not because we want to obtain “a place at the table” of the privileged few.

I know that someone is bound to jump up and say, “Aha, yes, that’s why we deserve the rights of marriage!”  So let me be clear, again: Let’s stop asking, “Why can’t we get married to get those special rights and benefits that straights get?” Instead, let’s ask, “Why should marriage be the sole guarantor of rights and benefits?”

And when straights and gays ask, “Is homosexuality genetic or a chosen lifestyle?” our answer should be clear: “It doesn’t matter.”  That question, of course, puts a different burden on us.  We actually have to start thinking about what does matter to society at large, not just to ourselves.

Originally published on The Bilerico Project, 15 November, 2008

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