Alex Blaze

Beyond genetics, beyond choice

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 01, 2007 2:10 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: causes of homosexuality, Ellen DeGeneres, lesbian, queer theory, Rosie O'Donnell, sexual autonomy, sexual orientation

We've gotten into the discussion several times here on the Project about the causes of sexual orientation, and I thought I'd jump in this weekend, mainly because the subjects of autonomy and biology have been on my mind.

I keep on hearing over and over again, "It's not a choice, it's genetic," and that needs to stop. Statements that posit genetics and volition at opposite ends of a spectrum are like nails on a chalkboard to someone who has studied biology. The statement is wrong because:

  1. "Genetics" and "choice" aren't mutually exclusive. There are human traits that are both. (Like body weight, hair color, and athletic ability.)
  2. "Genetics" and "choice" don't encompass everything. There are human traits that are neither. (Like having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, being born into a rich family, or speaking English natively.)
  3. "Genetics" and "choice" aren't stable subjects. They can each take on different meanings depending on context.
  4. Such terms are defined based on cultural contexts and climates. Expecting science to come up with a dogma on the issue that explains everyone's sexual orientation is inherently expecting the politicization of science.
There, I let it out! Oh, ok, I explain myself more fully after the jump.

I often wonder why so many queers cling to the "It's not a choice, it's genetic" mantra. I'm beginning to think that it has a lot to do with the way choice is posited in our culture. We often hear, think, and say things like, "He chose to cross the border illegally, so he deserves whatever he has coming to him," or, "She chose to drop out of high school, so if she can't pay to go to the doctor, that's her fault." Choice is ugly in American culture. It's an attack. It's something to beat people over the heads with until they capitulate and "choose" something different or just crawl into a hole to escape the violence.

So I can understand why many queers will cling to what they think is the opposite of "choice". But genetics is not the answer. Most of us remember Mendel's pea pods from high school biology, how the ones that got the "yy" genotype were yellow and the ones that received the "Yy" or "YY" genotypes were green. It was simple - get a certain result in a genetic role of the dice and the pea pods are one color or another. Unfortunately for us, the human psyche is far more complicated than a pea pod.

Take, for example, body weight. While there are some who will say that it's completely genetic and others who will say that it's completely a choice, I think that this discussion is further along in developing than the one on sexual orientation. There is some choice involved, that much we know. Someone can't gain weight without eating the food necessary to gain that weight, but that doesn't mean that eating that food is a complete choice from which everyone starts at the same point. Some people are compelled, from their genetics, upbringing, culture, and psychological state, to eat more food than others. And some people metabolize more slowly, based on a combination of genetics and action, actions that can be compelled by the same factors that influence the amount someone eats.

This we're all more comfortable talking about for whatever reasons. But sexuality should be seen as far more complex.

While we may not experience any choice in which direction we're attracted, that doesn't mean that it was written into our gene code. Sexual identity, primarily, is a choice. How do we know someone is gay? This discussion reminds me of an interview with Rosie O'Donnell that I read years ago. She was saying, before she publicly came out, that she was talking with Ellen and telling her that everyone must know she's a lesbian. She was daytime TV's Queen of Butch, for crying out loud. But Ellen told her that until you say something, people are going to assume that you're straight.

Which is true. Even the biggest flamer or butchest woman, if he or she dresses gender normatively and chooses to follow all those rules as much as he or she can, can convince the average straight person that he or she is straight by virtue of saying it. It's only when we express our gender as we choose (which has come to be equated with sexual orientation in our culture), verbalize our sexuality, or otherwise express what we interpret our hormones are after that straight people, even many queer people, will identify someone else as queer.

Since sexual identity is expressed through language, and language works within constraints of what's intelligible and what labels already exist to define what's possible, then is it a choice or genetic? Which one is the language we speak, genetics or choice?

And that's just knowing if someone else identifies as gay, straight, or bi. What about ourselves? Those attractions to certain people or sexes have to be interpreted so that we know what to do with them. But just because we only have a few words to describe something like sexuality doesn't mean that it always falls neatly into a category. How many people here know a hard-core lesbian who's slept with a man? How many people here know a gay man who likes watching straight porn? How many people here know someone who identifies as bisexual? How many people here know someone who one day will identify as bisexual?

So we have the politicization of science if we expect it to ignore that diversity, messiness, and reality, and look for a cause to something we're only describing a certain way because that's what we have the language for and because we love to simplify everything down into a binary, like "gay" or "straight". And that's why these studies on the origin of sexuality usually look so asinine when evaluated from a scientific perspective instead of a pop cultural one. How can we find the "gay gene" if the idea of gay is at least partly the product of something entirely non-genetic?

