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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