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Mormon Homophobia, Part Three 20 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Ethics, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[Continued from Part Two. My comments in bold italics.]

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Let’s fast-forward again. My son has now stopped coming to church altogether. There seems no prospect of him returning. Now he tells me he’s planning on going to Canada where same-gender marriage is allowed. He insists that he agrees that loving marriage relationships are important. He’s not promiscuous; he has one relationship. He and his partner intend to have that relationship for the rest of their lives. He cannot understand that a lifetime commitment can’t be accepted by the Church when society seems to be moving in that way. Again, if I am a Latter-day Saint father, what would I be expected to tell him?

WICKMAN: For openers, marriage is neither a matter of politics, nor is it a matter of social policy. This is simply not true, as the most cursory study of the history of human relationships or the anthropology of marriage reveals. Ignorance.Marriage is defined by the Lord Himself.Religious belief. Irrelevant. It’s the one institution that is ceremoniously performed by priesthood authority in the temple [and] transcends this world. It is of such profound importance… such a core doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of the very purpose of the creation of this earth. One hardly can get past the first page of Genesis without seeing that very clearly. It is not an institution to be tampered with by mankind, and certainly not to be tampered with by those who are doing so simply for their own purposes. There is no such thing in the Lord’s eyes as something called same-gender marriage. So what? Whose Lord? What does this have to do with a pluralistic democracy at all?Homosexual behavior is and will always remain before the Lord an abominable sin. They are careful now to say “behavior”, aren’t they? But ultimately, in practice, you’re calling a homosexual person an abomination because for someone whose sexual desires are homosexual, it is part of who they are. They desire abomination. Calling it something else by virtue of some political definition does not change that reality. It is a religious belief, not a reality.



Mormon Homophobia, Part Two 20 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Ethics, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[Continued from Part One. My comments in bold italics.]

PUBLIC AFFAIRS: If we were to look back at someone who had a ‘short fuse,’ and we were to look at their parents who might have had a short fuse, some might identify a genetic influence in that.

OAKS: No, we do not accept the fact that conditions that prevent people from attaining their eternal destiny were born into them without any ability to control. That is contrary to the Plan of Salvation, and it is contrary to the justice and mercy of God. It’s contrary to the whole teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which expresses the truth that by or through the power and mercy of Jesus Christ we will have the strength to do all things. Fine. These are your religious beliefs. Great. I don’t really care what you believe about sex and sin. What I want to know is why a democracy should enact and enshrine your religious beliefs into law. That includes resisting temptation. That includes dealing with things that we’re born with, including disfigurements, or mental or physical incapacities. None of these stand in the way of our attaining our eternal destiny. The same may be said of a susceptibility or inclination to one behavior or another which if yielded to would prevent us from achieving our eternal destiny.


Who’s Afraid of a Little Man-on-Man Action? George W.! 7 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Political Commentary, Sexuality.
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In the June 29th edition of Rolling Stone, Tim Dickenson analyzes the recent amendment vote that would have enshrined Ward and June Cleaver into the Constitution in his article “The Politics of Fear” (pp. 43-45). Laying aside all the problematic assumptions about history, biology, marriage and family that the right has to make in order to rationalize its social politics, Dickenson zeros in on the political viability of using homophobia as a strategy.

Creepily, Dickenson points to a parallel Republican move in the 1960 election cycle when they were fighting against inter-racial marriages. At the time, 16 states had anti-miscegenation laws and 70% of Americans opposed inter-racial marriage. In 2006, George W. Bush gave a speech in which he noted that 19 states have banned same-sex marriage outright and that 71% of Americans oppose recognition of same-sex relationships.

Although I’ve been on the receiving end of homophobia indirectly all my life and directly on more than one occasion, I still find myself naïvely baffled by it. What exactly is the fear all about? Guy Hocquenghem theorized in the early 1970s that it was a man’s fear of being penetrated anally, and of Western culture’s general disdain for anal sex. Feminists have long theorized that it’s a man’s fear of being treated like a woman (as abject) and a woman’s fear of never gaining social status as men pair off with each other instead of with them. There are of course status issues in American culture, where to be gay is nearly always to loose social status in terms of gender and esteem. And several contemporary studies have shown that the most violent of homophobes are probably homosexual, as their psycho-sexual responses are nearly almost always to people of the same sex.

Given monotheism’s virulent homophobia (starkly contrasted to the softer homophobias of Asian religions and of smaller pre-modern societies), it’s hard to believe that the origin of Hebrew homophobia was merely as a differentiation between Jews and their Babylonian captors, that is, as a social boundary. How did we get from social boundary to “he shall surely be put to death?” Given the multitude of societies who have functioned perfectly well with various homosexual roles, and the nearly universal existence of homosexual individuals across cultural boundaries, it is difficult indeed to believe that homophobia is natural in any way.

