Eliminating prejudice and oppression is no easy feat. Like viruses, prejudice and oppression mutate and change. They adapt to the times. When you go at them from one direction, they move in another. When you cut off one of their heads, they grow two more.
I have long been plagued by the issue of "gay since birth." You know, the argument that people are born with their sexual orientations intact. According to "gay since birth," sexual orientation is more likely to develop as a genetically predetermined thing than cancer or diabetes, despite the fact that cancer and diabetes are body-centered phenomena, lacking social or cerebral aspects, such as love, longing, desire and depression.
"Gay since birth" is one of the worst approaches to ending prejudice and oppression against gays and lesbians that has ever developed. Which is not to say that I don't understand its origin and appeal. In our natural equals unchanging and therefore moral culture, "gay since birth" alleviates the guilt and affirms the equality of gays and lesbians, personally, while serving as a mighty sword against those who think of non-heterosexuality as a frivolous, vile and antisocial lifestyle choice.
Yet it is precisely because "gay since birth" seems to cure all ills that we should be wary of its use. Let me highlight a few of the reasons why I think "gay since birth" should be shelved for all time, and why we as a community need to realize that our anti-prejudice and oppression work needs to center on change and choice, not biology.
In addition to the fact that there is no definitive evidence that sexual orientation is genetically determined, a host of evidence shows that the nature-versus-nurture aspect of this argument will remain open for some time (probably for all time). There are a number of reasons for this:
First of all, scientific study is not the uniquely objective endeavor that most of us like to think it is. Science, like other fields of inquiry, and especially those that seek to understand the human experience, change with the times. We give science a break, because we believe its intentions to be good and its methods to be pure. But the same science that many gays and lesbians cling to these days to determine and defend their identities not too long ago diagnosed them as pathological and antisocial. And it took a long fight to end the practice of medically treating homosexuality as a cause of mental illness, as opposed to the social treatment of homosexuality, in itself, as the cause of acute depression, anxiety and the rest.
Secondly, the "gay since birth" argument sets up a true/false hierarchy, in which the "true" are gays and lesbians who accept that they've been gay since birth and the false are 100% heterosexual people. In the middle are
- people who identify as gay/lesbian but don't believe they've been gay all their lives or don't know for sure;
- people who refuse to believe they've been gay all their lives and/or acknowledge another "reason" for being gay/lesbian (lesbian feminism in recent decades, for instance);
- and self-identified bisexuals.
All of which doesn't even begin to address how this hierarchy affects/complicates the LGB relationship with trans/gender queer people. For instance, if people are truly "born gay," how, then, can they be born in the "wrong body," as you might hear from a trans perspective. If we're investing in an argument where everything is plain and clear and set from go, what happens to LGBTQ people who don't agree with this analysis or adamantly refuse to fit under its umbrella?
Well, we know what often happens, especially in the case of self-identified bisexuals. Despite most gays and lesbians understanding that it's politically correct to acknowledge bisexuality as a unique and complete sexuality, many (probably most) still deride bisexuals behind closed doors as "gay on the way," or "gay until later," as in straight people who only dabble in gay for a time or in a specific place (e.g. while in college).
And so what does this hierarchical "gay since birth" argument do for us, really?
First and foremost, it's a get-in-line approach, which has rarely been helpful in social justice movements. Anytime you tell people in your community that they should subjugate their differences (of opinion, orientation, whatever) to the greater good, you set the whole movement back. You may not like to accommodate all differences. You may, in certain instances, refuse to. That's not likely to end anytime soon and, in certain instances, that's OK.
For instance, if a community member is murdered in hate, and you want to take to the streets while your friend wants to talk to city hall, you may disagree and take to the streets anyway. Multiple strategies and approaches on that level can be helpful and should be tolerated and encouraged. But when we're talking about the overarching narrative of a community and a movement, of an identity as a whole, there's little room for multiplicity, especially when that narrative is "gay since birth," and by its very logic excludes, derides, and undermines the validity of all those mentioned above.
But don't take my word for it.
The seeds of a conservative response to "gay since birth" that is much more sophisticated and problematic for our community than the denial we're used to (you know, how it's a lifestyle, not in-born) have already taken root. You cut off one head. You get two more. And in this instance, one head accepts as God's will the hormonal "heterosexualization" of embryos identified as likely-to-be-gay, while the other head pits the pro-choice community against the LGBTQ community, which are by no means mutually exclusive.
Check it out. The following comes from Albert Mohler, the current president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the "flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world."
Homosexual activists were among the first to call for (and fund) research into a biological cause of homosexuality. After all, they argued, the discovery of a biological cause would lead to the normalization of homosexuality simply because it would then be seen to be natural, and thus moral.
Why, Mohler, you don't say? It's interesting that you'd open this train of thought. I wonder where you're going with this...
