Sunday, November 7, 2010

I Don't Know How You Were Inverted

But back to Thomas Serwatka's Queer Questions, Clear Answers, as I promised. I read it all the way through, though I admit to skimming at times. I had to keep reminding myself that although most of what Serwatka writes is familiar to me, it won't be familiar to some (most?) of his other readers, who may not have read a book on this subject before. But that makes Serwatka's errors and misrepresentations all the more harmful.

As you'd expect in a book like this, Serwatka devotes quite a bit of space to the question of cause: why are some people drawn erotically to persons of their own sex, and others not? It's a very popular question among both straights and gays nowadays, and it might be worth mentioning that it wasn't always. During the 1970s, in the circles I moved in, it wasn't on our radar. The dominant theory at the time was the psychiatric absent-father / dominant mother theory of the neo-Freudians, and I already knew that it was largely discredited even before the American Psychiatric Association decided in 1973 that homosexuality was not (no longer?) a disorder. (They didn't address the question of cause, however.) Alfred Kinsey was the scientific figure who loomed large for us then, and he hadn't concerned himself with causes.

Still, we weren't the only homosexuals in the world, and what didn't matter to us mattered to others. It must have been during my first year at IU, working in a branch university library, that I found a clipping that quoted a gay or pro-gay minister to the effect that homosexuals are born homosexual. That startled me, because I knew about the 19th century third-sex theories about the (male) homosexual as the soul of a woman in the body of a man, but I thought that those theories had also been discredited. The clipping was brief and didn't point to any support for the claim. Still, that was the last I heard of the "born-this-way" theory for several years. It made its big comeback in the 1990s, with the work of Simon LeVay, Dean Hamer, and Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard. I associate it with the Gay Rights Movement (as opposed to Gay Liberation) and the gay churches, where it's a pillar of their position, though there are plenty of apolitical and non-religious gays who agree with it. As Serwatka's exposition shows, it's also associated with the professional / therapeutic wing of gay male life.

Serwatka sums up the controversy as follows, in terms of a "summer flick":
There is a band of nomadic queer theorists ("you can't oppress me through your manmade heterosexist labels") shooting flaming arrows at the Brotherhood of Gay Essentialist [sic] (the "it's biology" group), while a clan of lesbian deconstructionists ("I will not be confined by society's expectations; I am free to create new categories") are hurling spears everywhere, tragically and unintentionally wounding a butch dyke ("I am what I am"). To make the battle even more chaotic, we add in bands of marauding conservative Jews, Christians, and Muslims ("It's a sin against Yahweh or the Trinity or Allah") railing against each other and everyone else on the field, including the moderately religious who are praying for peace and consensus as well as everyone's soul [34].
I've already mentioned Serwatka's "hearty, preacher's chalk-talk style," and I bet you can guess which group represents Serwatka in this scenario!* Not to belabor an already overdone caricature, the queer theorists I'm aware of are not "nomadic" but well-ensconced in the Master's House (Queer Theory arose in the academy); the Brotherhood of Gay Essentialists works in university counseling departments as well as freelancing as therapists, and plays in the Radical Faerie movement (a reminder that Essentialists can be assimilationist and anti-assimilationist). The same is true of lesbians: surely some "butch dykes" are also deconstructionists. And of course no conservative Jew would ever pronounce the name of Yahweh, and I've never heard any Christian call homosexuality a sin against the Trinity. Someone got a little carried away with his rhetoric here, and things never get much better.
Instead of traveling the earth looking for pages from an ancient text, our scientists are studying ancient and contemporary civilizations, using technologies to decipher parts of the human genome, and employing a host of research models to discover the secrets of our origins written into the earth's past and into our cells. And their hard work is yielding results, albeit still preliminary results. And all of this is going on while we are subjected to a cacophony of differing voices, each vying to win the public relations war over how sexual orientation should be viewed and "handled" in the culture [34-5].
That's right, those results are "preliminary," but they are publicized as if they were final, and many gay people point to them as though they had settled the question for once and all, and only irrational anti-scientific Christians could reject them. (It seems to me that a prudent gay movement wouldn't want to hitch its wagon to merely "preliminary" results that might be demolished later -- and, in fact, have been.) As I pointed at the end of my previous post on this book, the gay and lesbian scientists who have criticized the born-gay research are absent from Serwatka's tale. They do so, not because they are nomadic queer theorists, but because they are scientists criticizing other scientists' flawed work. But acknowledging that would complicate the simple good guys / bad guys story Serwatka wants to tell.

