By Osama Diab
Which is more empowering or threatening for the gay community: the idea that sexuality is a lifestyle choice (unnatural) or an innate trait (natural)?
Wednesday 1 February 2012
Homosexuality has featured high on the Republican primaries' campaign trail, with candidates generally opposing gay marriage and homosexuals openly serving in the military, with candidates like Rick Santorum claiming that gay sex was not “equal” to straight sex and was not “healthy” for society. Central to the entire debate is the question of nature versus nurture, i.e. whether a person's sexuality is a “lifestyle choice”, as many conservatives believe, or whether it is biologically predetermined.
Newt Gingrich has opined that it is both. But other prominent Republicans disagree. In an interview with ABC News prior to her 2008 run on John McCain's ticket, Sarah Palin controversially implied that homosexuality is a choice that her friend had made, while she herself had refused to.
Her comments stirred controversy and caused an uproar among gay rights supporters in the United States, where multiple scientific studies have supported the idea that homosexuality is not a choice, but as natural as the colour of your eyes and skin tone. What is more, Sarah Palin's church, the Wasilla Bible Church, promised to transform those “impacted by homosexuality” into heterosexuals.
An article published in The Independent in 1992 declared that “science may, it seems, be about to furnish proof that homosexuality has a biological basis – that it is part of the spectrum of normal human behaviour, as common or garden as being extrovert or left-handed”.. This proof brought hope that new laws would be passed outlawing discrimination against homosexuals.
It seems fair enough that gay rights activists should try to bring to the forefront any study which “proves” that sexual orientation is not something we can control or “choose”. A study carried out by the Pew Research Center reveals a link between an unfavourable opinion of homosexuals and those who think sexual orientation can be changed.
The study found that better-educated people are more likely to see homosexuality as innate and unchangeable rather than a lifestyle choice. And politically, twice as many liberals as conservatives say people are born homosexual.
In terms of religion, the gap is even bigger, more than half of highly committed white Evangelicals and 60% of black Protestants say that homosexuality is just a way that some people prefer to live, and just 14% say it is something that people are born with. Similarly, 73% of committed white Evangelicals think homosexuals can change their sexual orientation, and 61% of black Protestants agree.
The same study also suggests that “belief that homosexuality is immutable is strongly associated with positive opinions about gays and lesbians even more strongly than education, personal acquaintance with a homosexual, or general ideological beliefs”. This is the reason why the immutability of homosexuality has been central to gay rights narrative and campaigning. Studies like Pew's are the reason why Palin's comment were regarded as counter-productive.
The point of trying to prove that homosexuality is inborn, and make an analogy between sexual orientation and race is an attempt to reduce hostility and social stigma towards those who have sexual desires outside the widely-accepted definition of what is appropriate, and treat non-heterosexual individuals like people from different racial groups. It should be dealt with the same way it is widely-accepted among all sensible people that no one should be discriminated against based on their skin colour.
However, the notion that homosexuality, and more broadly sexuality, is a choice is not only an idea embraced by conservatives or those who oppose homosexuality. It's a view also shared by some of our most radical contemporary postmodern thinkers.
Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, which is considered a foundation stone for the critical field later known as Queer Theory, argues that identities are free and floating and describes gender as a social constructed performance rather than a biological trait. Queer theory suggests that nothing in your identity is fixed because it's shaped by a pile of experiences reinforced through repetition and, therefore, people can change. Butler goes as far as calling for the challenging of traditional views of sexuality by causing “gender trouble”.
Queer Theory is widely considered in academic and intellectual circles as a highly progressive view on sexuality and gender. Judith Butler, seen as one of the developers of this field, is considered a prominent radical thinker. If anything, she is the antithesis of Sarah Palin on every single level. However, if we look close enough, they both share the same view that sexuality is a social construct and can possibly be changed.
Of course, the underlying message and the intent from Palin and Butler's arguments are very different and belong to the opposite ends of the political and social spectra. When Palin says homosexuality is a choice, she means that if you're homosexual you can return to heterosexuality (in her opinion a normative). Whereas Butler's stance on fluid and changeable identity calls for a demolition of standards of behaviour and a gender shuffle where there is no longer clear boundaries between sexes, genders, and sexual orientations. Palin uses the “choice” argument to try and influence people's sexuality, whereas Butler is trying to encourage people to freely chose their sexual identity in disregard of what has been predetermined for us by society using more or less the same argument: that things can change and that we can do things differently.
Change is often more possible than not, and is often very related to the notion of what is a choice and what isn't. Sexual orientation is usually compared to race by black Republicans who normally vote against gay rights. Some might wonder how some African-Americans, who were once subject to institutionalised discrimination, could promote that sort of discrimination against another marginalised group. Their response is very central to the biological (nature) versus cultural (nurture) debate. One black man was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “I was born black. I can't change that. They weren't born gay; they chose it.”
But nowadays people can change or at least alter their skin colour to make it lighter or darker, using creams, make-up, natural or artificial tanning and sometimes surgery. Some people are mixed race, so it can be argued that racial divisions are not clear cut , which is what Butler hopes to see happen with gender roles.
Gay rights activism has been fighting to prove that homosexuality is an inborn trait rather than a “disease” that could be “cured” or changed, and when science came close to providing evidence that people's sexual orientations are decided before they are born, Butler intervenes to say that nothing is fixed and people can change everything including the most ingrained of traits.
So despite Butler's radically progressive views, her call to shuffle gender roles in the cause of stirring up “gender trouble” could actually backfire and cause the kind of trouble she did not intend for homosexuals.
As studies have shown, those who think homosexuality is innate tend to be more supportive of gay rights and marriage equality. So what seems to be Butler's contribution to the field of gender studies, other than causing utter confusion with her idiosyncratic writing style, is proposing an unrealistic campaign to demolish the longstanding binary divisions, at least in the Western mind, between men and women, gay and straight, which obviously is a very slow process of social change that cannot happen overnight, while giving conservatives an excuse to carry on with their “project” to try and transform gays into “normal” people.
Whether nature or nurture forms our identities and to what extent will always be the subject of scientific and philosophical debate. It will also always be highly politicised, with every group and camp selecting bits and pieces of scientific evidence and social theory to back up their political position. But what is for sure is that Butler's work on gender and sexuality offered very little to help the gay rights movement in the United States and elsewhere on a political level.
However, the lack of political impact and the failure to influence policy making does not at all mean Butler's theories are a failure. After all, even if academic work does sometimes influence public policy, this should not be a measure of its success or failure. Academics are different from political activists even though in many cases they do overlap, but they still remain separate roles with different goals.