Overview

This majority of the text below was written in 1999 as part of a project for one of my undergraduate Philosophy seminars. It was later submitted and reviewed by the American Philosophical Association, who considered publishing it in one of their journals—Philosophy of the Gay and Lesbian Experience, I believe it was called—but those plans eventually fell through due to length and other issues. (In other words, there are no copyright issues with me posting it here.)

The paper is recreated below with its original title, but I have edited some of the content for relevance and to bring it a bit more up-to-date. However, most of the issues I discussed in 1999 are still quite palpable today, especially in the South.

The crux of this essay is this: For some time, the main argument against religious fundamentalists and in defense of gay rights has been, essentially "Hey, we're born this way, so screw you." While this argument does raise a few interesting points (e.g. if we do not accept that a loving God would create people who are hardwired to sin, then perhaps homosexuality is not a "sin" at all), it is no where near adequate for addressing the issue and, in my opinion, it does more harm than good.

There are several reasons why this argument is a bad one, the least of which not being that it provides little or no shelter for members of the bisexual and transgendered communities. If, as the argument implies, it is okay to be gay because one is "born that way," then the contrapositive must also be implied: if one is not "born gay," then s/he has no moral basis for justifying a lifestyle other than plain old vanilla heterosexuality. By ascribing the moral acceptability of certain sexual orientations to a gene (or set of genes), we continue the perception that there is a "natural way" to have sex and, depending on one's genome, deviance from that natural way is grounds for being branded immoral.

Furthermore, the Argument from Genetics (as I will come to call it) ignores the fact that many fundamentalist Christian organizations (such as P-FOX) already accept that sexuality is ingrained within our genes, making them immune to any persuasive powers this argument might have had. In the end, the argument is divisive (drawing lines between who has the "gay gene" and who does not) and accomplishes little, which leads me in the end to suggest that it be abandoned altogether.

In an attempt to mold a competing argument, I reach back to one of my favorite philosophers, John Stuart Mill, and invoke his Harm Principle, which basically states, "It is ethical to do X if and only if X harms no one else. Furthermore, it is unethical to stop a person from doing X if X is not harming anybody." I will later refer to this argument as the "Argument from the Lack of Harm" (in retrospect, a fairly boring name, I must admit), suggesting that gay rights advocates cling more to the ethos of Mill's Harm Principle than to the shaky foundation provided by the Argument from Genetics.

In the end, the point of this exercise is to determine (1) despite its early success in persuading individuals that homosexuality is not a sin, does the Argument from Genetics continue to serve a useful purpose; and (2) does an alternate argument exist that can be used to both further the agenda of human rights activists and persuade individuals who haven't yet made up their minds to move toward tolerance, without unnecessarily dividing the gay/les/bi/trans communities?


Missing the Point: The Failure of the Argument from Genetics and the Need for Alternative Arguments in Defense of the Moral Acceptability of Homosexuality

In order to defend against the rhetoric of social conservatives, gays and lesbians are often required to justify homosexuality amidst accusations of leading a "sinful" or "unnatural" lifestyle. Unfortunately, the typical response to such allegations is far from ideal, missing the point entirely and doing little to further the struggle for the rights of non-heterosexuals. When confronted with the bigotry and intolerance of anti-gay arguments, supporters often contend that sexual orientation is not a choice—suggesting that one's involuntary preference of one sex over the other should not be seen as a conscious decision. While it is probably true that homosexuality has its roots in a person's genetic makeup, this argument is ineffective when presented as a case for individual human rights.

