Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Being gay: Nature or nurture?

Just saw this article about some actress (http://www.iol.co.za/tonight/news/international/gay-actress-s-claim-riles-activists-1.1222332) who has just "come out" - and she said it's something she chose. The backlash from the gay community is enormous. I have a number of responses to this.

Let's assume, for the moment, that I'm not a hard determinist, and that I think there's such a thing as choice (which I don't). I'll go into this a bit later. Let's start with the argument at hand.

What is wrong with saying it's a "choice"? Because the gay community, according to the article cited above, want being gay to be "something you're born with" so that the christians can't tell them to pray the gay away (http://www.southparkstudios.com/full-episodes/s11e02-cartman-sucks). So in order to be able to be christian, or be friends with christians, LGBTI people have to say it's "something they're born with". Otherwise, they're going to hell (and ought to be killed, says the Bible): Leviticus 18:22, 20:13.

But I've never been convinced by this argument. I mean, unless being gay (or whatever) is a genetic accident that happens in utero, I can't see how it could even be passed down through heredity. The point is: if you were born, you were born through normal human reproduction (at least up until the advent of donor banks). And indeed, most gay people are born to "straight" parents. (One assumes they're not "in the closet"). The fact that the parents managed to reproduce in the usual hetero way suggests that there's at least a good probability that the parents are hetero. This means that if being gay is genetic, it can't have been passed on by the parents. It just strikes me as unlikely. The only logical explanations for hetero parents having gay children (I personally know some!) - are as follows:

  1. The parents are in the closet, and are gay too. But that entails that all four of their parents were gay too, or that gayness is a dominant gene.
  2. Gayness is a recessive gene that everyone carries (or most people carry), that is only expressed at random. This is plausible, to my mind.
  3. The gay mutation appeared in utero. This is also plausible, but strikes me as too frequent to be the right explanation. I understand that up to 10% of the population are gay. That's more than redheads. So it can't be that we keep having the same genetic mutation occurring in so many foetuses. And anyway, if this were the explanation, the right wing would have come up with Joseph Mengele "solutions" for it by now.
  4. Being gay is some kind of choice. This is what I believe to be the correct answer.

My view is that unless there is substantial scientific evidence that gayness is inherent, we should assume, rather, that it is a life choice: and allow people to make that life choice. We do not condemn people who choose to be vegetarians, or Jewish rather than christian (at least not anymore); so surely who we sleep with is just another one of those life choices?

A hard determinist defence

Here's the way out. Gay people need to abandon the idea of free-will, and defend the view I espouse, viz., hard determinism. In the nature/nurture debate, many people argue that either nature (genetics) or nurture (parenting) has made a person how they are. Notice, however, that in the nature/nurture debate, there is no mention of free-will or free choice of lifestyle. This strikes me as inconsistent. Most people believe in free-will, and yet are happy to accept the 100% deterministic dichotomy of nature/nurture. So, then, what I am arguing, is that if gay people don't have good evidence for their gayness being determined by nature, they merely need to argue that it is determined by nurture. This is not to say that they must "blame their parents" - since there's nothing in particular to blame. Rather, it's a question of explaining their present life choices in terms of their past experiences over which they had no control.

Let's say, for example, that having X imposed on you as a child, in combination with Y and Z, guarantees that you will turn out gay. Now suppose that your parents impose X, Y and Z upon you, without knowing that it will have this effect. Your parents, one hopes, do the best that they can to ensure you are brought up a well-rounded, socially competent person. So, one assumes, they imposed X, Y and Z upon you with good intentions. So there's no question of malice or blame; it's just a question of explaining how you are the way you are.

I think straight people have a similar burden of proof. Surely, for example, if discriminating against persons on the basis of race is wrong, it must follow that refusing to consider someone romantically on the basis of their gender, must also be wrong? Well, it would be, if you had a real choice over who you prefer. So, like gay people, straight people also need to argue that they are the way they are because of reasons beyond their control. Let's say, for example, that to be straight, you need to have your parents impose on you (beyond your control, prior to your knowing it), the options A, B and C. So then, the explanation for your life choice really boils down to what happened to you as a child. Your subsequent choices depend on those character-forming events.

Being gay or straight, then, is a life choice in the sense that it is a choice you make because of who you are. But who you are is not under your control - certainly not when you are a small child, and your character is being formed. That is under the control of your parents, teachers, environment, society, and genetics.

This is not to provide gay people with "an excuse". Rather this is to say we should accept all people how they are, since how they are is not up to them; at least not initially. This is also not to license extremes. So, for example, a pedophile might argue that it's not up to him that he's a pedophile. From my point of view, that's probably true, but that doesn't mean he should be allowed to roam the streets freely. Consenting adults is something entirely different, and is none of any government's business.

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