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No One is Born Gay (or Straight): Here Are 5 Reasons Why
March 19, 2013 6:23 PM   Subscribe

The Social In(Queery) Blog presents a criticism of the "born this way" paradigm.

Their postscript is an elegant summation:

"Ultimately, the terms set forward in the public debate about this subject–biology versus “choice”–are quite limited, mainly because “choice” is not the most useful term for describing all of the possibilities that sit apart from biology. Several social, cultural, and structural factors can shape our embodied desires and erotic possibilities. The fact that these factors are not physiological in origin does not mean that they aren’t coercive or subjectifying, resulting in a real or perceived condition of fixity or “no choice.” We know that social factors also become embodied over time. And yet, I remain somewhat committed to the concept of “choice”–or something like it–to describe the possibility of a critical and reflexive relationship to our sexual desires. Personally, the idea that I don’t have control over who or what I desire is a big turn-off to me, so I am constantly pushing back on what feel like the limits of my own desires."
posted by nakedmolerats (118 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Also: recently)
posted by gwint at 6:36 PM on March 19, 2013


The refutations, such as they are, presented in the "The Science is Wrong" sections are unconvincing because they don't really attempt to refute what I would think are the relevant empirical claims: the study mentioned in Part 1 is not about sexual orientation, and while Part 2 makes some good points, it seems inclined toward sophistry (which the entire piece suffers from, to greater and lesser extents) and also does not refute the assertion that people have sexual orientations which are for most fixed at some early point. It does, unfortunately, seem to conflate sexual acts with sexual orientations, which strikes me as specious.

Later in the post, I thought the assertion that "just because you have had homosexual or heterosexual feelings for as long as you can remember, does not mean you were born a homosexual or heterosexual" was kind of condescending (the idea being that people's experience of their own sexuality via personal history is inherently unreliable? that's a frightening and analytically-questionable argument to make) and non-demonstrative of the refutation advertised.

The author provides a neat introduction to thinking historically about sexuality and correctly notes that "sexual orientation" is a relatively recent way of categorizing people. However, noting this does not prove that people weren't primarily attracted to one or another type of person before the historical period in which we started insisted that people be so categorized.

I agree that human sexuality is a lot more complex than the gay/straight binary, and that emphasizing the importance of categorizing sexual orientations is a recent and significant socio-political trend which should not set the terms of our understanding about sexuality, and that such trends generally shouldn't either, but this article doesn't really show that sexual orientation itself, understood as relatively stable sexual interest in a particular type of person, is not real. I don't know what makes people gay or straight, but to argue that people are not seems to fly in the face of the vast majority of peoples' lived experience. I guess almost everyone could be wrong about themselves, but I find it hard to believe and this doesn't convince me.
posted by clockzero at 6:38 PM on March 19, 2013 [26 favorites]


They said all the things I think.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 6:38 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


For instance, in high school and early in college, my sexual desires were deeply bound up with sexism. I wanted to be a hot girl, and I wanted powerful men to desire me. I was as authentically heterosexual as any woman I knew. But later, several years into my exploration of feminist politics, what I once found desirable (heterosexuality and sexism) became utterly unappealing. . . Does this mean that your daughter may decide to be a lesbian if she takes some women's studies courses? Yes. Whatcha gonna do now?!

Oh, for pants' sake.

I've hated the patriarchy and loved men for as long as I can remember. I remember being a teenage girl, reading Alison Bechdel and Ellen Orleans, waiting for the Gay Fairy to come and take my heart away to a world with no boys in it. But alas, it was never to be, because being feminist does not make you a lesbian. Does she want to help write Jack Chick tracts here, or what? Why is that so much more appealing than being a bisexual person who's been at different places in her life?
posted by Countess Elena at 6:45 PM on March 19, 2013 [79 favorites]


but this article doesn't really show that sexual orientation itself, understood as relatively stable sexual interest in a particular type of person, is not real.

I don't think they're arguing that it's not real, they're arguing that it's not necessarily true, or at least not true as a grand theory, that every gay person is born with some innate gayness.

The author says in their postscript that "The fact that these factors [social, cultural, etc.] are not physiological in origin does not mean that they aren’t coercive or subjectifying, resulting in a real or perceived condition of fixity or “no choice.”
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:46 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've always said that whether gayness (or left-handedness or depression or...*) is inborn or not was interesting from a scientific point of view but irrelevant to legal arguments about equality, and I stand by that. But if using the 'born this way' argument brings a few more people to the right side of the fold, hey whatever. I'm not picky about why people take the right side, just that they do.

*I've always positioned myself on the 'nature AND nurture' side of the argument on just about everything but I'll be the first to admit that I'm neither a scientist or a proficient layman
posted by jonmc at 6:54 PM on March 19, 2013 [23 favorites]


I'm gay, happily so, but I like to think I have some degree of choice over my sexual expression. People choose to be monogamous all the time and that's not "natural", in some basic sense, but we do it anyway. Some extraordinary people choose celibacy. I could imagine choosing to have sexual relationships with women. It'd be a struggle, I don't think I'm naturally oriented or inclined that way, but it's not impossible. OTOH I know a lot of men who did surpress homosexual desire for years, got married and had kids, and only came out in their 50s/60s. They're a lot happier now.

The primary reason "born that way" is such a tenet of gay rights is it puts us in the category of minorities who "can't help it", like racial categories. But that's not the only basis of civil rights in decent society. Why can't I be treated equally for making a legitimate, harmless choice about who I love? We grant civil rights to people in the US on the basis of religion all the time, and no one is genetically born into any particular religion.
posted by Nelson at 6:55 PM on March 19, 2013 [41 favorites]


In 2013 somebody is still talking about the gay gene? Next we will be talking about the missing fossil links and that evolution is just a theory.
posted by francesca too at 6:55 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, here's something from the article that creeps me out now that I come to think about it.

Personally, the idea that I don’t have control over who or what I desire is a big turn-off to me, so I am constantly pushing back on what feel like the limits of my own desires. For instance, I went through a period of pushing myself to date femmes because I had some good reasons for being suspicious about why I had ruled them out from my dating pool. When it felt like I could never be nonmonogamous, I made it a goal to at least try . . .

As someone who has tried for years to want only what she should want, I can tell you that it is no damn way to live. (And what of those lucky souls that she was "pushing" herself to date so as not to be too counter-revolutionary?) Sure, I don't like the fact that I can't control the kind of people I'm attracted to. I also don't like the fact that I have random black hairs on my neck and that my parents are going to die someday. It's the human condition. It's dukkha. Living peacefully with it causes the least pain.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:57 PM on March 19, 2013 [20 favorites]


but this article doesn't really show that sexual orientation itself, understood as relatively stable sexual interest in a particular type of person, is not real.

exactly. Don't know if it is or isn't stable, but this is a weak showing. It shows some flaws in studies, but that's not the same as proving the negative.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:58 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Terrific. Another article telling me I'm doing it wrong. Just because it's from 'my side' doesn't make it any less annoying, or unpersuasive.
posted by gadge emeritus at 7:01 PM on March 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


In 2000, a team of researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a study in which they found that lesbians were more likely than heterosexual women to have a “masculine” hand structure.

So... my right hand has a "masculine" structure while my left hand has the "feminine" structure. I learned today that my right index finger is shorter than my left index finger. Does that make me bi, asexual, or conflicted? Well, now I know what my next AskMe will be. But I'll just cut to the chase and get a therapist.

But no, I think people are attracted to who they're attracted to. Some of this is innate and some is through experience, but that doesn't mean "born that way" is a fallacy. It might be more correct to say "people don't have control over who they're attracted to and we don't really know why" -- but really, in terms of politics, not a big difference.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:01 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


“There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo -- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.” Gore Vidal
posted by 445supermag at 7:03 PM on March 19, 2013 [21 favorites]


Personally, the idea that I don’t have control over who or what I desire is a big turn-off to me

Sounds more like a kink than an evaluation.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:04 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, this is exactly the disbelief I get from my bi friends. They're usually less judgmental about it, though.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:05 PM on March 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


I am about as socialized gay as any straight man I know. I grew up in a gay friendly atmosphere. I haunted a gay bookstore in my teens. As a young adult, I was in a homeless shelter set up for gay and lesbian teenagers, and most of my fellows were male hustlers. I participated in ACT-UP and Queer Nation protests. As a playwright, half of my plays have gay characters as their main characters.

