don’t ask why, or running in scientific circles

I’m currently reading an anthology entitled, simply, Queer Theory. It’s kinda odd how I’ve got at least five books on my shelf right now whose titles are remarkably similar to that – you’d think they’d come up with something a little more interesting. But I digress.

This one’s edited by Iain Morland and Annabelle Willox, and their take on what constitutes queer theory is quirky but ultimately sound, in my opinion. Their choices include essays by Patrick Califia, Larry Kramer (of Faggots fame) and Cheryl Chase (intersex activist extraordinaire), book excerpts from more hardcore theorists like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (she who wrote the well-known essay “Epistemology of the Closet”) and Judith Butler (known for Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter and other such massively influential works), and even a sizzling excerpt from Carol Queen’s famed erotic novel The Leather Daddy and the Femme – which seems to be popping up a lot lately in my world, most recently at an erotica reading where five gals switched off on reading bits of it, each passing it on to the next when the story got so distracting it was hard to read. Heh heh. But I digress yet again.

Each piece in Queer Theory stands firmly on its own. I’m about halfway through now, and I’m impressed by the diversity of approaches and themes. The essay that really got me thinking, most recently, is an excerpt of Marjorie Garber’s 1997 book Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life, entitled “The Return to Biology.” In it, she basically trashes the most well-known studies about gay biological determinism.

I’m not really interested in rehashing the whole nature/nurture debate; the best explanation I’ve ever heard of it is from an NFB documentary entitled Anatomy of Desire, in which someone (it escapes me who, but basically everyone in the film is a scholarly luminary of one sort or another) said that sexual orientation is “100% nature and 100% nurture.” In other words, they’re pretty much inextricable from one another, so bloody stop trying already. I feel like pretty much anyone who’s arguing exclusively from one side or the other has an agenda of some sort, and is simply refusing to consider pieces of information that are vital to understanding the full picture. So that’s where I stand; comfortably in the middle, or both/all at once, as usual.

That being said, the biological determinism/constructivism/essentialism camp usually pisses me off more, partly because the “born that way” argument generally comes off as a combination of reductionist thinking, or pathologizing/medicalizing discourse, or pure conservative fantasy, or excessively ambitious sociobiological extrapolation, or condescension, or whiny and pathetic begging for acceptance, depending on who’s articulating it. So while I certainly don’t discount science and the value of physical/hormonal/what-have-you evidence, I do discount the motives and politics of the people and institutions who are most likely to fall back on that evidence most readily, especially when they in turn discount the cultural, sociological and progressive values-based arguments along the way, which I find to be much more intellectually and personally compelling.

All of this to say that reading Garber tear apart the science was uniquely satisfying. Particularly since she does so from a bisexual/queer perspective, rather than simply a homosexual/gay/lesbian one. 

First, she takes Simon LeVay’s 1991 study of the hypothalamus in a pile of cadavers. She quotes LeVay as describing his research sample: “Nineteen subjects were homosexual men who died of complications of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) (one bisexual man was included in this group). Sixteen subjects were presumed heterosexual men; six of these subjects died of AIDS and ten of other causes. Six subjects were presumed heterosexual women. One of these women died of AIDS and five of other causes.” She also quotes LeVay’s footnote about the presumed hetero guys: “Two of these subjects (both AIDS patients) had denied homosexual activity. The records of the remaining 14 patients contained no information about their sexual orientation; they are assumed to have been mostly or all heterosexual on the basis of the numerical preponderance of heterosexual men in the population.” He bases this on the Kinsey studies published in 1948.

In other words, in addition to discounting the potential effect that AIDS might have had on these individuals’ brains, LeVay made a whole bunch of assumptions about their sexual orientations without being able to factually verify that data, and he included an avowedly bi guy in with the homos. He comes up with data saying that there is a difference in gland size between gays and straights, but really, how valuable is that information given the flaws in the study and the tiny sample size? Yeesh.

