• Stephen M. Larson

Fighting Homophobia - part 4

Is homosexuality a choice? Or is it a result of genetics and therefore out of a person's control?

That difficult question, obscured by the misty uncertainties of philosophy and biology, is the basis for the next point raised by Dr. Jeffrey Chernin in his column, "Pride '06: Fighting Homophobia in Your Midst". After throwing in a comment in reference to the concept of homosexuality as a "chosen lifestyle" ("dontcha just love that one!") that can be interpreted as either disdainful or rueful, depending on your own approach to the question and your mood that particular day, Dr. Chernin pretty much offers two options for the gay or lesbian: explain that you didn't choose it, and ask when your heterosexual friends/family members chose their sexuality and which of their own sex they find attractive.

It seems to me that simply explaining that one didn't choose to be gay is an exercise in futility. I doubt very many will hear that statement and immediately say, "Oh! Well, I guess I was wrong!" Try as you may to avoid it, you may have to either agree to disagree, or open the question to debate.

I've tried to keep up on the latest research concerning the genetics of homosexuality. Frankly, I'm a better psychologist and lawyer than I am a biologist. (And if you've read the previous entries in this series, you'll recognize the wry tone of that statement!) But as far as I can understand what I've read, no definitive proof exists as of yet for the statement that homosexuality is genetic and therefore no one can definitively say that they were "born" gay or lesbian. However, there is enough evidence to strongly suggest that it could be only a matter of time before the "gay chromosome" is successfully isolated. Of course, if and when that happens, the question will then become one of desirability. After all, sickle cell anemia is transmitted genetically, and research suggests that such things as violence and alcoholism can be factors of our chromosomes. No one ever seriously suggests that these things should be accepted or tolerated, but rather, they seek to change them by therapy or even gene manipulation. And in the case of violence or alcoholism, it's generally agreed that one must still choose to act on those violent tendencies or to take that first drink.

Now please don't misunderstand. I'm not trying to equate homosexuality with violence or alcoholism or sickle cell anemia. I'm merely trying to point out that it's impossible to settle the debate simply by saying "Well, that's the way I was born". There's more to it than that.

As a side note, one argument used by the "genetically gay" camp that I find ridiculously simplistic and even offensive is: "Of course it's not a choice. Why would anyone willingly choose something that could get them ostracized or, worse, killed?" First of all, people make conscious choices every day that they know could and probably will result in some form of discomfort, from the child choosing to disobey her parents to the man choosing to run with the bulls at Pamplona to the family choosing to follow Christ in heavily anti-Christian communities in Africa and the East. Yes, homosexuality is on a different level than the disobedient child or the bull runner, although I think the comparison with the persecuted Christian is quite reasonable. And, especially in the case of the Christian (or, for that matter, a Jew in a hostile environment), to try to reduce their choice to a helpless biological reaction is not only an offense against their courage, it's just plain ridiculous - tell me, please, which gene is the Jewish gene, or the Christian gene?

If that argument is valid, then equally valid is the argument that homosexuals fall back on genetics because, deep down, they know that homosexuality is wrong, but they're afraid to take responsibility for their own actions, so they cop out by whining, "It's not my fault, I was born this way!" Is that suggestion offensive? Of course - but then, so is the alternative argument. How about we just drop both of them?

To return to Dr. Chernin's article, he suggests asking heterosexuals when they chose to be hetero. The immediate problem with that is it assumes the "choice" to be a simple, crude (i.e. unrefined) one, something along the lines of "I think I'll have eggs for breakfast today instead of oatmeal." This cheapens both sides. I don't know of anyone who, when stating that homosexuality is a choice, honestly believes that anyone woke up one morning and decided, "Gee, I think I'll be gay from now on." If homosexuality is not genetic, then it is the result of a lot of internal and external influences and a lot of tiny decisions, constantly revised, about how a person looks at the world around him or her. This could, of course, be said equally about heterosexuality, and in fact neither supports nor refutes the argument. But let's not make the mistake on either side of thinking that "choice" refers, in this case, to a simple, one-time decision made in a vacuum.

But beyond that, there is an alternative that must be considered. What if heterosexuality is a kind of moral default, something built into our consciousness from the beginning? In that case, heterosexuality would not be "chosen" at all, while homosexual acts, even if genetically influenced, would. This, of course, opens a whole area of philosophy and theology that Dr. Chernin doesn't even begin to address. (Are humans more than just a sum of biological and chemical reactions? What is morality? Where does it come from? And that's not even scratching the surface.) But it's an area that must be considered if we are to reach any ultimate conclusions. In the face of this, "I was born that way" just doesn't cut it as a conclusive argument.

Finally, as far as questioning which of their own sex heterosexuals find attractive, that argument is little more than a smoke screen thrown in to further confuse the issue. The whole problem lies in the use - or misuse - of the word "attractive". Dr. Chernin appears to be using it in the sense of "sexually arousing or stimulating", where most people would use it in the sense of "pleasant or pleasing to look at". Every man and woman has a standard of beauty for both sexes by which they judge themselves and each other. When a man looks at another man and finds that he meets that personal standard of beauty, he can proclaim him "attractive" without any trace of sexual overtones (and the same holds true for two women). The entire history of art in reference to portraits and nude studies is based solidly in the exploration of that standard of beauty. To suggest that a man cannot admire Michelangelo's David or a woman cannot admire Botticelli's Birth of Venus without wanting to copulate with them - or at least their subjects - is both offensive and insulting. And the same can be said of living, contemporary subjects. Yet that is exactly what Dr. Chernin seems to be suggesting. I may not be a psychologist, but, as a writer, even I know better than to play with words so loosely!

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