Being gay might not be “natural” – let’s stop arguing otherwise

This article was originally published on the New Statesman website, and can be found here.

Anyone who respects personal freedom and equality will surely be impressed by the gay rights movement. Recent years have brought much to celebrate; the introduction of same-sex marriage legislation, improvements in public attitudes towards homosexuality within the UK, and gay pride events being held in countries where campaigning had previously been unthinkable. Although there is much work still to do, these are notable successes, achieved after a plethora of debates fought by brave and outspoken LGBT campaigners across the world.

Yet one of the arguments used in these debates is tenuous at best and harmful at worst; the idea that LGBT equality should be justified on the grounds that being gay is natural. The “born this way” argument suggests that those who previously opposed gay rights can be “won over” by the assertion that homosexuality is naturally determined from birth.

This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it very probably isn’t true that homosexuality is entirely naturally determined. Secondly it’s a sign of archaic, traditionalist ideology corrupting LGBT campaign efforts.

The science of sexual orientation is far from conclusive. While a study last year lead to sensationalist newspaper headlines declaring the discovery of a “gay gene”, later research revealed that genetics only accounts for around 40 per cent of variation in sexual orientation. Similarly, the common claim that over 400 species of animals exhibit homosexual behaviour is often exaggerated – very few of these species show a long-term preference for the same sex.

The findings of a 1991 study showing differences in the brain structure of homosexual and heterosexual men was similarly commandeered by those hoping to prove homosexuality resulted from natural genetic causes. Yet the researcher later confirmed that this was not the logical conclusion to be drawn from his evidence.

These cases aren’t uncommon. Scientific research on sexual orientation is consistently hijacked, exaggerated and then renounced; to such an extent that any claim that homosexuality is entirely “natural” and genetically determined seems dubious.

This isn’t to question whether homosexuality exists. The sexual or romantic attraction to members of the same sex is part of the human condition that exists as soon as somebody experiences it. Nor does this evidence suggest homosexuality is a choice – but that sexual orientation is determined by a complex, subconscious socialisation process rather than any inherent “natural” genetic cause. Perhaps surprisingly, there is persuasive evidence for such theories, found in non-Western societies that harbour different beliefs about sexual orientation to our own.The Papua New Guinean Sambia tribe, for instance, believe that all men transition through an age of homosexuality before becoming heterosexual later in life.

And it appears that individuals in these cultures aren’t just conforming to peer pressure – a study by the researcher Gilbert Herdt used the famous Kinsey Scale to analyse their sexual orientation on a seven point rating system. Astonishingly, the results showed that these individuals’ sexual orientation did consistently change with age. Although any socialisation process is unlikely to be as simplistic as this case suggests, such examples demonstrate the influence that society’s beliefs and customs can have on an individual’s personal sexual preferences.

It would be unreasonable to make any wide-reaching conclusions based on such divided evidence. Nonetheless, it’s clear that more research needs to be conducted if we’re to discover the more subtle and nuanced factors that determine sexual orientation.

Hence, while it’s undoubtedly true that many people have been convinced to support equality campaigns because of the “gay is natural” argument, justifying equality with such tenuous, superficial evidence is risky. If, as is very possible, it transpires that homosexuality is partially determined by socialisation, then a backlash could result for LGBT rights.

Only in 2005 were we reminded of the dangers of basing our social outlook on primitive scientific evidence. A study which had failed to find evidence for the existence of male bisexuality (later countered by other studies) led to newspaper headlines suggesting bisexuals were either “Straight, Gay or Lying”. It is remarkable at how quickly so-called scientific “breakthroughs” translate into discrimination and prejudice towards the LGBT community.

Considering this, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that LGBT campaigners might grow to regret justifying basic, ethical arguments using scientific evidence. After all, science is based on an apolitical pursuit of truth – it cannot be tailored to suit an argument, nor should it need to be.