It's easier for Serwatka to focus on another group:
In the 1990s, queer theorists told us that there were no homosexuals; at least there were none until we labeled them as such in the 1890s. Strongly influenced by philosopher Michel Foucault, lesbian feminism, and the social constructionist movement, queer theory proposed that before we created the label there were no homosexuals; all we had were people who engaged in different forms of same-sex behaviors. In some societies these behaviors were condemned and punished; in some societies these behaviors were accepted and even honored. But in both sets of societies, the actions didn't define the person. People weren't divided into homosexuals and heterosexuals or into homosexuals, bisexuals, and heterosexuals. They were just people who did or did not engage in specific behaviors [49-50].
Now, I have my own disagreements with queer theorists and social constructionists (is "movement" the right word for them, though?) and many of them get things as wrong as Serwatka does: in general, their tendency to treat Foucault's writings as a kind of scripture, to be harvested for prooftexts rather than as a goad to further thought of their own; their confusion of terminology with the reality to which it refers; their misuse of the social constructionist model to draw invidious distinctions between the present and the past, or between "The West" and other cultures; or confusing social construction with cultural determinism, the belief that human beings are blank slates on which their culture writes. In particular, I should point out that social constructionism has nothing to say about the cause question. No one, as far as I know, doubts that the anatomical signs of "race" (skin color, eye color, hair texture, etc.) have biological roots, but there is a large literature on the social construction of race. In the US, for example, a white woman can give birth to a black child, but a black woman can't give birth to a white one; but in other countries it can be the other way around. So even if it were proven -- and it hasn't been -- that homosexuality is genetically determined, that would not prove that it isn't socially constructed.

What bothered me first about Serwatka's discussion is that he kept using the term "sexual orientation" as if he knew what a sexual orientation is, and especially as if he knew that it is some kind of biological mechanism in our body that directs us to male or female erotic partners. This is just what no one knows. "Orientation" doesn't necessarily imply an inherent, unchangeable state; the compass-point orientation of a building, though it can be difficult to change after it is completed, is a choice, decided by its planners. The orientation of a parked car can be changed much more easily, as can my own spatial orientation as I write this. I wasn't born facing north, but even if I was, that doesn't doom me to face north forever, and I have faced in many different directions during my lifetime. It's true, when people speak of "sexual orientation" they're not thinking of such examples, but they're usually assuming what they need to prove: that "sexual orientation" is inborn and unchangeable. I've encountered numerous people who argue the point in circles: it's an orientation because it's inborn, and we know it's inborn because it's an orientation, and orientations are inborn ... I think that's what Thomas Serwatka is doing, though he may not be aware of it.

Still, Serwatka knows he needs some evidence, so he points to the past two decades' worth of research on the origin of sexual orientation. Numerous scientists and other critics, some of them gay or lesbian, have pointed to the flaws in this research, which has led to severe qualification of the born-gay advocates' claims, though they usually revert to certainty as soon as the critics have left the room. From triumphant cries of "We now know we're born gay!" they had to retreat to, "Well, at least we know there's a genetic predisposition to be gay," and Serwatka's own grudging "Is lifelong homosexuality biological? Yes, at least in part. How much of the biology is genetics and how much is hormonal is still to be determined, but there is definitely a genetic component, and most likely, both play a role" (65).

(Those interested in the question should look at Anne Fausto-Sterling's Myths of Gender [Harper, 1992]; Edward Stein's The Mismeasure of Desire [Oxford, 1999]; Roger Lancaster's The Trouble with Nature [California, 2003]; and now Rebecca M. Jordan-Young's Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference [Harvard, 2010]. Evelyn Fox Keller's The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture [Duke, 2010] does a good job of showing what is wrong with the whole nature vs. nurture debate; it's a short book though admittedly fairly technical. But if I could get through all these, surely my readers can!)

But even Serwatka's even-handed conclusion is wrong. The fact that he declines to consider scientific (as opposed to queer-theoretical) objections to the research he describes doesn't help. He likes the research on "finger-length ratio" so much, for example, that he gives it a text box of its own:
One of the physical traits that has been linked to difference in sexual orientation among women is finger-length ratio for the index (D2) and ring (D4) fingers. When D2 and D4 are similar in length, it is more likely that a woman will be heterosexual, whereas homosexual women's index fingers tend to be shorter than their ring fingers, as are men's. Studying this phenomenon, Lynn Hall and Craig Love ... found that when monozygotic twins were discordant for sexual orientation, the heterosexual and the homosexual twin would have different finger-length ratios, with the heterosexual sister having little to no difference in the length of the two fingers, their finger-length ratios were also concordant [60].
Serwatka couldn't have read Rebecca M. Jordan-Young's new book Brain Storm, which has just been published, but she surveys research that he could have examined:
There have been seven studies comparing 2D:4D in gay and straight men, and the findings are all over the map. Three studies find higher (feminized) ratios in gay men ..., but two other studies found gay men to have lower (hypermasculinized) ratios ... and two found no difference in digit ratios between gay and straight men. ... Among women, two studies have found lesbians to have "masculinized" digit ratios ... , but one small study ... and the two largest studies ... found no difference compared with heterosexual women. Only one study has reported a link between 2D:4D and gender identity, and this found a "feminized" pattern in male-to-female transsexuals, but no difference between female-to-male transsexuals and other genetic females. ... In sum, if there is any link between digit ratio and sexual orientation or gender identity, it appears to be very small, and to be limited to (genetic) men. The evidence is similarly mixed for other indicators [101; italics in original].
To be fair, Jordan-Young doesn't discuss Hall and Love's study (though she cites a 2000 paper by Hall elsewhere), but judging by the rest of the research, it probably doesn't matter because the link between sexual orientation and finger length is so tenuous. Serwatka also declares that Simon LeVay's claims about homosexuality and the brain have been supported by "Animal studies comparing rams who displayed same-sex and opposite-sex attraction [!] found similar patterns in hypothalamic development in heterosexual and homosexual rams" (61). That's intriguing, but it's a big jump from rams to human beings. (What is a "homosexual ram," anyway? Does he adore Lady Gaga?  Does he make a perfect cocktail?  Does he dress up as a ewe now and then?)

