Yesterday's Brainstorm column in the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a guest blog by Suzanna Danuta Walters, Professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University, and author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America and the forthcoming The Tolerance Trap: What's Wrong With Gay Rights. Definitely read this column for yourself, and especially check out the fascinating comments section, where academics who have studies the issue weigh in.
Professor Walters discussed her recent visit to P-town, MA, after the historic New York marriage vote, noting this:
"But pro-marriage T-shirts ("Put a ring on it") were soon eclipsed by the T-shirt slogan de jour "Born this Way." Now, I'm the last person to dis the wondrous Lady Gaga, but her well-meaning ode to immutability is less helpful to gay rights than Guiliani in drag."
I sort of agree.
Her argument includes the sad background of the medicalization of "sexual identity," with its search for causes and cures and its history of "incarceration, medication, electroshock "therapy" and numerous other attempts to rid the body (and mind) of its desires." She dismisses the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century theories of Ellis, Krafft-Ebing and Hirschfeld of innate sexuality as having "no evidence whatsoever." She also contrasts these to the depathologization movement that led to removal of homosexuality as a disease category in 1973.
She explains the recent resurgence of innateness theories as due to gay marriage debates and the proliferation of genetic theories of human behavior.
Professor Walters concludes
"This is bad science (mistaking the possibility of biological factors with wholesale causation) and bad politics (hinging rights on immutability and etiology). Causality is - of course - the wrong question and will only get muddled answers. The framing of "gayness" as an issue of nature vs. nurture or destiny vs. choice misses the point about (fluid, chaotic) sexuality and about civil rights. It's not our genes that matter here, but rather our ethics."
We've discussed this many times at Bilerico, as a simple search for "gay gene" in the search box above will show. Personally, I think there's probably some genetic factors involved, as some scientific research has shown that some gay people have some differences in brain anatomy. There is also research showing that some transsexual and transgender people have some brain anatomy differences. I don't think these studies are by any means conclusive, and I entirely agree with Professor Walters that our identities and our rights should not hinge on such factors. There is an element of choice in coming out, even if it's Hobson's choice.
Sure, it helps prejudiced people get over their problems with us being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or transgender. I'm glad that the Obama Administration has issued an opinion that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, based in part on our "immutable" characteristics. However, I note that the memo was careful to say "obvious, immutable or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group". There's no "innateness" in there, perhaps signaling that "innateness" is not necessary from a legal standpoint for civil rights protections, though some legal scholar might disagree as to exactly what formulation the legal precedents might require.
Any port in a storm, I say. But let's not get too caught up in this. I do not believe that I, as a member of a free society, should require justification or proof for being who I am or having civil rights. When we make "Born This Way" our theme song, that's what we're doing.