If I had an inkling of being gay, I would have acted on it. I have never had the desire. So, in my case, I really was born this way. I was cursed with inflexible straightness.

That being said, I know not everybody was, and many people exist on a spectrum of sexuality far more fluid and flexible than mine. Out of respect for them, I neither presume they cannot help who they are or that they should.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:07 PM on March 19, 2013 [21 favorites]


Why can't I be treated equally for making a legitimate, harmless choice about who I love?

Yeah, I've been feeling for a while that "Who gives a shit?" is a more compelling assessment than "Born this way".
posted by Jimbob at 7:08 PM on March 19, 2013 [62 favorites]


Hmmm...I wonder what it's like inside someone else's body? All I know is what it feels like to be in mine. I hold out the possibility that there are a whole bunch of ways, reasons and factors that might lead me to sleep with that guy over there, or the woman who just sold me a beer. Or both.

Seems like chasing rainbows to try to be definitive about this question, no?
posted by salishsea at 7:10 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you really like cheddar cheese, could you be trained to dislike it? If cheddar cheese conversion therapy failed most of the time, would that mean that love of cheddar cheese is a biological trait?

(Also, her criticism of the "science" of sexual orientation is that it assumes homosexuality is a well-defined trait. You may very well have found a group of women with long ring fingers, but how did you verify they were all "homosexual" i.e. what kind of same gender sexual behaviour passes muster and what biological reasons do you have for that distinction? This is a problem with most sociobiology when it comes down to it...)
posted by ennui.bz at 7:19 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Overly monogamous culture is full of bisexual people choosing only one partner. News at 11.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:21 PM on March 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't think they're arguing that it's not real, they're arguing that it's not necessarily true, or at least not true as a grand theory, that every gay person is born with some innate gayness.

That's fine, but they don't demonstrate that it isn't true or prove that it's not. I'm not disagreeing with their central claim, I'm merely observing that they don't argue it effectively.
posted by clockzero at 7:22 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Personally, the idea that I don’t have control over who or what I desire is a big turn-off to me, so I am constantly pushing back on what feel like the limits of my own desires

See, this is a choice. She's choosing to "push" her orientation in particular ways in hopes of making her sexuality conform to her chosen values. It would be like eating a food you don't care for in hopes of making yourself like it, because you've decided you should be the kind of person who likes that food.
posted by spaltavian at 7:28 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Can't beat jimbob's pithy comment, but: I well remember the exact instant I decided my partner - genetically male - was someone I wanted to please, and I did it. There wasn't any titanic flip or anything; I didn't feel special or different when I woke up with her the next morning except for the fact I'd gone through a Formidable Wall and found it to be very weak and not much worth worrying about. If I was Born Like That, so be it. If not, fine. Doesn't matter. Love trumps plumbing, news at 11.
posted by jet_silver at 7:29 PM on March 19, 2013


If an identical twin is gay, the other twin has a 50% chance of being gay -- higher than fraternal twins, but obviously not 100%. That seems to suggest that sexual orientation is not all about being born that way.
posted by shivohum at 7:30 PM on March 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Did we not have a thread talking about this relatively recent study about epigenetics and homosexuality?
posted by restless_nomad at 7:36 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Wow, that was offensive. I consider myself bi, and knew I was bi when I was 8. My dad is gay, and told me he was gay when I was 16. I have at least 4 cousins who are gay, all on my father's side. I'm a pretty strong believer in some sort of genetic disposition.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:39 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


If an identical twin is gay, the other twin has a 50% chance of being gay -- higher than fraternal twins, but obviously not 100%. That seems to suggest that sexual orientation is not all about being born that way.

or that biology is more complicated than genes.

Thing is, from pure anecdotal experience, there seem to be people who are hard-wired to be attracted to one sex and, even if they really really want to, cannot stop themselves from being attracted to that sex and/or make themselves be attracted to the other sex. And then there are lots of people whose orientation is somewhere in that big fuzzy middle, and then there is a degree of choice. Personally, I regret my choice not to explore my queer side more when I wasn't in a monogamous hetero relationship. But I know other people who are not only oriented very strongly to one sex, but actually find the sex they aren't attracted actively unattractive (as opposed to just being neutral about it).

I'm down with the "who the hell cares what consenting adults do or who they want to form relationships with," and really no one should tell anyone who they can or cannot marry any more than the government should tell people that they can't have inter-religious marriages (religion being obviously a choice). But the preponderance of evidence is that for a great many people - gay or straight - orientation is not a choice.
posted by jb at 7:40 PM on March 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Well, this article has accomplished something. This heterosexual cisfemale is now very worried about her fingers.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:45 PM on March 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


But the preponderance of evidence is that for a great many people - gay or straight - orientation is not a choice.

Oh I definitely agree with that. But I don't think anyone really understands the environmental influences -- familial, peer-based, cultural, and so on -- that contribute to sexual orientation, or, for that matter, to any facet of sexual attraction. Why are some people attracted to particular shades of hair or particular personalities? Where do fetishes come from exactly? Mysteries, in the main.
posted by shivohum at 7:48 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


So... my inability to decorate without wood paneling, tin signs and gun racks is a choice?
I dress in flannel because I like looking like a Scotch-Canadian billboard for lumberjacking?

I smell like a campfire in a hardware store when I step out of the shower. Explain that.

Being hairy isn't a choice. Sure we can choose to shave or not. But explain why I choose not to.
I mean, I'm wearing a full beard. It itches unbearably. Sure it keeps my face warm, but too warm when I'm inside (conventionally inside, like not a garage or cabin). I get bits of food stuck in it. I taste soup three times (which sucks). I taste beer twice (which...well, yeah it's ok), third time I suck it up and I get a mouthful of iron wire hair.
Everyone thinks I'm 20 years older and the airport people automatically frisk me. I can't go hunting without 20 assholes shouting "Duck Dynasty!" at me.
And this guy means to tell me I grew the damn thing on purpose?

I don't buy any of it. I do not choose to own a chainsaw. I do not want to watch other men use a backhoe or jackhammer. I am genetically drawn to these things.
C'mon, no one would genuinely choose to sit through a James Bond movie. I've seen them all - all of them. And by that I mean all of the ones that matter which discounts a lot of the Roger Moore and Brosnan ones. And somehow I know that the one's I've seen are the "right" ones to have seen and the others are the "wrong" ones, and I have no explanation for that.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:49 PM on March 19, 2013 [13 favorites]


"Born this way" is a first order approximation. Whatever else we might say about orientation, it's not like deciding on a hairstyle. It's not a decision you made one day. That's not just politically convenient, it's true.

If you want to go to a second order approximation and start talking about epigenetics and social construction that's fine, and probably a closer approximation to the truth. It doesn't make "born this way" false. By analogy, general relativity provides a better description of the solar system than Newtonian mechanics but we still teach Newton in high school.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 7:50 PM on March 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


The fact that these factors are not physiological in origin...

Umm. They do realize the brain is part of your physiology, right?
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:51 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


A related AskMe: Research supporting that homosexuals are born homosexuals. It's chock full of info!

I recommend watching the 2008 BBC documentary, The Making of Me. In it actor John Barrowman "sets out to unearth what the latest scientific research can tell him about the origins of his homosexuality." He travels to different science centers in Europe and the U.S and meeting with the scientists who are focused on this question. It's compelling what the studies show. -- Video: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6.

Also watch CBS NEWS | 60 Minutes: The Science Of Sexual Orientation
"There are few issues as hotly contested — and as poorly understood — as the question of what makes a person gay or straight. It's not only a political, social, and religious question but also a scientific question, one that might someday have an actual, provable answer.

The handful of scientists who work in this under-funded and politically charged field will tell you: That answer is a long way off. But as Lesley Stahl reports, their efforts are already yielding tantalizing clues. One focus of their research is twins." [video]
There's also PBS | Frontline: 'A Gay Gene?' The documentary looks at various studies, such as those conducted by neuroscientist Simon Levay who has been doing research on brain structures and sexual orientation for quite some time. Dr. Levay's website.

Articles of interest:
Gay Twin Brothers May Hold Genetic Clues. [Previous AskMe on the topic]

Homosexuality and Biology.

A Single Gene Answers Question Of Sex.

The Big Brother Effect.

Homosexuality Linked To Genes.

A Genetic Theory Of Homosexuality.

