Born Which Way?

The liberal blog Talking Points Memo, always ready to score points against Republicans (a bit like shooting big fish in a little bowl these days), mocks boring presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty for his response to a question about homosexuality and genetics:
Pawlenty told Gregory on Meet The Press that when it came to whether homosexuality was a choice or an innate part of a person's character, "the science in that regard is in dispute" and that it was unclear whether it was "behavioral or partly genetic."

"There's no scientific conclusion that it's genetic," he said. "We don't know that. So we don't know to what extent, you know, it's behavioral and-- that's something that's been debated by scientists for a long time. But as I understand the science, there's no current conclusion that it's genetic."
I've long been an opponent of the "It's not a choice!" crowd, though really my opposition is to the whole way the question is framed, because the choice/not-a-choice dichotomy doesn't make any sense to me, and either side of the equation is perfectly useful to the homophobes.

Thankfully, this point is made in an excellent comment on the post at TPM. There are no permalinks to comments, so you'll have to scroll down to the comment by "kmellis" that begins "Right.  Having a strong genetic component doesn't exclude environmental components and, additionally, this doesn't tell us how much the proportions between the two varies between individuals." The final paragraph of the comment is a good summing up, though the whole comment really deserves to be read:
But I think we've gone past the science into a kind of dogma (understandably, but still) that, as I detail above, has some negative implications that we should think carefully about. It seems to me that now is about the time that we should change our focus away from the genetic argument and fully to the social justice and moral philosophy argument.  We should be going all-in on asserting the acceptability of non-traditional sexual orientation and move away from the inherently defensive genetic determinist argument.
As to the science, I don't have time to get into all that right now, but I'd recommend the chapter called "Sexual Orienteering" in Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young for a start, since it's recent and gets at some of the problems with the studies of homosexuality that have tried to find a "gay gene" or some equivalent.

And I must admit, I prefer Weird Al's vaguely Butlerian "Perform This Way" to Gaga's "Born This Way".


  1. I like the comment. I've read enough paranoid science fiction to fear that the real reason scientist want to find a genetic cause is so they can prevent homosexuality. Why bother, otherwise.

    When this question comes up I want to remind people that we've known skin color is genetic for centuries, even before we knew there were genes, but this knowledge had no impact on racism. We've also known that religious belief is a choice and have known this for centuries. This knowledge has had no impact on prejudice either.

  2. Yup. The whole "it's not a choice" argument makes me head-desk.

    I mean, regardless of the science, the action is by choice. I've yet to put my cock in another guy's arse accidentally, or in some helpless moment of animal lust overriding all volition, just thanking my lucky stars that the prettyboy had consented because otherwise... well, I'd be making that "no choice" argument to the judge. My genes made me do it! And his jeans, your honour -- they were just too damn snug. I couldn't help myself. I had no choice!

    Half the time, we're dealing with a philosophy that thinks the fucking material world is stained with... some fricking cosmic cranberry juice of wickedness called "sin". Claiming to be slaves to that spiritually tainted "base" nature... not gonna help. In their crazy-ass worldview, all natural desire is temptation one must abjure to be virtuous.

    As for the science itself, I may be behind the times, but yeah, last I heard there were known cases of identical twins of differing sexualities, so the best we can argue is predisposition, that some of us have a strong same-sex attraction in place of / in competition with / in tandem with opposite-sex attraction.

    Even if we were talking wholly in place of... so what? I hear there's some indication that psychopathy is genetic, a biologically determined lack of empathy. If I rip someone's head off and piss down their throat for the fun of it, I don't think my being "born this way" is going to cut much mustard with people who think such activity wrong because it fills them with rage and disgust. All we're saying to them with "It's not a choice" is that we've inherited some hideous disorder that makes us prone to doing Monstrous Bad Things.

    "It's not a choice! It's a defect! Eugenecise me, baby, eugenecise me!"

    Decapitating infants. Fucking a man's arse. Marrying outside one's race. It's not whether we have a choice in wanting to do these things that matters; it's whether some neurotic fucktard with a book of decrees shat down from on high by the Easter Bunny has a right to lump all of those together and get in my fucking business just because they can't tell the difference between murder and "miscegenation", homicide and "homosex". It's the fact that their moralistic rage and disgust is sociopathic bullshit in the face of an activity with zero fucking intrinsic ethical dubiety. They have no fucking place limiting our choices here.

    We should be going all-in on asserting the acceptability of non-traditional sexual orientation and move away from the inherently defensive genetic determinist argument.

    Absolutely. "My choice, my fucking business" should be the message. There is nothing fucking wrong with being non-normative in this regard. It's not deviating from some bogus socially-constructed notion of the Divine/Natural Order that's the issue -- the implicit concession every time we defend queer sexuality as OK because it's not unnatural. What's wrong is that very notion -- that difference equals deviance equals transgression.

  3. You write "the choice/not-a-choice dichotomy doesn't make any sense to me, and either side of the equation is perfectly useful to the homophobes." When did you decide to feel a sexual response? Or, in retrospect, what do you remember of the education (formal or informal) that drew out your sexuality? The senseless part of the dichotomy appears to come from crackpot ideas about genetic determinism (good old scientific racism, nowadays trotting around as evolutionary psychology) getting mixed into the issue. It's not how you're born, it's how you grow.

    Nonetheless, there is no reason to think that sexual response to members of the same sex is a choice. It's part of the way the individual grew. No matter whether you perceive it as more or less useful to homophobes, it is nonsense to say that sexual response to members of the same sex is a choice. How ever does it benefit anyone to say nonsense, or pretend that people aren't saying nonsense?

    But even given your pragmatic indifference to truth, is it still correct that both positions in the dichotomy are perfectly useful?
    First, many believers do find the naturalness of same sex responses to be a challenge to their ideas of a just God, which is why the resistance to the idea is so intense even people who should know better get conned into thinking there's really a controversy here.

