Rejecting the Gay Brain (and choosing homosexuality)

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The problem with the "no choice" position on homosexuality is that in order to be effective it requires us to forget about the important distinction between desire and behavior.
Joe Sartelle

Issue #14, May 1994


A succinct summary of what might be called "popular gay essentialism" was recently provided by Molly Ivins, the leftist commentator whose collection of essays was a national best-seller. "Homosexuality is not a choice," she wrote in a column from this past December. "It is not a lifestyle. It is a human condition, fixed before one becomes sexually active. It cannot be changed by will. No one chooses to be homosexual any more than people choose to be heterosexual or brown-eyed or left-handed. Homosexuality is not contagious." In recent years a consensus has been emerging both in the American popular media and among people who consider themselves leftist or progressive that homosexuality is the result of constitutional biological differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals, most likely genetic or at least biochemical in nature. The biological account is being accepted more and more as a kind of common sense, something which most people take for granted. The prevailing wisdom is increasingly that it is no longer a question of whether homosexuality is caused by biological differences, but only a matter of when the full proof of such differences will be available.

Gay-rights activists in particular have promoted the idea of a constitutionally "homosexual body" as a means for securing legal protection and social tolerance for gay men, lesbians and other "queer" sexualities. According to the rhetoric surrounding this explanation, a society which considers heterosexuality both natural and normal is more likely to be sympathetic to homosexuals if it can be proven that homosexuality is a fixed biological condition, like skin color or the shape of our noses. The biological explanation is supposed to lead to greater sympathy because it will establish that we "can't help" being homosexuals. Robert Bray, the head of public information for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, put it this way in response to one of the "gay brain" studies that have attracted so much media attention: "It points out that gay people are made this way by nature. It strikes at the heart of people who oppose gay rights and who think we don't deserve our rights because we're choosing to be the way we are." (Quoted in The Nation, October 19, 1992.)

The most famous of all the "gay brain" studies must surely be the research of Simon LeVay, who claimed that he discovered a modest but significant difference in the size of an already tiny section of the brain, the hypothalamus, in a group of dead straight and gay men. His 1993 book The Sexual Brain is an effort at popularizing his theory that sexuality in all its forms is ultimately attributable to physical structures of our brains, everything from mere sexual orientation to preferences for specific kinds of sexual acts and positions. The many serious flaws in LeVay's research and conclusions have been pointed out repeatedly, as have the tentative and problematic nature of the other work that has been done on identifying the biological causes of homosexuality. For example, there was no way to tell from the brains LeVay studied whether the differences in brain structure were the cause or the effect of homosexual behavior. Moreover, there was no verifiable way to determine the men's actual sexual behavior, since they were dead by the time the research was done — the assumption was simply made that the ones who died from HIV infection were homosexuals.

Despite all the warning lights on LeVay's work, it has been received as the first "proof" of the biological basis of sexual orientation by gays and straights alike. The specific flaws of studies such as LeVay's have mattered less than the simple fact of their existence and public dissemination. By linking homosexuality with science, the publicity around the LeVay gay brain studies confers legitimacy upon the biological explanation itself. It promotes faith in the idea that science will soon enough identify the fundamental difference between gay and straight. The eagerness with which the LeVay study has been received and even celebrated indicates that a profound collective wish already existed for just such a "proof" that our sexuality is something forced upon us, that it does not involve free choice and free will.

The wish is especially strong among gays and lesbians, who have of course long insisted that sexual orientation be understood as outside of the realm of individual choice, both because that is how so many of us subjectively experience our sexual desires, and also because the "no choice" argument is directly linked to claims for equal protection under civil rights laws. Such an essentialist understanding of homosexuality is the foundation of current mainstream gay and lesbian political self-representation. Proof of the biologically "hardwired" nature of homosexual desires, in the optimistic scenario of gay people and their progressive straight friends, must inevitably lead to greater acceptance and fair treatment.

However, the problem with the "no choice" position on homosexuality is that in order to be effective it requires us to forget about the important distinction between desire and behavior. The position implies that a desire one can't help feeling is a desire one is entitled to satisfy: thus because homosexuals can't help feeling same-sex attractions, they should therefore be allowed to act on those attractions. However, the logic of this argument cannot hold up to much scrutiny. While we may have no choice about our feelings and desires, we routinely and continually do exercise control over our actions. As the right-wing opponents of gay rights point out, just because you have a desire does not necessarily mean that you should act on it.

Whether we like it or not, the conservative opponents of gay rights are right when they point out that even if research conclusively proves that homosexual feelings are biological in origin and thus not something an individual has any control over, this does not necessarily carry with it the right to act upon those feelings. The constitutionally homosexual body cannot serve as a defense of homosexual behavior, a fact that becomes clear as soon as we apply the reasoning of the no-choice position to feelings and desires other than homosexual attraction. In an appearance on ABC's Nightline in 1991, columnist Cal Thomas, who opposes gay rights, said about the gay brain studies, "I don't think it legitimizes homosexual practice and behavior any more than the discovery of heavy doses of testosterone in a male justifies his adultery or promiscuity."