And why aren't people looking for the bisexual gene? Does anyone care to find that? And, to paraphrase Leslie Feinberg, what about the "well, I was really drunk one night at college..." gene?

That's not to say that there isn't a modicum of choice involved in all of this. Just because we don't choose the language we think and speak in doesn't mean that we can't choose to expand it or we can't simply choose another label to identify with. But my choice to identify as gay or to express my sexuality by kissing boys isn't the same as if my straight brother had made it, and just because many straight male fundies are happy with their choice to marry women doesn't mean that I would be happy making that same choice.

In that context "choice" can mean something different than an ugly signification of deviation from a norm, a fall from Grace, a self-deception, a straying from the path that someone else had all-knowingly lain out for us. It can be a term that says, in light of specific economic, political, cultural, linguistic, environmental, and, yes, genetic contexts that posit people in different positions and that change with time, people have the right to express themselves and make decisions for themselves in ways that work for their lives. A choice that's destructive if you make it doesn't mean that it's destructive if I make it, because we're each making that decision from a different position, providing for different results.

And, in the end, isn't that what we're really looking for, substantive autonomy? We might not think that it's a smart idea on which to base a movement, but there's already been a choice movement around for a while that's had some significant successes. Quite conveniently, it's called the pro-choice movement, and the idea isn't just that people can choose to do whatever, screw everyone else; it's that specific choices, in this case reproductive, are best left up to individuals to make in light of everything going on in their lives and their own morality.

I think that's a perfect metaphor for what we should be trying to achieve with queer rights activisms - moving beyond "choice" as "fault" and "not choice" as "genetics". Reducing the complexity of human sexuality to an advertising slogan might seem advantageous in the short term, but we're not going to dismantle the heteropatriarchy by playing its game of reduction, categorization, and normification.

Most importantly, we have to stop saying, "It's not a choice, it's genetic," because that's just irritating.


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As I have posted several times before, Alex, I'm with you on this issue 100% ... or at least 95%, which is damn good considering how complex an issue this topic is.

One subtle aspect of this question that you didn't go into in this post, but I am sure you fully understand, is the difference between a biologic trait being genetically mandated and some different trait being genetically influenced. For example, say, the bone structure of the human knee is genetically mandated --- except for minor differences in blood vessels, all well-formed knee joints have essentially the same layout. But many traits, and especially psychological ones, are merely genetically influenced --- for example, say, intelligence. If we were to clone various sets of humans, each set containing 1,000 genetically identical individuals, and test them for IQ on their 21st birthday, the genome-identical clones would not all test exactly the same ... but we would find that one genome set would tend to fall within one IQ range, and another genome set would tend to fall within a lower or higher IQ range. (Of course, this example is speculative, because this exact experiment has not been done. But most psychologists and psychometrists who are experts on the subject of intelligence would expect these results.)

In light of this distinction, there is substantial evidence that sexual orientation might be genetically influenced --- and there is practically no evidence, that I know of, that it is genetically mandated. And because the "It's genetic" claim is such sloppy science, I can only conclude that many claim it to be Gospel-Truth because covertly they regard it as a political shortcut to social acceptance. But it is a shortcut that is illegitimate and which we should not take, because it promotes a map of reality which is over-simplified and ultimately false.

Good piece. I think it boils down to people's misinterpretation of concepts such as environment and biology; the situation gets even worse when it comes to explaining the interrelationships between such factors. It is a common tendency for people to resort to false dichotomies, though not a surprise. Considering the national performance levels on science and math literacy, which fall well behind those of other regions, such as South America (How pleasing for you! I have mentioned South America without having the word "retrograde" in the same sentence; I have a feeling that this time you won't get a bad case of ruffled feathers)and Europe.

It has to do mainly with media propaganda, though. People in the U.S. are cultivated to not like science. It is dorky, anti-cultural, filled with godless communists. It doesn't leave much incentive for people to take an interest on such a subject, especially when it more often than not comes off as an iconoclastic discipline.

I also agree that the dogmatically determinist perspective present in the natural sciences (and social sciences to some degree, although they are less devout in this practice and get scorned by their counterpart for this) community will make it quite difficult to properly explore the issue of sexuality and its origin.

A.J. brought up a point I forgot to mention in my previous comment, and this reminds me of a discussion I had about genetics and sociopathy with a couple of visiting friends. Most people make the mistake of forgetting about there being genetically predisposed traits that may or may not trigger depending on interaction with the environment. Schizophrenia also falls into this category.

I also forgot to say that I must differ with Alex in saying that exploring "gayness" through a scientific vehicle would politicize it. It is not science's problem if politics wants to meddle; scientific research should not modify itself to avoid negative attention and controversy. As long as the process conducted is scientifically sound and possible, then mostly every topic can be fair game.

