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Beyond genetics, beyond choice

We've gotten into the discussion several times here at the Bilerico Project about the causes of sexual orientation, and here's me jumping in, mainly because the subjects of autonomy and biology have been on my mind.

I keep on hearing over and over again, “It's not a choice, it's genetic,” and that needs to stop. Statements that posit genetics and volition at opposite ends of a spectrum are like nails on a chalkboard to someone who has studied biology. The statement is wrong because:

  1. “Genetics” and “choice” aren't mutually exclusive. There are human traits that are both. (Like body weight, hair color, and athletic ability.)
  2. “Genetics” and “choice” don't encompass everything. There are human traits that are neither. (Like having Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, being born into a rich family, or speaking English natively.)
  3. “Genetics” and “choice” aren't stable subjects. They can each take on different meanings depending on context.
  4. Such terms are defined based on cultural contexts and climates. Expecting science to come up with a dogma on the issue that explains everyone's sexual orientation is inherently expecting the politicization of science.

There, I let it out! Oh, ok, I explain myself more fully after the jump.I often wonder why so many queers cling to the “It's not a choice, it's genetic” mantra. I'm beginning to think that it has a lot to do with the way choice is posited in our culture. We often hear, think, and say things like, “He chose to cross the border illegally, so he deserves whatever he has coming to him,” or, “She chose to drop out of high school, so if she can't pay to go to the doctor, that's her fault.” Choice is ugly in American culture. It's an attack. It's something to beat people over the heads with until they capitulate and “choose” something different or just crawl into a hole to escape the violence.

So I can understand why many queers will cling to what they think is the opposite of “choice”. But genetics is not the answer. Most of us remember Mendel's pea pods from high school biology, how the ones that got the “yy” genotype were yellow and the ones that received the “Yy” or “YY” genotypes were green. It was simple – get a certain result in a genetic role of the dice and the pea pods are one color or another. Unfortunately for us, the human psyche is far more complicated than a pea pod.

Take, for example, body weight. While there are some who will say that it's completely genetic and others who will say that it's completely a choice, I think that this discussion is further along in developing than the one on sexual orientation. There is some choice involved, that much we know. Someone can't gain weight without eating the food necessary to gain that weight, but that doesn't mean that eating that food is a complete choice from which everyone starts at the same point. Some people are compelled, from their genetics, upbringing, culture, and psychological state, to eat more food than others. And some people metabolize more slowly, based on a combination of genetics and action, actions that can be compelled by the same factors that influence the amount someone eats.

This we're all more comfortable talking about for whatever reasons. But sexuality should be seen as far more complex.

While we may not experience any choice in which direction we're attracted, that doesn't mean that it was written into our gene code. Sexual identity, primarily, is a choice. How do we know someone is gay? This discussion reminds me of an interview with Rosie O'Donnell that I read years ago. She was saying, before she publicly came out, that she was talking with Ellen and telling her that everyone must know she's a lesbian. She was daytime TV's Queen of Butch, for crying out loud. But Ellen told her that until you say something, people are going to assume that you're straight.

Which is true. Even the biggest flamer or butchest woman, if he or she dresses gender normatively and chooses to follow all those rules as much as he or she can, can convince the average straight person that he or she is straight by virtue of saying it. It's only when we express our gender as we choose (which has come to be equated with sexual orientation in our culture), verbalize our sexuality, or otherwise express what we interpret our hormones are after that straight people, even many queer people, will identify someone else as queer.

Since sexual identity is expressed through language, and language works within constraints of what's intelligible and what labels already exist to define what's possible, then is it a choice or genetic? Which one is the language we speak, genetics or choice?

And that's just knowing if someone else identifies as gay, straight, or bi. What about ourselves? Those attractions to certain people or sexes have to be interpreted so that we know what to do with them. But just because we only have a few words to describe something like sexuality doesn't mean that it always falls neatly into a category. How many people here know a hard-core lesbian who's slept with a man? How many people here know a gay man who likes watching straight porn? How many people here know someone who identifies as bisexual? How many people here know someone who one day will identify as bisexual?

So we have the politicization of science if we expect it to ignore that diversity, messiness, and reality, and look for a cause to something we're only describing a certain way because that's what we have the language for and because we love to simplify everything down into a binary, like “gay” or “straight”. And that's why these studies on the origin of sexuality usually look so asinine when evaluated from a scientific perspective instead of a pop cultural one. How can we find the “gay gene” if the idea of gay is at least partly the product of something entirely non-genetic?

And why aren't people looking for the bisexual gene? Does anyone care to find that? And, to paraphrase Leslie Feinberg, what about the “well, I was really drunk one night at college…” gene?

That's not to say that there isn't a modicum of choice involved in all of this. Just because we don't choose the language we think and speak in doesn't mean that we can't choose to expand it or we can't simply choose another label to identify with. But my choice to identify as gay or to express my sexuality by kissing boys isn't the same as if my straight brother had made it, and just because many straight male fundies are happy with their choice to marry women doesn't mean that I would be happy making that same choice.

In that context “choice” can mean something different than an ugly signification of deviation from a norm, a fall from Grace, a self-deception, a straying from the path that someone else had all-knowingly lain out for us. It can be a term that says, in light of specific economic, political, cultural, linguistic, environmental, and, yes, genetic contexts that posit people in different positions and that change with time, people have the right to express themselves and make decisions for themselves in ways that work for their lives. A choice that's destructive if you make it doesn't mean that it's destructive if I make it, because we're each making that decision from a different position, providing for different results.

And, in the end, isn't that what we're really looking for, substantive autonomy? We might not think that it's a smart idea on which to base a movement, but there's already been a choice movement around for a while that's had some significant successes. Quite conveniently, it's called the pro-choice movement, and the idea isn't just that people can choose to do whatever, screw everyone else; it's that specific choices, in this case reproductive, are best left up to individuals to make in light of everything going on in their lives and their own morality.

I think that's a perfect metaphor for what we should be trying to achieve with queer rights activisms – moving beyond “choice” as “fault” and “not choice” as “genetics”. Reducing the complexity of human sexuality to an advertising slogan might seem advantageous in the short term, but we're not going to dismantle the heteropatriarchy by playing its game of reduction, categorization, and normification.

Most importantly, we have to stop saying, “It's not a choice, it's genetic,” because that's just irritating.

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Alex Blaze

Alex Blaze


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