Armed with scientific data that attribute the development of homosexuality to certain biological factors (i.e. a "gay gene" or group of genes), human rights advocates attack the notion that gays and lesbians are "sinners." After all, how can it be a sin if one does not decide to be the way he or she is? One sociology textbook discusses the origin of sexual orientation:

How does a person develop a particular sexual orientation? There is no definitive answer to this question, but mounting evidence suggests that homosexuality and heterosexuality are rooted in biological factors present at birth and reinforced by hormone balance as well as social experiences. 1
One study in which gay men and their brothers were interviewed showed that "52 percent of the identical twins of homosexual men were also homosexual, compared to only 22 percent of fraternal twins," suggesting that homosexuality did indeed have a genetic component.2

The argument that homosexuality is morally permissible because it is caused by genetic factors (hereon referred to as the "Argument from Genetics") is popular because it directly contradicts the concept that sexual orientation is a "preference" of sorts—a position gay rights advocates have diligently worked to avoid, and for good reason:

Sexual preference is a moral and political term. Conceptually it implies voluntary choice, that is, that one chooses, or prefers, to be homosexual instead of heterosexual… Politically, sexual preference is a dangerous term, for it implies that if homosexuals choose their preference, then they can be legally forced, under threat of punishment, to choose to be heterosexual. 3
Conversely, the Argument from Genetics contends that gay men and women are homosexual by biology, not by choice— just as heterosexual men and women do not choose their orientation:
A heterosexual man or woman does not become heterosexual by preference. There is no option, no plan. Becoming heterosexual is something that happens—an example of the way things are, like being tall or short, left-handed or right-handed, color-blind or color-seeing. Being homosexual is no more a preference than being heterosexual. 4
But is it enough to say that one cannot choose his or her own sexual orientation?

At this point, we must question whether it is an adequate defense to simply throw up one's hands and say "we have naturally developed a propensity to be homosexual, so therefore it is morally permissible to act accordingly." Suppose scientists were to discover kleptomania was caused by a rogue gene (or similar biological factor)—would that justify theft on the part of those afflicted with the condition? Would kleptomania suddenly become an accepted lifestyle, or would we continue to treat the disorder as if it were an undesirable trait? Obviously the latter answer is more reasonable; just because someone is genetically predisposed to X (whether X is kleptomania, alcoholism, mathematical prowess, great athletic ability, or homosexuality), it does not follow that X is either morally right or wrong. We cannot make a moral judgement about something based solely on whether it is an accidental or intended occurrence.

Another problem with the Argument from Genetics is that it has the potential to backfire. While it suggests "it is ok to be gay since you cannot help it," the contrapositive implies something most social libertarians would not accept, namely: "if you can help it, then it is not ok to be gay." Where does this leave bisexuals, those become romantically involved with both the opposite and the same sex? Are we to say that only those who are genetically or "naturally" gay should take part in same-sex relationships, while all others must remain heterosexual? Can a natural homosexual and a natural heterosexual make love, should the urge strike them—or would that be as "unnatural" as two straight men or women having sex?

It doesn't take long for this reasoning to reach some fairly absurd conclusions. For example, while Leslie (who is genetically heterosexual) might be attracted to Julie (who is genetically homosexual), it would be morally wrong for her to act on her feelings because she lacks the gay gene. It is acceptable for Amy (who is genetically homosexual) to have sex with Julie, however. So it follows that homosexual intercourse is not inherently wrong—as long as the two people engaging in the activity are both genetically homosexual. Likewise, Rick (who is genetically homosexual) can have sex with John (who is genetically homosexual) but not with Leslie—so if we follow this argument to its logical conclusion, we see that for some people it would be morally wrong to take part in heterosexual sex!

While the eventual discovery of a gay gene might do well to refute the belief of religious conservatives that God hates homosexuals, the bigotry that hides behind religious arguments cannot be dispelled as easily. Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (P-FOX), a self described "Christ-centered network of the parents, friends, and family of loved ones struggling with homosexuality,"5 provides instructions for "intervening" in the life of a gay or lesbian teenager, much like one would intervene in the life of a drug addict or alcoholic:6

The failure to take seriously the feelings of young people is to make light of an agonizing struggle. These feelings will not merely go away or be outgrown. Listen, empathize, and pray.... You may not be able to relate to homosexual feelings, but you have experienced rejection, loneliness, hurt, and lust. As you share personal struggles in these areas and how to deal with them, you help put the young person's problems in perspective and give hope for overcoming them.... Homosexual feelings are not going to change overnight. The change will come with time, healing, and compassionate support of friends. 7
Under the guise of "loving the sinner but hating the sin," organizations like P-FOX and Exodus International8 appear to understand that homosexuality is biological (or at least not consciously determined by the individual), yet they argue that it is still necessary to repress it. Obviously, the Argument from Genetics will not work in this situation, because these groups do not accept biological predisposition as a valid excuse for committing the "sin" of homosexual behavior.

