The West used to send Bible-waving missionaries to Africa to try and pry open the natives’ eyes to the truth. Now it sends scientists.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has said he will dispatch scientific experts to Uganda to try and convince its president, Yoweri Museveni, that homosexuality is not a choice—as Museveni seems to believe—but is rather an inherited genetic trait.
So we have gone from foisting God to shoving Gaga down Africans’ throats—it’s the Lady Gaga Gospel about gays being “Born This Way” that the Dark Continent’s inhabitants are now being pressured to embrace. We used to teach them, among other Biblical things, that it’s a sin to sleep with a member of the same sex; now we tell them that it’s a sin to think it’s a sin to sleep with a member of the same sex.
Kerry announced his plan to use science to help deliver Ugandans from their ignorance during a BuzzFeed-moderated debate at the State Department this week. Gay-rights activists are cheering this as a victory for enlightenment. He is taking a “strong and intelligent approach” to Ugandan leaders’ recent legal assaults on the rights of homosexuals, says website The New Civil Rights Movement.
But how enlightened, really, is Kerry’s claim that science can prove homosexuality is a genetic or biological characteristic with which people are born?
Herein lies the massively ironic rub: In taking this “gay is natural” stance, Kerry is echoing an attitude to homosexuality that is older and more backward than President Museveni’s talk about gayness being a choice.
Museveni, in an irony that will no doubt make the homo-hater want to take a very long shower, is more in line with the original gay-liberation movement when he talks up the “choice” element of homosexuality, whereas Kerry’s scientific stuff harks back to a darker, pre-liberation view of gayness as an inherent thing that can be studied, measured, and potentially eradicated. Yep, it’s possible Kerry has a more archaic view of gayness than Museveni does.
Museveni is extremely intolerant of homosexuality. Last month he signed into law a deeply disturbing bill that makes having gay sex punishable by life imprisonment.
The bill defines homosexual acts very broadly, so that even touching another person “with the intention of committing the act of homosexuality” could potentially land you in jail for life. The bill punishes freedom of thought and speech, too, making it a crime, punishable by seven years in jail, to promote homosexuality or to set up a gay-rights organization. It is a repugnant, misanthropic law.
But that doesn’t mean that all opposition to it, or to Museveni’s claim that homosexuality is a “matter of choice,” is by definition good and progressive. Museveni has outraged Western liberals not only by enacting a law that strips Ugandan homosexuals of their dignity and liberty, but also by daring to question what has become an article of faith in influential Western circles in recent years: namely, that some people are born gay, just as surely as others are born female or black or with ginger hair.
Strikingly, Museveni says he has changed his mind on homosexuality in recent years: Where he says he used to think gayness was an “inborn problem,” a “genetic distortion,” he now says he has realized it is a chosen lifestyle. Is it not very odd that supposedly enlightened Westerners should chide Museveni for saying this and implicitly insist that he go back to seeing homosexuality as a “genetic distortion” like many in the West now do?
The idea that homosexuality is a fixed, birth-inherited trait, an inescapable quirk of a person’s genes, has been gaining ground in the West for more than two decades. It has moved from a claim made in dense studies by scientists to being a truism of popular culture—consider the pro-gay-marriage Australian ad in which an ultrasound technician tells a pregnant woman: “You’re having a lesbian!” No one seemed to balk at the notion that a fetus is capable of any kind of sexual feeling, whether of the gay or straight variety.
The view of homosexuality as a genetic thing might be popular, but that doesn’t make it right or decent. You’d never know it from the speedy spread of the “Born This Way” outlook across the cultural landscape, but there’s still much controversy and doubt around the idea that homosexuality is determined by nature rather than being influenced and shaped by a person’s environment, experiences, desires, and, yes, possibly his or her choices.
Not coincidentally, the modern idea of a “gay gene” really took off in the early 1990s. After the experiences of the 1980s, when there was the AIDS crisis and a conservative backlash against gays in both America and parts of Europe, some gay-rights folk were desperate to find a more natural explanation for homosexuality in the hope that if they could prove their sexuality was biological—that is, that it cannot be helped—then they might successfully ward off the barbs of those who look upon gays as morally corrupt.
So in 1991, the gay Californian neurobiologist Simon LeVay claimed to have found differences in the brains of gay and straight males, and he stated explicitly his hope that such a scientific discovery would lead to a “rejection of homophobia based on religious or moral arguments.” But his findings have never been replicated by other scientists and in fact have been challenged by some. Also in 1991, J. Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard claimed to have discovered that when there was homosexuality in a set of identical male twins, in 52% of cases both of the brothers were gay. But when they tried to replicate their study the figures fell dramatically: They later found that in only 20% of cases of identical twins involving homosexuality were both twins gay. This not only called into question their original claims, it also suggested that in 80% of the cases they studied, genetics could not have been a major player and environmental factors may have been more important.
The gay gene/gay brain/gay biology outlook isn’t only scientifically questionable—it’s politically controversial, too. As the British-based gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has argued, the gay movement’s frantic embrace of gay-gene theories points to a “terrible lack of self-confidence and a rather sad, desperate need to justify queer desire.” There is a “pleading, defensive sub-text” in the gay-gene thesis, says Tatchell—it says, “We can’t help being fags and dykes, so please don’t treat us badly.”
What’s bizarre about gays’ and liberals’ adoption of the genetic outlook is that it is precisely the kind of thing that the old gay-liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s argued against.
In the early to mid-20th century, it was moralists and reactionaries who insisted gayness was some genetic twist, though back then they referred to it as the “gay germ” rather than “gay gene.”
As Michael Shiveley points out in his book Origins of Sexuality and Homosexuality, in much of the modern period sections of the elite viewed homosexuality as “an involuntary physical condition,” possibly caused by some warping of “the individual’s cerebral cortex.” In 1955, the British Christian theologian Derrick Sherwin Bailey described homosexuality as “an inherent condition” with “biological, psychological or genetic causes.” As late as 1980, Catholic writers such as the American John Boswell were talking about homosexuality as “biologically predetermined.” And of course homosexuality was referred to as a psychological disorder.
Far from accepting such homosexuality-as-genetic arguments, the gay movement that emerged in the 1960s fought against the idea that gays had some kind of involuntary physical condition. As Robert Alan Brookey traces in his book Reinventing the Male Homosexual, the gay liberationists emphasized the “lifestyle choice argument” over the biological fatalism of those who had a problem with homosexuality. “Only recently has the gay-rights movement embraced the biological argument,” says Brookey.
In essence, there has been a very weird swapping of positions: Those once-confident gay-rights activists who insisted sexuality was fluid and that they could sleep with whomever they chose to have now adopted a very defensive biological view of homosexuality as ingrained—and the old, prejudiced lobby has shifted from slamming gayness as a physical or mental malaise to describing it as a choice, and a wicked one at that.
John Kerry is saying what the homophobic folk of yesteryear used to say, while Yoweri Museveni is repeating some of the arguments of the radical gay street fighters of the 1960s.
Museveni might be using the gayness-as-lifestyle-choice argument for unbelievably cynical and sinister ends, but there is nonetheless a smidgen more humanity in his description of homosexuality than there is in Kerry’s. Where the Kerry-promoted, pseudoscientific view of homosexuality as a fixed trait regards human beings as prisoners of their genetic fate, the older focus on the autonomy of homosexuals, on their right to live and behave as they saw fit, at least understood that human beings are a lot more complicated than what is in their genes.
So maybe our response to Museveni should be: “Yes, you’re right: There’s an element of choice in homosexuality. Now stop punishing that choice, you bastard.”
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