Monday, May 14, 2012

The Orientation of My Preference

Roy Edroso covered the Right blogosphere's reaction to Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage in this week's Village Voice column, with a sample quotation on his blog.  I won't give a link to the source, you can find it easily at alicublog, and anyway, it's right-wing boilerplate -- thousands of people could have said or written the same thing, and probably have:
They are actually comparing race to sexual preference? Yes, I said preference. Unlike skin color, there is NO evidence to support the idea that babies are born gay. People want to believe it’s innate but it’s just that, a belief. And a well crafted belief to elevate the idea of being gay far above preference into something that can tear at the fabric of the institution of marriage.
One of the major battles over gay rights in the US has been over whether to speak of "sexual orientation" or "sexual preference."  That has been a major waste of time for the movement but not for our opponents, which is why this writer throws down the gauntlet over "preference," knowing that many gay people and their allies will froth at the mouth over the word.  At some point -- in the 1980s, I believe, perhaps during the struggle to pass an antidiscrimination ordinance in Denver -- it became taken for granted that the word "preference" implies that "it's a choice", while "orientation" means that homosexuality is innate.  If homosexuality is merely a sexual preference, then gay people could be forced to change, so we must never say it's a preference.

I first encountered this claim in other online forums in the 1990s.  It made no sense for various reasons, and no one was able to point to any basis for the distinction.  I was baffled partly because in the early 1990s when Bloomington amended its human rights ordinance to include "sexual orientation," the religious opposition didn't object to the word "orientation."  Rather they argued that if homosexuals were protected, the next inevitable step would be to protect pedophiles.

They weren't totally irrational about this, because numerous well-meaning authorities on human sexuality had said that pedophilia was a separate "sexual orientation."  The idea was to deny the claim that homosexuals were disproportionately likely to be child molesters by arguing that pedophiles were usually attracted to children as such, rather than to male or female children, so it was distinct from homosexuality or heterosexuality.  The authorities involved were using "sexual orientation" illegitimately, because children aren't a sex.  Sexual orientation doesn't mean "orientation to a particular form of sexual activity," but "orientation to a particular sex."  The Bloomington ordinance defined "sexual orientation" very specifically as homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, so even if someone had argued that it also covered pedophiles, the ordinance would have had to be amended again.  Still, the sex research establishment bears some responsibility for this confusion. 

At some point I stumbled on a paper by the sex researcher John Money, included in a Kinsey Institute publication, Homosexuality / Heterosexuality: Concepts of Sexual Orientation, edited by David P. McWhirter, Stephanie A. Sanders, and June Machover Reinisch (Oxford, 1990).  In his article, "Agenda and Credenda of the Kinsey Scale," Money wrote:
In the human species, a person does not prefer to be homosexual instead of homosexual or to be bisexual instead of monosexual.  Sexual preference is a moral and political term.  Conceptually, it implies voluntary choice, that is, that one chooses, or prefers, to be homosexual instead of heterosexual or bisexual, and vice versa.  Politically, sexual preference is a dangerous term for it implies that if homosexuals choose their preference, then they can be legally forced, under threat of punishment, to choose to be heterosexual [43].
Given the glacial pace of academic publishing, I'd bet this paper was written sometime in the 1980s.  It shows that the position I'm discussing already existed in pure form that long ago.  What still strikes me very forcefully is how irrational it is from start to finish.

The most useful thing about it is that Money says explicitly that the preference / orientation distinction isn't scientific, it's "moral and political."  Many people with whom I've debated this matter have insisted that it's based in scientific terminology, though when Alan Bell, Martin S. Weinberg, and Sue Kiefer Hammersmith published a book called Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women (Indiana) in 1981, they used "preference" to refer to both homosexuality and heterosexuality, with no suggestion that either was a "voluntary choice."  Indeed, Weinberg had embraced a biological determinist position on the cause of homosexuality by the time the book was published.  The fact that they treated heterosexuality as a "sexual preference" also counts against Money's claim (it's not an argument).

Money goes right off the rails, though, when he writes that "sexual preference" implies "that one chooses, or prefers, to be homosexual."  This would mean that "sexual preference" denotes, not the direction of one's sexual desires and their expression, but one's feelings about that direction: a closeted homosexual who wishes he were heterosexual would, by Money's definition, have a heterosexual "sexual preference."  He also says that a preference is something someone can choose.  No one uses the term with that meaning, but that's what Money wrote about it.

Even though many people have repeated the claim, it's equally absurd to say that "if homosexuals choose their preference, then they can be legally forced, under threat of punishment, to choose to be heterosexual."  The absurdity emerges clearly when you remember (as Money forgot) that, on this assumption, heterosexuals also choose their preference, so they could also be legally forced to choose to be homosexual.  It wouldn't happen, of course, because heterosexuals are the overwhelming majority of the population.  Majorities can try to impose their will on minorities regardless of the law, but in the US there's no legal authority to force people to change their sexual preference or sexual orientation, which is a good thing because there's no known way to do it.  Change therapy doesn't work.  Even if it did, though, I'd be no more obligated to become heterosexual than I am, as an atheist, to change my "spiritual orientation" and learn to believe in gods.  I think people who assume otherwise reveal a lot about their own values: they believe that no one should be different from the majority, and that if you can change, you must change.  It worries me that so many gay and pro-gay people make such assumptions; it bodes ill for their feelings about human freedom.

(I dug out some old notes to find the Money quotation a week or so back, when another gay blogger referred to Money as one who believed that gender was "socially constructed," probably because of Money's involvement in the case of David Reimer, the Canadian twin whom Money tried to reassign to female when his penis was destroyed in a botched medical circumcision.  In fact Money was extremely hostile to social construction theory, claiming falsely that social constructionists "align themselves against biology and medicine."  However, the blogger evidently revised his post after I read it, removing the reference to Money, so I'm not giving a link here.)

Back to Roy Edroso's antigay rightblogger.  He's right, as it happens, that there is no reason to believe that homosexuality is innate, and that the claim that it is innate is a statement of "belief," or faith. (The same applies to the rightblogger's own beliefs about sexuality and marriage, of course.)  I don't need to compare race (which isn't equivalent to "skin color" in the first place) to sexual preference; I'd prefer to compare sexual preference to religious affiliation, which is not innate and yet is a choice that people are allowed to make in this country.

A number of commenters at alicublog declared that "born gay" is the "liberal position."  I don't think so.  Gay rightist Andrew Sullivan thinks being gay is inborn, and the official position of the Roman Catholic Church is that at least some of us are "congenital" homosexuals, and while that doesn't entitle us to have sex with each other, it does mean that the Church doesn't regard being gay, in itself, as sinful.  Which only goes to show little good that concession does us.  Insofar as "born gay" is a position held by many pro-gay liberals, it shows the limits of liberalism that it ties its toleration for gays to a factually false claim.  (One of alicublog's regular commenters claimed that the science on sexual orientation is "all over the place."  The same could be said about the science on race and intelligence, or sex/gender, but most liberals reject that kind of science -- more from reflex than from knowledge, most of the time.  Anyway, if there's no agreement about the science on sexual orientation, then we can't base a political program on it.)

Edroso comments, "Clear thinking makes clear writing, and the obverse is also true ... I suppose it's elitist of me to say so, but when your opponents argue like this, you can be reasonably certain you've picked the right side."  If that were true, it would apply no less to the pro-gay side: since they make so many false statements, since they resort to temper tantrums when they encounter disagreement, does it follow that their antigay opponents have picked the right side?  Of course not.  It's not enough for our opponents to be wrong: we have to be right.