The Argument from Genetics also fails to paint an accurate picture of human sexuality, as it presents a false dichotomy between heterosexuals and homosexuals. If the presence of certain biological factors causes one person to become homosexual and the lack of these factors causes another to be heterosexual, how does one explain bisexuality? It is important to remember bisexuals come in many forms:

The word bisexuality gives a misleading sense of fixedness to sex-object choice, suggesting, as it does, a person in the middle, equidistant from heterosexuality and from homosexuality, equally erotically disposed to one gender or the other. Our data show that exceedingly few people come so neatly packaged.9
While some bisexuals might prefer men only for "a good time" and women for a serious relationship, others might become involved with both women and men, with a slight preference for one or the other.10 It is this continuum that has caused some to prefer the term ambisexuality over bisexuality, connoting "a person's ability to eroticize both genders under some circumstances."11 Just as the broad spectrum of human sexual orientations cannot be separated into two discrete groups, bisexuals cannot be pigeonholed into easily defined categories, either.

While human rights advocates often invoke the Argument from Genetics, one might argue it does not truly represent the reason they support human rights in the first place. Do thousands upon thousands of gay rights supporters only believe in their chosen cause because there is biological evidence to support the Argument from Genetics? Do these people really believe that the best reason to be tolerant of homosexuality is "people can't help how they feel"? That is to say, if we knew for a fact that homosexuality was a choice (i.e. gays and lesbians could control to whom they were attracted), would all of the human rights advocates just go home and stop supporting the struggle for gay and lesbian equality? Or is it something else—perhaps the belief that a relationship between consenting adults is nobody else's business, regardless of their respective sexes, colors, or other irrelevant distinctions—that is really behind the urge to protect gay and lesbian rights?

In their haste to dispute the bigoted remarks of so-called "pro-family" (Religious Right doublespeak for "anti-gay") organizations such as the Christian Coalition, American Family Association, and Focus on the Family, human rights organizations often try to use the Argument from Genetics, resulting in lengthy arguments that really have little, if anything, to do with gay rights. As a result, organizations fight back and forth about whether homosexuality is genetic instead of fighting over whether it is morally acceptable, which is the whole point in the first place! Instead of arguing why gays and lesbians shouldn't have equal rights, social conservatives are able to get away with simply arguing that homosexuality is not genetic—an argument that, while it might be wrong, is still off topic and easily evaded. Says Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association:

Though there may be many influences in a person's life, the root of homosexuality is a sinful heart. Therefore, homosexuals have only one hope of being reconciled to God and rejecting their sinful behavior—faith in Jesus Christ alone…. It is the duty of individual Christians and Christ's Church corporately to bring the gospel to homosexuals and to speak out against the acceptance of sin in our culture. 12
By reducing the question of gay rights to "is it or is it not biological?" supporters find themselves sidetracked in useless arguments about genetics—never reaching the real question they should be asking—namely, what's wrong with homosexuality in the first place?

John Stuart Mill's harm principle suggests that the burden of proof lies with those who argue against homosexuality; i.e., there is nothing inherently wrong with being non-heterosexual and thus it is the responsibility of social conservatives to argue why they believe it should not be allowed. He outlined his principle in On Liberty:

[T]he sole end for which [hu]mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.... [T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.... In the part which merely contains himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.13
A simple, yet powerful argument—the individual is free to do whatever he or she chooses unless that action could hurt another. It is morally acceptable to be gay because homosexuality does not cause harm to anyone, and thus there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Unlike the Argument from Genetics, this argument (hereon referred to as the "Argument from the Lack of Harm") defends gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons alike. It defends sexual orientation and sexual preference; it defends those who are biologically gay or lesbian as well as those who choose to be so. In removing biology from the equation, we allow for the possibility for a gay gene without making it a requirement for moral acceptance.