Alex, you're so right. When I saw the movie "X-Men: Last Stand," I thought it was a perfect metaphor for this debate. If gayness is seen as a genetic trait, it's not too far fetched to believe that science will eventually look for a "cure" for gayness. Hell, couples might even get genetic testing before they conceive to make sure they don't have the gay gene to pass onto their kids.

If there is a gay gene, my family's got it in spades. But you make a fine point about choice. My hair color is genetic, but I change it every time I go to the hairdresser. When I say I'm a lesbian, it's because I have incorporated my sexual orientation into the rest of my identity.

As for gay men watching straight porn, are you trying to tell us something, Alex? ;^)

Allen~

The genetically "mandated" and "influenced distinction was what I was subtly trying to make with the pea pods example and the body weight example, since people are able to discuss those more honestly, for some reason (with all the emotion that surrounds body image in our culture, I find it bizarre that we can have more honest conversations about weight's origins than sexuality's). But even that distinction is more complex than those two terms, since something can be "genetically mandated" but not become a reality (like hair color or having a spinal column that closes, which won't happen in the absence of folic acid), be "genetically influenced" to differing degrees (moderately influenced, like IQ, or heavily influenced, like baldness), and be genetically influenced but dependent on "choice" and not "environmental factors" (which is an even more complicated distinction).

I am not so sure i totally agree.....

being borne TS is not a choice it is ether genetics or environment take your pick nobody unless you are a Non Op or a TG would ever go through transition and the hell it puts you through.

in terms of TS some do make a choice they are board with their hetro or homo sex lives and they decide it's time for an upgrade. You usually can spot them a mile a way. And in the end they usually are dissatisfied with their choice because it was sexually motivated in the first place.

I disagree with you regarding sexual identity being expressed wholly through language at least from a verbal sense it is expressed more often thorough non verbal channels. through body language more then what a person verbalizes. Maybe we are on the same wavelength here i am not really sure by what you are saying....

This is like my interpersonal communications course from 1977 all over again...
What rubs a raw nerve with me is the idea the queers have that is all choice and that sex and gender are meaningless....
The face that many queers have stripped the pronoun component from the word sex and insist it is only a verb is just plane wrong.

Why can't we all just agree to disagree and get on with our lives?

Good post by the way...


Take care
Susan Robins

Lucrece~

On science and politics, I agree that it's possible that the subject could be depoliticized. But it's currently very political. The hair whorls study is a good example. A dude took pictures of around 50 men's heads at Long Beach Pride, admitted that he couldn't tell half the time which way the hair whorl went, and then pronounced a hair whorl-gay/straight link. And got a story about it in the New York Time Magazine. The dude would be laughed out of the scientific community with methodology like that in any other field, yet he somehow got a grant and very friendly mainstream media coverage. And it isn't just this study; the cycle gets repeated over and over again, like with LeVay's hypothalamus study that looked at several HIV patients' (HIV=gay?) hypothalami and compared it to general population studies of hypothalamus size (general=straight?) and said that there was a link between the two. Or all those sheep studies that forget that sheep are in a very different line of mammalian evolution than we are, with all sorts of sexual diversity in between.

So while it's entirely possible, in my mind, for it to be politically un-influenced enough to make for some good science, it just isn't at that point yet. And I think part of the problem is that they keep asking the very political question "Why are some people gay?" instead of its less political cousin "Why do some people like whom they like?"

And the South America thing is partly because my mother's South American, and comments about how it's "universally" or "monolithically" retrograde or homophobic are insulting to my GSA-supportin' mama.

Serena~

Haha. I used to date a guy who liked that sort of thing, and, well, it made an impression on me. And it's a whole lot more common than you'd think.

I'd worry about gene washing as well, Serena. How many straight people don't want gay children? It'd be an assault on diversity and then further entrench the gay/straight economic gap instead of attacking it.

And no one in my extended family that I know of is openly queer, so take that as you'd like!

Sue~

On gender/sex/TG/TS/etc., I was talking about sexual attractions, so I don't think I was really talking about that. That's a whole 'nother complicated and related issue, but not one that I know much about.

I disagree with you regarding sexual identity being expressed wholly through language at least from a verbal sense it is expressed more often thorough non verbal channels. through body language more then what a person verbalizes.

I think we agree here. Clothing, mannerisms, etc., are a language of sorts. They can be influenced by culture, but there's also a component that's parallel with "voice" that's entirely one's own. So I'd see that as a "verbalization" of sexuality so long as our culture directly and un-nuanced-ly (totally not a word, I know) links gender performance and sexual attraction.

And, yes, saying it's an absolute choice in this subject is silly and annoying, but so is saying it's absolute genetics. The world is so much more complicated than we'd like it to be sometimes....