    Second, but more importantly, since same sex responses are not a choice, not a selection in life's curriculum, then even those who have religious objections have a problem, despite the acceptability of religious bigotry. Which is, since homosexuality can't be taught(not even by a personal tutor,) it is absurd to criminalize homosexuality or censor the arts or forbid marriage.

    It is true that most people are at some level religious and reject reason but the effects of reasoned discourse can still slowly penetrate.

  4. The senseless part of the dichotomy comes from neither side being even remotely adequate to the issues at hand. I said ""the choice/not-a-choice dichotomy doesn't make any sense to me" and you said "When did you decide to feel a sexual response?" I reject both sides of the dichotomy, so why do you think I would then answer a question that comes from one of those sides?

    It's an inadequate frame from which to talk about sexuality (not quite the same thing as "sexual response", anyway). As I have said repeatedly, I think either side of the equation is useful to folks who want to brand anything other than mainstream heterosexual behavior as "bad", for the reasons already articulated here by the commenter at TPM, by Hal, and more quickly by me. The anti-born-this-way reasoning (to use the term loosely) is not based on a considered study of science, they're using whatever happens to be helpful to their cause, as were the folks at TPM who immediately pounced on Pawlenty because he didn't issue the correct (and now Gaga-approved!) response. Pawlenty has to appeal to the conservative base of the Republicans if he has any hope of getting within shouting distance of the nomination, so he's careful to avoid issuing the standard Democratic Party line of "born that way!", because he needs to be able to appease the base that thinks anything other than mainstream hetero behavior is not just "a choice" but "a bad and immoral choice", like voting to raise taxes.

    But biology isn't morality, and there's nothing that makes the "it's not a choice!" claim more or less moral, which is why it's an equally useful argument for people who are beginning with the assumption that anything other than mainstream hetero behavior is at the very best less virtuous than that mainstream hetero behavior. It's the behavior they hate and fear, and the people associated with that behavior, not whether it's a choice. If it's "not a choice", they can just pull out all the old eugenicist arguments. For now, their ideology has congealed around the "it's a choice, and a bad one!" line, and they're going to fight for that ideology because it's what they've got and they don't want to seem utterly inconsistent, though if we started referring to them as "pro-choicers" they might decide to rebrand themselves...

    The liberal "it's not a choice!" line has a long history, too, tracing back to the early-to-mid-20th century with the rise of "cures" for deviant behavior rather than execution, castration, or imprisonment. I expect that's part of why nice tolerant people (who are, in most other areas, in favor of freedom and choice!) latch on to the motto: it's as much a habit as the conservative line, and without much reflection or analysis it gets passed from one generation to the next as a kind of ideological marker.

    That's just the political side of it all. Move more toward the psycho-social and cultural and we have to then start talking about how people identify themselves, what "homosexuality" (or any other label) means beyond just people of roughly the same genital or gender identity getting it on, how discrete moments of behavior become a sense of identity, the relationship between desire and action, the potential for desires to change over time and circumstance, the effects and limits of the language we use to try to convey our feelings, etc. etc. etc. (This is some of what Jordan-Young gets at in showing that the research on hormones, brains, and sexual orientation is incoherent and contradictory -- defining even just "homosexual" proves difficult for metrics.)

    If you want to keep pounding away with determinist glee, arguing for choice or not-choice, go for it. It's not a game I choose to play.

  5. "I reject both sides of the dichotomy, so why do you think I would then answer a question that comes from one of those sides?"

    Honesty. It's not a loaded question, it's just one where an honest answer shows you don't actually have a valid reason for attacking people for calling people who correctly call Pawlenty's comments moronic. I daresay you know this which is why you don't actually respond to anything I posted. Well, you're not required to.

  6. You're missing what the "it" stands for in "it's not a choice." It's not the involuntary sexual response, but rather the constructed sexual identity. Hunger is not a choice, but taste is developed in part by conscious experimentation.

    The "kill it or cure it" motherfuckers can easily parse it as natural-but-wrong when push comes to shove. Repeat: "defect". Ask Eric James Stone about that one. I've even heard fucktarded religious arguments about it being a "trial", again meshing perfectly with the whole temptation neurosis of a mindset in which subatomic particles apparently have energy, location and *sin* as base attributes.

    So firstly, the intensity of religious opposition to the idea is less because it's a theoretical challenge to their philosophy, more because these are *fricking homophobic douchebags* we're dealing with. Sex being natural doesn't challenge their notion that "fornication" is a sin, nor do they argue against such a position because it undermines their faith in a God who says it's wrong; they bridle at "fornication" and all libertine positions that reject their morality because they're inculcated into neurosis. The intensity is a product of emotional reaction. They're outraged by it because it makes them feel outrage. Duh.

    Secondly, there's nothing absurd about criminalizing an activity that can't be taught if one sees that activity as wrong in and of itself. ("But, your honour, I didn't teach *anyone else* to decapitate babies!")

    There is some advantage for them in the emotive button-pushing of the "recruitment" trope, the "but think of the children!" rhetoric, but it's not a rational one, not a matter of bolstering their case with actual logical foundations. It's an emotive strategy used to short-circuit reason; it mimics reasoned argument, but the whole point is to trigger a kneejerk response that over-rides all reasoned argument with irrational panic.

    The "it's not a choice" argument aims to make people accept that a genetically-determined predisposition which one can choose not to act on equates to an essential sexual identity requiring one to act. Even if true, the only way this can be posited as rendering proscription of the act illegitimate is on the basis of a premise that the natural is inherently ethical, that the unethical is such *because* it is unnatural. In other words, Nature reifies Justice -- which would be a design feature, an intelligent design feature.


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