Saturday, July 5, 2008

origins of homosexuality

What does it mean to be politically existential? The question of homosexuality and its origins is a good avenue to attack the question.

For some time now the debate over gay marriage and gay rights has been centered on the question of the origins of homosexuality. Those who support gay rights, generally, make the argument that because homosexuals (in their view) are intrinsically gay-- or, less charitably worded, forced to be gay-- we must permit gay rights, gay marriage, gay adoption, etc. Traditionally, opponents of gay rights and gay marriage, in contrast, have asserted that homosexuality is a choice, and that as a choice, it has moral content-- and in the minds of those opposed to homosexuality, homosexual acts (or lifestyle, whatever that means) has negative moral content.

The degree to which someone is predisposed to homosexual behavior is a scientific question and one which I am not equipped to answer. It seems very likely to me that there is some physiological connection behind homosexual attraction. Note, though, that the fact that something is physiological doesn't necessarily mean it is necessarily genetic. The older brothers hypothesis points to a physiological origin, but it is not genetic; rather, environmental factors (the number of older brothers, and perhaps the presence of anti-male antibodies) in this view cause homosexuality.

Note also that there is a large difference between saying that something has psychological factors, and saying that it is a choice. Consider schizophrenia. (Please note that I use this comparison not to insinuate that homosexuality is a mental disorder, but only to talk about similar combinations of psychology and physiology.) The best current evidence on schizophrenia, as I understand it, is that there is a combination of genetic predisposition, exposure to certain environmental factors, and psychological factors at play. Saying that there is a psychological component to schizophrenia does not mean that schizophrenia is a choice. That false dichotomy, between pure genetics and pure choice, has dominated the debate on homosexuality for too long.

Personally, I imagine that the origins of homosexuality are likewise a combination of genetics, environment, and psychology. I think the idea that it is purely genetic in origin is just as reductive and stupid as saying that it is purely a choice. But as I said, it's an empirical question, and one I don't have the answer to.

But in the larger philosophical sense, it is immaterial what creates homosexual attraction. The fundamental idea of existentialism, or my kind of existentialism, anyway, is that we must judge people by their actions, by their choices in the world. And-- this is where things become controversial-- whatever is true about the origins of homosexual attraction, homosexual behavior is the product of choice. People choose to have sex, just like they choose to do anything. Whatever predispositions a person has to any kind of behavior, there is still the choice. In the age of genetic determinism, which tries and tries to reduce people to objects in the world, which seeks to rob them of their freedom and responsibility, this fact must be remember. Whatever dispositions to certain behaviors exist, the individual still faces the choice.

Now, certain choices are harder or easier to make. Certain people really have more or less difficulty in choosing a certain path. The alcoholic indeed has a harder time choosing not to pour the drink. But he still makes the choice; he still directs his own behavior; he still has dasein. None of the genetic determinists can change this fact, not Steven Pinker or Charles Murray or Steve Sailer. I don't believe in racial predisposition to lower IQs. But suppose that theory is correct; it remains immaterial. The black person who takes the IQ test has the same choice in answering the questions that a white person does. He and only he chooses answer A, or B, or C.... According to the hereditarian view, the black person doesn't have the same tools with which to answer the questions as his white counterpart. But when is life ever different? No one ever has identical choices, no one ever makes choices with the same benefits or hindrances. What everyone shares is the choice, their ability to make sense out of their own life through their conduct in the world.

So that probably means I'm opposed to gay rights and gay marriage, since I think people choose whether or not to have gay sex, right? Not at all. I support gay rights and gay marriage enthusiastically. I simply reject the notion that support for gay rights must come only from a belief that gay people "can't help being that way." My support for gay rights and gay marriage comes from first principles, from a basic belief in the rights of anyone to self-determine, in the notion that an adult should have the ability to choose to have sex with whoever he or she wants, to engage in the contract of marriage with whoever he or she wants.

Consider that vision of gay rights, which says that because they are forced to homosexuality, gay people should have the rights. What an incredibly insulting vision of homosexuality! Gay people shouldn't have rights because they are gay and can't help it. They should have rights because they are people. What could be more insulting that saying that a person is the way they are because they can't help it, so we should let them be that way?

But this is worse: that vision of homosexuality, supposedly supportive of gay people, consigns gay people to the status of objects in the world. They don't choose to act, but are vessels for the desires of their homosexual nature. They don't choose and maneuver through the world; they are moved by their nature. They are denied their humanity because their actions are considered out of their control.

Another consequence of the existential is that, because we must always judge someone by their behavior (and not "what they are"), we can never consider a person defined until their death. You are never done with the process of making yourself. In that sense, then, there is no such thing as a homosexual; there is only someone who has participated in homosexual activities. (Just as there is no such thing as a straight person.) Now, in day to day life, do I use the term "a gay person" or "a homosexual"? Sure, just as I use the words "a liar", "a plagiarist", "an ethical person." But I remain open to the fact that their behavior is not finished, that they are not complete, that they are not an object in the world.

This fact is why I am often bothered by the close-mindedness of many people who self-identify as members of the gay community. Many gay men (there I go again) tend to deride the idea that a man who has had sex with other men can be anything other than gay. We understand that there are men who have had sex with women, gotten married to a woman, and had children, who might later self-identify as gay. But the reverse tends to be dismissed as self-hatred, self-denial, a closet-case. I don't understand why a movement that believes in sexual freedom and the right to self-determine seems so ready to confine some to definitions that they reject.