But the Republican strategy, electoral not political, is to tap into something viceral and knee-jerk, an emotional response that will tip the balance at the voting booth, pulling in seniors and evangelicals.

Dan Savage was a little more sanguine in his response to Dickenson:

I think one of the reasons you’re seeing so much sturm und drang from the conservatives is that they know that they’re losing the debate. … Republicans want to lock in the bigotry now, while they have what they perceive to be a majority. You can’t have Rosie on the View and Elton packing Mom and POp in at Caesars Palace and gay peole all over television, and then have these politicians run out there with a straight face and say that ‘gay relationships are a threat to the family.’ We are winning the culture — which is why we’ll ultimately win the political war.

If Savage is correct, then perhaps the more pertinent questions will be to look ahead to the time when gays and lesbians are fully equal citizens, and to figure out what will life be like then without an active opposition?

Evolution of Sexuality 26 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Homosexuality, Queer Theory, Science, Sexuality.
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bonobo.jpegIn a recent review, seedmagazine.com lays out the arguments of Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden in her recent article in Science and her book of last year, Evolution’s Rainbow. “The Gay Animal Kingdom” stirs up controversy in the field of evolution by laying out Roughgarden’s basic argument that Darwin’s notion of “sexual selection” was simply wrong, as evidenced by the over 400 species of vertibrates who exhibit wide range of sexual behaviors. [As a side note, some of Roughgarden’s detractors point to the fact that she is an MTF transsexual to discredit her; but I find those arguments to be disingenuous at best and really beside the point. Roughgarden makes thorough, substantiated arguments that should be addressed on their merits.] As I read the review (full disclosure: I’ve not read Roughgarden’s original article or book, so I may misrepresent her arguments based on the review), I couldn’t help but have some pretty serious doubts as to the reliability of Roughgarden’s conclusions (I also found it problematic journalistically that the serious doubts of Roughgarden’s peers were relegated to a pargraph at the end of the article).

As a background to my objections, let me bring up some social scientific data. In a post a couple weeks ago, I laid out the basic outlines of the study of the biological origins or basis of homosexuality among humans (see Biology and Homosexuality). It is pretty clear that there is a strong biological component of same-sex attraction and behavior, but that’s only part of the story. I had mentioned on that post a work by Stephen O. Murray called Homosexualities, which is a kind of clearinghouse of anthropological and historical data about how numerous cultures around the world have organized same-sex sexuality, how the understood it, controled it and channeled in through their society. Murray argues that there have been in human history for basic patterns that overlay the specifics on the ground: age-differentiated homosexuality (that is, between younger and older individuals (e.g., ancient Greece)); gender-differentiated homosexuality (where same-sex sex is understood in terms of gender presentation of the individuals (e.g., certain Latin American cultures where a “straight” man (masculine) has penetrative sex with a “gay” man (feminine) without loss of status or aquiring a salient sexual difference)); ritual homosexuality (associated with a religious rite or practice, usually a subset of age- and gender-differentiated homosexualities (e.g., hajira in older hindu practices, which is a gender-differentiated ritual homosexuality)); and finally egalitarian homosexuality (e.g., gay and lesbian identities in contemporary U.S., and a mode of homosexuality spreading around the world right now). [I would be interested to read a similar breakdown of the ways that human beings practice opposite-sex sexuality.]

The point is that although there is ample evidence for the biology of homosexuality, the complexity and diversity of human sexual expression can only be explained by bringing the biological and the cultural together (where they belong). It is hopefully intuitively obvious to most that human beings have sex for many different reasons, as I’ve explained elsewhere before: horniness/arousal, boredom, to give pleasure, to receive pleasure, to dominate, to inflict pain, to establish social status, to reproduce, to fulfill an expected role, religious or legal duty, gender identity, power, bonding or intimacy, etc. In fact, when you think about why human beings have sex, it is rare indeed that an individual has sex because of his or her orientation; that is, being homosexually oriented or heterosexually oriented doesn’t seem to be a reason to have sex in and of itself. Further, given the many social and personal reasons that human beings actually have sex, it should be hopefully clear that, although perhaps related and overlapping, sexual orientation and sexual behavior are not the same thing. This point is vitally important when trying to see both the biological and social scientific data at the same time.

Problem 1: The review represents the evolutionary theory of sexuality as positing that homosexuality is maladaptive (it is unclear if this is just the journalist’s take or if it comes from Roughgarden). Most theorists have actually quite a bit more comlicated notions of the mechanisms of adaptability. Evolution doesn’t select against something unless it causes harm in the current environment. All organisms have “extra” features or qualities which are actually adaptively neutral. Homosexuality (or gender variance) may or may not be one of these “peacock tails”, depending on the species in question. In otherwords, homosexuality may simply be adaptively neutral in the species current environment(s).

