Friday, November 23, 2007

Redux on immutability of sexual orientation

How much does the “sexual orientation is immutable” argument buy, both politically and ethically?

It’s always seemed like punting to me when the Left argues that.

Science has established that a lot of things are in large part genetically or biologically mediated. What do we do about them?

A susceptibility to drug and alcohol addition may be inherited. Now, I personally think that laws making drug use a crime should be repealed, and I buy the idea that these prohibitionist laws just create an incentive for crime. But you can’t deny that for some jobs drug testing or policies prohibiting use are necessary. Obesity may be largely genetically determined (the “thrifty” gene that leads to so much type II diabetes when native populations are given western diets), and it should never be a “crime” to consume junk food, but you can’t deny that social pressure to control weight is appropriate.

Other medical or psychiatric situations might have a biological basis. A good example might be anorexia nervosa. In all of these, traumatic for the families and people, treatment is consuming and expensive and leaves one to ponder the relative severity of the issue and Vatican-like pronouncements that some people must learn to bear some of their own burdens (to "know God") because the problems of others (say autism) are even more severe.

How does sexual orientation compare to these? It’s probably more complicated. The American Psychiatric Association had essentially delisted it as an issue in 1973, at least from an individual's point of view. In the early to mid nineties, author Chandler Burr stirred up debate with his Atlantic article on homosexuality and biology, which he followed with his controversial book from Hyperion/Disney, A Separate Creation, and various research reports (even in Scientific American) followed. Generally, modern biological science supports the idea that it is not very mutable, and less can be “done” about it (than for the other issues above), whatever the ex-gay movement claims. The more appropriate question is, compared to so many other problems, why has homosexuality for so much of history been viewed as a crime, until things started to change about four decades ago. Why does it stir up so much vehement ostracism in some people?

There are a number of factors. People often need relatively simple and straightforward and “absolute” moral codes (often those promoted by religion) to believe in. A “refusal to procreate” sounds like disrespect for human life, extending the arguments against abortion. But it goes deeper than that.

A more important factor seems to relate to the practical demands for intergenerational family responsibilities, mixing in with a need to count on “loyalty to blood.” These responsibilities don’t get created just by conceiving children; in fact, children can help carry these out. Many people depend on family to give them a sense of identity and depend on the loyalty of others. When that is taken away from them, their survival can be at stake. On the other hand, “family” is easy for politicians, demagogues, and men seeking any kind of wealth or power to exploit when they don’t pay their dues.

Homosexual expression offends some people because it comes across to them as a deliberate attempt to avoid sharing the emotional risk (and sometimes random biological risks) and collective identity of normal family life, including the responsibility for and accountability to others than goes with procreation and gender complementarity. Sometimes marginal heterosexual men feel that the presence of male homosexual "values" in the culture around them has been set up to humiliate them and threaten their "performance." The emotional shell providing by the entire set of moral beliefs surrounding marriage (including abstinence before and consummation after and lifelong active sexual commitment “in sickness and in health”) makes carrying out family responsibility much more transparent for many people. Indeed, once family responsibility is expected because of karma or circumstances, it seems a lot easier to fight for other family members if one has one's own children, at least out of one's own adult relationships. (That might justify gay adoption.) Of course, there are obvious questions. What about contraception for heterosexuals? The Vatican opposed that, but the Supreme Court started to recognizing that as part of the right of privacy in the 60s.

The fundamental right of sexual privacy was finally recognized, in effect, for gay people (or for homosexual behavior, whatever your semantics) in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas. That’s a good thing, but there are continuing pressures, towards more social interdependence, that can undermine it. It’s not so much privacy any more in this Internet age as it is expressiveness; the private intimate choices that people make express public values that become known and impact others. We come back to realizing that human behavior is much like the Mandelbrot Set in complex variables in math; diversity buds off, and is very necessary. But the freedom to follow one's own path of difference seems to be coming under increasing threat again as families feel the pressures of harder times and look to make more people share their burdens.

Immutability arguments generally don't work "morally" when applied to destructive behaviors (the drugs and alcohol model); biological inclinations for destructive behaviors are "treated." One can lay aside the "religious right" arguments of the 1980s regarding male behavior and AIDS, and still say that one cannot "treat" an immutable "condition" that prevents some one from otherwise carrying out an expected activity (biological reproduction). That makes homosexuality sound like a "disability" -- this "benign" view was seen as a "moral" justification for keeping gays out of the military in the pre-DADT days (the 1981 policy). It sounds insulting, of course. I agree, I'm appalled by such thinking, even as I must restate it for the record. That's why I think one has to come back to the moral debates about fundamental rights and the responsibilities (some of which have "collective" aspects) that go with these rights.

Update: Dec 1, 2007. The Washington Blade has a stimulating editorial today by Kevin Naff, "Gay rights 101: We must do a better job of educating allies about the discrimination we face," here.

Picture: A polling place for the off-year 2007 elections in Virginia.

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