How natural is homosexuality?

The anti-human undertones of searching for gayness in nature.

Craig Fairnington

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‘Homosexuality is found in over 450 species; homophobia is found in only one. Which one seems unnatural now?’

Spend long enough on social media, internet forums, or real-world Pride marches and you’re likely to come across the above meme in some form or another. Faced with opponents who denounce homosexuality as unnatural, it provides a pithy rejoinder to end an argument. It goes something like this: You think being gay is wrong because it’s against nature? Well, guess what? Even the birds and the bees do it.

This argument and its basis – the naturalness of homosexuality – have become the key motif of the gay-rights movement. Indeed, such is its prevalence that it now often dominates political discussion and popular culture. From the well-worn example of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’, to the plaintive ‘I can’t change’ from the chorus of Macklemore’s pro-gay marriage song, ‘Same Love’, to a recent Australian TV advert in which a mother-to-be is informed at her ultrasound that she’s ‘having a lesbian’, the message is clear – you can’t help being gay.

Even many of those who find homosexuality immoral, or oppose gay marriage, accept that homosexuality is innate. The Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Persona Humana in 1975, which acknowledges that homosexuals possess ‘some kind of innate instinct’. Later statements from the Catholic Church steer clear of this phrasing, but still acknowledge ‘deep-seated’ homosexual tendencies. Among religious supporters of gay rights, the same logic holds. For example, the Bishop of Salisbury wrote recently in support of gay marriage, saying that it did not detract from heterosexual marriage ‘unless we think that homosexuality is a choice rather than the given identity of a minority of people’.

The desire to prove that homosexuality is natural spurs great interest in scientific research into the area. Simon Le Vay’s 1991 paper, which demonstrated differences in brain structure between homosexual and heterosexual men, was seen by many to prove that being gay wasn’t a choice, an interpretation Le Vay himself rejected. In 1993, another academic paper brought us the ‘gay gene’, an idea that has prompted ferocious arguments ever since. And little wonder: any study which looks at what might cause homosexuality is jumped on and discussed by the media as possible proof of the inalienability of being gay, even when the research itself is more reticent in its conclusions. The gay gene has gone somewhat out of fashion, but pre-natal hormones, birth order, epigenetics, evolutionary theories and MRI scans are all just part of the arsenal which is brought to bear on the thorny and elusive question of why there are homosexuals.

So the message is clear: nature makes homosexuals (though we’re not quite sure how, yet), so denying homosexuals rights is wrong. The pervasiveness of this message throughout our culture means that even those who remain ‘enemies’ on issues such as gay marriage can generally be won over to the idea of gayness being innate. So, all in all, it’s been a victory for gay-rights proponents.

All good, right? Well, maybe not. The first issue is the massive amount of ground that the naturalness argument concedes to the opponents of gay rights. It is understandable to want to rebut the ‘being gay isn’t natural’ argument, but the way many gay-rights campaigners have chosen to do so commits the exact same error as their opponents: the mistaken idea that morality has anything to do with what’s natural. Change the subject of the opening quote above to, say, cannibalism, and the idea that we should look to nature and animals as a guide to what humans should be doing becomes obviously absurd. Being gay’s unnatural? So what?

Of course, the naturalness of homosexuality isn’t the only reason gay-rights campaigners think it’s okay. But it’s clearly the idea that has the most cultural purchase today. The idea that people should be free to organise their lives as they see fit is often sacrificed at the altar of the argument: ‘they can’t help it.’

The dominance of the naturalness argument means that those who undermine it are at strong risk of censure. Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon was criticised and described as ‘incredibly irresponsible’ for daring to suggest that she, personally, had chosen to be gay. ‘Glad to be Gay’ singer Tom Robinson faced anger and accusations of betrayal when he fell in love and married a woman in the early 1980s. We tie ourselves in knots trying to explain away those who ‘change teams’, having spent most of their lives happily heterosexual or homosexual. We provide them with excuses: perhaps they were naturally bisexual all along, or gay but in denial? Anything to avoid having to suggest that there might be an element of choice in sexuality.

Perhaps gay-rights campaigners are right to be worried. Look back at that quote from the Bishop of Salisbury: he is saying that gay marriage is okay ‘unless we think that homosexuality is a choice’. Well, thanks, bishop: rights for gays unless they actually want to be gay. This is the attitude the pro-gay naturalness argument seeks to cosy up to; and, in the process, it tries to make homosexual behaviour less threatening to social mores. Gays are to be objects of pity rather than of hatred. This was particularly important when fighting Section 28 (the Eighties law against promoting homosexuality) to assure those fearful of homosexuality that being taught about it couldn’t possibly lead to someone choosing to be gay.

Gone is the idea that the capacity to choose to be gay might be something positive, that it’s good that people no longer have to live in a way that is restricted by crude biological and social roles if they don’t want to. Rather than try to create a society in which people are free to love who they want, the naturalness argument has only served to create more boxes in which to place people, to define their roles. You’re straight, she’s a lesbian, he’s bisexual – and woe betide those who wander off the narrow path ascribed to them, lest they undermine the rights so precariously won.

The ‘born this way’ argument completely erases the human social world. It ignores the fact that homosexual behaviour has taken on many forms throughout history and through different societies. It downplays our ability to control our own lives, or our ability to reshape our society. It views people (ironically, gays in particular) as unthinking beasts, slaves to their nature-given desires. And, as such, it chimes with the deterministic temper of our times. It suggests that we are fated to be who we are, that we have no capacity for self-determination.

For a young person experiencing homosexual desire for the first time, to want to blame it on nature is perhaps understandable in the face of a society in which being gay can still carry risks and condemnation. But to make that reaction to fear a cornerstone of a rights movement is wrongheaded – it is our duty to demand something more; to try to shape a society in which people can and do experience their sexuality as choices freely made, rather than burdens foisted upon them.

To point at a ‘gay’ animal as proof that being gay is okay is demeaning. It takes a whole gamut of profoundly human emotion and experience, it takes the love one can have for another person of the same sex, and reduces it to the level of a rutting beast. What’s positive about that?

Craig Fairnington is online resources manager of the Institute of Ideas. Follow him on Twitter: @craigfair

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