This question stands at the intersection of so many competing interests. Feminists and political liberals have argued for decades now that a woman should have an unrestricted right to an abortion, for any cause or for no stated cause at all. How can they now complain if women decide to abort fetuses identified as homosexual? This question involves both abortion and gay rights -- the perfect moral storm of our times.
The perfect moral storm of our times, indeed. Because when radical, antisocial groups like Mohler and his ilk run out of ways to beat down different groups at the same time -- groups which are all the time recognizing their similarities and building coalitions -- they begin to divide and conquer, pitting groups against each other in more and more creative ways.
Mohler concludes his article with 10 points for Christians (how original) on this issue, all of which can be summarized in his last, most startling point:
10. Christians must be very careful not to claim that science can never prove a biological basis for sexual orientation. We can and must insist that no scientific finding can change the basic sinfulness of all homosexual behavior. The general trend of the research points to at least some biological factors behind sexual attraction, gender identity, and sexual orientation. This does not alter God's moral verdict on homosexual sin (or heterosexual sin, for that matter), but it does hold some promise that a deeper knowledge of homosexuality and its cause will allow for more effective ministries to those who struggle with this particular pattern of temptation. If such knowledge should ever be discovered, we should embrace it and use it for the greater good of humanity and for the greater glory of God.
Now here's the moment when I want to conclude this entry with a big, fat, hopefully self-explanatory Wow. But I've gone this far so I might as well finish my point and hopefully make it clear.
"Gay since birth" is by no means a fool-proof, be-all-end-all approach to our liberty and salvation if the president of a body as large and, despite how we may see it, "mainstream" as the Southern Baptist Convention has already crafted the twenty-first-century ten point plan against it.
Never mind the contradictions here -- that if it's wrong to "play God" by terminating pregnancies it's equally wrong to "play God" by altering the development of a unique human life. To tell you the truth, when I first read Mohler's article, I thought he would conclude with a much more positive message, that "gay since birth" should, in fact, deter like-minded Christians from oppressing gays, since we are all equally created in God's image (which is, by the way, his contradictory point #6).
But when there are larger issues at stake than mere logical authority, all parties are able to twist fact and information to their will. And radical right wingers like Mohler are particularly good at shedding "God's light" on all they see. (A thorough discussion of the many motivations that supersede "correct" interpretations of the Bible, as it pertains to sexuality, war, poverty, etc., would take more than a blog post and can be adequately hinted at by asking you to think long and hard about the makeup of the leadership of the Moral Majority...)
So what does this mean -- are we doomed to fail? Will the radical right succeed in hormonally eliminating any nonheterosexual fetuses from entering the world as such? Will they identify a genetic or otherwise biological predisposition toward heresy and eliminate those traits, if not those fetuses, as well?
Probably they will claim to have identified, in the next few decades, a strong genetic/biological determinant of sexual orientation, though I'll bet that the science will be wrong, or at least incomplete. People will continue, for various reasons, to identify as and experience nonheterosexuality. History, and the many various nonheterosexual formations it has to bear from all cultures and times, is the strongest indicator on that. And what's most likely to happen, should these hormonal modifications begin, is that people who continue to identify as nonheterosexual over time will be even further vilified as freaks and misfits, "illogically denying their salvation and cure." And a whole host of fetuses will be exposed to politically and socially motivated medical treatments, the impacts of which on their lives and bodies and on society at large can only at this point be dimly dreamed.
To avoid this scenario and to avoid this world, we need to wake up and assert the only argument that stands the test of time against oppression and social control. We need to assert that it doesn't matter why we're gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or however else we identify and experience our lives. We need to assert that our sexualities and our gender identities can change, should we want them to, and that we lose no authenticity or power in the process. We need to focus on personal agency and the rights of people to determine their own destinies. We need to say that we should be respected and protected in society in spite of that which makes us seemingly different from one another. We need to ground ourselves in personal liberties, not reasons for persons that cannot change.
We must believe this, ourselves, in order for it to ring true. I'm not saying we should deny our guts when they tell us that we were "born to be" who we are, in the sense that certain forces, factors and experiences bring us to that place. If you feel fixity in your sexuality, embrace it, but stop short of asserting your own feelings of fixity on others, of denying others the validity you so wanted before you accepted that you, personally, had no other choice. Because you do have a choice. You have a choice to live your life the way you want it lived, and you have the right to assert that choice as worthwhile and good.
It may be easy for many of us who feel this fixity to accept "gay since birth" as our mantra and assume that others will either follow suit or benefit, in the end, equally. But we would be wrong. And I hope what I've laid out here will convince you that what I'm saying is true. And if you find me unconvincing, I hope that the cooly diabolical machinations of Albert Mohler and his cohorts will sway you instead.
No argument that shies away from the assertion of personal agency and personal truth will ever truly emancipate you or me. The sooner we realize and accept this, the sooner we set ourselves free.