Scientific sexuality study has sinister overtones.
November 6, 2003
Opinion/Editorial (page 9)
Not Elsewhere Classified
Science may not be the right answer, but how about sexuality
Yet another study has come out purporting to prove that homosexuals are born that way. This one comes from England and involves differences in startle response, or eye-blink reaction, a non-learned neurological response. The same month, a study came out of UCLA claiming that genes, not just hormones, affect gender differences in the brain and thus are likely also to play a major role in gender identity. Both of these studies, as well as the atmosphere around them, raise a number of interesting questions. Even leaving aside concerns about the soundness of the science in these particular studies, how can one quantify gender or sexual orientation in order to create such studies? These findings may help counter attacks that GLBT individuals are “sick” and “unnatural,” but the fact that the studies are based on binaries of “gay” and “straight,” “male” and “female,” is problematic. Why are we as a culture so obsessed with proving that these things are or are not choices anyway? Religion, for example, is very obviously a choice, but it isn’t grounds for depriving someone of their rights in this country.
While there is a minority queer by choice movement, certainly the most vocal and mainstream members of the gay rights movement rally behind the declaration that we can’t help being who we are. This is intuitive to most people, and is an obvious counter to the religious right’s charges that homosexuals are choosing to live in sin. Many gay rights activists, then, support research which will prove their belief that sexual orientation is biologically predisposed. The religious right, in turn, jumps to debunk the studies and offer countering evidence of studies that show a heavy environmental influence as well as the ever-popular ex-gay success stories.
Instinctually, I feel good about scientific proof that sexuality is genetic and not a result of something like my childhood gender models. However, the search for genetic markers identifiable at the fetal stage troubles me deeply. We are not in WWII Germany, but selective abortion is very much a reality. In countries like China, female children are often aborted. Some handicaps such as spina bifida, Tay-Sachs, and Down syndrome, as well as fatal abnormalities such as organs developing outside the body, can be detected before birth, and many parents choose to abort these babies. The ethics of aborting these babies is debatable, but giving parents the ability to choose to not have a gay child terrifies me.
Dr. Eric Vilain of the UCLA study suggests that if we can better understand the role genes play in determining gender identity, doctors will make fewer mistakes when assigning a sex to a newborn with ambiguous genitalia. This would certainly be a welcome change from the current criteria, which too often focus on surgical convenience, cosmetic concerns, and the possibility of future reproductive capabilities. However, even leaving aside the whole problem of the culture’s obsession with a person having one of two definite sexes, the increased scientific precision of this process could lead to further closing the door for adult transsexuals. What if you feel that your inner and outer gender do not match, but your doctor insists that your genes say that your sex was correctly assigned at birth?
These studies also feed into a highly stereotyped, binary way of thinking. Studies that compare homosexual and heterosexual individuals focus on incidences where gay people have characteristics similar to those of heterosexual people of the opposite sex. The study found that lesbians have eye-blink reactions more similar to those of straight men than to those of straight women. No wonder some people have misinterpreted the UCLA study as having proven that sexual orientation is fixed in the womb. Homosexuality and “transgender sexuality” (a phrase used in a Reuters piece) are both being represented as deviations from sex-appropriate behavior. This does a disservice to everyone. It boxes gay people into being members of the opposite sex with different genitalia and doesn’t allow for any transgression of gender norms on the part of straight people. These studies don’t even acknowledge the existence of bisexuals or anyone who defines their sexuality as fluid.
Sometimes interesting information comes out of these studies on sex and sexuality, but in general they miss the point. Retention of basic rights is not contingent upon genetics. The idea of being forced to show a compelling state interest in order to infringe upon fundamental rights was introduced in the early 1960s and has become a part of common legal parlance. The rights to marry whom one chooses, to adopt a child, to pursue one’s profession of choice, and to be safe from harassment or abuse have nothing to do with genetics but rather with basic citizenship and human dignity.
Susan made some really good points criticizing the one-sidedness of the article, and i largely agree even though i couldn't manage to work them into the article, so i'm printing it here:
What about the importance of increased scientific knowledge? Don’t you have to start somewhere? Very few things in development are binary; however in order to begin to understand the more fluid, complex issues, one must assume simplifications and apply rules. Additionally, many things are determined by both genetics and environment; for example, one can have the genome for characteristics a and b, but because of an environmental factor, b emerges as the phenome. Generally, my issue is that you’re not acknowledging the patterns of scientific inquiry, in which the general basics are established, and then the nuances and differences are explored. Without understanding gender, how can one ever scientifically understand transgender? The same goes for homosexuality and bisexuality. It seems as if you are interpreting the research in the same manner as those who will make damaging assumptions, only in the opposite direction.