The religious right's
recent media blitz about how gay people can change comes as no surprise
to me. Partly that's because I have a long commute and so listen
to a religious right radio station to keep abreast of their thinking.
And partly it's because I have long thought the strategy used by
the gay rights movement of saying that it's biological is incredibly
lame. In a strange way I agree with the religious right. Of course
it's a choice--how could it not be? We make decisions (constrained
choices, but choices nevertheless) about everything else in our
lives--where we want to live, what we like to eat, how to dress.
So we cannot make a decision about who we are lovers with? Of course
|If that's what it takes to be a lesbian, then all women are lesbians
When I was coming out I went briefly
to a support group for women coming out of marriage. At one point
I asked, "How do you know you're a lesbian?" One woman answered
that she had never felt emotionally close to men and that she always
could talk better with women. Another chimed in, saying she too
had felt that way, that she could only be emotionally open with
women. The rest nodded in agreement.
What's wrong with this picture? Practically
all women feel that way. Every straight woman I have ever known
has felt more comfortable confiding in her girlfriends, felt closer
to them, felt more understood by and able to open up to women. If
that's what it takes to be a lesbian, then all women are lesbians.
The age-old complaint of straight women is that their men don't
talk to them, don't understand their feelings, and don't seem interested
in what they are saying. One of the most common article topics in
magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Woman's Day,
is how to get your husband to open up and talk to you.
Clearly, if the reason
these women felt they were lesbians was because they felt emotionally
closer to women, then being a lesbian cannot be biological.
First of all, since most women feel that way, we would have to say
that most women are born lesbians and that can't be true (except
perhaps on a theoretical level). Secondly, whether you feel emotionally
close to someone does not seem likely to be biological: it seems
much more plausible that it has something to do with the emotional
and psychological characteristics of the person.
that it was biological, appealed to them because it absolved them of guilt
When I replied to the group, "But
all women feel closer to women," the conversation slammed to a halt.
They were not going there. Instead, the line was, "my husband is
a great guy, really he is, it's just that I'm a lesbian--that's
why I have to leave him." Over time, it became clear to me that
these women experienced tremendous guilt over leaving their husbands
at a time when divorce is billed as the cause of all social ills.
So the idea that they couldn't help being a lesbian, that it was
biological, appealed to them because it absolved them of guilt,
and of responsibility for their actions. When I tried to suggest
that they were dissatisfied with the current state of relations
between women and men, their husbands in particular, they could
not think about it because that took away their special dispensation
to feel less guilty about leaving their husbands--the dogma was
they had to since they were lesbians. (Even conservative radio talk
show "psychologist" Dr. Laura approves of gay people getting a divorce
while allowing no other legitimate reason for divorce except extreme
circumstances like battering or alcoholism.)
Biology is evoked all the time to
explain or justify human choices and social patterns. There is a
long history of using biology to justify inequality as inevitable
due to the genetic characteristics of women or people of color.
In general, biological explanations serve to delude people into
believing that they can't help their choices; that it can be no
other way; that their actions are not borne out of human volition
or choice but rather inborn inescapable drives. But while the idea
that if gays can't help it because they are born that way seemingly
might arrive at our acceptance into society, it also diminishes
us as thinking purposeful beings.
Hunger may be biological, but eating M&Ms is a choice
Clearly, there is some biological
element to sexuality, but it is limited to the generic desire for
sex, in the same manner that hunger is biological which leads us
to want to ingest food. But what we end up eating is as varied as
human cultures are; what we are convinced is nourishing varies as
well. And our gastronomical proclivities change over time too. In
the United States, during the first part of the twentieth century,
a healthy and nourishing diet was considered to be one which included
plenty of meat and potatoes; only the poor ate beans and rice and
greens. It has now flip-flopped almost completely, and the tony
restaurants will serve rice and beans long before they will serve
meat and potatoes (admittedly some obscure variety of bean and specially
flavored rice) So while hunger itself, in its most basic state is
biological, the means with which humans have acquired to sate it
vary to a large extent.
