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Thursday, April 10, 2003  
Homosexuality and the eye of the beholder

Kevin Drum and Kieran Healy have provocative thoughts about a recent post by Matthew Yglesias, a very sensitive young man.

I wasn?t too impressed with Andrew Hacker?s Gays and Genes in the New York Review of Books but it did contain one hell of a factoid, namely a 2002 Gallup poll about whether people think homosexuality is innate or caused by upbringing. Republicans opted for upbringing by a 61-39 margin whereas Democrats chose innateness 66-34.

I first began considering the topic of nature v. nurture in regard to homosexuality when I was an active member of Nerve, the online magazine about sexuality. One of its major contributors, Simon LaVey, was a gay scientist who has aggressively promoted the idea there is a gay gene or genes. I have never found his argument persuasive. It is too results oriented. He wants homosexuality to be biologically determined, and voila! it is.

Kevin believes pre-existing political positions determine people's response to the issue.

I've mentioned before the fact that many liberals mightily resist the idea of biological causes of behavior, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, for mostly ideological reasons. Most conservatives, on the other hand, mightily resist the idea that people are products of their environment, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, also for mostly ideological reasons. But just as both sides are willing to change their tune on federalism whenever it suits them, so are they willing to change their tune on nature vs. nurture when their normal stance doesn't support their preferred policy goal.

I agree and will go a step further. I believe people's thoughts about the societal status quo likely determine their reaction to the whether gays are born that way or become that way. Currently, though discriminated against in some aspects, such as the inability to marry, homosexual men are, as a group, better educated and wealthier than the most Americans. They are welcome in conservative politics, albeit somewhat secretively. (Read David Brock's Blinded by the Right for the eye-opening details.) A typical Republican Joe or Jane probably perceives most gay men as "just like us" except for their sexual behavior.

In comparison, 'racial' minorities, particularly African-Americans and Hispanics, are more likely to be perceived as the Other. It is easier for conservatives to accommodate homosexuals than it is for them to even begin to relate to the often poor, often less educated and definitely less white racial minorities. Accommodating gays can be done without changing the status quo very much.

Let's consider the major demand of the most vocal gay spokesmen at this time: The right to marry. If gays were allowed to marry that would not shift any of the competitive fruits of society away from white middle-class Americans. (Let us not forget that half of the wealth in the country is already firmly in the hands of the top five percent of the population.) It would just admit another group of mainly white middle-class Americans into the tradition of matrimony. But for some pesky learned behavior, from the perspective of conservatives who oppose homosexuality, gays are eligible for membership in the club.

Gay marriage will not become widespread in the foreseeable future. But, the reasons have more to do with a Republican political strategy of appealing to Christian fundamentalists and Dixie 'Pubs than the kind of deep opposition that occurs when it looks like outgroups might move up the economic ladder.

Liberals, as reflected in the poll, tend to think homosexuality is genetically determined. I believe that is because we perceive gays as outsiders like racial minorities. There is ample proof of historical discrimination against gays, in criminal law particularly. So, it is easy to perceive homosexuals as being disfavored by the status quo. The reality, as I described above, is more complex, once class, race, education and political positions of gays as a group are considered. The U.S. Supreme Court has chosen to apply a tiered analysis to gender and race discrimination, with racial discrimination subject to more scrutiny because there is less basis for it. Add sexual preference (there is no constitutional protection for homosexuality) and I believe it would fall even lower in the tiered analysis because so little of what justifies protections for women and minorities is applicable to gays.

But why do liberals believe homosexuality is innate? I will hazard a guess that it has to do with gays being an invisible minority. Racial minorities' visibility makes them subject to very overt discrimination every day of their public lives. Homosexuals need not be subject to such scrutiny. However, if they are also Other, though less apparently, they fit under the umbrella of oppressed minority as well as women and the non-white. A people being abused by society because of something it can't help is on the wrong side of the status quo. Liberals consider such people part of our constituency.

I don't believe the nature v. nurture issue has been resolved in regard to homosexuality. It could be caused by either. Most likely both biology and environmental causes play a role. If I had been polled, I would have refused to choose between nature and nurture. Actually, I don't believe the nature v. nurture issue has been resolved about much of anything. The people who eagerly embrace claims of biologically based racial inferiority are results driven and, invariably, crackpots.

Kieran Healy is succinct:

This confirms a throwaway comment I read a few years ago, I think in the context of The Bell Curve debate. Conservatives think that everything but being gay is determined by the genes and Liberals think everything except being gay is caused by the environment. There?s a moral there somewhere.

I believe Kieran is correct that how people respond to the issue of why gays are gay can be an excellent Rorschach test of their thoughts about politics in general.

2:50 PM