Male Homosexuality Can Be Explained Through A Specific Model Of Darwinian Evolution, Study Shows. Previous FPP on the study.
Also, take a look at the animal kingdom at large:
The Fabulous Kingdom of Gay Animals.

The Gay Animal Kingdom.

Gay Animals: Alternate Lifestyles in the Wild.

Gay Animals Out of the Closet.
A first-ever museum display, ‘Against Nature?’ opened in October 2006 at the University of Oslo's Natural History Museum in Norway, presenting 51 species of animals exhibiting homosexuality.

Another previous AskMe: Biological evidence for homosexuality?
posted by ericb at 8:10 PM on March 19, 2013 [32 favorites]


I got no dog in this fight. But I will say that sexual attraction is not contained in neat hetero/homo divides.

I AM convinced, however that most of the hardcore "gay is a choice" crowd are so vocal because they have been attracted to the "wrong" sex at some point in their lives and it scares the shit out of them. Shakes their ethos to the core.

In other words for them "gay" was certainly a choice, and they will be straight as an arrow until kingdom come, no matter where their passion lies.
posted by Max Power at 8:13 PM on March 19, 2013 [11 favorites]


Just because Gore Vidal said it, doesn't make it true.
posted by QuietDesperation at 8:23 PM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


What does it mean if you like mild and medium cheddar cheese, but not sharp cheddar? Obviously it has to do with being breast fed or not. Makes as much sense as anything else in this blog article. I'm with jet silver---love trumps plumbing. As well, I think Max Power has hit the nail on the head--the most vociferous of the anti-gay/"gay is a choice" crowd are scared shitless of their own sexual drives.

Countess, 'oh for pant's sake' is my new expletive.

Now for pant's sake can we they stay out of other people's bedrooms?
posted by BlueHorse at 8:34 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


the original article links to this really interesting post on possible advantages in being gay - and disadvantages to being straight

I don't know if I would go so far as to claim that being straight is worse than being gay (I think the headline is just an attention grabber). But she does have some really good points about how being gay isn't always a disadvantage.
posted by jb at 8:36 PM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't know that anyone claims that everyone has a sexual orientation fixed from birth on one gender.

I don't think it's possible to falsify the hypothesis that some people have a sexual orientation fixed from birth on one gender.
posted by straight at 8:38 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never met anyone who thought orientation was a choice. It was just something that happened. Until an adult told you it shouldn't have.
posted by SPrintF at 8:51 PM on March 19, 2013


The immemorial, seemingly ritualized debates on nature versus nurture take place against a very unstable background of tacit assumptions and fantasies about both nature and nurture....

To the degree--and it is significantly large--that the gay essentialist/constructivist debate takes its form and premises from, and insistently refers to, a whole history of other nature/nurture or nature/culture debates, it partakes of a tradition of viewing culture as malleable relative to nature: that is, culture, unlike nature, is assumed to be the thing that can be changed; the thing in which "humanity" has, furthermore, a right or even an obligation to intervene. This has certainly been the grounding of, for instance, the feminist formulation of the sex/gender system...whose implication is that the more fully gender inequality can be shown to inhere in human culture rather than in biological nature, the more amenable it must be to alteration and reform. I remember the buoyant enthusiasm with which feminist scholars used to greet the finding that one or another brutal form of oppression was not biological but "only" cultural!...

The number of persons or institutions by whom the existence of gay people--never mind the existence of more gay people--is treated as a precious desideratum [something wanted], a needed condition of life, is small, even compared to those who may wish for the dignified treatment of any gay people who happen already to exist. Advice on how to make sure your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students, your parishioners, your therapy clients, or your military subordninates is less ubiquitous than you might think. By contrast, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large...So for gay and gay-loving people, even though the space of cultural malleability is the only conceivable theatre for our effective politics, every step of this constructivist nature/culture argument holds danger: it is so difficult to intervene in the seemingly natural trajectory that begins by identifying a place of cultural malleability; continues by inventing an ethical or therapeutic mandate for cultural manipulation; and ends in the overarching, hygenic Western fantasy of a world without any more homosexuals in it.
--Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (1990)
posted by Catchfire at 9:01 PM on March 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not saying there aren't some very good points in this, and I'm not queer, so I don't have a personal experience in this (though he's right in that my straight-ness in a way should have an equal amount of speculation if we're considering this honestly) but ending an article largely devoted to damning science with cherry-picked questionable data by saying "and we all know that we can push people to be queer because it just feels like it" is some pernicious bullshit if I've ever read any.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:08 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'll add that while the issue is almost certainly way more complicated than either extreme, "born this way" isn't the politically convenient position for the equal rights side. "Chose this way" is the politically convenient position for those who wish to oppress equal rights.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:26 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do like the notion that pride is something of choice, and the celebration of that choice rather than the celebration of what we happen to be genetically or whatever.

Regardless of the applicability to sexual identity, I think this is the absolutely critical question for the future of humanity (really): how can we identify the events, traumas, whatever that shape our personality, views, biases, etc., and how can we heal and re-evaluate those events, removing the inflexibilities and irrationalities. How can we raise our children with a minimum of trauma, and healing or resilience, if at all possible.
posted by emmet at 9:29 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Navelgazer: straight people have as much place in this question as queer people.

Ask yourself: could you stop being straight? did you chose to be straight?

Maybe you did - and that's fine (as I said, I support the right to chose your orientation and/or identity if you can). But I have friends who are straight LGBT-allies, and they know that they were born straight. If they could have been bi, maybe they would have chosen that. But they can't help but be attracted only to the opposite sex.
posted by jb at 9:31 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I always felt the "born this way" claim felt a little hollow. Like, generally I hear it as a refutation of the claim that sexuality is a choice, which is a claim put forward by those interested in denying equal rights, and I just think ... does it matter? Are the equal rights proponents claiming that the oppression would be okay if they were choosing to be gay, because they could just choose not to be gay, but that's not how it works, and thus it's not okay?

Birth or choice, sexuality deserves equal rights. Nobody on the Right claims that stripping rights from select religions is okay because you can always just convert.
posted by kafziel at 9:35 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


jb, I don't know what I wrote that might have made this unclear (though it could have been anything - my syntax is hideously tangled tonight) but i'm in complete agreement there. I could not choose not to be straight, which is why I believe that those anywhere on the spectrum did not choose their spot there either. If I'm wrong, fine - it doesn't change the fact that people should do as they damn well choose with other consenting adults and live the most fulfilling lives they can.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:36 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


(I should also clarify that by "spectrum" I mean both sexuality as well as gender.)
posted by Navelgazer at 9:43 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


In addition to the excellent links and videos posted by ericb above, I wanted to toss in this episode, "Homo/Hetero", of a Norwegian show (subtitled in English) called Hjernevask (Brainwashing) that explores social and scientific questions in a sort of humorous light, which I recently saw and found really interesting. The host, a comedian who gets irreverent jabs in but also grapples with the issues, goes around interviewing scientists, academics, and public figures in Europe and North America and presents their findings to each other, creating an interesting dialogue. Apparently in parts of Europe, a major view in academic and scientific circles is that sexual orientation is primarily a social construction (that should still be respected and legally protected co-equally as straight relationships). They're strongly opposed to the research attempting to find a biological or physiological source for non-conforming sexual orientations; they seem to view such research as unethical.
posted by Pfardentrott at 9:44 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you want to see a funny cartoon that summarizes some of the science behind why being gay isn't a choice this is a good one. It also makes fun of anti-gay Christians as well so be warned.
posted by Pseudology at 10:03 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


did you chose to be straight?

Isn't it actually pretty plausible that people would decide to be straight — at least, if it were possible to choose? There are obvious reasons why most people would choose the more widely accepted option that provides access to a larger pool of potential mates.

they know that they were born straight

1. How could they know this? Can you know things about your birth through sheer introspection?

2. Why does it matter? I don't understand why people make such a big deal about the issue of whether sexual orientation is genetic vs. environmental vs. chosen. I don't see how that should have any effect on public policy. Would you stop being accepting of homosexuality if you found out it was chosen? I don't see why. What matters isn't what causes sexual orientation; what matters is what is caused by sexual orientation. People who think homosexuality will lead to the breakdown of civilization are going to panic about that no matter how they think it got started. People who consider homosexuality similar to heterosexuality in that it leads to loving relationships, family bonds, etc., should be fine with that no matter what the origin of sexual orientation is.
posted by John Cohen at 10:12 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Choosing to have only heterosexual relationships and choosing to be straight are not the same thing.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:33 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Navelgazer: if anything was unclear, it was my eyes and I didn't read your comment carefully enough. I just thought you were saying that you couldn't say about orientation because you were straight, so I was pointing out that straight people also have innate orientation. I didn't mean to imply that you thought anything was a choice. So yeah, we are in agreement.

