Saturday, 7 July 2012

''Sing if you're glad to be gay. Sing if you're happy that way": Modern Sexual Identity and an Interrogation of the 'It's biological!' argument

N.B. This article primarily concerns sexuality, so in most cases I mean ‘gay’ in the sense of alternate sexuality (e.g. LGBQQ etc). While the I and T in LGBTIQQ are very important, they fundamentally rest on different issues.

In 1976 when Tom Robinson sang 'Glad to be Gay', it was an intentionally provocative song about police brutality, anti-gay violence and the need for solidarity amongst gay men against broader social oppression. The gay community at the time was largely focused (as they had to be) on the legalisation of sodomy and stopping particular forms of anti-gay violence. As such, one of the arguments put forward for gay rights at the time was that being gay is/was 'found in nature' or 'genetic', a sort of born-with predisposition to homosexuality (or bisexuality etc.). This argument is trotted out time and again, generally not by activists formally but often enough in informal conversation that I decided to write out my strong objections to it.

I for one think this argument was at best useful for a particular purpose at a particular time and at worst is actively harmful to the cause. I am 'Glad to be Gay' for precisely the reason Tom Robinson puts forward implicitly- no matter what anyone else thinks, it is an important part of who I am, not some genetic disease. I want to discuss two controversies that to me demonstrate the absurdity of what I will call the 'biological determinism argument' (for sexuality and associated rights): the search for the 'gay gene' and an absurd controversy over penguins.

Personally, I'd like homosexual (also bisexual, pansexual etc) love and people of all sexualities broadly to be respected not because of any biological reason but because it is the decent human thing to do. I would like to note that it is almost definitely true that sexuality has a biological component (although along a spectrum and with role for social influences). I just don't think this is a good or relevant argument to the continued debate over social and legal rights.

'Sing if you're glad to be gay': The Curious Case of the Search for the Gay Gene
I should first note, scientists can search for what they like, I am not suggesting that any research into the genetic determinants of sexuality should be stopped (actually such papers are very interesting). What concerns me is the obsession in some quarters with stating that there is a ‘genetic predisposition to homosexuality’- yes, this is true but an unhelpful political argument.

The first reason for this is such research is easily used by opponents of gay rights against gay people- for instance when a National Organisation of Marriage (an American group opposed to gay marriage) board member said that “our scientific efforts in regard to homosexuality should be to identify genetic and uterine causes... so that the incidence of this dysfunction can be minimized”. This is particularly a problem when gay rights activists use language that predicates the idea of tolerance on acceptance of this biological argument. Now, this is not to argue that sexuality is so fluid that through some sort of conversion therapy that people would be able to change it. There is significant evidence that sexuality is partly genetically determined and that to an extent it is largely unchanged over a person’s adult life. Regardless, we should allow people to sexually identify how they like- whether that be gay or queer or pansexual or bisexual – because the meaning of the Sexual Revolution broadly was meant to be more freedom not consignment to a Foucault-style cage.

Secondly, this argument isn’t very persuasive prima facie and can even lead to divisions within the queer community. Saying that something is biological destiny isn’t a particularly good argument for legalising the behaviours, relationship and family structures etc. that are associated with that biological predisposition. Take for example, most of the paraphilias (the ‘atypical and extreme’ sexualities e.g. non-human objects or children) – there is some (though conflicting) evidence that such sexuality has a biological component and we should never, ever legalise the behaviour associated with such mindsets. This is particularly true because adults can rationally consent to homosexual acts. To do so would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy- that is to confuse what is biologically with what ought to be morally.

In a similar vein, the reason that homosexuality and bisexuality are socially valid and should be allowed legally is that there is no harm to anyone involved. Even if it were true that people chose to be gay (which I am not suggesting is true), it should still be true that we allowed people to sleep with their own gender and form relationships with their own gender if they wished because that love/those sexual acts are fundamentally not harmful and those acts/relationships bring utility to people. Further, the line of argument has even been turned at times on bisexual people to claim that they ‘just aren’t gay yet’ or are ‘self-hating’, which is to confuse sexuality (and romantic feelings) with an awful, narrow binary between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

But how did penguins become involved, you ask?

‘And Tango Makes Three’: How Two “Gay” Penguins became an Absurd Political Issue

Roy and Silo were two male Chinstrap Penguins at the Central Park Zoo, who in 1998 formed an all-male couple and were eventually given an egg to hatch together by zookeepers after they attempted to hatch a rock. Now, like all penguins they are pretty adorable- but they became mired in political controversy for two reasons: 1) there was a farcical debate between the Christian Right and the liberal Left about whether this situation was ‘moral’ and 2) a (very good) children’s book was made about the pair called And Tango Makes Three.

In the first instance, controversy erupted over whether the pair constituted evidence that homosexuality is found in nature. Now, calling penguins gay is queer in the very old sense of the term as odd, while animals may have homosexual sex (although there is no record of Roy & Silo doing this), this doesn’t make them any more gay than an otherwise heterosexual human male who has sex with a man once. Because animals don’t define themselves they by definition cannot be ‘gay’, merely they might form pairings of the same gender or have sexual relations with members of their own gender. It would be truly bizarre if homosexual behaviour had evolved in penguins and humans for the same reasons- it would more likely be a case of convergent evolution, where the same trait is acquired by different lineages (for example bats and pterosaurs both evolved wings for flying).

But this was nothing compared to the reactions when the couple split up and Silo found a female partner called Scrappy. Focus on the Family declared “for those who have pointed to Roy and Silo as models for us all, these developments must be disappointing. Some gay activists might actually be angry”. Luckily, the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce responded that the “actions of two penguins is not a good way of answering the question of whether sexual orientation is a choice or a birthright”—but to me this demonstrates the danger of this argument.

And then in 2005, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson authored And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book based on the two birds (their chick was named Tango), which was intended to explain same-sex parenting to kids. The point here wasn’t that sexuality was found in nature, as both some pro- and anti-gay groups supposed, it was just a fun way to explain same-sex parenting to kids!

So, as this particular controversy demonstrates any nature-based arguments surrounding homosexuality are quite silly.

I believe that arguments for gay rights should solely focus on the necessity and utility of freedom for LGBTIQQ people rather than commit a naturalistic fallacy of discussing whether being queer is ‘natural’. Because I’m glad to be gay, whether I was genetically made this way or not. 
Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

1 comment:

  1. Great read - this brings to mind the similar danger of buttressing arguments against 'enhanced interrogation' (water boarding etc.) with the notion that such methods are ineffective in obtaining intelligence.

    I hear that line trotted out a lot, and whilst I've never made time to check its validity, I'm more concerned with the fact many well-meaning lefties consider the effectiveness of enhanced interrogation to be a useful aid in their moral argument against the practise.

    Moral arguments don't need propping up with sideshow reasons; to do so is not just dangerous in the event the weight of evidence is somehow reversed, it also detracts from public debate being centered around 'the decent thing to do'.