Some may object that one person can indirectly harm another simply by being gay. For example, if a man who is bisexual knows that his mother will be extremely hurt by the knowledge that he is gay, does he not have a moral responsibility to "act straight" and only date women? Would it be morally questionable for him to date a man, knowing how much pain he would cause his parent?

The problem with this objection is that it confuses discomfort with harm. The man's mother might be uncomfortable with her son's sexuality, but to say that she has been harmed is to go too far. In fact, there is a case to be made that she has in fact benefited from the knowledge, as one might argue that it is good to have one's bigotries challenged if he or she hopes to become a better person. And what if her son was to meet his soul mate, who just happened to be a man? Should he refrain from dating this person to alleviate his mother's discomfort, while at the same time causing an inordinate amount of pain to himself? In this case, the benefits of being oneself would easily outweigh the detriments to others.

The Argument from Genetics is a flawed argument and should be abandoned. The Argument from the Lack of Harm is superior both because it is a stronger, more sound argument and because it defends the moral acceptability of the entire gay community (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, et al). While biology and genetics almost certainly play a role in one's sexual orientation or preference, it is not and should not be the determining factor in whether homosexuality is morally permissible. Whether or not one chooses to lead his or her life as a gay man, a lesbian, or a bisexual is irrelevantconsenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they want so long as they do not harm others through their actions. This individual sovereignty is the crux of freedom and therefore should not be inhibited without just cause. To continue to argue the Argument from Genetics is to argue against the Argument from the Lack of Harm because in doing so one suggests that there is an absolute moral litmus test (namely, whether something is genetically or biologically "natural") one must pass in order to justify being anything other than heterosexual. For this reason, its use in defense of gay and lesbian rights should be discontinued in lieu of other arguments, such as the Argument from the Lack of Harm, which impose no such demands and defend a broader range of sexual orientations and preferences.


Notes:

1. John Macionis, Sociology, 7th ed. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999) 317.

2. Nijole Benokraitis, Marriages and Families (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993) 149-150.

3. John Money, Gay, Straight, and In-Between: The Sexology of Erotic Orientation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 11.

4. Money 11.

5. "P-FOX Website," http://www.pfox.org (2 May 1999).

6. It is notable that this essay warns the parent or friend "Don't advise the teen to go for counseling unless you know the prospective pastor's or counselor's stand on homosexuality and the type of counseling they will give." One wonders what the point of this warning is other than to prevent the teenager from talking with a gay-friendly pastor or counselor who might not attempt to coerce the young man or woman into "overcoming homosexuality."

7. Bud Searcy, "Teens and Homosexuality: A Critical Time for Intervention," P-FOX Website, http://www.pfox.org/doc1.html (2 May 1999).

8. Another organization for those who want to "overcome homosexuality." See their website at http://www.messiah.edu/hpages/facstaff/chase/h/exodus/

9. Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz, "Bisexuality: Some Social Psychological Issues," Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Male Experiences, ed. Linda Garnets and Douglas Kimmel (New York: Columbia Free Press, 1993) 170.

10. See Blumstein and Schwartz 170 and Stacey Young, "Dichotomies and Displacement: Bisexuality in Queer Theory and Politics," Playing with Fire: Queer Politics, Queer Theories, ed. Shane Phelan (New York: Routledge, 1997) 57-61.

11. Blumstein and Schwartz 170.

12. Donald Wildmon, "Principles which Guide AFA's Opposition to the Homosexual Agenda," AFA.Net, http://www.afa.net/homosexuality/hpolicy.htm (7 May 1999).

13. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New York: Prometheus Books, 1986) 16.

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