But all of this really misses the point. As I've pointed out before, the contemporary research on the origins of sexual orientation is not about sexual orientation (or even sexual behavior) at all, but about gendered behavior and roles. It is based on the assumption that there is really only one "sexual orientation," namely heterosexuality. What seems to be a homosexual man is really a man with a little woman hidden in his brain, who is attracted to people with little men hidden in their brains. This is shown by the way these researchers jump to the conclusion, without any evidence, that "feminization" of males, either through brain fibers or hormones, equals male homosexuality; but they don't even ask who is having sex with those feminized males.

There is a great deal of folklore among gay men and lesbians which makes the same assumption: many gay men around the world are repulsed by the idea of having sex with other gay men, and liken the very idea to "lesbianism" or even "cannibalism." And who knows? They might be right. The point is that if they are right, then the educated and supposedly science-informed discourse about sexual orientation is wrong. Sexual orientation is not, as the American Psychological Association defines it,
... an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction toward others. It is easily distinguished from other components of sexuality including biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and the social gender role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior).
Nope; sexual orientation is really the desire some men have to stick their rear ends in the faces of other men, in hopes of being mounted by them; or the desire some women have to mount other women. Far from being "easily distinguished from other components of sexuality", in reality it is inseparable from them. In which case the whole public-relations project of the mainstream gay movement to distance us from "stereotypical" (that is, gender-nonconformist) queers who present themselves as the opposite sex is radically misconceived: we should rather embrace our inner drag queens/kings. At the very least, the mainstream gay movement will have to grapple with this problem a lot better than it has up till now.

The question of the cause of sexual orientation is a red herring, though, that has distracted gay people and our movement for too long now. Especially since, given the current state of the research, we cannot honestly claim that we were born gay. In the first place, it is false that there's an opposition between "biology" and "choice." As I've pointed out before, contemporary science and much philosophy take the position that there is no such thing as choice in human beings, but this leads to hopeless contradictions. Leaning on biological determinism not only deprives gay people of our choices, but our opponents as well: they are hostile to us, not because they are wicked, but because it's in their nature. And that leaves us nowhere.

Even if there were much better evidence that homosexuality was caused by our genes or hormones, it wouldn't settle the dispute we're engaged in. Inborn conditions aren't necessarily good: we don't think that people born with genetic conditions like sickle-cell anemia should be left to suffer because Mother Nature made them that way and She doesn't make trash. Genetic determinism has been used (and still is) to deny the humanity and limit the options of people with differing skin color, or differing reproductive organs. The Civil Rights movement didn't argue that it was wrong to discriminate against the Negro because Negritude was in his genes; nor did the women's movement take such a line. Nor did the US Supreme Court overturn state laws against "interracial" marriage in 1967 because Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving suffered from (or boasted) a genetic condition that forced them to marry someone of a different race -- it affirmed that people have the right to choose their partners.

We need to start challenging our opponents about it: If being gay is a choice, so what? But many gay people don't want to, because they believe they can only defend their sexual orientation if it's something they are stuck with, one of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I once asked another speaker on a GLB panel what he would do if it were proven, scientifically and unquestionably, that he had chosen to be gay. He thought for a moment, then said that in that case, some psychiatrist would make a lot of money helping him undo that choice. I was stunned, not least because earlier he had been talking about how he'd helped younger gay kids come out and feel good about being gay; yet he himself clearly felt quite bad about it. He was also wrong in assuming that all choices can be reversed. This doesn't mean he is a bad person; it does show how deeply miserable and wrong many of us have been made to feel about ourselves, our desires, and our loves. "Would someone choose a 'lifestyle' that causes them to be hated, persecuted, and called a sinner?" -- it's amazing how many of us and our allies think that rhetorical question constitutes a defense. It's not. It's almost an altar call, the kind of cry one makes just before throwing one's sinful self into the arms of the Lord. And I'd be the last person to tell such gay people that they're wrong to hate themselves and to despise and dishonor their loves, but their attitude is not a great foundation on which to build a movement.

I haven't worked out myself how best to realize a position of proud choice for the gay movement. It would need to be done gradually, in response to the way our enemies try to exploit it. But it would start with the declaration that if homosexuality is a choice, so is heterosexuality, so is Christianity (whether pro- or antigay), and a fortiori being antigay is a choice. And go from there.

More on Queer Questions, Clear Answers later.

*You peeked. Serwatka is presumably one of "the moderately religious who are praying for peace and consensus as well as everyone's soul." Evidently those "moderately religious" are working through the state universities to further their theological agenda.