Monday, November 27, 2006

Being Gay is Not Like Being Left-Handed

Disclaimer: I wrote this around eight months ago. I realize that I need to update my post about bisexuality and my own personal angst regarding it (as well as respond to the comments from that post). I also have a lot of new stuff I want to talk about. But I wrote this a while back ago, and, considering certain discussions going on in the femisblogosphere right now, I thought it would be a good idea to post it here. Enjoy!

Andrea Dworkin has said that, "Biological superiority is the world's most dangerous idea." I've been thinking a lot about that and, specifically, what happens when we use the idea of biological superiority to feel guilty about and pity those of us we see as inferior based on biological status.

First off -- I am a lesbian. I have been out my entire adult life. As a lesbian, I feel sexually, emotionally, romantically, and whatever else-ly attracted to women primarily over men. There is nothing contrived whatsoever about my lesbian identity -- in fact, as far as I feel personally about things, it's the identity I probably mention least about myself (online or otherwise) because it's the identity I am LEAST conflicted about.

That said: I believe sexual orientation is at least 75% socially constructed. I do NOT think sexual orientation is psychologically ingrained in you before you're five. I do think that the childhood, and infant, phases are important for overall sexuality development (and personality and intelligence, among other things), but I do not believe that orientation is totally formed, either through psychological or biological means, by the time you start grammar school. In short: yes, I believe that sexual orientation is "a choice."

There are several reasons why this is unpopular:

1) Everything is biologically determined these days. If it doesn't have a "scientific" basis, it's not considered "true." Watch "Dr." Phil and how he tells people that CAT and PEP scans can PROVE if a person has a mood disorder -- sorry Phil, but no dice.

2) So if homosexuality has no "biological" basis, what causes it? Something psychosocial?! Does that make it a disorder?

3) And if homosexuality has no biological basis, then what are we doing trying to give gays "special rights" when they can just "choose" to be straight?

4) And if it's really hard for some of them to "choose" to be straight, since there's no biological evidence, well, we should treat homosexuality like a psychological disorder, and "cure" them, right? For this line of thinking, GLBT activists have jumped all over the biological determinism angle. Which has created the current, "Don't hate gays, they can't help it, that's just who they are," liberal mainstream line. Not only is this thinking really harmful because it centers all its hopes upon the ability to use (or manipulate, whatever) science to FIND A GAY GENE or something (and if we never find it, eventually, people will start to doubt the biological-gay idea), it centers all its strength on the argument that yes, PERHAPS being gay is abhorrent, but they can't help it! They can't! Pity the sinner, the pervert, their physical brain makes them act the way they do!

The solution to this problem, for some people, have been to say, "It doesn't matter if it's biological or sociological, the point is they're gay now, and let's be humane." That works until the current generation of gays and lesbians get older and a new generation comes in. The let's-just-deal-with-what-we-have-now method doesn't work once "now" isn't "now" anymore, but rather, the past, when instead of dealing with a problem, we ignored it and schlepped it off onto future generations.

Here's what I believe we have to do: acknowledge that homosexuality is socially constructed. Acknowledge that heterosexuality, for that matter, is socially constructed too. We must further acknowledge that socialization is a process that NEVER STOPS until you die. It is INCREDIBLY complicated and interacts with your own psychology -- and yes, biology, specifically aging -- to create Who You Are. Forcing a gay man to be straight is not pleasant. However, it's not like forcing a left-handed person to be right-handed. Forcing a left-handed person to be right-handed is more like forcing a colorblind person to be suddenly not.

The interaction between psychology, biology, and sociology -- often referred to as "bio-psycho-social" -- is an important one. But we must take care not to rank them in that order, and let sociology just get thrown into discourse for show. Sometimes, sociology explains things better than your psychological or biological theories ever will.


Blogger alyx said...

Thanks for this Edith.

second that this is annoying:

And if homosexuality has no biological basis, then what are we doing trying to give gays "special rights" when they can just "choose" to be straight?

Well, there are people who choose their religion. Does that mean we discriminate against them?

Everyone from leftists to conservatives is always trying to find out what "causes" gayness. No-one asks what causes heterosexuality.

2:03 AM  
Blogger spotted elephant said...

Great post! The idea that biology "excuses" orientation is revolting. One-dimensional answers can't be satisfactory.

I love biological explanations-they're fascinating. But they *never* exist in a vacuum. One of the best things about human behavior is how flexible it is.

10:49 AM  
Blogger antiprincess said...

Forcing a gay man to be straight is not pleasant.

but it is possible, you're saying?

I'm not sure one could really force a gay man to BE straight. you could force him to ACT straight, I guess. or behave straight-ly.

I don't imagine forcing a lesbian to be straight (or act straight, or behave straight-ly) is a real walk in the park either.

12:24 PM  
Blogger Red Rollerskate said...

Interesting read!

7:14 PM  
Blogger Vicky Vengeance said...

Antiprincess, I think you're selectively reading Edith's post. Saying an identity, a behavior, a lifestyle what have you, is socialized rather than biological, is not saying that it is any less valid or essential to who a person is. It's not saying that being forced to "be" straight would be any easier or more objectively "possible."

