Sunday, February 9, 2014

You Take the Low Road, and I'll Take the Low Road

I've disagreed with the lesbian writer E. J. Graff in the past, but I agree with a lot of what she wrote in a fairly disorganized piece at The Nation last week.  "What's Wrong with Choosing to Be Gay?" is the title, and of course it set off a shitstorm of enraged comments that didn't address anything she said.  (There were about 300 of them by the time I read the article myself on Friday, and there were about fifty more when I looked again today.)  Going by many commenters' behavior elsewhere on the Internet, I think it's a safe bet that they didn't read past the title before freaking out and entering their comments.

So let me try to engage with what Graff actually wrote.  She begins by objecting to "the party line," the "orthodoxy" that gay people are born this way.  I agree with her there, of course, though I notice that she doesn't actually give a reason for objecting to that belief.  (And I'm not happy with her deployment of such terms; "gay marriage," or "marriage equality" as the party line has it, is just as much gay-movement "orthodoxy" as that we're born this way.)  She says that it's "often gay men who are more insistent on the innateness of sexuality, whereas many lesbian and bisexual women have pushed back at this argument, since we’ve often (not always) had different experiences with sexuality."  This also appears to be true; those interested could begin by consulting Vera Whisman's Queer by Choice: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Politics of Identity (Routledge, 1995).  (It also appears to be mostly gay men who erupted into fury in the comments to Graff's article.)  Then she cites a recent article from The New Republic, "a challenge to that orthodoxy" by Brandon Ambrosino, which of course is "getting corrected by the LGBT thought police," among these "a writer I respect enormously," Gilbert Arana.

Ambrosino writes:
Whenever someone accepts me merely because she feels obligated to do so by my genetic code, I feel degraded rather than empowered. It's like saying, “You can’t help it, sugar. You were born this way. Me? I was born with astigmatism and a wonky knee. We can’t change our limitations even if we wanted to.” (As if homosexuality was taken out of the DSM only to be written into the ADA.) In a way, this sentiment of obligation comes through in Macklemore’s "Same Love," a song I enjoy nonetheless. And insofar as it encourages many straight and gay people alike to be open to nontraditional forms of love, I hope he keeps singing it for many years to come.
I agree with this too, on the whole.  (Though I disagree that same-sex love is a "nontraditional form of love."  It's too old, widespread, and well-documented for that.)  I've argued the same point, perhaps more strongly: that gay people who say they can't help it, they were born this way, are conveying the message that they hate being gay and agree with bigots that they shouldn't be That Way.  I've told before the story of a gay graduate student whom I asked what he'd do if it were definitively proven that homosexuality was a choice.  After trying to dodge the question a moment, he said that in that case someone would make a lot of money helping him reverse the choice.  I'm not sure I quite believe him, since even in the days when neo-Freudian orthodoxy (ignoring Freud's own position, by the way) held that homosexuality could be "cured," very few homosexuals showed any interest in being changed; but I think his answer was revealing.