John Cohen: it's not a matter of a normative issue, but a scientific one. I personally believe that people should be allowed to choose their orientation and I would respect that choice. But the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that for many people (most?), orientation is not a choice (aka it's something innate) - and this evidence fits with the anecdotal accounts I've had from many people - straight, gay, bi.

as for the debate on "born" - obviously "born this way" is an expression. Maybe we all magically get our orientation via pixie dust at age six. It doesn't matter. What it really means to be "born" with a certain sexual orientation is that you've always been attracted to one sex or the other (or both) from when you first realised that you were attracted to people sexually/romantically. That it wasn't a choice, it just happened - just like my hair started curling after I shaved my head as a teen. I thought I was a straight-haired person, but it turned out that as my hair matured, it has a fair bit of wave. That wave is still an innate part of my hair, and no amount of wishing that it were dead straight will make it be straight.
posted by jb at 10:46 PM on March 19, 2013


I seriously don't think it should matter one bit from an ethical standpoint whether it's biologically ingrained or socially influenced. As others have said, it's a politically useful position to go with 'born this way', but perhaps a sign of progress will be when we no longer have to use that phrase to justify our moral positions.

As a non-scientist but nevertheless a thinking human being, I really think the most likely thing is that it's a mixture of both biologically-innate *and* socially-conditioned factors. Human sexuality is weird, and we have all kinds of sexual tendencies that couldn't possibly be reflected entirely in our genes. After all, what does it mean to be attracted to a certain gender unless we have a pre-conceived idea of what one gender looks like? We're not a species that has strong sexual dimorphism like spiders or peacocks - the sexes don't look that different from each other (this varies across populations as well), so we end up greatly exaggerating sexual dimorphism with culturally-informed cues like long hair, painted nails, fashion. Sometimes people are more attracted to those secondary cultural gestures ascribing gender than the actual genitalia underneath those cues. Sometimes it's vice versa. How on earth is biology alone supposed to account for this? I feel like there's an underlying sexism to the position that heterosexual/homosexual is inscribed in one's DNA because it implies that the 'femininity' and 'masculinity' as gender constructs must also be genetically inscribed, since they're such a powerful aspect of attraction.

Maybe that is why androgyny is often stigmatized - people are freaked out by it. Many people are drawn to it, and this uncomfortably reveals that to a certain extent that sexual attraction is pliable.

I can't choose to be anyone other than who I am, but that doesn't mean my personality is written in my genes somewhere. There's both agency and fate in who we are. I know in the end it boils down to science and scientific studies, but at least in terms of my own intuitions in relation to my own sexuality, it seems to be far more complicated than the 'born this way' slogan would have it.
posted by adso at 11:07 PM on March 19, 2013


Somewhere, an amoeba is saying to itself: "I told you so."
posted by b1tr0t at 11:21 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Look, even if LGBT folks did choose their orientation, that's their right. Why shouldn't it be their right. And, by logical conclusion, the author's inferences strongly lead to the conclusion that heterosexuals must also be making this choice, right? If the author argues against that, then she's engaging in sophistry.

So, lets doa gedankenexperiment and assume that people make choices about their sexual orientation. If that is the case, why should choosing any one orientation over another be a good or bad thing?

What I'm trying to get at is that there is no way for the anti-equality crowd to come up with any way to justify their small-minded 15th century ideas about the world of sexuality, race, and everything else that they are delusional about. Just leave people alone, you assholes! Live, and let live!
posted by Vibrissae at 11:25 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


wait wait you guys black and white dont exist i discovered something new and named it gray
posted by klangklangston at 11:26 PM on March 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'll also note that while "heteronormative" is a critique, it is not an argument. While I'm glad to have the queer theory folks out there keepin' us honest, one lesson I can share as a straight dude is that your sexuality — no matter what it is — isn't universal and shouldn't be used to judge other people's subjective sexual experience.

But thanks, Eric and Jeremy, for rounding up some research.
posted by klangklangston at 11:30 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


And finally, from the article: "When my tastes and proclivities start to feel like they are solidifying, I get suspicious and disappointed. So, in the interests of full disclosure, I am writing from the perspective of someone who finds sexual fixity pretty uninteresting, and who believes that there are really good feminist and queer reasons to take regular, critical inventory of the parts of our sexuality that we believe we cannot or will not change."

I take a pretty regular, critical approach to my desires. Through working with porn and now with LGBT advocacy, I've been able to challenge myself pretty regularly. And even if I have a kink or two in bed, I'm never gonna be Jet Boy.
posted by klangklangston at 11:37 PM on March 19, 2013


How does pedophilia fit into this whole thing?

No trolling intended.
posted by palbo at 11:58 PM on March 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


But alas, it was never to be, because being feminist does not make you a lesbian.

There's a long tradition of political lesbianism though, of nominally heterosexual women deciding that only lesbian love is politically correct in a patriarchal society. You wonder if something like that might not be at the root of that whole Michelle Shocked kerfuffle as well.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:21 AM on March 20, 2013


I don't know, how does throwing grenades into a discussion fit into this whole thing?

Snarking definitely intended.
posted by Zimboe Metamonkey at 12:24 AM on March 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


Well, i mean, i'm pretty uninformed and it might be a dangerous derail worthy of deletion, but i ask in the context of athenian pederasty, for example, and that sort of thing. Are you born with an attraction to young boys/girls? Do you choose to be or not be attracted to young kids? Is that wrong / not wrong? Are kids' psyches damaged or not if society finds the practice acceptable?

Right now a pedophile is a sick person with a horrendous disease that should be effectively burned at the stake. What separates a pedophile from a person on the queer spectrum, if one reads the points raised in the article?

I'm not arguing pedophiles are comparable to gay people. In fact, i'm not arguing anything.
posted by palbo at 12:41 AM on March 20, 2013


Seriously, though, count me in with the "It's more complicated than that" folks. Humans like clearly defined categories, but the world isn't digital, it's analog. Sexual orientation isn't just gay/straight, or gay/bi/straight, or a scale of one through six. It doesn't even fit on a one-dimensional spectrum.

I also very much doubt that anything about human behavior is absolutely "nature" or absolutely "nurture". Yes, approximations are necessary for communication, but let's not forget that people are more than the sum of their categories.

On preview: sorry palbo, I read too much into your question and thought you were implying that pedophilia is a sexual orientation, rather than just asking. If I tried to answer I would only be guessing, and I couldn't be objective about it anyway, but I'm sure someone here will have something useful to say about it.
posted by Zimboe Metamonkey at 12:53 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


[Palbo, I really don't believe you meant it this way, but the pedophilia angle is indeed a dire derail as it is often a homophobic dog whistle / concern-troll activity, and as such doesn't belong here. If folks want to reply helpfully via mefi mail, that's fine, but let's go ahead and keep this thread on topic. Thanks.]
posted by taz at 1:20 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


there is no way for the anti-equality crowd to come up with any way to justify their small-minded 15th century ideas

You're giving them far too much credit. Modern homophobes are trying to enforce a socially constructed sexual identity developed in the United States in the 1950s.

Similarly, Evangelical opposition to abortion is a creature of the late 70's/early 80's. Evangelical opposition to contraception is...about a year old. It's bizarre. Seriously, those are traditional Catholic positions (and even among Catholics, only clearly articulated in 1930). Traditional Protestantism wanted nothing to do with that popery. However, as of the last American election campaign, Evangelicals have always been at war with Eastasia.