Socialization is every bit as huge and difficult to maneuver around as biology, which to me, was obviously the much more important point of Edith's post. In the sentences right before the one you quote she states very clearly, "socialization is a process that NEVER STOPS until you die. It is INCREDIBLY complicated and interacts with your own psychology -- and yes, biology, specifically aging -- to create Who You Are." Who You Are in capital letters is THE huge deal and completely worthy of respect and I think Edith's post recognizes that.

And also, just for the sake of argument and away from the semantic framework you seem to object to, hell yes people are forced to be straight. All the fucking time. As in, tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die forced.

Maybe people cannot willfully change who they are at their core, whatever that means. That's a philosophical debate for another day. But they can certainly change their behavior, especially when they have an entire culture breathing down their necks to do so. And the tricky thing about gay identity is that what you do is a pretty essential component to what gay means in the first place. Sure, it's not the ONLY component, but it is certainly a big one. Thus, as Edith says, changing your sexual identity really isn't the same as changing a biological attribute like colorblindness because there's no corresponding action that you could do or not do to make you any less colorblind.

12:47 AM  
Blogger antiprincess said...

I read the whole post.

I wonder though if it isn't MORE like "handed-ness" than originally thought.

My mom was born left handed. School and her parents "encouraged" her to use her right hand (with varying degrees of compulsion). by the time she was about ten, she was righthanded, or at least behaved right-handed-ly.

I get what you're saying, that sexuality is not necessarily innate.

4:21 AM  
Blogger antiprincess said...

and I seem to get, from this post, that sexuality could be a choice made, based on outside information - socially constructed.

This does explain compulsory heterosexuality very well.

however, people who feel like they are born homosexual, who claim to have felt exclusive attraction to people of the same gender since their earliest consciousness, may feel rather left out of this explanation.

I think this part of the post:

The interaction between psychology, biology, and sociology -- often referred to as "bio-psycho-social" -- is an important one. But we must take care not to rank them in that order, and let sociology just get thrown into discourse for show.

is important and true.

But again, I wonder what hearing that is like for those people who really do feel like their homosexuality was present from their earliest memory.

Not saying you should modify anything, just wondering how you would allow for that, or if you would allow for that.

6:20 AM  
Blogger baby221 said...


I like to think of sexuality as being somewhat similar to an acquired taste. It seems to be a much more flexible model than either "it's in the genes" or "it's a choice."

10:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

edith, i just read your comment at twistys and i gotta say - I LOVE YOU! Thanks for your words, YOU RULE.

8:55 AM  
Anonymous fishegg said...


Over at Twisty's you said:

'Also, I agree with everything Jeffreys says. My only complaint is that she doesn’t take it far enough. I’m serious.'

Can you elaborate on that?

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Pignut said...

My guess is that some people are strictly hetero, some are strictly gay and a lot are bisexual but could be happy settling for either, especially if their culture told them it was "normal".

I think early sexual experiences count for a lot too. It's not so much a choice as chance, and maybe a response to living in an overpopulated world.

A recent study found that the more older brothers a man has, the more likely he is to be gay. This fits in quite neatly with the "gay men make better uncles" evolutionary theory, but it would have to be a combination of nature and nurture: the younger brother would have similar genes to his older brothers. In some bird species one bird in each family will choose not to find a mate and help its parents raise a second brood of chicks.

Just because something is in the genes doesn't mean it's set in stone.

I don't find it hard to imagine that in the past lots of gay and lesbian people were married and had children, perhaps to other gay/lesbian people, If you're in a society with arranged marriage (such as aristocratic families in Europe for most of the last 1000 years), then lots of people are going to be in dull relationships only having sex to procreate. Being gay would almost pass unnoticed.

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sexuality is socially constructed. I not only agree with this point, I know it to be true. It is not a choice. Sub-conscious perhaps but not a choice. I have been gay from puberty and have never wavered in my absolute resolution in trying to become straight. I realise that homosexuality is not wrong but do not personally like it. I have so-far been unable to change after around eight years.

You seperate the mind from the body. Is it psycological or biological. This is called cartesian duality and confuses us because modern science does not yet understand the brain. A human's brain is as much a part of the biological body as anything. Therefore you are saying this:

If it was biological it is not a choice.
If it is psycological/social it is a choice.

This does not make sense. It comes as a result of socialization but is not a choice.

6:31 PM  
Anonymous c.stephens said...

I would liken it to handedness more than anything else. A person can use their right or left hand to learn new activities. Many foreign activities such as guitar playing can be learned just as easily right or left handed; despite hand dominance.

Many studies have shown a biological component to both handedness and sexual orientation. Both are pre-determined or predisposed in the womb.

Studies such as this: are helping to dispel the rumor that gay can be "cured" and that it's merely a choice.

I disagree entirely with the assertion that sexual orientation is societal or socially determined as that would suggest that with enough gay people around more would "sprout" up and that's not the case from any study I've read. If you have something to help prove that idea I'd love to read it.

10:32 PM  
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