The comparison is apt. While progressives and liberals have embraced the no-choice position to defend homosexuals, they would be unlikely to accept the logical extension of that position to Thomas' counter-example. If a man's body produces excess levels of testosterone, and he therefore experiences constant feelings of lust or aggression, does the fact that he can't help having these feelings make it legitimate for him to act on them? In the case of sexual behavior, we might be inclined to say yes, as long as he satisfies his desires with a consenting partner. However, research is also well under way into the biological and even genetic basis for violent criminal behavior. There is about as much evidence to support a biological or genetic basis for habitually violent behavior as there is similar evidence about homosexuality.

So if violent and abusive individuals can claim that they, like homosexuals, have no choice about their feelings, that they can't help their impulses to violence, does that mean that we should feel sympathy, respect and tolerance for their essential identities, and grant them the right to attack and abuse, since it is "in their nature" to do so? Even more provocatively, if it can be proven that a rapist's impulses are genetic in origin, does that grant him the right to rape? Do we try to match him up with women who are genetically destined to enjoy sexual abuse? And what do we do if we find a genetic basis for incestuous feelings?

But these are questions that the advocates of the no-choice position on homosexuality must ignore in order to make their argument seem credible. One of the ironies of the current debates about gay rights is that the right-wingers seem to understand human sexuality in much more generous and fluid terms than do so-called progressives and leftists. As the debate about gays in the military made clear, the right-wing position accepts that same-sex attractions are felt by nearly everyone — they just insist that it is morally wrong to act upon them. The right wing's vicious homophobia is thus testimony to an underlying acceptance of the fundamental susceptibility of all individuals to the appeal of homosexual relations. It is as though, in the anti-gay right-wing imagination, people are fundamentally bisexual, which explains their anxieties about seduction and conversion. Indeed, the right-wing insistence on the suppression of homosexuality is a kind of back-handed tribute: they seem to think that if society openly tolerates even a few homosexuals, everyone will want to try it!

There are further ironies here, since scientific research has long supported the basic assumptions of the anti-gay right wing regarding human sexual desire. Ever since Kinsey published his watershed study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, there has been scientific evidence to support what most people already knew (even if we learn not to admit it, even to ourselves), namely that sexual desires and attractions are far more complicated than any simplistic division of "heterosexual" versus "homosexual" can account for. Both that study and the anecdotal evidence of our own everyday experiences suggest that varying degrees of sexual attraction to individuals of both sexes are common enough to qualify as normal for everyone, both men and women. There is also anthropological and historical evidence that other cultures do not always regard heterosexual and homosexual attractions and behaviors to be incompatible with each other. It is our own culture which teaches us to interpret bisexual feelings as "confusion," and to resolve that confusion through self-identification as heterosexual or homosexual.

The consevative right implicitly accepts that homosexual feelings are common and normal, but that you should not act on them. Progressive liberals and leftists, on the other hand, believe that homosexuals have the right to act on those sexual desires — but only by representing homosexuals as people who are distinctively and constitutionally different from heterosexuals. In other words, the left insists homosexuals must be marginalized as a minority identity in relation to the larger society of heterosexuals. In exchange, we will get minority "rights." What both positions have in common is an underlying anxiety about contamination. The "conservatives" seek to contain the threat through absolute moral injunctions, while the "progressives" seek to contain it by making it something absolutely confined to an identifiable group within society. Thus both positions are reaction-formations to the deeper and more frightening recognition of the multiple sexual desires and possibilities that exist within everyone, a recognition that is getting harder and harder to suppress due to the increased visibility and self-respect of gay people. (That is the clear and unambiguous implication, for example, of the argument that gays cannot serve openly in the military because their mere presence is disruptive and unsettling.)

The fear of contamination, which is really a fear of recognition and identification, is at the heart of what might be called the heterosexual alibi, the belief that there are clear and observable differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals that go beyond specifically sexual behavior. In other words, personality traits are supposed to correspond with sexual preferences ("How can he be gay? He played football!"). We should be suspicious of biological explanations of homosexuality because they are likely, in the context of a homophobic society deeply invested in the heterosexual alibi, to function as a reinforcement of stereotypes — even among people who are supportive of gay rights. At the beginning of this article I quoted progressive columnist Molly Ivins' version of the no-choice position on homosexuality, that it is a condition fixed at birth. She initially sets up homosexuality as merely another physical quality like eye-color or left-handedness, but in the very next paragraph of her column it suddenly becomes implicitly equated with a specific kind of personality. Attempting to enlighten her Texas readers in the wake of the scandal involving gay-affirmative Apple Computer's plans to open a plant in rural Texas, Ivins says that homosexuality "has existed in every type of society throughout human history." The next paragraph opens: "In fact, one of the most famous drag queens in history was from Round Rock" (a small town in the same Texas county where Apple proposed the plant).