But to argue for social change on the back of scientific evidence isn’t just irresponsible, it’s wholly irrational. Using the “gay is natural” argument suggests there is something inherently good about nature, and that the primitive world exemplifies a respectable code of ethics. This is a barbaric belief at best, and one that uniquely plagues sexual ethics.

You only need to imagine what a naturalistic society would look like to demonstrate how inconsistently these beliefs are applied. Embracing social Darwinism, and encouraging violence, aggression and alcoholism (genetic causes have been discovered for all of these characteristics), such a society would presumably reject some of our most humane (unnatural) achievements; modern medicine, the eradication of diseases such as smallpox, and international aid projects. The flaws of such a “naturalistic fallacy” are obvious – so why do gay rights campaigners attempt to achieve equality on the grounds of homosexuality being natural? Given the array of reasoned, rational arguments in support of gay rights, why resort to such naturalistic moralising?

Campaigners promoting the 'born this way' argument PHOTO/Quinn Dombrowski
Campaigners promoting the ‘born this way’ argument PHOTO/Quinn Dombrowski

Of course, the “born this way” argument is often used to protect the welfare of gay people. Indeed, the assertion that there is no choice involved in sexual orientation often triggers empathy and pity towards those in the LGBT community. But this belief is born from a fundamentally homophobic understanding; that people need to be excused for being gay, and more insidiously that they have to seek society’s approval for their sexual behaviour. It’s an argument entrenched in a fear of any kind of sexual experimentation or diversity.

This is the problem with arguing for gay rights on the grounds that homosexuality is natural. Such an apologist, naturalistic attitude isn’t about having pride in your sexual identity. It’s not even about equality. It frames homosexuality as a second preference, justifiable only in the eventuality that nature has prevented an individual from pursuing a heterosexual relationship. Yet most damaging is that the naturalistic argument doesn’t change anybody’s attitudes towards homosexuality, but instead merely excuses individual homosexuals from blame.

The “born this way” argument is part of a wider trend of socially conservative LGBT campaigning. Exemplified by David Cameron’s approach towards same-sex marriage (“I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative”), it aims to use modern social advances to promote the so-called “traditional moral values” that were once used to justify the introduction of Section 28. Having drained out any ambition of sexual liberation or personal freedoms, such beliefs aim to essentially “normalise” the gay community under an imitation of “traditional”, heteronormative society. In fact, the celebrated campaigns of gay rights have almost all fallen into the trend of mimicking “traditional” relationships; with discussion of marriage, commitment and family.

While this is a great achievement for those who aspire towards a traditional model of life, the gay rights movement must be careful not to neglect the wider LGBT community. Indeed, although polls show that public attitudes towards homosexuals have improved, this is not true for everyone; statistics reveal that bisexuals and trans people still receive a greater level of discrimination and abuse compared to lesbians and gay men. The consequences of this are severe, with bisexual people disproportionately suffering from higher rates of suicide and mental health problems. Likewise, it is routine and commonplace for the media to treat polyamory as a bizarre spectacle rather than a legitimate lifestyle choice. These effects are likely a result of society’s demonisation of those who don’t conform to supposedly “traditional” identities. It seems that recent campaigning efforts haven’t necessarily increased society’s tolerance, but have been restricted to achieving the acceptance of a specific type of gay person.

We should be wary of this new wave of socially conservative LGBT campaigning, which feigns as liberation while entrapping a new community in its draconian attitudes and social dogma surrounding sex. The LGBT movement’s proud history of tolerance and diversity was born out of welcoming those who shared a common experience of being rejected by society’s “traditional” and moralising values. To become a force that conforms to, and even promotes, these values, would be enormously harmful to individuals outside of the monogamous, homosexual brand.

To argue for LGBT equality by resorting to naturalistic reasoning and traditionalist values might seem like a quick fix. But it’s a grossly irrational, irresponsible and exclusionary mistake to make. It endorses the notion that society has a right to judge, or accredit, private relationships between consenting adults. It backs a belief that we should be ashamed of difference and wary of tolerance. But most importantly, it rejects freedom in favour of acceptance. The LGBT movement should strive for more.

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