Graff goes on to discuss what is usually called sexual "fluidity" nowadays -- the fact that many people have erotic experience in various degrees with people of both sexes, even when they think of themselves as comfortably monosexual.  And she cautions:
No one this side of the rainbow flag is arguing that people choose the direction of their romantic and sexual desires in the way that someone might, say, choose between different brands of toothpaste. Desire happens unbidden.
Most of Graff's ensuing discussion is rather garbled.  She talks about "hijra" and "two spirit" as if they were more or less conscious strategies for dealing with the discovery of one's homosexual desires in other cultures, for example; and evidently buys the notion that homosexuality is a "gender deviation," which at best is an oversimplification.  And then she writes:
Gay isn’t the desire; it’s the social identity we layer on top of the desire—and it’s only yours if you claim it. Even men who have sex with men (MSMs, in the lingo) are not gay unless they say so.
This is arguable, at best a matter of definition.  I disagree, however, because it overlooks a key factor like stigma that explains why many homosexually active people deny fiercely that they're Like That.  And among gay people ourselves, as Graff surely knows, it is conventionally assumed that we can label other people as gay based on what we think we know of them, regardless of they say about their identities.  A closet case is the folk term for those who (according to the folk) are gay, and they know it, even if they pretend otherwise.  And it can hardly be denied that there are many people who are gay and know it but pretend otherwise, to themselves and to others.  Was Ellen DeGeneres gay before she came out publicly?  Of course she was.  Was Rock Hudson gay even though he denied it publicly?  Of course he was.  As for MSMs, the term was invented in the early years of the AIDS epidemic specifically as a way for such men to evade the stigma of homosexuality in order to make them accessible to safer-sex education and practice: it's a euphemism, and as such it may be useful in some cases, but it doesn't prove anything about the person or how he sees himself and his sexual activity.  As one black AIDS activist said of "MSM":
Quite frankly it was a phrase that was created by black gay men, and we created it because we knew that the CDC would not fund black gay men.  So we wanted to create a phrase that was palatable to them.  In the beginning we created it out of the air.  There was no statistical work to quantify the magnitude of this population of black men who were having sex with other men but didn't identify.  Now intuitively we knew that they were engaged in homosexual behavior.  However, the way the behavior manifested itself was not, or did not mirror the way it manifested itself in white gay men. But now the implication that there are no black gay men out there who identify as gay is absurd.  And so there for the longest time all the programs were, like, targeted to this group of folks who may or may not be gay.  And I used to say, what are we doing?  We're marching over the dead bodies in hopes of finding a people who may not be there.  And how many dead bodies do we have to march over looking for this theoretical body?  Besides who are these men who have sex with men fucking anyway?  They are fucking men who identify with being gay, that's who they are fucking.  How else do they connect?  Somebody has to have a clue about what is going on [Phil Wilson, quoted in Cathy Cohen, The Boundaries of Blackness (Chicago, 1999), 107-8].
But all of this has little to do with the use of the word "choice" or "lifestyle choice" in the culture war over homosexuality.  If "gay" is an identity, then of course it is chosen, not inborn.  But if it refers -- and it does, much of the time -- to people who relate erotically and romantically to people of their own sex, regardless of what they think about it or how they label themselves, then we're back to square one, and where those desires came from.  The choice of the identity almost always is made after one has plenty of experience with same-sex desire, and often with overt erotic interaction.  This, I think, is the point Graff is aiming for.  She's correct, as far as I'm concerned, to argue that it wouldn't matter if we did choose to desire and fall in love and have sex with people of our own sex.  I believe we, as activists and citizens, should work from this position.  If most of us don't, I think it's just as clearly because we agree with our opponents that it does matter why we're gay.

In any case, as Graff continues:
You can be born lots of ways that society demands you suppress. If someone could prove that being a child molester or serial rapist or homicidal sociopath were genetically predetermined, would we welcome those desires into our public square? Hardly. They fail the “I’m not hurting anyone” test. Which means the argument is really “I’m born that way and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
I agree with this too, and have said so before.  As I've indicated, though, I think that the reason gay people find it difficult (impossible?) to say "I'm born that way and there's nothing wrong with that" is that they don't believe there's nothing wrong with being gay.  If they had been lucky enough to be born straight, they'd be throwing stones at queers too.  Maybe I'm wrong about this.  Give me some reasons to change my mind.

The resistance to acknowledging our own agency and choices is so strong that many gay people are trying to claim that their identity is inborn rather than chosen.  I think that's obviously ridiculous, but there it is.  It may be partly due to the confusion that reigns over what "identity" is; it's widely conflated with "sexual orientation."  We're not automatically smarter than our enemies; after all, we grew up in the same society they did.

