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It’s not a birth defect, dummy

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 18 years ago, in 2004, on the World Wide Web.

(I owe the link to Alina Stefanescu’s commentary at Totalitarianism Today 2004/12/05.)

For the past couple decades or so, the mainstream of the gay rights movement has been insisting, as emphatically as they can and in every forum that they can find, that sexuality is determined by a more-or-less fixed sexual orientation and that sexual orientations are something innate–that is, either determined by genetics or by developmental factors during pregnancy. I understand how the tendency came about, in the face of bigoted bluster about the Evil Gay Agenda’s plans to recruit children, the deceptiveness and brutality of ex-gay aversion therapy programs, and more. But it’s an understandabe error, on any number of fronts. The cluster of ideas involved has any number of problems; one of the most fundamental is that it just bypasses the real argument. Let’s suppose, for example, that it turns out to be true that chemical effects on brain development in early pregnancy do have a major effect on adult sexuality, and that diet pills and thyroid medications really do make children much more likely to be gay if mothers take them during the first three months of pregnancy. What should we say about the discovery?

If you haven’t already got good grounds for saying that there’s nothing wrong with being gay or lesbian, then this discovery might make you less inclined to say that gay people can choose to be straight, or that the cultural environment you encounter in childhood can decide whether you’ll be gay or straight. But it won’t keep you from saying idiot things such as this (emphasis added):

These analyses support the conclusion that female offspring are more vulnerable to alterations in sexual orientation via exposure to a variety of prescription drugs, and suggest that this vulnerability is greatest during the first trimester.

Or this:

The finding adds to mounting concern over the use of slimming pills by women trying to lose weight. Prof Dornan said: All drugs can cross the placental barrier and, looking back, we weren’t so aware of what was going on inside the womb. Nowadays, the Royal College’s view is that women should not take drugs unless there is a clinical need.

Look, there are good medical reasons to be concerned about how medications taken during pregnancy affect children’s health at birth or later in life. But making your baby vulnerable to catching gay is not one of them. It’s not a birth defect, dummy. If there’s nothing wrong with being gay, then the increased likelihood of having a gay child ought to have no effect whatever on whether or not you decide to take pills in early pregnancy. (If it were discovered that diet pills made your child more vulnerable to having green eyes, would any researcher make comments like these?)

But it’s vital to notice that, even if the inntatist line on sexuality turns out to be true in every single respect, it does nothing to rule out either subtly (and perhaps unwittingly) homophobic comments like these, or stridently bigoted appeals from explicit homophobes. (Imagine Pat Robertson on television urging Christian mothers that taking thyroid medication during pregnancy makes the baby Jesus cry.) The fact is that there is nothing wrong with being gay–if it’s a choice, it’s not a wicked choice; if it’s a culturally cultivated taste, it’s not a pervse taste; and if it’s innate it’s not a congenital disease. But you can only say that if you have independent reasons for saying that there’s nothing wrong with gay romance or gay sexuality, aside from We can’t help it!

Gay liberation is a demand for the justice and respect that are due to rational human beings, whatever might happen to be under our loved ones’ underwear. Quibbling over whether our sexuality is ultimately up to us or not is an interesting scientific question, but it’s a political diversion. We shouldn’t waste our time on peripheral arguments to get homophobes to think of us as tragic accidents instead of depraved sinners; if we want to win, we need to head straight for the real argument, and we have to go all the way.

6 replies to It’s not a birth defect, dummy Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Discussed at www.volsunga.co.uk


    the gay agenda, again

    Dammit, I missed Gay HQ’s orders again, because I knew nothing about this;

    We were in elementary school – morning recess by the jungle gym. My buddy Kyle presided over the ceremony. I was the groom and Karen Smith was the blushing bride. The moc…

  2. Geoff

    Hear, hear!

    I had just such a discussion the other day.

    Interesting site: http://www.queerbychoice.com/

  3. Martin Striz

    As a quantitative geneticist, I feel that I should clear up a few misconceptions. First, it is entirely possible that sexual orientation could be a choice for some people, but not for others. Every complex trait (including behaviors and desires) is a combination of additive and epistatic genetic effects, environmental effects, and the interaction of genes with the environment. A gene or small set of genes can account for some percentage of a trait, but rarely accounts for 0 or 100%, and it always comes with the caveat that the degree to which it controls the variance in a trait is only valid within a specific environment (including one’s genetic background, i.e., all the other genes in your genome). A different person, with the same gene (or several genes), but with a much different genetic background and environment, could have a much smaller or much greater portion of the trait controlled by that gene(s). So the situation is rarely a simple dichotomy, and the nature VERSUS nurture antithesis is ill-formed.

  4. Rad Geek


    I certainly agree with you that whatever the correct scientific explanation of queer sexuality may be, it is almost certainly something far more complex than either party to the mainstream debate over whether or not sexuality is a “choice” is willing to admit. Proponents and opponents of the “gay gene” notion, in particular, constantly argue as if completely ignorant of how most heritability findings work–as if genetic determinants of queer orientations, if they exist, are some kind of monogenic silver bullet that makes you gay if you have it. Of course, if there is a genetic determinant for queer sexuality, then it will almost certainly be much more complex and have much more interplay with environmental and developmental factors than what seems to usually be claimed.

    My larger point here, though, is that while these are all fascinating and worthwhile scientific questions, they are monumentally irrelevant to the political and moral questions surrounding queer sexuality. No matter what makes people gay and no matter how much it is or isn’t up to them and no matter how much it is or isn’t influenced by the surrounding culture and idiosyncratic experiences, there’s still nothing wrong with being gay, and if we put a lot of weight on trying to convince bigots that we really can’t, in some sense or another, help it after all, then we will only have succeeded in convincing them to look at us as suffering from a tragic birth defect rather than convincing them to give us the justice and respect that we are due. While that might do away with some particularly nasty tendencies (e.g., the use of barbaric aversion therapy in “ex-gay” programs) it’s hardly the sort of victory we should be struggling for. And the sort of victory that we should be struggling for can only be won on independent moral and political grounds.

  5. Martin Striz

    Charles, I agree with you completely. As many scientists and philosophers have pointed out, moral positions have to be won with moral arguments, not empirical facts. Because if you get your facts wrong, then your moral argument fails. So, whether and to what degree a trait is genetically determined must be irrelevant to the moral and political conclusions that we make. I wasn’t responding to your post so much as to the implications of the author who posted the link to gaybychoice.com.

— 2006 —

  1. Discussed at atopian.org


    The Root of all Evil & Moral Genes

    Sorry for the brief break, I’ve been a little busy with work and the like. Finally got around to watching Dawkins the other day. Largely, I thought the program was good, highlighting many of the deep problems with religion, as well as some of the crackpo

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