The slippage between "homosexual" and "drag queen" implies an equivalence between the two, as though they are essentially interchangeable terms. Of course, many gays and lesbians also participate in this kind of stereotyping and reification of gay identity. Homosexuals buy into the heterosexual alibi as well — the idea that a certain sexual preference necessarily correlates with certain other kinds of preferences, particularly the idea that to be homosexual is to be a gender invert, a man with a woman's personality or vice versa. Promotion of the biological explanation of homosexuality does not necessarily have to lead to the reinforcement of stereotypes, but in the context of actually-existing social attitudes and prejudices it is likely to do just that.

And that brings up the most obvious and certainly most ominous danger in the biological explanation and defense, which is that there is no necessary reason why the homosexual body cannot be understood by homophobic society as a sick body in need of a cure. An association already exists in public discourse and the popular imagination between gay men and AIDS. In other words, the specifically male homosexual body is strongly linked not just to fun images like drag queens, but also to images of death and disease. When they argue that a genetic or biological origin for homosexuality must lead to greater social acceptance and protection, the proponents of the no-choice position conveniently forget that there are all sorts of genetic conditions about which individuals have no choice, and which are considered unhealthy and unacceptable. Again, the point here is that the simple fact that we do not choose to be a certain way does not by any means inevitably result in the conclusion that it is acceptable to be that way.

The fear of contamination tells us a good deal about why gay-affirmative heterosexuals would wish to embrace a biological explanation of sexual orientation. But why would so many gays and lesbians continue to find it so attractive and compelling, given the objections I have outlined here? In order to answer that, we need to look not at whether such explanations are true, but rather what functions they perform. At a practical and individual level, the lives of many gay men and lesbians have been made much easier through the defense that that they cannot help being who they are. Families, friends, and employers who cannot accept homosexuality as a choice may accept it as a biological destiny. And even if it's not true, the belief in some kind of biological essence of homosexuality is a useful fantasy about the distinctiveness of homosexuals as a people, as if we were an ethnicity or race (which is the currently prevailing model for understanding identity).

But as any racial or ethnic minority will tell you, just because you didn't "choose" your identity by no means guarantees that people will tolerantly accept your identity. And I think that most gays and lesbians know this, even when they are defending themselves with the no-choice argument. So why do so many cling to it as their best hope? Whenever we find people repeatedly insisting upon something, we need to ask just who it is they're seeking to convince. Think for a moment about the implications of the very language of the no-choice defense. To justify a behavior by saying "I can't help it" is to imply that if you could help it, you would. I think that the popularity of biological accounts of homosexual desire among gay people has to be understood as a way of coping with deeply-rooted homophobia. What else can it be when we defend ourselves by saying things like, "Do you think anybody would choose to be this way?" This is a defensive position, one that implicitly accepts that there is something wrong with homosexuality, that it is indeed an abnormality which demands to be explained. It suggests that if we did have a choice in the matter, we would choose to be heterosexual. The position is both totally understandable and completely unacceptable.

We need to reject the no-choice argument because it allows us to be accepted only by representing ourselves as victims, in this case, victims of desires over which we have no control. There is nothing progressive about such a position, despite the fact that so many straight leftists have taken up the biological account as a progressive step forward. In blaming our uncontrollable biologies for our sexual desires, wherever those desires lead us, we simply reinforce our existing alienation from our bodies and our sexuality. A truly progressive position — whether or not it would be "leftist" — would be to take full responsibility for our desires as well as the actions and satisfactions they drive us toward. Only then can we make meaningful and human decisions about what sorts of desires are acceptable and what sorts of desires we must suppress.

Those are the difficult questions confronting a society in which diversity is valued and old normative standards are falling down all around us. The fantasy of the essentially and biologically homosexual body is, among other things, a fantasy about abdication of responsibility for our feelings and actions. It is about the wish to escape from responsibility, to let someone or something else make the decisions for us — in this case, by holding our biology responsible for our behavior. It is dangerous because it encourages us to forget that what is most human is our ability to choose what we do with our bodies, sexually or otherwise. Since homosexual desire is perfectly normal, there is no need to account for it, and there is no reason to repress it. Who cares what causes it? Just say yes. Homosexual relations should be accepted for the same reasons as any other consensual form of sexual expression: as an affirmation of our human freedom, and a celebration of the pleasures of being a body among other bodies.

Copyright © 1994 by Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.

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