Agreement 1: Roughgarden argues that when you study animal sexual behavior, it becomes clear that among vertebrates, and especially mammals, sexual behavior is much more than mere reproduction. Most notably, sex serves vital social roles, especially of bonding and conflict resolution, of utmost importance among social animals. This seems pretty obvious to me, given the many reasons why humans have sex. The trick, though, is to adequately connect the social and biological for any given species.

Actually, following John Dewey’s naturalism, I believe that the dichotomy of culture-biology is a false one to begin with, as the two are actually parts of the same thing and completely interconnected; culture is produced and transformed through biological pathways (e.g., sensory data, brain work, etc.) and our bodies and environments are shaped by cultural perceptions. The connection between these two is inextricable.

peacock-spread-01.jpgProblem 2: The article (Roughgarden?) just completely misrepresents the state of the field of “sexual selection” on two levels. First, the current field of evolutionary biology sees to overlapping processes occuring simultaneously, micro- and macroevolution. At the micro level, natural selection works to gradually effect change within species; at the macro level, when for whatever reason a major environmental upheaval occurs that requires adaptation or extinction, a number of processes kick in for speciation. [I’m ignoring the irritating academic pissing matches between Dawkins and Gould’s, going for what seems to be a synthesis of the evidence on mechanisms as we now have it.] The problem is with Darwin himself, who argued that sexual selection was a mechanism of perpetuating fitness as males competed for access to females; given what we now know about evolution and the wide variety of sexual behaviors in the animal kingdom, this position must be taken only provisionally, that is, it may be true in a particular species at a particular time, but isn’t a biological constant. Secondly, the idea of sexual selection in current theory has moved beyond Darwin’s early formulation. We now think of sexual selection as one of the primary methods of micro-evolution, or change within a species.

The article blows off Darwin’s peacock example as dated and no longer viable; yet the data are pretty clear that species evolve appearance and behavioral traits based on sexual preferences. Their are many features of organisms that serve only to attract mates (e.g., bower birds). This critique is given short-shrift at the end of the Seed review, which is too bad. One biologist quotes makes the point that Roughgarden has basically set up a Darwin Straw Man who doesn’t exist. And so, to me, the current understanding of sexual selection seems not at all affected by the data Roughgarden presents; I cannot see how the diversity of sexual behaviors among vertebrates eliminates the power of sexual selection. Roughgarden’s version of sexual selection is that it is a straightforward form of reproduction, which is why she wants to reject it; this however isn’t at all what sexual selection has come to mean, and indeed, sexual selection has never been used to explain the origins of homosexuality.

Agreement 2: To be fair, Roughgarden’s argument is actually that because of the centrality of heterosexual reproduction in the propogation of species, homosexuality has been seen as an anomoly or a genetic mistake by biologists. That is an issue that is important. One of Roughgarden’s projects is to prove that homosexuality is not maladaptive. As I mentioned above, homosexuality among humans is probably evolutionarily neutral. It however might be adaptive in a different species. And this brings me to problem 3.

dolphins.jpgProblem 3: Roughgarden treats “homosexuality” as a pan-species thing. This is a tricky discussion, because we must both be able to compare across species, but we must never collapse like traits in different species as being the same. So on one hand, it is highly instructive to note that across vertebrate species, homosexual behavior is virtually universal, which at the very least, gives incredible weight to the ‘naturalness’ of homosexuality. On the other hand, the relative adaptiveness or homosexuality in any given species would depend on that species’ characteristics and environment. For example, the life-partners (and sometimes threesomes) among male bottle-nose dolphins might be highly adaptive, by giving these pairs protection against predators and companionship; these males often hunt for females and copulate with females together from time to time. Among bonobos, where basically everyone has sex with everyone else, there is perhaps a strong social cohesion created, such that sex in general is highly adaptive. But does that mean that “homosexuality” write large and across cultures is adaptive? I don’t think so. Just as different human societies have organized sexuality differently, I would argue that different species do so for specific evolutionary/adaptive reasons, and that the function or adaptiveness of human homosexuality has to be judged in its own, species-specific context.

For a great run down of the careful thinking that must be done in comparing species’ sexual behaviors, I highly recommend a book I’ve actually read, Marlene Zuk’s Sex and Selection: What We Can and Can’t Learn about Sex from Animals.

Agreement 3: The easy gendering of sexual behaviors as Darwin’s Victorian context understood it have indeed been deeply assimilated into Western consciousness (although I would argue that the origins are actually Western culture itself, and not Darwin, who was simply making the basic mistake of confirmation bias in his research).

