Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Gay Genes" Aren't Enough

On November 3, 2009, the voters of Maine vote to see if they will uphold the law which allows same-sex couples to get married. Back in April, an 86-year-old WWII veteran named Philip Spooner made a speech to Maine's Judiciary Committee supporting gay marriage; recently, the video of his speech has been rushing through the internet (here it is if you haven't seen it yet). To quote the part that got a standing ovation:

I am here today because of a conversation I had last June when I was voting. A woman at my polling place asked me, "Do you believe in equal, equality for gay and lesbian people?" I was pretty surprised to be asked a question like that. It made no sense to me. Finally I asked her, "What do you think our boys fought for at Omaha Beach?" I haven't seen much, so much blood and guts, so much suffering, much sacrifice. For what? For freedom and equality. These are the values that give America a great nation, one worth dying for.

This is a plea for the rights of homosexuals on the grounds of freedom, equality and human decency. In my mind, this is the right way to do it. The wrong way to do it is to make the case that homosexuality is a biological phenomenon.

The reasoning looks like this:

1. Homosexuality is not a choice but determined by biological factors (genes).
2. If homosexuality is determined by genes, then a person cannot be held accountable for his or her desires. This is especially true since nothing can be done about the desires.
3. As a natural and immutable phenomenon, homosexuality should not be judged on moral grounds.

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? I thought so, once, but now it strikes me as naive.

Once upon a time and long ago, I read a rather interesting short story.* In it, someone had discovered that homosexuality was biological and had developed a treatment for it. Unlike the Ex-Gay Groups of today with an acknowledged lack of success this was a Scientifically Proven Literary Device which did, in fact, cause homosexual characters to become heterosexual with no side effects. Though it was never illegal to be homosexual or engage in homosexual activity, the social stigma of having a disorder which could be successfully and painlessly treated led to nearly all homosexuals taking the treatment and becoming heterosexual. Infants were screened as a matter of course and treated whenever they were found to have the gay genes. The story focuses on the last homosexual man in the world, at the deathbed of his lover.

It is a poignant story about love and fidelity, as well as the isolation caused by being stigmatized for who you are when there is a painless way to "treat" the "aberration". It is also, due to the Scientifically Proven Literary Device, fairly optimistic. Most of the homosexuals took the treatment and were able to lead fulfilling lives as heterosexuals. Once the main character died, homosexuality would become nothing more than a disorder for which infants could be successfully treated. It would have gone the way of the dodo.

Let me paint a more likely scenario. Let us say that the so-called "gay gene" is discovered. Likely it will be a suite of genes that reveal a higher likelihood of homosexuality developing (I'm setting aside the idea of a sexual continuum for simplicity's sake). Prenatal screening for the gay genes becomes possible but it's unlikely that there will be any "treatment". What happens? In some cases, nothing. In others, abortions. Don't think it's likely? Consider sex-selective abortion, where female foetuses are aborted because they are female. Or perhaps I should bring up the personal anecdote of one of my lab mates. Her mother was pregnant relatively late in life with my lab mate and wanted to do prenatal testing. The doctor said he would only allow the screening if the mother promised to abort the foetus should the foetus show signs of having Down Syndrome or some other disorder/defect, as though simple information gathering was not a sufficient reason to do prenatal screening. (Her mother refused.)

Now, I am a firm believer in a woman's right to choose whether to bear a child or not and, even if I disagree with her reasons, I don't get to tell her she can't make that choice. The point I'm making is that the choice to abort is not made in a vacuum. It involves making a value judgement on whether a woman wants to bear a child with certain characteristics. Social pressure makes some abortions more sympathetic (or even desirable) than others and, furthermore, there can be a stigmatization of women who choose not to abort foetuses that are somehow "defective" or "wrong".

I don't want to turn this into a discussion of the morality of abortion and choice. I simply want to use it to point out that having a biological component and being natural is no shield to the belief that something or someone is undesirable and generally inferior (for more on this by far more eloquent people, check out FWD/Forward, a blog by feminists with disabilities). The fight for gay rights and dignity can't rest solely on the biological battlefield - it needs to be fought on the grounds that, morally and ethically, it is wrong to treat non-heterosexuals any differently from heterosexuals.

For that, Mr. Spooner, I salute you.

* I no longer remember the name of the story, nor the author. If you happen to recognize it and can send that info to me so I can update this post, you get brownie points.


  1. Not to mention that arguing that being gay is genetic and there is "nothing you can do about it" wanders closely into the territory of being able to say "I can't control my desires for x, y, z! It's genetic!". Where x, y, z can be things like rape, child molestation, bestiality etc.

