On Rights and Sexuality
The combination of the passage of proposition 8 in California and Barack Obama’s decision to have Rick Warren give the invocation at his inauguration caused an outcry on the left concerning the issue of gay rights. Among the various arguments that arose during this time, one ideological split struck me as particularly noteworthy, and potentially troublesome. On the one hand there seemed to be a certainty on the left that homosexuality is rooted in biology. On the other hand the right seemed just as certain that homosexuality is not rooted in biology but is instead freely chosen as a “lifestyle.”
My specific concern with this split pertains to the short-sightedness on the part of the left when advancing the argument that gay rights are somehow dependent on the roots of homosexuality being located inside the genetic code or some other physical cause. Now there may well be such a link. Certainly there is some evidence to support it, though such evidence is not considered conclusive at this time. At the end of the day this will be a question for science to answer. Insofar as politics is concerned, however, the question at hand is one of civil rights. After reviewing the argument as I understand it, I can only conclude that the strategy of linking the civil rights of gay people to the notion that homosexuality is rooted in physiology is misguided. We begin our analysis with a real world example rooted in such an argument.
The following is a rough transcript from “The Ron Reagan show,” a radio show broadcast from Seattle by self-described liberal atheist Ron Reagan. Here he is having a discussion with Chuck Wolfe, the president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Leadership Institute. Also speaking is a caller to the show from Seattle.
Ron Reagan: Had Rick Warren offered the opinion that black and white people should not be allowed to marry, I don’t suppose that under those circumstances we can imagine Obama would have had had him anywhere near the inauguration but how is that really any different from what he’s saying about gay people?
Caller: Well I know the difference between those two and I know you do too…we don’t have enough people that agree there is a similarity between, you know, the color of your skin and your sexual orientation.
Ron Reagan: Both conditions of birth.
Caller: Yeah I think so too, and a lot of people think so, and in this great city a lot of people think so, but a lot of people don’t, and until you have agreement that it’s not something you can choose, widespread agreement, you’re not going to get to make that comparison.
Ron Reagan: Well I can make that comparison anytime I want; I don’t have to have people agreeing with me.
Rick Wolfe: I think your comparison is fair.
Ron Reagan: I do too, I do too.
Now there is no question that those who are opposed to homosexuality would like very much to push back against the idea that homosexuality is a condition of birth. Here is an excerpt from a NARTH (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality) paper titled: “Homosexuality and Biological Factors: Real Evidence — None; Misleading Interpretations: Plenty.”
Now what is the truth? First, that not a single genetic, physiological, anatomical, or neuroanatomical correlate of homosexuality has been demonstrated. Secondly, that contrary to the impression they confer, precisely the studies of the last 15-20 years have made the existence of such correlates more unlikely than before. Thirdly, that these realities are either not perceived or purposely kept out of awareness because most academic publications on homosexuality are influenced or determined by the predominant gay ideology.
Clearly these two sides disagree on the subject of whether or not homosexuality has its roots in physical causes. The left feels that it is important to promulgate the notion that sexuality has biological roots and is a condition of birth, and the right is certain that this line of thinking is a “predominant gay ideology” of the left that must be combated.
The left should ask itself however: Is it really necessary to prove the biological roots of homosexuality in order to advance the cause of gay rights? If the right were to become victorious in proving that there is no “gay gene” would this have an impact on the culture war in a way that was meaningful? To answer these questions, let us consider the core arguments.
The argument from the left can be boiled down to something like the following:
1. Sexuality, including homosexuality, is rooted in biology and is a function of genes (or some other physical factor).
2. We are not able to choose the things about ourselves that are determined by biology.
3. Therefore homosexuality is not a function of choice, it stems from nature.
4. Human attributes that stem from nature, like the color of our skin or the orientation of our sexual desire cannot (will not) be made the basis for social discrimination.
The argument seems coherent enough assuming that one accepts all the propositions. For the sake of argument let us accept the first three. But what about the forth proposition? The entire reason for proving that homosexuality is rooted in nature is to get to that fourth proposition, for as the caller to the radio show stated, “until you have agreement that it’s not something you can choose, widespread agreement, you’re not going to get to make that comparison,” i.e. the comparison between the natural attributes “sexual orientation” and “skin color.” But the caller and the argument make an assumption here that is demonstrably false: They both assume that if a given attribute of a human being is rooted in nature this will be a sufficient condition for that attribute to be excluded from consideration when determining whether or not the possessor of that attribute should be granted civil rights. Unfortunately this assumption does not hold.
In the world of power and politics the question of whether or not a particular attribute of a person can be made the basis for discrimination against them is purely a function of the power dynamics of the society they live in, and the commonly shared values that hold sway in that society at that particular historical moment. The question of whether the attribute being controlled by society is biological or is generated by a free mind is utterly irrelevant. Consider Nazi Germany. It did not help the Jews one bit that part of what “makes up a Jew” can be based on a biological lineage. In fact it was precisely this heritage that the Nazi’s used to identify “suspected Jews.” Nor would some fellow who had converted to Judaism of his own free will be safe if after being arrested for his beliefs he declared “I am a Jew of my own free choice, I was not born a Jew.” Women were not given the right to vote because it was discovered that they had a biological basis for their “condition” of being women, nor were African Americans given civil rights because they had dark skin as a “condition of birth.” It was precisely their “conditions of birth” that were used, in conjunction with a whole host of arbitrary and false assertions about what these physical differences signified, to justify their subjugation in the first place.