Problem 4: Roughgarden ultimately draws the incredibly problematic conclusion that human beings are actually biologically bisexual and that it is only culture that “trains” us in our sexuality. This is an idea with origins in Freud that will not die. Besides my frequent irritation with Freudian theory, my real problem here is that there is no, absolutely no, historical or biological evidence that would support this. Instead, we have evidence that some species may be biologically bisexual, most notably, bonobos. Other species may have a primary homosexuality that is interrupted for occasional breeding, like bottlenose dolphins. Human populations, as far as we can tell, have a couple things in common accross time and place: humans tend, as a species, to pair bond (the exceptions of polygyny and promiscuity speak to the complexity of our sexual behavior) and that homosexuality, although with a function in every society we know about, has always been a minority thing. It could be that our species is evolving toward a more bonobo-like existence, and it is also clear that there are social contexts wherein people can have a relative comfort with all kinds of sexual contact and behavior (cuddle pile, anyone?), but as a whole, we ultimately tend to choose a bond with another individual (a series of bonds, usually), and they tend to be heterosexual. I do believe that there are some humans who are bisexual and homosexual; but most really are biologically heterosexual. Human sexuality seems to run, with what we know now, on orientations, and its adaptability needs to be studied on its own terms.

In short, I think Roughgarden has really over-reached.

This should not prevent us from examining human sexual diversity and unweaving the connections between biology and culture; nor should it prevent us from examining the possible evolutionary functions of sexuality in humans. I don’t think this means that our tastes are determined by genes; nor do I believe that our behaviors are determined by culture. But I do believe, given what we know about sexuality (biology, evo-devo, genetics, sociology, anthropology, history) at the moment, that there are basic orientations that our cultures work with for various reasons and with varying results.

Homosexuality Is Not Pedophilia (In Case You Didn’t Know That Already) 14 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Science, Sexuality.
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Earlier today, a guest raised a morality argument about homosexuality by conflating it with pedophilia, a favorite and hateful red herring of the conservative anti-gay agenda. Here is a modified version of something I wrote for another forum when someone posed the question whether it is ethical or worthwhile to compare homosexuality to pedophilia, even if the two are apples and oranges. I'm sure most of you can skip this post, as you already understand how ridiculous this conflation is, but recently I've been having a lot of believing and practicing Mormons stopping by, so I figure it is worth rehashing some of this publicly.

When is it a useful and meaningful project to compare homosexuality with pedophilia? Or is it always inappropriate, given their incommensurability as categories?

1. The problem is that since the mid-19th century, homosexuality has been conflated in the Western mind with pedophilia, because many of the early sexologists mis-categorized homosexuality as a psychopathology. To be fair, some sexologists (e.g., Havlock Ellis and Mangus Hirschfeld) understood quite early that homosexuality was not pathological, and made arguments for its naturalness and the rights of gay and lesbian individuals and even transgendered people as early as the 1910s. These researches figured out a long time ago that pedophilia was quite different. Unfortunately, in the public mind, especially where religion is involved, the conflation of the two has been long-lasting and intractable. “Save Our Children” is a favorite rallying cry of Christian anti-gay forces, from Anita Bryant to Pat Robertson to Russel M. Nelson (Mormon apostle). So when in the course of public discussions about gay rights people casually compare homosexuality and pedophilia, people accept the association as a given, without thinking about what they are saying.

Because of the refusal of such false and calomnous ideas to die, we live in a culture where we will inevitably have the conversations comparing pedophilia to homosexuality. [We should also be comparing to heterosexuality, but that doesn't happen.] And so I say, in the words of our fuhrer, W., Bring It On. Let's have the argument, and once and for all dislodge this bit of deeply harmful bullshit from our collective consciousness.

If you frame the comparison as the etiology of homosexuality vs. that of pedophilia, it seems like an incomplete question. If pedophiles are claiming that their sex acts are the result of a 'sexual orientation' and not a socio-pathology, then pedophilia must be compared to heterosexuality as well. Whether or not it is a sexual orientation comparable to homosexuality/heterosexuality is a valid scientific question that can be researched. I won't rehearse all the data in detail, but I will point out the basics. Whereas homosexuals and heterosexuals have no demonstrable socialization commonalities as groups, pedophiles do; and whereas both homosexuality and heterosexuality are demonstrably heritable, no studies have found any evidence of heritability among pedophiles.

What emerges among pedophiles is a picture of idividuals who are sociopathic. Some kinds of sociopathology are biological (faulty frontal lobes, usually); but other kinds are acquired and/or learned. In the case of pedophiles, they share almost universally histories of childhood violence (not necessarily sexual) and as an adult, the need to control or hurt using sex as the weapon. Pedophilia almost always manifests as a pathology that seeks to control its object. Key here, these are similar pathologies as those found in other sexual criminals, such as serial rapists or spousal abusers.