Another problem is that, no less than "identity," "choice" is an unclear word.  Saying that homosexuality is a choice doesn't make much sense.  I've asked some people who tend to think of homosexuality in terms of a "choice" what kind of choice they have in mind.  I can't remember one who could explain it without prompting, and I tried to avoid leading questions, but when I asked, they generally agreed that they thought that gay people had been heterosexual before but decided, mysteriously, to pursue relationships with their own sex.  Why?  They have no idea.  That, surely, is the general antigay assumption: we are all naturally heterosexual, but some individuals choose to engage in unnatural perversion with their own sex.  I'd call this "folk psychology," if so many educated and more or less sophisticated people didn't believe in some version of it.  (It's not even a Biblical theory, since the closest thing to an explanation of homosexuality in the Bible is Paul's assertion in the first chapter of Romans that male homosexual desire/lust is God's punishment for idolatry.  The "choice," if there were one, would lie in being a pagan.)

Then Graff mounts the pulpit:
Because this one is the best argument we have: “Love makes a family.” That’s been our movement’s real contribution to the social discussion—that insistence that the building blocks of love needn’t be confined by sex or gender or reproduction, that how we care for each other is more important that who. And we’re winning on that one too, whether the social conservatives like it or not.
Love doesn't make a family; if anything, choice does, the decision and commitment to take responsibility for other people in certain ways.  "Love" is another propaganda word (well, so is "family"), meant to get the hearer to shut off his or her mind and subside into a big puddle of warm fuzzies.  But for all that, I agree that we're winning on more open, flexible concepts of family, because heterosexuals' families are more open and flexible too, and always have been.  If anything, the same-sex marriage movement is a reaction against such openness, intended to canonize only marriage as the sole definer of family, and to relegate other configurations to second-class status.

She concludes:
Our society protects chosen identities. One’s being a Seventh-Day Adventist, Sufi Muslim or Hasidic Jew may be strongly influenced by the culture one is born into—but it’s not genetic. People convert in and out, in a way that involves new conceptions of their core identity. In some parts of the world, and in large swaths of Western history, choosing the “wrong” religion can be a death-penalty offense. But in our era we protect your freedom of religion. It’s time to be neutral about orientation in just the same way, protecting personal freedom of choice. Because really, who cares?
Again, I agree, and have argued the point at length in the past.

None of the commenters under Graff's article addressed what she actually said.  Some asserted the certainty that we're born this way, usually without citing any evidence.  One person made claims about "hormones" as a factor, though that explanation has severe failings and doesn't really work;* another cited the work of a psychologist who, in his retirement, has become very active on the Internet arguing that our hormones did it, along with Biblical misinformation and other fun stuff.  One person dragged in social construction without really understanding the concept.

Graff hadn't addressed the question of cause; she was basically talking about the right approach to take in advocacy. So was Brandon Ambrosino, though like Graff he's confused about choice as a concept.  It appears, for example, that he accepts that the only alternative to "born gay" is "choice"; it's not.  And so was Ambrosino's critic Gilbert Arana, who wrote angrily that Ambrosino's
line of reasoning has a hip, "post-gay" appeal, but it is eye-rollingly naïve, a starry-eyed view you might expect from a college student who's just taken their first queer-theory class. From a political standpoint, it matters a great deal whether sexual orientation is inborn or a choice. Rightly or wrongly, social conservatives object to homosexuality on the grounds that it is a lifestyle choice.
I think Arana is ignorant historically, but the validity (or not) of Ambrosino's argument has nothing to do with whether it's "post-gay."  Myself, I'm not convinced that social conservatives object to homosexuality because they believe that it is a lifestyle choice.  I think it's the reverse: they assume that it's a choice because they object to it, as people also do with fat people or depressed people or others they disapprove of.  Generally their objections are more gut-level, less rational than that.  They assume that gay people can change because homosexuality offends them, so we must be doing it on purpose -- "by choice" -- just to ruin their day.  "Natural" and "unnatural" aren't truth statements, they're emotive terms of approval and disapproval.  That's why gay people want to believe that we're "natural."  Natural is good.  Except when it's not.