The civil rights of these disenfranchised groups were granted to them not because of their conditions of birth, but in spite of the conditions of their birth and the false and cruel judgments that society had heretofore made about those conditions. The civil rights of African Americans and of women were granted to them by society not because they have this or that physical attribute, but because those conditions are now considered by our society to be irrelevant to the question of their humanity. Our civil rights are based on what we have in common as sentient free willed creatures capable of pursuing life liberty and happiness in spite of all the various differences between us.
Now just as the particular values of a given society determine how the “natural conditions” of birth will be viewed and treated by that society, so too will the free actions of those who live in that society be scrutinized and judged according to that society’s values. In the case of our own society it is the political and religious right that would like us all to share their judgments about homosexuality, which they regard as immoral and perverse. Their argument runs roughly like this:
1. Sexuality, including homosexuality, is a choice.
2. Homosexuality is perverse and/or immoral.
3. Therefore people who engage in homosexuality are perverse and/or immoral.
4. Perverse and immoral people should not be granted the same rights as other people.
The argument constructed by the left, which we have just considered, is an attempt to take away proposition number one. If homosexuality is not a choice, if sexualities arise in bodies as an expression of genetic code or some other physical factor then, so the argument goes, it will not be possible to accuse homosexuals of being immoral since morality implies a choice, and they do not have a choice since their sexuality is determined by their biology. Is this really the argument that the left would like to make its stand on?
Consider the following thought experiment. Let us assume that absolutely conclusive research has discovered a gene that is 100% determinative in causing homosexuality. There is universal agreement among the sciences on this matter. Also let us assume that it is easy to test for this genetic marker.
If it could be shown through genetic testing for this new marker that 90% of people professing to be gay were gay because of the gene but 10% were gay by choice (so demonstrated because they did not have the gene), would the left then be OK with allowing social sanctions to be placed on that remaining 10% who do not have the luxury of pointing to their genes to “justify” their behavior?
Is it plausible that the revelation of such a genetic marker would end the debate on the right? Yes it is conceivable that some percentage of people who are opposed to homosexuality are only so opposed because they believe it is a choice and not a biological phenomenon. But given that the reasons behind most of the judgments against homosexuality are rooted in religious texts it seems more likely that opponents of homosexuality would merely shift their argument and dispense with proposition 1. They could suggest that the gene itself was a manifestation of biological error or that the gene was “evil,” or “from the devil.” They could recommend the development of gene therapy to expunge the gene. Given our history it is not hard to imagine that a biologically based attribute could be turned against a particular group as a sign of their inferiority or imperfection. In any case there is no logically necessary connection between letting go of proposition 1. and ceding the matter by letting go of proposition 2.
Let us consider an alternative thought experiment. Let us assume that after much research, exhaustive documentation of the human genetic code, brain scans, and so forth, no physical cause for homosexuality is found. Proposition 1. is proven correct. Will the left now concede the whole argument? Will gay people cease and desist from their behavior and agree to proposition two, namely that their behavior is immoral? While it is conceivable that some gay people are only comfortable with their sexuality because of a belief that it is biologically rooted, it seems extremely unlikely that this argument would go very far as it is patently clear that many people do not believe that homosexuality is immoral, regardless of its source.
So now we come to the crux of this entire matter: All of the propositions in all of these arguments are in the end irrelevant to the issue of gay rights except for proposition number two, the proposition that homosexuality is immoral.
The war over gay rights is a war over values and beliefs. On the one hand we have groups of individuals who, largely for reasons rooted in religious beliefs, would like to prevent homosexuals from being granted certain legal rights. Against these groups stand other groups who would like to grant individuals who express the attribute “homosexual” the same set of legal rights currently granted to those who express the attribute “heterosexual,” regardless of the source of this attribute though they seem not to want to explicitly argue for this last point.
This reluctance is curious. Why is it that advocates for gay rights spend so much time fighting for the idea that homosexuality is a biological condition when it seems clear that a) they would not consider homosexuality immoral even if it were determined that homosexuality arises out of choice and b) proof that homosexuality is rooted in genetics would in no way guarantee that persecution of homosexuals would cease?
There are a number of answers to this question but I would like to focus on one in particular here. I think it may be due in part to what philosopher Austin Dacey calls “The Privacy Fallacy.” The Privacy Fallacy is the belief, currently popular in the secular left, that discussion of moral valuations, particularly moral valuations that come from religions, should be banished to the private sphere. The original purpose of this move was to make “matters of conscience—religion, ethics, and values” private. “By making conscience private,” Dacey writes, “secular liberals had hoped to prevent believers from introducing sectarian beliefs into politics. But of course they couldn’t, since freedom of belief means believers are free to speak their minds in public.”
The obsession with some on the left with the biological roots of homosexuality is, I think, a direct result of the Privacy Fallacy. Seeking to avoid a conflict over values, which are “private” and “relative” and therefore “uncontestable,” the left has chosen to try to avoid the entire argument that must inevitably occur by hiding behind the possibility of removing homosexuality from a moral calculus via biological fate. But this move is merely delaying the inevitable, and avoiding important facts at hand.
It is the beliefs and values codified in our constitution that protect our liberties. Each and every value in that document must be fought for, every day, intellectually, morally, and passionately. The reason that we have a separation of church and state is not to shove secularists into a corner from which they cannot speak and to allow advocates for this or that particular religion to say whatever they wish, but to allow for a full collision of all ideas under the umbrella of a free and open society.
The idea that homosexuality is immoral and should treated by society as an attribute that disqualifies the possessor from the legal rights associated with marriage or the legal ability to raise children is an idea that can be questioned and critiqued directly without reference to the cause or causes of homosexuality. If our secular society is to make rational progress on this issue then the claim that homosexuality is immoral must be critiqued directly and honestly using all the tools of reason and not sidestepped with arguments that ultimately have little bearing on the case.