Saturday, June 04, 2011

Why I'm Not Gaga over "Born This Way"

Perhaps it's fitting that the .99 sale of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" album on Amazon crashed their servers, or at least slowed them down.  It's an apt metaphor for the way "born this way" rhetoric has crashed, or at least slowed down, gay and lesbian liberationist politics. 

It's tempting to simply quote Eve Sedgwick and Michael Warner on this topic and leave it at that: they said it first and best. A politic built on an essentialistic conceptualization of sexual orientation (that is, the idea that one's sexual orientation is natural, established pre-self-awareness, and stable and unchanging) does not guarantee one success and cannot be certain to result in the type of outcomes that those employing it certainly seek to achieve.  Of course, neither can one build on a social construction theory of sexuality.  Neither argument guarantees that rights will be granted or that others will conceed on moral or rational grounds.

Sedgwick went on to say that, even should some biological basis be found for sexual orientation, nobody is asking "how DO you raise up a wonderful little queer? My house needs a total do-over."  All the discourse about developing sexuality in children and teenagers focuses on how to avoid raising a kid gay/lesbian or remains completely silent.  Nobody, even today, seeks to raise a gay kid.  Finding a biological cause would most likely lead to people seeking to prevent having gay kids rather than new levels of acceptance for gay people.  Many people consider race biological (it isn't), but still discriminate, oppress, and marginalize people of races different than their own.

I personally find it a bit distasteful that my desires and affections boil down to some pre-coded, genetic mish-mash.  If all I am in a biological stew in a meat-sack that acts on some hormonal or electric cerebal impulse, well, I'm not sure I want that either.  I prefer to think of myself as having a bit more spirit, soul, unconciousness, internality, agency, mind, or whatever term you prefer in relation to whom I desire and with whom I share affection, or even love, with.  If I'm just a highly evolved amoeba when it comes to my sexuality, why, where's the fun in that?  Doesn't there seem to be a bit more to it than that? 

Yet, what does science tell us about our sexual inclinations, orientation, predilictions, preferences, what have you? Dr. Francis Collins, noted geneticist, observes that:
The evidence we have at present strongly supports the proposition that there are hereditary factors in male homosexuality — the observation that an identical twin of a male homosexual has approximately a 20% likelihood of also being gay points to this conclusion, since that is 10 times the population incidence. But the fact that the answer is not 100% also suggests that other factors besides DNA must be involved. That certainly doesn’t imply, however, that those other undefined factors are inherently alterable
Other studies speculate that gay men and women may have similar brain structures, which then may lead to gay men processing scents differently from straight men, and that testoterone levels in the womb may be correlated with sexual orientation.  Yet even the researcher of the testosternoe study, Marc Breedlove (I kid you not), notes:
There is no gene that forces a person to be straight or gay... I believe there are many social and psychological, as well as biological factors that make up sexual preference.

None of these are definitive nor conclusive evidence that one's, or at least everyone's, sexuality is biologically derived.  They suggest that sometimes biological factors may play a part in some peoples' sexuality, partially.  Finding a biological cause will likely never happen because sexuality is more fluid and complex than those who force a false hetero/homo binary on us would have us believe.  Even people who are primarily or exculsively hetero- or homo- in their sexual desire and/or practices experience and engage in a panoply of experiences that one cannot ever be certain of what exact sexual activity is being correlated with a biological precursor.

So, what then constitutes sexual desire, sexuality, and affection? (I continue to draw a distinction between  affection and sexuality because love and sex can and often are two different emotions/experiences, although they are often intertwined and both are a form of desire.) If I am not biologically gay/lesbian, can I change my sexuality, am I demonstrating a preference rather than an orientation?

In short, I don't know and I suspect few of us do.  The factors that influence and constitute my sexuality are likely various, complex, and beyond my ability to process them all.  (Sexual abuse, trauma, and/or parental roles are NOT among these factors, I can say for certain.)  Deriving clear causation from any one factor, or even combination of factors, is fraught with incredible difficulty and problems. 
Accordingly, no, I cannot no more change my sexual desires than any other individual can.  I can certainly choose to not act on them or act against them or act in ways that afford me lesser pleasure than I desire.  For instance, I have enjoyed pleasurable sexual and emotional experiences with women.  However, I overwhelmingly prefer and enjoy sex with men and am emotionally attracted to other men.  I cannot describe the difference except to say that there is a chasm of difference between the two.  Conceivably, I could again have a pleasurable sexual experience with a woman, but it would in no way be as fulfilling as it is with a man nor would the same type of attraction.  I feel like I can be empathetic and show affection for/with women, but I can only fall in love with a man.

So, sexuality is not fully and freely chosen either.  Something operates "behind the scenes" as it were (Freud's notion of the unconcious seems a reasonable term to use here) that is beyond my (or any of our) control to alter in any substantial way.  Even the ex-gay ministries no longer purport to change orientation, but rather to alter behavior.  Desire, even these ministries will tell you, does not change.  One will always "struggle" with homosexuality, per these organizations. (They also tend to conflate gender expression - masculinity and femininity - with sexuality.)  I will take a moment here to note that all of the major professional psychological associations denounce so-called "reparative" therapy as harmful.      

Zombie Marriage will be totally okay though.
Even if sexuality were freely chosen, why would that preclude equal rights for non-heterosexual individuals?  Religion is afforded many civil rights and it is certainly chosen.  Why can we not have a society that supports protecting and bestowing civil rights on individuals who chose to engage in ethical, consenting sexual relationships that do no harm? The slippery slope argument, i.e., accepting non-heterosexuals leads to accepting pedorasty and bestiality, is fallacious.  These are non-consenual and abusive forms of sexual activity and do not need to be and neither should be acceptable.  Although choice of sexual desire is a hypothehtical, it is nonetheless relevant to the the discussion, particularly if anti-gay forces seek to debate on these terms.

These arguments are likely too complex in everyday conversation with those mimicking the rhetoric they've heard from religious and political leaders.  In initial conversations, a simple "when did you choose to be heterosexual?" is a good conversation starter.  Sometimes a follow-up "do you think you can quit your sinful heterosexual lifestyle and convert to a homosexual one?" can provide some additional food for thought.  These questions neither pre-suppose a cause of sexuality, but rather speak to the difficulty in simply desiring or acting on different desires or adopting a different sexuality.

Still, in more meaningful and thoughtful debate, gay activists need to seriously consider these questions.  "Born this way" is not only necessarily accurate, but is not even an expedient political argument.  In fact, "born this way" politics has only served to creat a politics that desparately wants to portray non-heterosexuals as "just like you."  Hell, I'm not just like you and I thank God for it.  (Okay, in most ways I am; but others aren't and they need protecting too.)  I really despise the type of queer domesticity that current gay politics and activism seeks to portray and promote, even as my life more or less embodies it. "Born this way" has led to a white, middle- to upper-class gay politic that ignores trans people and queers whose lives don't reflect (by choice or otherwise) this mimicry of heterosexual life.

Being queer means an opportunity to create new ways of being, kinship, living, relationships, and institutions.  But the "born this way" mentality destroys that possibility by aping heterosexual culture in a chance to be accepted.  I see this as a "shuck and jive" move that I want no part of: I'm queer, I don't know why I'm here, but I am, and I demand acceptance and equal rights.

Oh, and for the record, Gaga totally ripped off Madonna on this one.

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