To return to the question at hand, to make comparisons among heterosexuals, homosexuals, and pedophiles is a perfectly legitimate thing to do scientifically. In fact, we learn alot from doing so. We learn that pedophiles actually are a different category altogether from the basic sexual orientations of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and in fact belong in the cateogries of criminal pathologies. You discover that pedophilia has the characteristics of rapists and spousal abusers, for example: 1) need to control, 2) inability to empathize, 3) the sincere belief that their victims “want it” or “deserve it”, 4) sexual pleasure from violence, etc.

This then helps us more clearly see that heterosexuality and homosexuality describe an individual's orientation separate from a sexual pathology. A heterosexual man, for example, can be a pedophile who preys on little boys; homosexual woman can be a spousal abuser.

In the end, the key thing to remember is that the conflation and comparison of homosexuality with pedophilia is a red herring at best, and a homophobic lie at worst the perpetuates hatred, fear, and violence against gay men and women.

BYU Professor Fired 13 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Cultural Critique, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Mormonism/LDS Church.
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[This is a continuation of the discussion about the BYU professor who protested the church’s political and partisan backing of the Federal Marriage Amendment earlier this month. See my two previous posts, BYU Professor Speaks Out and BYU Professor, Part 2.]

The Salt Lake Tribune reported today that, as expected, Jeff Nielsen, adjunct professor of philosophy at BYU, was terminated based on his letter to the editor challenging the church’s political stance on same-sex marriage. The termination letter from the department chair, Daniel Graham, read in part,

In accordance with the order of the church, we do not consider it our responsibility to correct, contradict or dismiss official pronouncements of the church. … Since you have chosen to contradict and oppose the church in an area of great concern to church leaders, and to do so in a public forum, we will not rehire you after the current term is over.

I have an unverified letter from Nielsen responding to his termination. I’ll get a citation as soon as I can and post it here. I thought Nielsen’s thinking about the role of the church in the academic freedom of BYU to be worth putting up here for those of you concerned with issues of free speech, academic freedom, and the role of religion in American politics. I think it specifically illustrates the deep intellectual problems inherent in an institution of higher learning that tries to “serve two masters.” [Emphasis in letter mine]

June 13, 2006

Daniel W. Graham, chair
Department of Philosophy
Brigham Young University

Dear Dan,

I regretfully read your letter of June 8 informing me that because of my opinion piece in the Salt Lake Tribune of June 4, you have decided not to rehire me to teach the philosophy courses I had already been scheduled to teach through next year. I have only the utmost respect and admiration for you and for the students, faculty, and staff in the Philosophy Department at Brigham Young University. In my experience, the students and faculty have always been engaged and lively participants in the academic pursuit of truth. Now let me address some of the issues you expressed in your letter.

Church leaders have consistently opposed same-sex attraction and gay marriage. I have never agreed with this position believing that it was based in misunderstanding and in a purely human bias of cultural place and time and not reflective of divine will. Yet I have never publicly, or in the classroom, opposed their policy. Yet when church leaders take a political stand on a moral issue, then I am not only engaged as a member of the church, but also as an American citizen. As an American citizen, I publicly expressed an honest opinion contradicting a political statement by our church leaders. I fear for the church and the university if the time comes when the members of the church, including faculty at BYU, are not allowed to disagree, either in public or private, with political positions taken by the church. If such conformity is required, then we deserve to be called neither a church nor a university.

I also strongly disagree with the implications of your statement that faithfulness and loyalty to the church and church leaders never permits expressions of disagreement, or questioning of our church leaders – especially in an academic setting. Unquestioning acquiescence and blind loyalty to leaders in positions of power over human beings have no place in any institution of higher learning that values the pursuit of truth and search for justice. And in my mind, what is philosophy but the quest for truth and justice. I believe that there is great potential at BYU that will never be realized if the faculty, in certain areas of study, are limited in their research and work by the necessity of arriving at pre-approved answers given by church leaders.

Finally, when it comes to the sustaining of church leaders, I will always argue for the privilege of church members to examine, question, and dialogue with each other and with their leaders in order to genuinely sustain and support church doctrines and teachings. I do not believe that sustaining leaders requires either silent acquiescence or unquestioning conformity, but it does require active engagement with one another and with our church leaders, regardless of our place or position within church leadership hierarchies. If sustaining our leaders is to be real and genuine – not a sham as are elections in totalitarian governments – then members must be free to examine, question and benevolently criticize. Ultimately, I strongly believe that every person possesses the privilege to speak and the obligation to listen.

Again, I have only respect and admiration for you. I have enjoyed our association, and I also wish you the best.


Jeff Nielsen

Previous post about Nielsen/BYU here.

