Born this way

2011-02-18

in Law, Politics, Rants

I don’t really understand why people make such a big fuss over the question of whether homosexuality is something that people are ‘born with’ or whether it is something they choose. I acknowledge that it is a factual question that is interesting to answer, but I don’t see why it is morally significant.

There’s nothing wrong with being gay if it is an inherent part of your biology, and there is nothing wrong with being gay if it is a conscious choice or unconscious response to your experiences and societal context. What makes any kind of sexual activity ethical is the meaningful consent of the participants, not the characteristics those participants have. Similarly, when it comes to the roles couples play within society (including as upbringers of children), I don’t see why sexual orientation has any relevance that justifies different treatment, either socially or under the law.

Opposition to homosexuality seems to be pure prejudice, plain and simple – often religiously motivated. Perhaps that explains something about why people are obsessed with the nature/choice distinction. If you are personally deeply opposed to homosexuality, see others doing it, and believe that it is a choice, you might feel personally bothered or insulted by the choice you think they are making.

Of course, even if you happen to be the parent, priest, or legislator of the person in question, the way they choose to live their romantic and sexual life is really not something you have any legitimate claim to controlling. Other people like things that you don’t. Get over it.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah February 19, 2011 at 5:44 pm

It matters to protection under US law, where they make a big deal about the distinction between identity and behaviour. If being gay is an identity (like sex, or race) then should be a protected ground under Civil Rights (what Canadians would call Human Rights) legal provisions, whereas if it’s a behaviour (like unicycling, or smoking) then it’s something that the state can legitimately decide to permit or allow. The distinction was especially important in debates over sodomy laws in the US, e.g. the 1986 Bowers v Hardwick ruling rested on an interpretation of same-sex sex as a behaviour the state could legitimately criminalize.

Sarah February 19, 2011 at 5:48 pm

To clarify, I’m not agreeing with the US approach that I described above, I’m just contributing my understanding of why Americans think the question is so important. I think LGBTQ advocates in the US are articulating a strategic position that they don’t necessarily agree with, and that all sorts of shortcomings.

R.K. February 19, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Sarah is right. The distinction is important for legal reasons, not moral ones.

Milan February 19, 2011 at 10:03 pm

I can see why the legal status is important, but it still seems overly defensive to me when people argue that someone being born gay makes it more morally acceptable – as though it is a problem in need of an explanation or excuse.

As the legal proceedings around Proposition 8 demonstrate, if you force opponents of gay rights to try to explain exactly what their problem with gay people is, they aren’t able to muster many arguments, or any convincing ones.

Milan February 19, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Gay rights may seem like they are already more-or-less entrenched in countries like Canada, but there is still good reason to press for full equality.

There are also good reasons to actively and openly challenge and rebut the argument that there is something wrong with homosexuality. After all, there are still substantial swathes of the world where it is the kind of thing people get murdered over.

. February 20, 2011 at 12:55 am

Anonymous is now recognised as a serious force to be taken seriously, but its activities aren’t confined to mass global protests, as the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, is discovering, according to p2pnet. Says the Examiner, ‘Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church is infamous for their “Love Crusades,” obnoxious displays of insensitivity and homophobia at the funerals of fallen American soldiers. The controversial if monotone message of the “Love Crusade” seems to be to blame everything that is wrong in the world on homosexuality. The crusades are part of a hate-based mission started in Kansas by the WBC and Fred Phelps.’ In an open letter on AnonNews, ‘We, the collective super-consciousness known as ANONYMOUS – the Voice of Free Speech & the Advocate of the People – have long heard you issue your venomous statements of hatred, and we have witnessed your flagrant and absurd displays of inimitable bigotry and intolerant fanaticism,’ says Anonymous, stating ‘Should you ignore this warning, you will meet with the vicious retaliatory arm of ANONYMOUS.

. February 20, 2011 at 1:06 am

“Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.”

oleh February 20, 2011 at 3:16 am

I had not given the question much thought. However, I think I was at least subconsciously considering that one’s sexuality was something that you were “born with” as opposed to consciously choosing. Your blog has pointed out the inherent bias of this approach. I will consciously try not to consider those distinctions, especially as I generally believe that we are the product of our environments, more than we are who we are through our genetic makeup. Thank you for helping me re-think my own understanding of this issue.

Matt February 20, 2011 at 3:37 am

I think the question of whether one is “born this way” or not is a really interesting one. I get the point you’re trying to make, that from a societal viewpoint it doesn’t matter. I agree.

However from a scientific standpoint, it seems like the question is one that’s worth talking about. I personally know no less than two sets of identical male twins where one is gay and the other is not. If sexuality was genetic, you’d expect both twins to to be the same. That in some cases they aren’t is puzzling. Is it that sexuality is not genetic? Is it that it is genetic but gene expression plays a factor? I would think there’s value in knowing the answer to these questions and not just for sexuality, but for other traits as well.