Garber then turns to a study by Dean H. Hamer, which looked at 166 people, of which 114 were gay men and the rest were their relatives of various orientations. She points out that in his data, “bisexual was determined to mean, for statistical purposes, ‘not homosexual’ rather than ‘homosexual.'” So Hamer lumps the bi men in with the straights – exactly the opposite of LeVay. Hmmm. Not to mention he concludes that “Sexual orientation is too complex to be determined by a single gene.”

She also mentions a study by Michael Bailey, but doesn’t go into the details. Which is just as well, and perhaps even rather prescient of Garber back in 1997, because Bailey’s more recent work has been completely ripped to shreds by everyone from the bisexual and trans communities to the scientific community to the popular media. In 2004 he was forced to resign from his position as chair of the NU Psych Department following the publication of highly questionable research on trans people; in 2006 the Chicago Free Press refused to run any more of Bailey’s ads for research participants because he published a widely publicized study claiming that bisexual men are “gay, straight or lying,” which inspired a massive negative response from within the bi community, which in turn led to the investigation of his work, which in turn showed that his methods were questionable at best and his conclusions pretty much void.

All in all, the science behind the “nature” argument isn’t too impressive. At best it’s inconclusive; at worst it’s poorly done and suspiciously motivated. Doubtless further research has been done since 1997, but these three studies remain the most commonly cited ones.

And for those who really think the gay gene argument is going to help homos become better accepted, just take a look at this excerpt from a Church paper by Nicanor Austriaco that totally tears apart the same studies as Garber did. (I’m not linking to it as a matter of principle, but feel free to Google “gay gene” and “church” if you’re curious, it’ll be the first hit.) Clearly the tearing-apart is coming from a very different point of view. The paper concludes,

“Human sexuality involves free acts of self-giving which are best manifested in the complementary union of bodily persons that occurs during marital love. Regardless of what happens elsewhere in the animal kingdom, both rape and homosexual behavior are incompatible with an authentic understanding human personhood. They are unnatural because both are violations of our natures as embodied spiritual creatures. Both fail to realize the total self-gift of persons that ought to accompany every sexual act. We are persons and this makes all the difference in the world.

“Science is often used to argue that the Church needs to revise her teaching on homosexuality. Ironically, recent research has now suggested that many of the presuppositions accepted as dogma by gay activists in our society may themselves have to be revised. At the time of this writing, there is still no conclusive evidence that homosexuality is genetically determined. Thus, it is still impossible to know whether someone who has homosexual inclinations was in fact “born that way.” Next, as Dr. Robert Epstein, the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today pointed out in a recent editorial, the newly published scientific data reviewed in this essay suggest that there is a need to reopen the question – can gays change? – and revisit the issue of sexual conversion and ex-gays. Reparative therapy may be more successful than previously acknowledged especially when it is coupled with religious faith. Finally, the claim that homosexuals are as mentally healthy as heterosexuals is simply not true. Though the source of the psychopathology is not yet clear, homosexual activity is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, substance abuse and suicide.”

Now isn’t that lovely? I much prefer Garber’s conclusion to her own analysis of the same data:

“Like Rock Hudson reading the Kinsey Report, like Simon LeVay charting the biology of gay identity, bisexuals also seek to read the face of nature, to find themselves already written there. Ultimately, however, the object of scrutiny will escape even the most vigilant and searching eyes. Bisexuality undoes statistics, confounds dimporphism, creates a volatile set of subjects who will not stay put in neat and stable categories. No calipers will fit the shape of desire, which remains, thankfully, unquantifiable by even the most finely tested instruments.”

Clearly, the exact same scientific data can be used by any side of the argument, and trashed by any side of the argument as well. Which is pretty much my point: science isn’t going to help us one way or the other here. All it’s going to do is give us more fodder for speculation on a question that’s not really the one we should be asking in the first place.

I don’t care if my genes made me queer or if I came to it by some wonderful combination of biological predisposition, life experience and choice; I’m happy this way and I have every right to be this way, much like I have every right to breathe and eat and think and laugh and learn and love. If we’re going to look at and analyze sexuality, eroticism, sexual behaviour and desire, I firmly believe we need to do so from a non-judgmental, pluralistic and diversity-friendly point of view. “How,” “when,” “what,” “who” – these are questions of interest. “Why” is just going to keep us running around in circles.

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