Bigots try to wrap themselves in the mantle of ancient tradition as armor against criticism. Never let them get away with pretending that they're not making this shit up as they go along.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:38 AM on March 20, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's not just a matter of being politically strategic; I would think personal pressure is much more influential. Coming out is not easy and involves ripping out some of the roots of some of your most important relationships. It's pretty hard to tell your sweet old grandmother - or your spouse and children in some cases - that you're going to try this (to them) shocking, disruptive thing out, see where it goes. Far easier - and kinder - if you say it was inevitable, hard-wired, unavoidable, just waiting to come out, nothing anyone could have done different would have prevented it.
posted by Segundus at 2:01 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


The author doesn't like labels, boxes, or constraints. That's fine, it's her right. She should be figuring out what it means to be someone who doesn't like labels, boxes, or constraints, and how she can live a moral life within that framework, not trying to argue that she is the moral and enlightened one and the rest of us should change to match her.
posted by subdee at 2:02 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is a polemic, and it doesn't show much concern or familiarity with the literature, or more fundamentally, the scientific process in general (e.g. the "HURF DURF show me a study that proves...!" stuff is a shibboleth). Scientists have assembled a body of evidence that buttresses a certain paradigm (a mostly biological etiology of current sexual orientation differences), while no competing group has assembled an alternate theory with anything like a similar body of evidence. There is a symmetry in the way heterosexual and homosexual orientations develop (both before and after puberty), independent of any known or plausible social influences. Competing theories have a history of being lame, unserious, or flat out empirically false (e.g. the ubiquitous and false Bad Mom Did It theory for homosexuality and every other psychiatric puzzle).

There is evidence that lesbian orientations are shaped by more social and personal influences than gay orientations, starting with the introspections of gays and lesbians about their own orientations.
posted by dgaicun at 2:43 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Isn't it sort of accepted that human sexuality occupies a broad spectrum from straight to gay and everything in-between and beyond? Surely there are people at either far end of the spectrum who are firmly and comfortably "born that way" and which no amount of social pressure can change. At the same time there is a broad swath in the middle that are more malleable.

if you say it was inevitable, hard-wired, unavoidable, just waiting to come out, nothing anyone could have done different would have prevented it.

This is the uncomfortable bit for everyone, that sexuality for a lot of people is INDEED VERY MUCH A CHOICE.

I have met plenty of apparently "straight" men who are irrationally homophobic and my impression of such people has always been that this is a push-back against their own gay leanings. It's as if the queer door has to be firmly barricaded and locked or else they would be tempted to take a peek inside. They don't want it to be a choice.

I mean as a straight male, firmly born that way, I've never had any problem with the idea of homosexuality. It is absolutely nothing for me and the fact that other people can or do choose this doesn't make me the least bit uncomfortable. It doesn't affect me, it doesn't change me, it doesn't influence me one way or the other.

At the same time, secure on my straight perch, I can't really comprehend other points of view. But that's my own experience.

your sexuality — no matter what it is — isn't universal and shouldn't be used to judge other people's subjective sexual experience.

klangklangston has it.
posted by three blind mice at 2:44 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


So, lets doa gedankenexperiment and assume that people make choices about their sexual orientation. If that is the case, why should choosing any one orientation over another be a good or bad thing?

Because there are a lot of people who subscribe to religious ideas where sexual orientation is fixed by divine law and "choosing" otherwise is some degree of evil. And these peoples' opinions are often used to build legal codes with horrific results for people who are unwilling or unable to make the "correct choice?" Thought experiments are great, but people get beaten to death in real life.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:47 AM on March 20, 2013


If an identical twin is gay, the other twin has a 50% chance of being gay -- higher than fraternal twins, but obviously not 100%. That seems to suggest that sexual orientation is not all about being born that way.

or that biology is more complicated than genes.


Do identical twins have identical fingerprints? Genetics is more complicated than, well it's complicated...
posted by sammyo at 4:23 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never met anyone who thought orientation was a choice. It was just something that happened. Until an adult told you it shouldn't have.


My personal experience is that my sexual orientation is a choice. I get that many people have different experiences than I do, and that's fine. But saying that my experience doesn't exist is not cool.

I also find the argument that sexual orientation is innate to be, in practice, homophobic. The idea is that being queer is something no one would ever choose. What's wrong with choosing to be queer?
posted by medusa at 4:44 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think we're going to solve the Free Will vs. Determinism problem in this thread.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:49 AM on March 20, 2013 [8 favorites]


Well, the FPP didn't mention that the study on finger length has been replicated at least 10-11 times by other labs. And also didn't mention that the researcher, Marc Breedlove, is a really nice guy with a very positive attitude towards sexual orientation and marriage equality. I met him in grad school, after he took a position at my alma mater. I don't discount his work, nor do I accept that the results are perfectly and 100% true (neither does he, obviously; no good scientist interprets the results of a study in the same way that a reporter does). But there's too much evidence for genetic basis of orientation to ignore it as a strong component in the entire mess that is human attraction.
posted by caution live frogs at 4:54 AM on March 20, 2013


i never invested so much in the 'born this way' idea, because i think we should be fighting for respect of a range of sexual identities whether they are choice or not. i think it more serves as a useful tool for trying to describe my subjective experience of sexuality to someone who thinks heterosexuality is the only acceptable identity (where 'born this way' is a kind of shorthand for the argument 'what if you woke up tomorrow and nearly everybody was gay, and straight people were a minority?'); whether or not one is strictly 'born this way' is less important than the fact that one feels it on that basis, and the choice lies in whether or how one expresses it. but, of course, we rarely meet a metaphor that somebody isn't going to take literally, which is why we have people who worship a flag and have no sense of what it stands for.

i do think it is unfortunate that pedophilia is off limits in the discussion for how it has been employed against queers; i don't think bringing it up here is necessarily trolling, and before i saw it mentioned i felt it was the logical next step in this particular discussion. it is a difficult topic, and while i think there are legitimate avenues for trying to understand children and sexuality, i'm not inclined or knowledgeable to go there; so i oppose pedophilia on the basis of how we define concepts like consent and childhood and think it's better to be overly protective than not protective enough (and i don't trust the kinds of people who worship flags to walk any nebulous line on it). i think we do need to talk about it more considering the mixed messages in how we commercially sexualize children and yet punish it, and how that translates into ideas like 'barely legal' porn and resultant creepiness like bob dole drooling over britney spears.

but also, i do struggle with the idea that for pedophiles who feel compelled to act upon their impulses, it is possible that their sense of the legitimacy of that desire is a result of the same 'born this way' feeling that i have about my attraction to men, and that they might react to their condemnation in the same way that i view christians who think gay people should remain celibate. people who identify as heterosexual have no less capacity to identify with the former point (being just as sure of the 'naturalness' of their brand of sexuality), but they're likely not going to grasp the latter, and so they often conflate pedophilia with homosexuality. again, most of us view it as an unfair comparison that comes down to the issue of ability to consent (and i'm tempted to say that it also comes down to what for the majority of us is an automatic repulsion to the idea, but again, that is echoed in the way that many straight people view queer sexuality). so i'm left understanding why we demonize pedophiles, including those who legitimately fight their impulses and still give in; yet i can't help but imagine what a horrible existence that must be and have some sympathy with those who do struggle with it.

i can understand why, for the sake of advancing gay rights and acceptance, we avoid the topic and call out anyone who mentions it, but i would rather we dispense with it head-on rather than avoiding it.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 5:08 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


>Yeah, this is exactly the disbelief I get from my bi friends. They're usually less judgmental about it, though.

Was that in reference to the article or the comments?
posted by LogicalDash at 5:26 AM on March 20, 2013


John Cohen: it's not a matter of a normative issue, but a scientific one.

That's my point: it shouldn't be a normative issue. Of course it's interesting as a scientific question. I just said I don't see why it's such a big deal. If it's purely of scientific interest, why do people get into heated debates about it?
posted by John Cohen at 5:30 AM on March 20, 2013


Choosing to have only heterosexual relationships and choosing to be straight are not the same thing.

You're saying this as if it's perhaps a correction to my comment right before yours. I do realize these are different. I'm just saying that "Did you choose to be straight?" doesn't seem like a very compelling response to those who claim that sexual orientation is chosen. There may be still be some great arguments against that claim. Personally, I don't think sexual orientation is a choice. But if I thought it were a choice, I wouldn't be surprised by most people choosing heterosexuality.
posted by John Cohen at 5:36 AM on March 20, 2013


The thesis of this essay is that no one is born gay (or straight). I think it makes a decent case of that: you can't be born with an identity, because identities are socially constructed. You'll have to learn to socialize first.

Bringing the empirical science into it was probably a mistake. The best that a study about the biological determinist approach to orientation can hope for is to provoke people into redefining the orientation in question to preserve its useful ambiguity. If sexual orientation were a mere descriptor, like height or eye color, it would be quite useless as an identity that one may self-apply. (Short People Parties are the worst parties.) So, pointing out that bio-determinist research designs are flawed is redundant at best, and at worse, opens the door to criticisms like clockzero's.

