Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why are Some People Gay?

Conservative Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten had a blog post yesterday on the science of sexual orientation. It began like this:

Is sexual orientation biologically based? Most gay rights proponents will answer with an emphatic “yes,” and deny there is any legitimate argument to the contrary. Grounding sexual behavior in this way creates some natural advantages for the gay rights argument. If sexual orientation is as immutable as, say, skin color, then it fits more neatly into the framework of traditional anti-discrimination law.

But Gary Greenberg, writing in the left-leaning Mother Jones, is not so sure this conventional wisdom will hold up. Greenberg, a practicing psychotherapist and gay rights advocate, believes that proponents of the biological explanation for sexual orientation are ignoring complexities in our sexual make-up — complexities that may eventually undercut the current foundation of the gay rights movement.


She has several quotes from the Mother Jones article which seem to suggest that the genetic argument about sexual orientation isn't black and white. Particularly among women there is movement back and forth "across customary sexual orientation barriers."

Kersten wonders, then, if gay rights cannot be grounded in clear biological science, on what legs does it stand? She quotes Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, who argues that sexual orientation is an identity issue akin to religious persuasion. Whether we are born with or raised into or choose a religious identity, that identity is protected under the law. Discrimination is not legal. Sexual identity ought to be thought of, and treated in, the same way. Kersten ends her article by asking the question: "Is there a solid foundation for gay rights in a right for people to “believe whatever they want”—something analogous to the right to religious belief?"

It is an interesting post coming from her. And it elicited a very good response from Andy Birkey, who writes for the Minnesota Monitor. He begins by noting that Kersten ignored what the Mother Jones article had to say about recent scientific findings of differences in brain anatomy and gene sequencing between gay and straight men. There are biological correlations that suggest, but don't yet prove, there is biology involved in sexual orientation.

But Birkey goes on:
If a lack of biological evidence undercuts the foundation of the gay rights movement, then that foundation has been undercut for quite some time. There have been no conclusive studies demonstrating a genetic cause for sexual orientation. Kersten says that gay activists respond with an emphatic "yes" to the question of a genetic cause. But that's not quite true. Most gay activists would answer the question, "Are gays born that way?" with a subjective "yes." For us, we feel that we were born gay.

None of us would answer a question about the biological determination of our sexual orientation with, "Of course! It's the genetic marker, Xq28, on the X chromosome, silly!" We don't know the biology of why we are gay or lesbian or bisexual or straight, but we know we are those things. We feel it, and we have felt it all our lives.

The lack of a genetic marker doesn't mean that our desires, relationships and communities are merely a "choice" to be changed by the Lord or by discredited therapists. It does not mean we don't believe that our sexual orientation is a fixed, innate characteristic. We have faith that we are living our lives as we were created to live them. It doesn't matter that we have no conclusive biological proof of the innateness of our gayness; we are on the side of righteousness...

Can we draw an analogy between sexual orientation and religious belief? There is a body of scientific evidence that suggests a biological factor, but mostly, gays and lesbians are asking their fellow Americans to take a leap of faith and trust us when we say we love who we love, that we have found the relationships that mean the most to us, and we have created the families that make sense for us. And, for almost all of us, that's not something we can change.
If, Birkey says, Katherine Kersten is making this kind of analogy, then he has found something on which they can agree. Personally I have my doubts that this is where she is taking this thought process.

I have known some women who have moved back and forth between being straight and lesbian; I have not known any men who have done the same. (I have known many men and women who tried to be straight, got married, had kids, pretended... until it didn't work.) I have wondered if there might be some difference between men and women on the biology of sexual orientation.

But I have known far more gays and lesbians who have personally anguished over their feelings and attractions and who, at moments in their lives because of church or family or school friends wished it were not so. Whatever the science eventually sorts out on the whys of sexual orientation (and I suspect it will be mostly genetic/biological), I celebrate the ability of these folks to come to terms with who God made them to be - gay and lesbian -and support their dreams and their right to be married, raise children, have legal protections, be ordained as clergy, and be recognized with the exact same level of emotion and commotion that those of us who are straight get when we fall in love and find a partner to share our life with.

1 comment:

ProgressiveChurchlady said...

I have known men (not in the Biblical sense) who have spent part of their lives as straight and gay. Most of them do not view themselves as bisexual any longer.

I too feel that sexuality is a VERY complicated biological/psychological/sociological issue.

(Personally I believe that the hearts/minds of humans are non-monogomous and bi-sexual, but FORTUNATELY ethics and social and religious custom and practice combined have led humans to tend towards monogomous relationships either homo or hetrosexual in nature.

If you want to think alot about this--and you want your head to hurt too. Watch the movie Kinsey about the sex researcher couple of University of Indiana fame. It will give you more things to ponder over.