Yet, when we crave some food, we
feel it is biological. It seems that our body cries out for bagels,
perhaps. But if we were Maori tribespeople, our stomach would surely
cry out not for bagels, but cow's blood.
In a like manner with
sexuality. I know someone who believes he was born to have a sexual
penchant for wearing lacy silky women's underwear. But, come on,
how could that be biological? Would some random Maori have a sexual
fetish for underwear from Victoria's Secret any more than he might
have a hankering for a bagel with cream cheese and lox? Clearly,
however early in youth this man perceived his sexual proclivity
beginning, there is no gene that codes for Victoria's Secret.
But how can people's
experience be denied? If a gay man says that he was born that way,
how can I deny his experience? First, no one can deny someone's
experience, but people's interpretation of their experience
is what is truly in debate. And I think people's interpretations,
even about their own experience, can be and have been wrong. I had
one friend who was born in Nicaragua and a very committed catholic.
He told me that the reason he was so committed to catholicism was
that he could tell that it was the true faith. I asked him if he
didn't think perhaps growing up in a country where 95% of the population
was catholic might have influenced his beliefs. Absolutely not,
was his answer. I then asked him if he had been born and raised
in Saudia Arabia, whether he would still see the truth of catholicism,
and he was positively certain that, having been raised muslim, he
would still have seen the truth of the catholic religion and changed
I think he is wrong about
his interpretation both about his religion (catholicism is not the
one true religion) and his experience (of course he was influenced
by his culture whether he was aware of it or not). People can and
frequently do underestimate the influence of their culture on their
own beliefs and tastes. So just because people think they
were born a certain way, that is they were that way ever since they
can remember, this does not mean it is true. And I also do not agree
with the increasingly popular compromise position that maybe for
some people it's biological and for others it's not. I see
no convincing evidence or plausible explanations that it is biological
for anyone, I only see that some people feel they know what
its etiology is.
Finally, why do we think
that individual people have more insight into their own genetic
make-up than science has? Just because something feels fundamental
to a person, does that make her an authority on her genetic structure,
able to authoritatively interpret her feelings as having biological
roots? I think not.
In a strange way, the
christian fundamentalists have this right--they believe homosexuality
is a choice people make and that people can choose another way to
live. I cannot conceive of rationally arguing otherwise. Of course
any homosexual could choose tomorrow to reject homosexuality
and attempt to find a partner of the opposite sex. But they don't
want to, it would not feel right, they would be unhappy (why
they think fundamentalists would care about the little detail of
personal unhappiness only reflects their thorough misunderstanding
of the fundamentalist project).
But this is the point.
Homosexuals choose to be homosexuals because something about homosexuality
appeals to them, they like it, they prefer it to heterosexuality.
When this is attributed to biology, any further examination must
stop there. Why do some people prefer same sex partnerships over
opposite sex partnerships? What seems preferable about it to them?
What don't they like about heterosexual relations? That is the rub
right there. What if there are reasons that people reject heterosexuality
and embrace same sex relations? What reasons would people have to
prefer same sex relations over heterosexuality? Calling it biology
does not allow us to even ask the questions.
The truth is, a lot of
heterosexuals don't like heterosexual relations either. When Ellen
came out on the Oprah Winfrey show, she said that she tried having
sex with men, but something was missing, she just didn't feel something
she hoped to feel. What was overlooked in the hubbub was Oprah's
response: she responded, "A lot of heterosexual women feel the same
way [about sex with men]," kind of under her breath and meant to
be taken only as a funny complaint. But it is true that a
lot of heterosexual women are deeply disappointed in heterosexual
sex, or to their thinking, with sex. To wit, the great Ann Landers
survey in which over 70% of women answered that they would prefer
cuddling to "the act," a survey which was taken to mean that women
don't like sex much. No one thought that it meant that these women
don't like heterosexual sex as it is currently played out in the
problematic gender relations between men and women.