The postscript, however good on its own merits, gives the impression that the essay was also trying to prove a positive, that sexual orientation is a choice. That confuses the issue more.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:41 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm definitely feel like I was born this way, but I don't think that must be true for everyone. Humans are weird and complicated.

I have known people who fell in love fairly easily with both men and women, and who chose to focus more on heterosexual relationships because it was mostly just easier. I've known gay men and lesbians who fell in love with each other - married and had kids, too.

I dunno. It's an interesting question that I don't really care about, if that makes sense. I get where the author is coming from, but I don't know how much it matters.
posted by rtha at 5:45 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


I also find the argument that sexual orientation is innate to be, in practice, homophobic. The idea is that being queer is something no one would ever choose. What's wrong with choosing to be queer?

I have always taken the argument to be: with so much social pressure against it -- disapproval, decriminalization, punishments from the nasty to the horrific -- the very fact that people still engaged in same-sex activities says that there is a greater drive than just "choice." Because people generally don't chose disapproval, decriminalization, or punishments. So asking "What's wrong with choosing to be queer?" is always going to give you (at least) two answers. The first says "nothing; it's your business, not mine." The second says "the whole social paradigm (which is not going to readily change for a "choice").

So, yeah, the situation is far more complex that nature or nurture as a binary. But cutting fine distinctions in a political debate is (as most of the 20th C has show us) is a losing tactic. Would you rather have equality based on a simplistic scheme or inequality that recognizes nuance (when it pays any attention at all)?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:57 AM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm a 67-year-old lesbian. A Kinsey 6. A gold-star gay. Over the decades, I've read far too much about why lesbians and gay men are "that way." I think theorists tend to believe whatever supports their own personal sexualities.
posted by Carol Anne at 6:06 AM on March 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


The thesis of this essay is that no one is born gay (or straight). I think it makes a decent case of that: you can't be born with an identity, because identities are socially constructed. You'll have to learn to socialize first.

I dunno, I think it takes a more essentialist approach than that. The real issue is that the author wants to imagine that her desire is entirely under her control. Which I have a hard time believing is true.

In fact, I will deny it, depending on what you mean by "desire." We all have a desire to breathe, which is entirely out of our control. We cannot resist this desire, although we could put ourselves fatally in a situation where that desire cannot be satisfied. On the other end of the spectrum, we might desire a cookie and be entirely capable of resisting that desire because it's trivial. Sexual desire falls somewhere in between, depending on the person and the desire, although closer to breathing that specific-cookie eating. Just a bit of reading people talk about desire will notice how often it is described as "sudden," "shocking," or "out of control." Some people like this, some people fear it, but it seems against the common experience to claim sexual desire is entirely within our control, and, therefore, like breathing, it is not a "choice." We could chose to act or not, with varying degrees of success, but we can't choose not to feel.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:09 AM on March 20, 2013


The so-called "therapy" that's supposed to "fix" being gay is, arguably, an unintended consequence of "born this way."


It should be replaced with "am this way."
posted by Foosnark at 6:19 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's my point: it shouldn't be a normative issue. Of course it's interesting as a scientific question. I just said I don't see why it's such a big deal. If it's purely of scientific interest, why do people get into heated debates about it?

The edge cases, of course. The points where the arguments break and you're no longer talking about two consenting adults in private who are causing no harm to each other but a partnership in which one half may be incapable of consent, or which takes place in public, or in which harm may at least arguably being caused.

This thread is full of warm fuzzies and shrugs and how can it possibly make a difference, man? I'd say there's cases where it makes a difference. How much discomfort are you entitled to cause in how many others in order to indulge a choice? What is to be done if one's desires are hard-wired and yet the fulfilment of those desires would cause harm to others? If one's desires are mutable, is there any point at which society can point and say --- you must change yours, because what you want is wrong, and harmful to yourself and others? Is every choice to be respected as an identity which one has a right to express? Can some set of beliefs about oneself and the world be so obviously damaging they can be classified as a mental illness?

Right now in America we have a clear framework derived from the Civil Rights movement for forcing cultural change, and the lever at the center of it, the one that moves the world, is "I cannot change this about myself, and therefore you are wrong to despise me for it, wrong to discriminate against me because of it." Take away the lever and the world may cease to move.
posted by Diablevert at 6:48 AM on March 20, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think this is a very interesting article, but in many ways because it's full of stuff that people don't say out loud, but believe.

I certainly think that gay can be a choice, just like straight can be a choice, or kink can be a choice. I don't think that makes any of those choices wrong, or even unlikely.

The idea that "no one would choose gay" only reinforces that gay is a wrong, or bad, way to be. It is an acceptance that heterosexuality is the One True Way, offering up only a sheepish, "Well I was born this way, don't hate me, please?"

There are people who identify as Kinsey 6s who have had sexual experiences with opposite sex individuals and found it enjoyable. There are people who identify as Kinsey 1s who have had sexual experiences with same sex individuals and found it enjoyable. Somewhere on the blue there's a post about a gay man who married and is having sex with his straight best friend and considers himself very happy. And as noted above, there is situational homosexuality by people who consider themselves the straightest of the straight. "It doesn't count if the penis you're touching isn't the guy's who's touching yours" totally-not-gay infantrymen. Or, "It doesn't count if you close your eyes and think of a girl."

Why are we not okay with people choosing their sexuality?
posted by corb at 7:05 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The so-called "therapy" that's supposed to "fix" being gay is, arguably, an unintended consequence of "born this way."

I kind of doubt it. Mostly because the 'born this way' idea isn't in the public consciousness until the groundwork for conversion therapy is laid by Freud et al. Certainly the 'born this way' argument is how we get the word 'homosexual', and that was earlier, but neither the argument nor the word took off. But, in general, conversion therapy predates movement towards gay rights.
posted by hoyland at 7:06 AM on March 20, 2013


corb, I think the short answer is that you're conflating identity with behaviour, which is what this conversation kind of inevitably does. Yes, you can identify as straight and be a MSM. That's why the abbreviation MSM exists, basically. (You have to do HIV outreach to straight men having sex with men and you miss them by pitching your services to gay and bi men.) But insisting choice must be involved in attraction because there are straight men who have sex with men just evades the question of whether one's choosing to be interested enough in sex with other men to be having sex with them. (This is not to say people won't have sex with people they're not normally attracted to out of convenience. In the run-up to the Wolfenden Report, it was established that a significant portion of the British navy (which was all-male at the time) were having sex with each other. Most of them were presumably attracted primarily to women, but in the absence of women, engaging in sexual activity with men was good enough.)
posted by hoyland at 7:18 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


don't worry; whatever happens, the people with power will find a way to screw those who lack it
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:28 AM on March 20, 2013


Would you rather have equality based on a simplistic scheme or inequality that recognizes nuance (when it pays any attention at all)?

For a large chunk of the 20th century, men like me were subjected to a extensive variety of medical tortures including castration and eugenic genocide on the grounds that homosexuality was a physical malady. Ex-gay ministries grudgingly describe same-sex attraction as a chronic disability or weakness. So this is very much a false dichotomy.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:35 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Right now in America we have a clear framework derived from the Civil Rights movement for forcing cultural change, and the lever at the center of it, the one that moves the world, is "I cannot change this about myself, and therefore you are wrong to despise me for it, wrong to discriminate against me because of it." Take away the lever and the world may cease to move.

That's not the only framework. We widely recognize the concept of cultural genocide for example, that it's not only wrong to murder ethnic groups, it's also wrong to isolate them and force the adoption of religion and language at the point of gun and bayonet.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:43 AM on March 20, 2013


Choosing to have only heterosexual relationships and choosing to be straight are not the same thing.

Hmmm . . . . I had to read this comment three times and think about it, but I find that I just disagree.
posted by General Tonic at 7:46 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Right now in America we have a clear framework derived from the Civil Rights movement for forcing cultural change, and the lever at the center of it, the one that moves the world, is "I cannot change this about myself, and therefore you are wrong to despise me for it, wrong to discriminate against me because of it." Take away the lever and the world may cease to move.
This is why I get cold sweats and palpitations every time I read articles like this one.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:01 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hmmm . . . . I had to read this comment three times and think about it, but I find that I just disagree.

