Born this way: where the political meets the scientific

So grad school has really taken a toll on my blogging frequency, huh? The good news is, as I’m studying human sexuality, my posts, while rarer, will hopefully become meatier with evidence and informed opinion and suchlike.

So right now I’m doing preliminary research for a paper which is going to have something to do with the relation between sexual orientation and gender nonconformity in childhood. I still have three days before I need to come up with a coherent thesis, so it’s all terrain-exploration right now. I’ve been reading a sequence of books and articles, from the mid 70s to 2008, discussing the correlation between gender nonconformity in children and homosexual orientation in adults. There’s a correlation, did you know? A pretty darn strong one, apparently.

What is amazing to me, having read mostly political and philosophical writings on gender and orientation, is how dispassionately these researchers present their theories, findings, and analyses. In fact the difference between an article written in 1974 and one in 2008 is much smaller than I would have expected, given the profound social changes we’ve seen since then. It makes me appreciate science, even a “soft” science, for its commitment to evidence and impartial analysis — which is not to say that researchers are unbiased, but there is a world of difference between the language of people who are trying to understand something, and people who are trying to advocate for a particular outcome.

So, quick self-poll for all of you: is sexual orientation primarily determined before or after birth? Is a newborn baby’s future orientation already fixed, or will it be formed later in response to life circumstances? Social liberals are more likely to say that it’s innate; social conservatives more likely to say that it’s caused by post-birth events. I suspect this is more because people perceive “born this way” as an argument for tolerance: we tend to think it’s less acceptable to discriminate against people for inborn traits than for features developed later in life (which, presumably, they had more control over.)

This creates a somewhat sticky situation, though, as we have an unanswered scientific question (how is sexual orientation determined) with a strong political charge. And bad things happen when politics meet science. On the one side, political influence can inhibit or skew scientific research, and on the other, political movements can appropriate scientific findings and use them to appalling ends.

But I think the political interest in this scientific question is kind of stupid anyway. At first, “I was born this way” seems like a strong defense, but it’s really not. A sociopathic killer might have been born that way, but we don’t urge tolerance and advocate their freedom to carry out their homicidal urges just because they were born that way. (Someone could quotemine the shit out of me there, I realize.) “They can’t help it” is really rather a poor and patronizing defense for somebody’s behavior. The appropriate defense for gay rights is “Being gay does not harm society, nor is it wrong by any other moral standard I recognize.” Period, end of story. How someone got to be gay is irrelevant: their right to be gay stands on the fact that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Arguments with those who disagree need to be fought on that ground.

The second anxiety people like me have toward the possibility that sexual orientation might be formed later in life is vulnerability to “reparative” therapy. Reparative therapy as it is currently practiced is abusive and ineffective, and the argument “you can’t change them, they were born that way” should be an effective argument against practicing it. But again, while belief that sexual orientation is malleable is a necessary condition for reparative therapy to be practiced and recommended, I don’t think that strong scientific evidence for the innateness of sexual orientation would stop the practice of reparative therapy entirely. Religion overrides science for lots of people; need I say more?

Ultimately, if orientation is primarily genetic, it opens the same kinds of fears about people trying to control their child’s orientation: by selective abortion or genetic manipulation, for example. As before, the root problem is not where orientation comes from, it’s people’s attitude toward it. No matter where orientation comes from, the question is not so much “could you change it?” but “why would you want to?”

Then we get into questions of social stigma and ease of life and possible reasons why a parent who didn’t have a moral problem with homosexuality would still want a child not to be gay, a question which has its own complicated factors, many of which are addressed in disability activism as well. If one of my commenters wants to jump on that, feel free, otherwise I might get to it another time. For now, I have a paper to research.

2 thoughts on “Born this way: where the political meets the scientific

  1. – “Then we get into questions of social stigma and ease of life and possible reasons why a parent who didn’t have a moral problem with homosexuality would still want a child not to be gay…”

    The major problem I have with this is that I don’t think parents should have the right to make such decisions for their children. (Not disputing the right of a woman to have an abortion – it’s her body and life and stake – but messing with a child that one has already decided to have). To allow parents to make such decisions is essentially to give them “ownership” of the child – which is why I view genetic/physical manipulation of children as a form of abuse. I think healthy parental influence should be limited to providing care and essential boundaries (for safety), and that children should be allowed total freedom within that as long as they aren’t hurting anyone – the same freedom that should be granted to any adult.


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