Sarah February 20, 2011 at 4:53 am

it still seems overly defensive to me when people argue that someone being born gay makes it more morally acceptable – as though it is a problem in need of an explanation or excuse.I’ve never heard someone argue that being born gay made it more morally acceptable, and I don’t think it’s a widely held position, although I suppose some Christian pro-gay rights people might take the view that we’re all made by god and thus being born gay shows that god is ok with it. On top of what I said about it being a strategic issue for civil rights provisions, bear in mind rightwing fears that meeting out gay people or having talks about not bullying LGBTQ kids can turn your children gay – in that context the idea that people are born gay is much less threatening than the idea of choosing one’s sexual behaviour. Ultimately, though, I think US politics on culture war issues makes no sense outside the US – their political and legal framework, and the presence of lots of highly active religious fundamentalists, has led to deeply bizarre positions and campaigns that don’t make rational sense to non-Americans.

Tristan February 20, 2011 at 8:51 am

This debate is almost impossible for us to understand today. If you want to look seriously at the questions of the legality of homosexuality, you could look at the legal moralism debate in the 1950s between british legal scholars such as Lord Devlin and HLA Hart. But, I don’t really recommend this – those texts are basically full of hatespeech.

Tristan February 20, 2011 at 9:01 am

Sexuality is, I think, neither biological nor social. Which is to say, we are all born or find ourselves with certain sexual capacities, which can be developed in various directions depending on our socialization and personal choices. Capacities vary, and socialization varies. Some specific attributes of mainstream western socialization (2 genders, different gender roles, hetero-normativity), are so rigid that it’s not surprising at all that a significant portion of the population can’t/won’t comfortably fit within the categories or assemblages prescribed.

The fact we still go about trying to solve problems by showing they are “entirely” biological or “entirely” social shows how bad we are at dealing with interface problems, and it doesn’t speak very well for the ability of the human race to deal with much more difficult problems – like the coming stresses to civilization as a result of climate change, for instance.

Byron Smith February 20, 2011 at 9:09 am

Interesting discussion.

What makes any kind of sexual activity ethical is the meaningful consent of the participants
I still disagree with this claim. Can I ask for your thoughts on infidelity? Do you need to see the (presumably absent) betrayed spouse as one of the participants to the sexual act in order to claim that their lack of consent renders the activity wrong? Or do you think that infidelity is not morally problematic?

While consent is one factor, I don’t think it can be used as a universal basis of ethics, even of sexual ethics. By the way, I don’t think you do either, given the range of moral arguments you are willing to employ when discussing climate change. Thoughts?

Banksy February 20, 2011 at 11:14 am

“Sexuality is, I think, neither biological nor social. ”

Sexuality must be biological to strong degree. Just look at it from an evolutionary standpoint. The human race would need a certain percentage of its population to be heterosexual in order for it to grow and survive. If it was a choice well then from an evolutionary standpoint it could lead to the dying off of the human race.

What I would say however is that there is no black and white sexual homo/hetero silos. There are alot of grey areas and variations across the spectrum. But there will always be a certain part of the population that will be born heterosexual.

Tristan February 21, 2011 at 7:53 am

I think the infidelity issue can be dealt with by problematizing the resolution of autonomy. Legally, we treat people as individuals (most of the time), so consent needs to be given only on an individual level. However, the decision to pair bond with one other, taken seriously, means that regarding things sexual you are no longer an individual but intrinsically bound-up with your partner. So, to have fully consensual sex outside a marriage considered not as a legal individual but as a partner in a pair bond, you do need consent of the partner.

Milan February 21, 2011 at 8:04 am

Another way of thinking about it is just in terms of the general obligation to honour agreements.

Meaningful consent is always necessary in order for sex to be ethical, but that doesn’t mean it is the only ethical consideration applicable in a particular case. In particular, people can voluntarily adopt additional obligations over and above the universal ones. These include obligations of fidelity (though not all marriages or relationships include that obligation), as well as pledges of celibacy made by those in religious orders, etc.

oleh February 21, 2011 at 9:15 am

Tristan’s and Milan’s comments regarding pair bonding and obligations of fidelity within a marriage make sense to me. Where there is an acceptance of fidelity as one of the basis within the marriage, extra-marital sex would be contrary to that agreement and unethical.

Returning to the original blog, another observation is that one’s apparent sexual orientation can also change. Probably one difference is the importance of sexual orientation as a label we attach to someone. That particular label of sexual orientation probably still carries more importance or pre-conceptions about a person than that person’s political preferences, religious beliefs or preferences for flavours of ice cream.

I think in Canada we are also overcoming placing importance on that label. I remember following from Vancouver the Toronto mayoralty campaign. I had probably read a score or more articles about the leading candidates before I read that one of the leading candidates was gay. This was stated in a matter of fact way. It did not seem to be a factor in the campaign. I was quite pleased by that the sexual orientation of the candidates did not get much attention.

. October 29, 2011 at 10:31 am

Islam deems homosexuality a sinful yet remediable illness. “Read the Koran, fast and marry,” advises one Islamic website. Violence against gays and transvestites is common. Yet the army’s conservative influence is fading. Turkey now celebrates gay pride day—the only Muslim country to do so. Emboldened campaigners are fighting to get gay rights enshrined in the new constitution planned by the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party. Fatma Sahin, AK minister for family and social affairs, has met gay-rights activists even though her party refuses to accept overtly homosexual members.

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