And bisexual invisibility rears its ugly head.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:09 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


>Would you rather have equality based on a simplistic scheme or inequality that recognizes nuance (when it pays any attention at all)?

For a large chunk of the 20th century, men like me were subjected to a extensive variety of medical tortures including castration and eugenic genocide on the grounds that homosexuality was a physical malady. Ex-gay ministries grudgingly describe same-sex attraction as a chronic disability or weakness. So this is very much a false dichotomy.


I don't see how your comment arises from mine. The things you describe are a direct outgrowth of the idea that same-sex attraction is "choice" (and a "sinful" or "sick" one at that) that could be "unchosen" if subjected to enough negative pressure. Those attitudes have been pushed back largely by the understanding (even if it's probably an incomplete model) that same-sex desire is, rather, an innate characteristic not subject to alteration by threats, surgery, therapy, or any other punitive approach toward "fixing" the "problem." If we had decided to go with the "mind you own business" approach championed by many in this thread in the 60s, I think we would still be facing "medical cures" instead of fighting for marriage rights.

I said this in a previous thread, but I think part of the problem is that when people who have thought (and lived) deeply in their own sexuality say "choice," they are thinking that they have decided, after much self examination, to chose to be their authentic selves. When the general public hears "choice," they think about picking Ranch Pringles over Regular. And, therefore, if Ranch Pingles are icky, then you can just pick Regular, right? And it's the general public that has the majority of votes, so it pays to be careful about how the issue is framed. Look at all the problems that scientists have had with the word "theory."
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:10 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The recent memoir by John Schwartz, Oddly Normal, details some of the research on same-sex attraction and gender non-conformity.

It's a very powerful book, but also a very disturbing one for me - because, despite having gay-positive parents, his son still went through an extremely difficult experience.
posted by jb at 8:17 AM on March 20, 2013


The thesis of this essay is that no one is born gay (or straight). I think it makes a decent case of that: you can't be born with an identity, because identities are socially constructed.

I don't know what "identity" has to do with it, and I'm sure the essay doesn't make a decent case that no one is born with a particular sexual orientation. It has some anecdotal evidence that maybe some people are not born with a fixed sexual orientation, if you don't count bisexuality as a fixed orientation, although I don't know how you would justify that.
posted by straight at 8:23 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


GenjiandProust: The things you describe are a direct outgrowth of the idea that same-sex attraction is "choice" (and a "sinful" or "sick" one at that) that could be "unchosen" if subjected to enough negative pressure.

This is historically incorrect. The dominant model behind medical treatment, castration, and murder of homosexual and bisexual men for most of the 20th century was based entirely on the premise that we were hormonally, neurologically, or genetically predisposed to homosexual behavior. The model was that if you shot us up with enough cow hormones and psychoactive chemicals or ran enough electricity through our skulls, the physical imbalance would be fixed. Failing that, we should be sterilized or murdered for the good of society.

And that's a model that conservatives are still willing to run with. "Born this way" is not a palliative for bigotry. In fact, the reframing of predominantly cultural differences as genetic ones often is a central part behind the construction of bigoted ideologies.

If we had decided to go with the "mind you own business" approach championed by many in this thread in the 60s, I think we would still be facing "medical cures" instead of fighting for marriage rights.

I think this is a false dichotomy. The fact of the matter is that we've had two sexual revolutions. We have multiculturalism. We have the emergence from the closet of LGBT cultures, communities, literature, art, and religion.

Neither that, nor the existence of people with fluid sexualities are something that should be demonized because it doesn't fit into the political narrative of the decade.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:30 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Look at all the problems that scientists have had with the word "theory."

Scientific illiteracy is not a good argument for bullshit.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:35 AM on March 20, 2013


Right now in America we have a clear framework derived from the Civil Rights movement for forcing cultural change, and the lever at the center of it, the one that moves the world, is "I cannot change this about myself, and therefore you are wrong to despise me for it, wrong to discriminate against me because of it." Take away the lever and the world may cease to move.

The Civil Rights movement also has almost 200 years of history deconstructing racial (and sometimes gender) differences and pointing out that they're arbitrary social constructions created by whites for the purpose of oppressing blacks and aboriginal peoples. Racial discrimination was not wrong because one's great-grandparents were immutable. Racial discrimination was wrong because the claims made about the humanity of people seen as non-white turn out to be patently ridiculous.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:01 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's not the only framework. We widely recognize the concept of cultural genocide for example, that it's not only wrong to murder ethnic groups, it's also wrong to isolate them and force the adoption of religion and language at the point of gun and bayonet.

Yes, we were quite willing to adopt that as a standard as soon as it no longer mattered, weren't we? As soon as it was a platitude that it cost us little to mouth.

I'm probably being too harsh. But either way, I don't think such a principle maps well to gender/orientation. Ethnicity's just another word for blood, really. You can't chose who your parents are, what your name is, what language is native to your tongue (though you parents can).

Besides, even if the West has backed off from forced assimilation at the point of a gun, the pressure to assimilate is nevertheless relentless and inescapable. We say it's important to respect multiculturalism and seek diversity, and that's all fine so long as it's about salad options and adding a song to the holiday concert, but if you want access to real power, then you put on a suit and you go to the right schools and meet the right people and read the right books and learn the majority way. And if you don't you stay on the margins, a bugbear, a big fish in a little pond, but that's all.
posted by Diablevert at 10:30 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]


Racial discrimination was not wrong because one's great-grandparents were immutable. Racial discrimination was wrong because the claims made about the humanity of people seen as non-white turn out to be patently ridiculous.

But to be considered a suspect class for equal protection purposes in the US, you need to be defined by an immutable property. That's how equal protection challenges work. It's really hard to construct a discriminatory law that can survive strict scrutiny even if they can pass rational basis review, that's the whole point. That's the reason the decision in Perry v Schwarzenegger* took a long detour talking about suspect classification before saying 'and Prop 8 is so stupid that it fails the rational basis test'. The judge could have saved himself a bunch of writing, but he's attempting to make his argument more robust.

*As much as I don't like him, I feel slightly bad for Arnold Schwarzenegger that if this is actually what gets us marriage equality, his name will be stuck on the wrong side of history for something he wasn't actually at fault for.
posted by hoyland at 10:42 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's perhaps worth pointing out that, as I recall (though I haven't read it in a while), the suspect classification argument in Perry v Schwarzenegger basically rested on the idea that you couldn't a) choose to change your sexual orientation and b) couldn't change someone else's, but not c) that one's sexual orientation could never change.
posted by hoyland at 10:45 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


But to be considered a suspect class for equal protection purposes in the US, you need to be defined by an immutable property.

Doesn't equal protection apply to religious groups, too? Or is that considered an "immutable property"? Religion has always seemed like a better model for protecting gays and lesbians than race. But I'm in no way a legal scholar and don't understand the principled arguments.
posted by Nelson at 11:02 AM on March 20, 2013


"It's perhaps worth pointing out that, as I recall (though I haven't read it in a while), the suspect classification argument in Perry v Schwarzenegger basically rested on the idea that you couldn't a) choose to change your sexual orientation and b) couldn't change someone else's, but not c) that one's sexual orientation could never change."

To my understanding, Walker's ruling used the argument that the discrimination wasn't about sexual orientation, but rather sex, which is well-trod suspect class ground.

The argument went that: Gender roles are the traditional justification for restricting marriage to opposite sex couples. But as we've obviated those gender roles through the move toward women's equality, those justifications no longer hold. As such, there's no reason to restrict the sex of partners. It's a feminist argument, not an argument from sexual orientation. It's a lot more rooted in established law and doesn't establish a newly protected class.
posted by klangklangston at 11:20 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


Doesn't equal protection apply to religious groups, too? Or is that considered an "immutable property"? Religion has always seemed like a better model for protecting gays and lesbians than race. But I'm in no way a legal scholar and don't understand the principled arguments.

So as far as I know it just doesn't make sense. Everyone seems to believe that religions (or minority religions anyway) are suspect classes, but I can't find anything addressing the mutability issue. The thing is that religious cases are overwhelmingly First Amendment cases and not equal protection cases. The exceptions I found while looking around dealt with religious groups/practices that happen to be closely associated with ethnic groups. (Stuff about animal sacrifice, mostly.) Whether this is coincidence or not, I don't know.
posted by hoyland at 11:23 AM on March 20, 2013


Doesn't equal protection apply to religious groups, too? Or is that considered an "immutable property"?