The reason fundamentalists think
homosexuals can change to heterosexuality is that they know people
can force themselves to adapt to circumstances which they do not
find particularly pleasurable. And so they resent the assertion
by homosexuals that they must do what feels right; for fundamentalists,
this is giving homosexuals special rights which they themselves
do not have--doing what feels good or right for themselves is not
something they do, after all. So there are millions of heterosexual
women for whom sex does not feel right; they would prefer
not to have it and only cuddle, but they do not follow their feelings
and abstain from sex--they continue to have sex without liking it
much or without getting that "special feeling' that they would like.
This explains the romance novels which so many heterosexual housewives
indulge themselves in--it is what they are lacking in their own
lives. They dream of it, and yet console themselves that it is an
impossibility and so settle for their husband.
It is my suspicion that similar forces
operate for gay men. They don't like being in heterosexual relationships
perhaps because they rebel against the role that straight men must
play to a woman counterpart. They find themselves dissatisfied --it
seems uncomfortable--certainly too stoic and self-restrained. They
prefer being more emotional, more spontaneous, more pleasure-seeking,
so they conclude that they are gay, rather than critique the role
of men in patriarchy. Of course I do not mean to characterize all
gay men as being the same on this count; I only want to suggest
one scenario in which preferring men might occur which comes out
of problems with the expectations of being a straight male and not
Unfortunately, rather than looking
into what parts of sex heterosexual women don't like and what things
they do like (ie., cuddling--does this mean they don't get enough
affection to feel like sex?), many heterosexual women feel that
they simply don't like sex. But what does "sex" mean? It can be
can be many different things. Clearly sex between same sex partners
is very different from sex between opposite-sex partners, enough
so for sizeable segments of the population to exclusively prefer
one or the other. Sex can be construed any way we choose--if we
like more cuddling, then cuddling could be construed to be an integral
part of sex. Sex does not have to be the heterosexually male
model of sex--very little foreplay, cuddling, tenderness or caressing,
followed by intercourse, followed by little or no talking. It could
be entirely different. Sex between women, for example, involves
a much longer time span than heterosexual sex, with more communication
and expressions of affection.
So we have a situation where sizeable
numbers of heterosexuals are dissatisfied either with sex or their
heterosexual relationships or both, and yet think that "that's life,"
sex and relationships are just like that. And then we have a group
of people who are also dissatisfied with heterosexual relations
and think "I'm gay."
The problem with the
biological explanation is it does not allow people to seek to understand
what precisely it is about heterosexual relations they did
not like, what made them uncomfortable, what was unpleasant. Homosexuals
in a way have an edge, because they are willing to have enough imagination
to seek something better when they do not like (hetero) sex. But
they don't have enough imagination to see that they are not alone
in their dissatisfaction with heterosexual relations.
I think that using the biological
explanation is a poor strategy for several reasons. First, it maintains
the current social order (the way heterosexuality is socially constructed
currently) as stable and only gives individual escape hatches to
a small number of people. Calling it biology is a neat way of sidestepping
any critique of patriarchy or gender relations by attributing rebellion
against the current structure to biology rather than dissatisfaction.
Secondly, it does not allow people to think very deeply about why
they choose on thing or another and so helps maintain the status
quo of heterosexual relations. If people could say, heterosexuality
sucks, and that's why I'm gay, then we could begin to see more clearly
that patriarchy sucks, that male-female gender relations suck, that
marriage sucks, etc. Third, it inhibits agency among gay people.
Rather than being responsible for and proud of our choices, it makes
us seem we are helpless pawns reacting to our biology. Fourth, it
keeps other who are dissatisfied with patriarchy or gender relations
from making the choice to become gay. We ought to recruit--we don't
have much of a movement if we restrict new members only to those
"born" to be gay. And finally, it is an exceptionally inadequate
defense against the religious rights assertions that we can change.
We would do better to say of course we could change if we wanted
to, but we don't want to, because it is better to be gay.