The thing to remember, if you think like me, is that no one has ever become anything. They are in the process of becoming.


ryan said...

Followed your link from here. This was posted before I had discovered your site, hence the time difference.

I agree with your post entirely except when it comes to the idea of gay marriage. Just as your first principles would support the idea, mine cut against it, for exactly the reasons you lay out in the rest of your post. Sexual behavior of any kind is behavior, and never devoid of moral weight. Just as being predisposed to alcoholism is no excuse for being a drunk, so being predisposed to homosexuality (or promiscuity, which is much more common) is no excuse for engaging in proscribed sexual behavior. You and I may disagree as to what counts as "proscribed sexual behavior," but not on the principle that excludes it.

I believe that marriage, fundamentally, spiritually if you will, is a covenant relationship between a man and woman in the sight of God. So the only "right" anyone has to marriage (and I don't believe there is such a thing, but if there were it would look like this) is to marry one (1) person of the opposite gender who is not married to someone else at the time. Men marrying men obviously doesn't fit there. I don't imagine you'd accuse me of being inconsistent, even if you disagree with my beliefs, yes?

I would like to ask you something though. Even setting aside the issue of men marrying men, marriage is already restricted in a number of ways. You can't marry more than one person. You can't marry someone else's spouse. You can't marry close relatives. Would you consider those restrictions violations of equal protection?

If you do, then if you want to advocate for gay marriage you really do need to advocate for legal recognition of polygamy and incest as well, as all are equally sexual relationships currently proscribed by the law.

If you don't, why should some people's self-determination be legally privileged and others' not? Prudential arguments shouldn't be available to you here, because you've based your advocacy for gay marriage on a fundamental human right. No prudential argument can justify giving that to one person and denying it to another.

So which is it?

Freddie said...

I think there's pragmatic reasons for allowing gay marriage and not polygamy, in that marriage between two people has a multitude of legal and pragmatic structures that can be easily applied to two men or two women. That isn't the case with polygamy. At some point, of course, all of this stuff becomes arbitrary, and when it comes to arbitrary decisions I can follow only my heart.

As far as incestuous relationships-- I actually don't have a legal obligation to them. Do they majorly creep me out? Yes. Do I think brothers and sisters should be having children? Absolutely not. But I don't think the state should be telling them they can't be together. Maybe that's taken libertarian social values too far, but that's how I feel.

ryan said...

Again, if your only objection to polyandrous relationships is pragmatic, that doesn't seem to override your belief that self-determination is a fundamental right, the denial of which is a significant moral wrong. I think consistency would require you to either permit them or come up with a moral difference between those and non-poly relationships.

Personally, I'm pretty ambivalent about the extent of state power. I think libertarianism, as a moral theory, is completely incompatible with a serious Christian worldview, even though I happen to think that small government works best. I don't think there's any such thing as human rights, so I can't get too excited about the idea that the state is abridging them. I do think that civil rights are socially useful, and that a state which has the best interests of its citizens at heart would be wise to protect them, but I couldn't say, for example, that violations of due process are a moral wrong.

To be honest, I'm a lot more concerned about whether or not the church recognizes homosexual relationships as legitimate than whether or not the state does. I assume the state is going to do things that are in opposition to God's revealed will, so the idea that it would do so here, while disappointing, isn't surprising or that big of a deal. I would prefer that the state not recognize anything but traditional marriage, largely for the same kinds of reasons that Megan describes here, but I don't think it will be the End of the World if it happens.

James said...

Perhaps I can shed some light here as a gay man. I can remember having gay "feelings" since the second grade, long before I was capable of actually engaging in a sex act of any kind. It was a feeling of closeness, intimacy and bonding that was far different than my other male friendships at that age. Again, I don't want to overly sexualize the experience, but it's important to note that this element continued for me into my adulthood in terms of how I relate to some men.

This doesn't mean I find all men attractive by any stretch, or that I can't appreciate a beautiful woman. It's simply that the intimacy and "belonging" that heterosexuals feel in heterosexual relationships have only come to me in my relationships with other males. The sex is a peripheral but enhancing element of it.

It might surprise you to know that I don't believe gay marriage is a Constitutional right. That is, I don't think that gay marriage can easily be derived as a right naturally emanating from the very minimalist Constitution. That being said, I think it undemocratic to deny the request of those who are only seeking to protect the relationships with the people they care for.

I did try "praying it away" for a good 5-6 years during my fundie years. It didn't work. As it stands, I try to remain a moral person within my life insofar as I am capable: remaining faithful when I am in a long-term relationship, being honest and generous, etc.

To Ryan: if the world was topsy-turvy and you were told that your attraction to women was evil and immoral, what would you do? Would you simply choose celibacy, despite your internal belief that it was NOT necessarily a bad thing?

Marshirbeth said...

I totally disagree too what you are trying to drive out. Yes it's right that anyone has the right to make their own choices. But not all choices are right. And I oppose to what you said that in the presence of choice,there is the presence of a moral point.Not all choices have morals. Goodness gracious! You are trying to justify another sin - homosexuality. You're just like telling God that He's wrong for destroying Soddom and Gommorrah!!!

Anonymous said...

Here is a question that hasn't entered the debate. Where do we fit biology into this discussion? James asked what Ryan would do if he was told his desire for women was wrong. The reality of his anatomy and the anatomy of women would give empirical evidence that men and women are compatible. The heart of the issue with homosexuality is that ones mind is sending a message that is contrary to reality (i.e. their anatomy and it's compatibility).

Anonymous said...