Gay Rights and Some Logical Fallacies 12 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Philosophy & Social Theory.
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[A further refinement of my argument about the biological origins of homosexuality and their relationship to our current arguments about equality and freedom for gay men and women in the United States:]

Natural = Moral

This is called, loosely, the “naturalistic fallacy” (philosophers have tighter definitions of this fallacy, but this will do for my purposes). The naturalistic fallacy argues that something that is natural is necessarily moral. The fallacy does not mean that things which are natural aren't moral, just that they aren't necessarily so. There is also an inverse fallacy, the "moralistic fallacy," which is that the current moral construction of something in society is natural. Anti-gay forces make this moralistic fallacy in their assumption that their construction of morality (i.e., monogamous, sexually excluse, heterosexual, nuclear family unit) is necessarily natural. The naturalistic fallacy is made by the pro-gay advocates in defending themselves in the public sphere.

It is important to point out that in fact as the dominant cultural force and defenders of status quo, the anti-gay forces are the ones in the position to define the terms of the argument, and they have defined it around naturalness. Because they don't have scientific backing on their argument, for the past 10 years they've been trying to move away from it, but it is still at the core of their rationale for disallowing homosexuality and institutionalizing second-class citizenship.

The key problem with this whole line of reasoning and the whole question of morality in the public sphere is that democracies were set up on the principle that moral debates were private. The public sphere functions on determining harm and foreclosing or denying rights only when harm is the result. Harm in democracies has the narrowest of definitions, and means only the infringement of another individual's rights. This switch away from morality and religion, toward rational weighing of individual rights was a brilliant move which aimed to stop incredible amounts of violence which had been wracking Europe for a few hundred years at the time. One of the biggest problems with American democracy is that we've never fully enacted disestablishmentarianism (i.e., get the church the fuck out of my democracy).

In any case, although I think homosexuality is completely natural (that is, it's a biological part of the human phenotypic diversity), I think people should start screaming loud and long about the democratic harm principle. I challenge anyone to think of a rational reason why homosexuality should be in any way restricted (other than the ways that we would likewise restrict heterosexuality) and why homosexual persons should not receive equal treatment under the law, including all the same rights and privileges as hets. I have never heard a single compelling argument based in the democratic harm principle.

Anti-gay forces have three arguments: 1) it has ever been thus (revealing their utter ignorance of history and anthropology), an argument that is neither here nor there, as tradition is never an acceptable end-in-itself in a democracy; or 2) it's unnatural (revealing their utter ignorance of biology, genetics, evolution, anthropology) and therefore immoral, the naturalistic fallacy that is neither here nor there in democracy; or 3) god says so, but god has no place or power in a democratic public sphere. None of these goes to the harm principle, therefore none of them is acceptable reasons for the abridging of rights in a democracy.

[posted with ecto]

Biology and Homosexuality 9 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Biology, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Sexuality.
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[This is a response to a comment made my Allen Lambert on another post (edited intro 6/30/07).]

Mr. Lambert is partially correct. There is no gay gene (at least none has been found so far) and hormones are not to blame (gay and straight people have indistinguishable hormone loads; although gay men recover much more slowly from a female hormone overload than do hetero men). However, biology is vastly more complex than this would imply. Genes act in cascades, more like a recipe than a blueprint; and they act in response to environmental influences, most notably here, the environment of the womb. Genes, cell growth and mutation, hormones, enzymes, proteins, aging, development, etc., all act in concert to create the phenotypical diversity of the human population.Any one study on the origins of homosexuality or one line of thinking alone is not sufficient to indicate a biological etiology. However, taken together, the evidence is overwhelming that the homosexual phenotype is biological in origin (if expressed in vastly diverse ways among human populations).

Here’s a brief rundown of the high-points:

1-Social scientific data: all societies ever studied have a minority population that is same-sex oriented (although they have different roles for such individuals and different meanings for such a sexuality). See the work of Stephen O. Murray for a run-down.

2-Zoological data: indicates that nearly all bird and mammal species have individuals in their population with preferences for sex with members of their own sex. See the work of Bruce Bagemihl for a summary of this data.

3-The Gay Gene: Dean Hamer and his colleagues found an area on gay men’s x-chromosome that appeared to be passed on through the mother’s line. However this line of research has not been able to be verified and appears to be a dead end for the moment.

4-Maternal pattern: However, the statistical relationship between the maternal line and gay sons conducted by Hamer has been verified numerous times. That is, homosexuality is not evenly distributed in the population, but is actually found to be more dominant in some families, and seems to follow the mother’s line, indicating heritability.

5-Twin Studies: Early studies were faulty methodologically, but more recent studies, most notably those conducted by Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard, found that when one identical twin is gay, there is a 52% chance they other is also gay; one one fraternal twin is gay, there is a 22% chance; and one separate-birth sibiling is gay, only a 6-10% chance (i.e., the general population). This has been validated in over 14 different studies, and has been shown to hold true for both gay men and gay women. This indicates both heritability and that something environmental is at play (most likely developmental, that is, part of the process of fetal development). There has been more recent studies that have indicated that whether or not the twins share an amniotic sack basically clenches the deal. That is, when identical twins share an amniotic sack, they nearly always have the same orientation, gay or straight (I’ll have to look up the authors of that study.)