    Also, that story (as paraphrased by you) cheapens the relationship between two gay people as though being able to avoid the stigma is worth more to those people than being with the person they love (and plays directly into the stereotype of the non-committed, sexually promiscuous gay).

  2. I don't think it just cheapens the relationship. It does emphasize the pressure that can be put on such a relationship and how it can possibly strain such a relationship to the breaking point, especially when there is a "healthy" alternative.

    But I get what you're talking about. I haven't seen any good data on "gay genes" and, to be frank, I'm relieved.

  3. If a kid noticed that the forks at your house aren't the same as the ones they have at home, they might inform you that "your forks aren't PROPER forks, you know".

    Arguing about what forms of sexuality are "natural" by talking about genetic evidence.... Strikes me as being about as useful as arguing with that kid about what forms of fork are "proper" based on The History Of Utensils.

    There are lots of different kinds of forks, kid. You gonna eat or what?

  4. But that fork could make you stab your sister in the head! Because it's an evil fork!

    Ahem. Silliness aside, there is a lot of talk about the genetic basis of different forms of sexuality. And, hey, maybe some interesting stuff could come out of that. It's just that we have all of this baggage that we need to deal with first before we can treat that genetic info as anything other than "neat stuff we've learned."

  5. I don’t think you go far enough when you say, “The fight for gay rights and dignity can't rest solely on the biological battlefield…” In my opinion, the fight should not happen on a “biological” battlefield AT ALL. Introducing a “nature/nurture” argument to a discussion of gay rights leads into a philosophical dead-end.

    I cringe whenever I hear someone say, “You should accept me because I was born this way.” People who say that are implicitly agreeing that some cosmic force puts people in their proper place at the moment of their birth.

    That is not the path to liberty. It is the theological foundation of feudalism.

  6. I think the nature/nurture dichotomy can be detrimental to discussion, but largely because it's often presented as a dichotomy. I think that biology has a place and that to fail to acknowledge it can be just a detrimental. For instance, feminists who relegate sex to biology and gender to social construction are really shooting themselves in the foot because the two are linked and pretending otherwise is an artificial construction. Failing to acknowledge any biological components of homosexuality means that you have to deliberately ignore aspects of something for which you are arguing.

    I will note that I cringe right along with you with the argument "You should accept me because I was born this way," both for your reason and because it naively assumes a biological inevitability which somehow serves as moral grounds for acceptance. Few things are entirely biological inevitable and it shouldn't be grounds for morality at all. Unfortunately, we tend to apply morality/bias/what have you on biology.

  7. I've had this debate with various people over the years. I have yet to see a single piece of data that convinces me that gay-ness even MIGHT be genetically influenced. It seems pretty clear from the data that exists that it's a developmental issue (for example, studies have shown that gay males are more likely to have multiple male older siblings). At the moment, it looks most likely that there are NO genetic factors involved in determining sexuality. That could change with further study, but I'm skeptical.

    Plus, as people have mentioned above, it's entirely beside the point. If sexuality is developmental rather than genetic, does that make it a CHOICE? No more than we can choose other aspects of our personality. And even if it WAS a choice, does that change the moral implications? Again, I say no.

  8. I haven't seen any convincing data that being gay is genetically influenced either, though I suspect part of the problem is the search for a "gay gene" which leads to the direct manifestation of homosexuality. My suspicion is that if there is ANY genetic link to homosexuality, it'll be in a large suite of genes which indicates an increased potential for homosexual tendencies.

    In other words, nothing of use in the moral debate.

  9. Right, because to have "gay genetics" would really mean that you would likely need to have gene A, which up-regulates process X moreso than genes B, C and D. And then you would also need the following possible genes over here and another possible set over there...which ends up leading to "needing" several genes together to "make" someone gay.

    This, of course, has amusing (to me anyway, but I like to laugh at people) implications for someone who happens to have the first correct sequence of genes but is missing one or two other ones. Again, all this assumes that "gay" is a binary condition as opposed to a spectrum.

  10. Erm, sort of? Often when people say "gay genetics" they mean "Genes which lead to clear changes to biological processes/mechanisms which lead to homosexual behavior." That's not what I'm suggesting.

    Instead, I'm suggesting that, if there's any genetic connection with homosexuality, it will be a correlation between certain alleles (which is, incidentally, the word you want rather than "gene", Shi no Megami) and homosexuality. That correlation will account for some percentage of homosexual behavior. That is, if you have said suite of alleles, you'll be 5% more likely to be gay. Or something. And that percentage changes based on which alleles you have/don't have.