Many Protestant reformers certainly thought that the Christian scriptures said so (Ephesians 1:4 comes to mind).

On the other hand, there are more than a few Arminians who believe that Salvation is, to some degree, the product of human choice.
posted by DWRoelands at 11:28 AM on March 20, 2013


To my understanding, Walker's ruling used the argument that the discrimination wasn't about sexual orientation, but rather sex, which is well-trod suspect class ground.

I've just looked at the decision. You're right. I'm conflating the findings of fact with the conclusions. But I think the gender role stuff is in the finding of fact part, too. It doesn't seem to come up in the conclusions--he addresses the question of what level of review to use separately from whether any of the rationales advanced for Prop 8 make sense. (He's doing something slick in moving between sex and sexual orientation. I think the argument is that if you're preventing me from marrying because I'm gay, you're discriminating against me on the basis of my partner's sex. But then he tries to differentiate sex discrimination from sexual orientation discrimination.)
posted by hoyland at 11:38 AM on March 20, 2013


Diablevert: Yes, we were quite willing to adopt that as a standard as soon as it no longer mattered, weren't we? As soon as it was a platitude that it cost us little to mouth.

From what I can tell, it still matters. The fact that we're not an equal society today, isn't particularly a strong justification for adopting biological essentialism as an ideology. (The historical fruits of which have been social darwinism, eugenics, and genocide.)

hoyland: But to be considered a suspect class for equal protection purposes in the US, you need to be defined by an immutable property.

Not when religion is defined as a suspect class. Immutability is a criterion for a suspect class, it's not the only one, or a necessary one.

"Choose" depends on a false dichotomy that's explicitly rejected by both myself and the linked article. The alternative to biological essentialism isn't "choice," it's a view that sexual orientation, identity, and behavior are complex and socially negotiated to different degrees. Or in other words, the same sort of view of human behavior that we use to talk about everything from interface design, to language, to mental illness, to childhood development. (For that matter, evolutionary biology has rejected single-factor views of organisms since the 1950s.)

That's important because even just within our culture, people experience sexuality in different ways. Around the world, sexual orientation is constructed in different ways. Those things matter because Perry isn't the only iron we have in the fire. We need community, support, and media to give a voice to that diversity.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:42 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


The fundamental basis for non-discrimination in religion as understood by our founders is best laid out in Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration. There are two salient points of context around that: First, Europe had been wracked with hundreds of years of bitter war over Prods v. Papists. Second, the underlying basis is that it's a tantamount importance (salvation) that can't be decided by anything but one's conscience. Which is why it's in the 1st amendment, with speech and association. I'm fine with making an argument that sexual behavior is a matter of conscience, but historically it has very much not been viewed that way, most pointedly regarding adultery. Even folks like Mill balk a bit at letting liberalism go that far.
posted by klangklangston at 11:43 AM on March 20, 2013


Case closed. Problem solved. Next topic.

It's the chicken!

Eating Chicken Causes Homosexuality: Top Colombian Model Natalia Paris Claims.

She joins Bolivian President Evo Morales who in 2010 suggested that eating hormone-injected chicken caused men to deviate into homosexuality.
posted by ericb at 12:00 PM on March 20, 2013


I think that for some individuals, deciding which gender to have sex with is a choice. But it is a choice only for those individuals who are attracted to both genders in the first place. Some individuals are attracted only to men, and they probably have no real possibility of chooosing women as sexual partners.

But this is fairly reductionist thinking, making a firm connection between who you sleep with and sexual orientation, saying that being straight is simply a matter of having sex only with people of the opposite sex. I don't know what makes me the way I am, why I am attracted to only one gender, why I practice the gender norms I practice. I do know those practices exist as far back as I can remember, which puts me firmly in the Nature (wait no, Nurture, no Nature, no Nurture) camp. And I know that my sense of my gender is more complex than my choice of sexual partner.
posted by johngumbo at 12:37 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


These debates seem (to me) to be fueled by the ignorance of those members of the public who don't understand modern gene theory and biology very well... like this author.

Uwe Bolt is not the fastest runner in the world simply because he was born with a large heart, large lungs, long legs, and a tendency towards strong tendons and low body fat. No one would say he's the best simply because of birthright. But to argue genetics didn't play a role in making Mr. Bolt what he is, however, is stupid beyond imagining. Could Peter Dinkley (or I) have chosen to achieve what Uwe has done in racing? Not a chance in a (literal) billion; the genetics weren't there.

A genetic predisposition for or against something as complex as human sexual inclinations is never, ever going to be an on/off switch. That doesn't mean Uwe Bolt wasn't born that way: a prime candidate for excelling on the track. Neither does that mean Uwe absolutely must want to be a runner, any more than every tall American boy wants to play basketball. But his body mechanics sure seem to want that...

At some level, psychological inclinations are not nearly as far removed from our biology as we often think. Fair-minded and highly rational judges grant lighter sentences and more paroles after lunch than before. I have no doubt that much of our "rational choice" in life is really largely swayed by our health, blood sugar, comfort, and genetics. And the data backs me up on that assumption.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:07 PM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


(Or maybe he does get it, and I'm getting all turned around. Anyway, fuck whomever you want, folks, just as long as you don't disturb my naps or your partners.)
posted by IAmBroom at 1:14 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's a shame that this question even has to matter, really.
posted by roboton666 at 1:53 PM on March 20, 2013


I had no idea this was even something debated within the LGBTQ community any more. Somewhere along the way I just fully accepted as fact--from my experience I suppose--the notion that we all exist somewhere on the spectrum or continuum of sexual preference due to natural predispositions (though I don't doubt that nurture CAN play a role in how the die is cast). I'm straight, but as Woody Allen said, "I wish I was bi since it would have doubled my chance of getting a date in high-school" (though really it would have just gotten me beaten up a lot--it was that kind of high-school, in GA, in the late-80s).
posted by whatgorilla at 2:13 PM on March 20, 2013


I think we could better spend our time considering how much choice we really have in anything we do. Ever since grade school there have always been plenty of people to tell me I'm doing things wrong. Because I wasn't doing it their way.

For those for whom money is a measure of "success": So far as I know, the first kid in my grade school class to become a millionaire was the one everyone ignored, the one who lived in a run-down house way outside of town near the entrance to the city dump. Guess he was just born that way.
posted by Twang at 5:30 PM on March 20, 2013


As a sociologist, I really need to point out that socially constructed experiences and identities are not "choices" any more than are "purely biological" ones.

Consider this: nausea and vomiting are embodied experiences, what we'd usually call "natural." You eat something rotten or catch a stomach bug, you experience nausea and vomiting. But this response turns out to be deeply socially influenced. For example, it's triggered by food taboos. In the U.S., a good example of a food taboo is eating large insects, like beetles or tarantulas. Now, I can tell you that insects are a good source of protein, and are eaten all over the world, and intellectually, I can get my American students to accept that. But about 90% of the thousands of U.S. college students I've asked to imagine popping a tarantula in their mouths like this girl report that they would gag and/or vomit. (In fact, they often do gag just looking at the photo.) This is not a "choice" they're making, and yet it's also clearly socially constructed--a product of being raised with this particular taboo.

Historically speaking, sexual orientation is a very recent innovation. There have always been sexual relations between men and women, and there have always been sexual relations between people of the same sex, and there have always been gender variant people for whom these categories do not apply. But the idea of being "straight" or "heterosexual" and of that being normative is a 20th century innovation. Our current Western belief that acts evince identities means that anyone having a same-sex sexual experience must query their identity. But that simply wasn't true for much of Western history. Which is not to say that people didn't prefer particular sexes--just that they didn't frame them in the same way we do today, any more than 17th century people thought about red hair or skin color or human odors or autism or romantic marriage in the way that we do.

The idea of stable, lifelong sexual orientations that organize identity for everyone is a recent way of understanding sexuality, so to call it "biological" is very odd. But that's not the same thing as saying it's not "real" or must be open to free will and choice. A stomach flu and eating a tarantula have the exact same affect on those raised to understand insectivorism as a taboo.

I find the endless "born this way" versus "free choice" argument totally useless (and sociologically naive, not that many people care about that). As for me, I base my arguments for the rights of LGBT+ people on respect for persons, human dignity, and the value of honesty and love.
posted by DrMew at 7:01 PM on March 20, 2013 [14 favorites]


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