6-Fraternal Birth Order: Dr. Ray Blanchard and colleagues discovered accidentally that with each subsequent male birth to a given women, the chance that the boy will be gay increases by about 30%. Older sisters do not affect the probability, only older brothers. Later studies found that whereas normally subsequent male births have higher birth weights, gay male births have lower birthweights. These studies have been reproduced and verified in numerous populations. They indicate again a heritability and a connection between the mother and the gay son. (This particular pattern does not hold true for lesbians.) Dr. Blanchard argues that this seems to indicate an immuno response in the mother (a genetic process) to a male birth. The most likely hypothesis from this data as it now stands and as we understand fetal development now is that when a child with a genetically possible phenotype of homosexual is in the womb of a woman whose genetic phenotype has an auto-immune response to a male fetus, the fetus will be homosexual.

7. Brain morphology: In the late 1980s, the first clues that gay men’s brains me be morphologically similar to straight women’s in certain key areas of the hypothalmus and pituitary first emerged (Simon LeVay). These human studies are problematic because they used cadavers for the experiments and its unethical to cut open live humans and measure their brains. However, recent work at Oregon State University has found that a small percentage of rams shows an exclusive preference for mounting other rams. Numerous experiments led these researchers to conclude that among sheep, there are indeed homosexuals. Part of their studies included researching their brain morphologies. The homosexual rams’ brains were identical to the ‘normal’ rams’ except in those key structures of the brain regulating sexual desire and response. Although these aren’t human experiments, they support the older data gathered from human cadavers. Among biologists, similarities among mammals, although not conclusive, is highly suggestive; the OSU research adds weight to the highly controversial studies of Le Vay.

8. Fingers: In the late 1990s, a group of scientists (Terrance Williams, et al) found that the ratio of the finger length of the ring finger to the index finger was the same between straight men and gay women; and between gay men and straight women. The significance of this study is that we know very much about how finger lengths develop (the gene cascades that stop and start finger development in utero), and so given the corresponding ratios across sexual orientations, this indicates again a developmental component to homosexuality. These results have been verified and reproduced.

9. Pheromones: The pheromonal studies are quite recent, within the last 18 months, and were simultaneously conducted at a the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and another in the United States at the Monell center. They have repeated the experiments this past year, and are so far withstanding verification processes. Basically, gay mens brains respond to men’s pheromones like straight womens; and gay women’s brains respond to female hormones like straight men’s. The U.S. study also found (accidentally) that gay men respond more strongly to other gay men; and that straight men respond the least to pheromones from gay men (i.e., the respond more to the pheromones of other straight men). [The weakness in these studies is that human pheromonal studies is tricky and its hotly debated whether or not humans have pheromonal receptors at all. The receptor in our nose was thought to be dormant for many years; but it looks like those were conclusions drawn without study and probably emerging from the old view that humans are “special” or “separate” from other mammals.]

These are just the high points and I haven’t expounded all the arguments and data interpretation (this is, after all, a blog). Again, the point is that taken separately, none of these is sufficient to warrant the claim that homosexuality has a biological etiology; but taken together, they indicate both a heritability and a developmental component to sexual orientation development (in much the same way that height is determined by genetic predisposition in interaction with developmental factors): i.e., homosexual orientation is biological


And so I return to my original point, which is that for those of us in favor of full equality for gay and lesbian citizens, the argument over biology is merely academic and is useless in the public sphere. If we take the stance that it’s biological, opponents of gay rights say “No it isn’t, it’s cultural.” If we say, sexuality is is cultural, the opponents respond, “It’s immoral.”

And so it really comes down to a question of democracy. In a good democracy, the curtailment of rights must be backed by reasons, that is, arguments about the harm caused by allowing a particular behavior, belief or practice. These arguments about harm must withstand rigorous scrutiny, before anyone’s civil rights may be abridged. For 55 years, the best argument that anti-gay forces have been able to mount is that it’s offensive to them, that is, that it’s different from the way they think things ought to be. That is simply not an acceptable democratic argument, inasmuch as one of the main purposes of democracy is to maximize individual freedom.

[posted with ecto]

Mormon Church Backs Anti-Gay Amendment 1 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Mormonism/LDS Church, News, Politics.
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Well, I suppose this was to be expected, but it is irritating nonetheless, as the church sending out a letter to its U.S. membership instructing them to contact their senators to tell them to vote in favor of the constitutional amendment that would make all non-heterosexual relationships unconstitutional in the United States.