"He chose to cross the border illegally, so he deserves whatever he has coming to him," or, "She chose to drop out of high school, so if she can't pay to go to the doctor, that's her fault." Choice is ugly in American culture. It's an attack. It's something to beat people over the heads with until they capitulate and "choose" something different or just crawl into a hole to escape the violence.

Thank you for this analysis. Usually when people discuss the gay rights movement's love of the 'genetic' argument it's usually positioned as a strategic move related to religion. "If we're born that way then it must be natural and God must approve of it". At least that's the kind of stuff I usually hear. But I think this analysis is so much more truthful in many ways.

Alex...

I think we agree here. Clothing, mannerisms, etc., are a language of sorts. They can be influenced by culture, but there's also a component that's parallel with "voice" that's entirely one's own. So I'd see that as a "verbalization" of sexuality so long as our culture directly and un-nuanced-ly (totally not a word, I know) links gender performance and sexual attraction.
we use to call it non verbal communications The idea that all of this is set in stone is not sound grounds to stand on. just ask some of us who have undergone hormone replacement therapy with cross sex hormones. for many of us we can percieve the effects those hormones have on attaactivness to another sex. for example i and others who have started HRT discovered that things in the world smell and taste differently from what they did before HRT. It's complicated like you said. I read an article online a year or so ago that discussed a possible link between estrogen levels in men and their tendency toward a given preference. Being bisexual to start with the effects of HRT on me in regards to my sexual preference were slight... however i did notice heterosexual men treat me differently depending on the level of estrogen in my body. which leads me to believe that part of the complex engine that drives attractiveness is in part related to one's hormonal balance at any given time. I believe this is also part of that back-hall channel of non verbal communications.

Take care

Sue Robins

"On science and politics, I agree that it's possible that the subject could be depoliticized. But it's currently very political. The hair whorls study is a good example. A dude took pictures of around 50 men's heads at Long Beach Pride, admitted that he couldn't tell half the time which way the hair whorl went, and then pronounced a hair whorl-gay/straight link. And got a story about it in the New York Time Magazine. The dude would be laughed out of the scientific community with methodology like that in any other field, yet he somehow got a grant and very friendly mainstream media coverage. And it isn't just this study; the cycle gets repeated over and over again, like with LeVay's hypothalamus study that looked at several HIV patients' (HIV=gay?) hypothalami and compared it to general population studies of hypothalamus size (general=straight?) and said that there was a link between the two. Or all those sheep studies that forget that sheep are in a very different line of mammalian evolution than we are, with all sorts of sexual diversity in between.

So while it's entirely possible, in my mind, for it to be politically un-influenced enough to make for some good science, it just isn't at that point yet. And I think part of the problem is that they keep asking the very political question "Why are some people gay?" instead of its less political cousin 'Why do some people like whom they like?'"

I see your point, although I still believe that just because the general population and its conniving politicians are not to the point, the scientific community should wait for them. Your reference to the wording of questions and their focus on such studies, though, is spot on. The problem here is that people simply cannot stick to following the guidelines to having a proper question that merits scientific exploration.

"And the South America thing is partly because my mother's South American, and comments about how it's "universally" or "monolithically" retrograde or homophobic are insulting to my GSA-supportin' mama."

Let's not forget that I am South American myself and so is my "mama" (although my mama would rather die than go to the GSA of her "abnormal/defective" son). When I make these comments, take them as merely as incensed wake-up calls to the Hispanic community as a whole; I am talking about the community's general traits, not generalizing about its individuals' characters. It's more or less a sum of the community's record and feelings. On a good note for South America, though, Uruguay just legalized same-sex unions, although not with the equal name of "marriage" (hopefully that will change soon). Although I may appear to be disdainful of the community, it is more that I am frustrated with a community I identify with and refuse to accept the way in which it negatively represents itself.

I used to date a guy who liked that sort of thing, and, well, it made an impression on me. And it's a whole lot more common than you'd think.

If you're going to use me as an example, Alex, you shouldn't tell folks we've dated. You'll start tongues a waggin'... *grins*

Which does bring me to a point, btw. I don't know that I'd call my being gay a choice. I didn't make a conscience decision to be gay. In fact, I made a choice at one point to not be gay and got a girlfriend and had sex with her repeatedly. It didn't work; I was still gay.

But - as I still like to watch straight porn occasionally, Kinsey's scale lives on. That's part of the problem as I see it with degrading everything down to "gay" or "not gay." There's a whole range of options out there - and claiming my sexuality based on a gene doesn't seem very realistic or there'd have to be as many genes out there as there are variations of sexuality.

Thank you, Alex. I have long felt that the question was oversimplified and a really bad strategic corner to get painted into. As far as larger social issues, the question should never be whether one's behaviors are genetically determined or not, but whether or not those behaviors have any bearing on full citizenship. Period.