And as Arana admits, the born-gay claim isn't all that effective on our opponents: "Social conservatives dismiss outright the idea that homosexuality is inborn. They insist it is a choice.  From their point of view, biology is destiny."  But here the gay movement agrees with them: homosexuality is biology, so it's destiny, even if it dooms us to a life of misery and persecution.  As Graff says, though, just because our opponents say we chose to be gay, there's no reason to let them set the terms of the argument.

Then Arana falls flat on his face:
Those of us who support LGBT rights are committed to the "born this way" narrative not as a civil-rights strategy, but for the simple reason that it's true. The main problem with Ambrosino's argument is that he is conflating concepts like sexual orientation, identity, behavior, and expression. It is true that I have chosen to identify as gay, that I express myself in a way that makes it clear I am gay, and that I have gay sex. All of these are a matter of choice. But my sexual orientation—my underlying attraction for men—is beyond my control.
It's actually Arana who's conflating concepts like sexual orientation, identity, etc.  That he (and to be fair, I) do not experience my "underlying attraction for men" as something I can turn on and off voluntarily does not prove that I was "born this way."  That is, as I understand it, the whole point of social construction theory: that people experience as "natural" practices and institutions which are not built into our biology, but were invented by people.  (One analogous case is one I've been meaning to write about here: language.  As shown by the hysteria over Coca Cola's Superbowl commercial last week, many people experience their native language as natural, built-in -- and when they hear a familiar song [partially] translated into other languages, they experience that as unnatural, a violation of the nature of the song itself, which just naturally is in English.  English is in its DNA.  God made "America the Beautiful" that way, and he doesn't make trash, okay?)

Arana is simply wrong when he jumps from asserting his experience of his sexual nature to asserting that this experience is the true explanation of his desires.  The scientific evidence, such as it is, doesn't support the claim: the research which purports to show that homosexuality is inborn is at best problematic, and at worst thoroughly misconceived.  (Arana admits this, with some of the usual handwaving: we don't know where homosexuality comes from, we just know that it's Not. A. Choice.)  For that matter, gay people were claiming dogmatically that they were born gay long before this research was done, indeed before any halfway methodical research on the question had been done -- just as men claimed that women were biologically unfit for higher education, or whites made similar claims about blacks or Jews: conclusion first, evidence later if ever.  And after all, when social conservatives assert that homosexuality is unnatural, they're asserting their own equally strong subjective conviction that it's wrong.  Why does Arana's subjective belief trump theirs?  Of course theirs doesn't trump his either.  The question must be settled in other ways.

The title of Arana's article declares that "being gay isn't a choice, it's a civil rights issue", which besides being a false dichotomy, changes the terms of the argument.  And as Graff notes correctly, Civil Rights law protects certain lifestyle choices as well as inborn conditions: religious affiliation as well as "race" and "sex."  Even a lifestyle choice like interracial marriage, though not covered by the Civil Rights Act as far as I know, is protected by the Constitution according to the US Supreme Court.

And there's another issue, as far as I'm concerned.  I agree that "social conservatives" are wrong to assert dogmatically that homosexuality is a choice, whatever "choice" means -- both in fact and in terms of US law, it's false and irrelevant.  But what does it say about the US gay rights movement that it answers its opponents' irrelevant falsehoods with irrelevant falsehoods (e.g, that we're born this way) of its own?  Maybe it's politically necessary, but it's not the moral high road: it's more like sinking to our opponents' level.  And why not?  Is not one man as good as another?

*I've explained why it doesn't work at length before, but briefly, the hormonal theory -- that homosexuality is caused by overexposure to female hormones of the male fetus in utero, or to male hormones of the female fetus -- even if it turns out to have some validity, models "the homosexual" as "the invert," a feminized male or a masculinized female.  This might explain why, for instance, some men want to be penetrated by other males, but it doesn't explain why some males want to penetrate other males.  It's a theory of sex/gender, not of sexual orientation, and it is based on a reductive and impoverished model of human sexuality.  And whether sex hormones are a factor in homosexuality has still not been settled; like virtually every other scientific claim about homosexuality, it is still controversial.