I'm beyond getting angry, at this point. Since the 1990s, when Hawaii and Alaska had pending court decisions and when Oregon and Colorado had ballot measures and constitutional amendments on the table, the Mormon church has dumped millions of dollars into anti-gay political campaigns and has repeatedly instructed its members how to vote. It was also during this period when the church's anti-woman, anti-gay Proclamation to the World was distributed. (See my response to the Proclamation here.) This is all especially irritating given the church's own history of alternative marriages (I myself am descended from two different “plural marriages”) and the church's 150 year old stance against imposing its beliefs on others in the public sphere. But since it has become the modus operandi of the church to perpetuate its homophobia and spread it around, joining ranks with conservative Catholics and right-wing evangelicals, I've ceased having the emotional response.

Even though I'm beyond anger at this point, I would like to channel some anger about the issue into the universe. Please see my cyber-friend Liseysmom's fabulous Post-Mormon Rant. And a fantastically sarcastic and thought provoking post from my cyber-crush, Equality,So Very Grateful.

[posted withecto

On Gay Marriage 5 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Queer Theory.
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Over the past week, I've been teaching about the history of gay and lesbian rights movement in the 20th century in a course about the "American Dream," and have been re-examining (for the umpteenth time) my feelings about gay marriage and the future place of gay men and women in American society. I've mentioned here already my growing unease with the straightening of queer spaces here in San Francisco.

No surprise that I'm torn in thinking about issues like gay marriage. The issue consists, for me, of layer upon layer of contradictory desires. To marry: to be normal, to be accepted, to be recognized fully and equally in your society. Not to marry: to maintain one's position as outsider, to be free to structure one's relationships how one chooses, despite society's approval, to eschew the homogenizing effects of becoming 'mainstream.' I haven't desired to be "normal" for years now, but I do desire recognition and equality. I'm too old to truly want outsider status (which is more often than not a status for the sake of status, rather than anything meaningful), but I do desire the social space to define my own relationships and to be who I am without the pressure to conform to the heterosexual norm.

Like many other critics before me, I fear that the adoption of the fight for marriage rights may ultimately be the end of a meaningful gay and lesbian movement, not because we will have achieved equality and will have nothing left to fight for, but because we will have, as a people, been domesticated, tamed, transformed into the image of the dominant culture. But I am clever enough and compassionate enough to understand why my gay brothers and sisters are fighting to be married. I stood out in the rain in February 2004 in front of City Hall, shielding couples from the raving Christians, as they waited their turn to be married in San Francisco. I could not help but feel what they were feeling, that there public and legal declaration of love held deep meaning and that the social sanction of the city of San Francisco made their love binding in a way that has been missing. It was a moving experience for me that day to witness what it meant to those couples to be married, even though I had always been against the fight for gay marriage. Democratically, clearly it is unjust for the government to privilege one particular marriage arrangement and family above others, granting literally thousands of legal benefits, not to mention the financial advantages (in taxes and workplace benefits) that derive from legal marriage.

And yet the thing that I most value about the queer community, the foundations of which I have researched in depth, is their capacity as a group, in arguing about their place in society, to forge new and different, creative and adaptive kinds of relationships and families of choice. From the most conservative gay man who wants to be married in the suburbs and vote republican with his neighbors in Johnson County, Kansas, to a young queer thugs in Los Angeles who is playing the field and hanging with his homies, to the threesomes, to the serial monogamists, to the open relationships, to the celibate monks, to the liberal urban guppies with kids, to exes who are family-for-life, to friends who fuck…

If we win the right to marry, I fear we will loose the right to create, modify, adapt, change, move, and spin our relationships as queer, unorthodox, as pleasing and profound, as they have been without marriage. Most minorities have the problem of moralizing the hell out of each other. As gay men and women, we already spend way too much of our energy having the good gay vs. bad gay epithet hurling. Gaining the right to marry will draw a definitive, socially sanctioned line in the sand, as it has for heterosexuals, between the "good" and the "bad" gays. It will be the worst thing we've ever done to ourselves.

The only way I can think of to balance these contradictions is for gay men and women to fight until we have the right to marry, and then to refuse it. [Of course, the legal and social benefits are too great for this to be realistic].

All things being ideal, I would suggest that we should fight for the dissolution of legal marriage altogether, and move for marriage to be moved completely into the private sphere, perhaps religious, where people may marry culturally if they want to, but where the government would have no business interfering in the way its citizens form their relationships or families. [Of course, realistically, the culturally meaning of marriage is still to great for people. Perhaps after several generations, it will have waned, as it has in France, such that people will take or leave it, and then the government can be weaned from its social engineering.]

Things being as they are, perhaps the only thing that can happen is to hope that we have the wherewithal to maintain our queer spaces enough so that we can have equality under the law, so that individual queers may choose legal marriage, and that we can continue to argue with each other about whether or not we should choose marriage, as we have for the past 55 years.