So my gun-loving, heterosexual, republican, fundamentalist Christian uncle (self described minus the fundamentalist) this week mentioned to my mom that he had just read a study done on twins that apparently concluded that homosexuality is in no way genetic. From his theistic worldview, this meant his god didn’t make gay people gay and that this then reinforces the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality is an abomination, a sin in the eyes of his god. This conclusion also confirms, in his mind, that homosexuals can be converted into heterosexuals, that gay conversion therapy should be more heavily employed. In my uncle’s case, his reading of the Bible also suggests that homosexuals will burn in hell, which of course isn’t the case for all Christian readings of the Bible, but probably wasn’t the best picture for him to paint of my mom’s eternal relationship with her gay son. Trust me, he’s not a good person.
An aside: the current research on genetic influence on homosexuality
There is no consensus among the scientific community as to what degree homosexuality is genetic. As I’ll suggest further down, this is a moot point within the conversation of the morality of homosexuality.
A recent article on Think Progress sums up the current state of research, again with no conclusions:
The latest research suggests that variations in sexual orientation can be influenced — not by the genes themselves, but by how certain markers (“epi-marks”) on the genes interact with hormones inside the womb. These epigenetic markers act as switches that can be activated during fetal development, affecting how DNA expresses itself. The end result is the same: an individual’s orientation is determined before birth and cannot be changed. This actually jibes with some recent twin studies, which suggest that even identical twins who share a hormonal environment in the womb can still experience different levels of blood during development. Thus, even twins with identical DNA can have differences in how that DNA is expressed.
As is often the case, Wikipedia outlines a more comprehensive picture, in this case of where we are in studying the role of genetics and environment in determining homosexuality. Read the Wikipedia article, Biology and Sexual Orientation, here. Again, no conclusions.
If you’re looking for a conclusion on the matter, you can go to any conservative Christian website, as my uncle does to get his information about how the world works. You’ll read something more along these lines: Recently Micah Clark, Executive Director of the Indiana Family Institute gave commentary on homosexuality being unnatural based on his research using a population of one for his sample size. His research focuses on gay NBA player Jason Collins who has an identical twin brother who is supposedly straight, and so concludes that if the twin brothers share 100% of the same genes, homosexuality must be in no way genetic (don’t you just love the fundamentalist Christian version of the scientific method? It’s so easy. So elementary.).
Additionally, most of these Christian bloggers use the nature versus nurture argument to support their view that you can change a person’s sexuality. After all, if you’re not born gay, something in your environment must have made you that way, so they’ll just do their part to try and reverse what they see as your sinful nature.
These articles you’ll find on Christian websites are meant to reinforce their belief that homosexuality is a sin. Any evidence that suggests otherwise tends to be omitted.
The scientific community will be the first to tell you they have not reached a consensus on the topic; there isn’t enough data yet to do so. The data we have isn’t conclusive. Many of the studies that have been done have been biased on both sides of the aisle, very clearly breaking the rules of the scientific method. Eventually, we’ll hone in on a picture that more accurately represents the reality of the issue, and from what we’re beginning to see, it looks like it’s going to be quite a mash-up of influences that contribute to a person being gay.
A deterministic view of the “choices” we make
The thing is, none of this really matters as part of the conversation of morality. It all comes down to the very different way the religious and non-religious see the world. The religious come to the table with their doctrine that already gives them the answers they seek. In this case that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of their god.
In contrast, the deterministic view of the world given to us by science describes the situation like this: I didn’t choose to be gay in the same way that I didn’t choose to love 80’s new wave, or that I didn’t choose my friends, or that I didn’t choose my coffee table, or that my religious uncle didn’t choose to be a bigot, or that I didn’t choose to have a bigoted uncle. It just worked out that way based on a complexity of factors — all traceable back to the moment of the big bang.
Take my coffee table for example. This will be fun, I promise: In order for it to have ended up in my living room, many many things out of my direct control had to have fallen into place. The coffee table first of all had to exist; someone had to have designed and manufactured it before I even knew I was in the market for a coffee table. The design had to be marketable and so the design was the result of a cumulative consumer demand. Then, the table had to have happened to be on the showroom floor of the furniture store that I happened to walk into because it happened to be near where I happened to live at the time, and it had to be there on the day I decided to come in, a day that it had to have happened to not be raining. Then there had to be a sales person who happened to resonate with my personality and who had to have not been too busy with other customers who happened to be in the store at the time. I had to have walked in the door with a sense of my own design sensibilities which are the result of other life paths I’ve fallen into, such as having happened to have a design background. The coffee table had to be the right design for the home I had just moved into. It had to work with my current budget which is constantly changing. It had to serve functions unique to the layout of my home and to the way my partner and I use our living room together, right at that time.
In this sense, I in no way chose my coffee table. The coffee table happened to be the solution to a problem that presented itself at a particular time and place and was influenced by countless events outside of anyone’s control This is true of everything that happens in life. Every “choice” you think you’re making, isn’t really a choice at all. It’s based on an unthinkable number of other influences, including the culmination of your past experiences. Steven Hawking talks a lot about this in his book, the Grand Design.
And so with this line of thinking, this way of seeing the world, I realize my uncle didn’t choose to be a bigot. He happens to be a victim of his environment, one that has been consumed by a very effective religious meme. His brain is simply a host to the parasite of bad ideas. I don’t blame him. I only thank my “lucky stars” that I wasn’t caught in a similar intersection of circumstance. This is also what drives me to not fight individuals but rather the environments that foster bigoted brains, to fight the memes that fuel religion, to do my part in promoting social and cultural environments that encourage happiness among the most people possible.
Morality and genetics have nothing to do with each other
And so back to the question of morality: Nature versus nurture is an arbitrary metric by which to measure the morality of one’s actions. Homosexuality, whether you view it as a choice, determined by one’s environment, or genetically inherited, is either morally acceptable or not and this is based on the effect it has on the lives of others. I challenge anyone to give me a strong argument as to how homosexuality is immoral in this light. It hurts nobody.
Bigotry towards those who are causing no harm, however, is quite harmful to individuals and society at large, and is therefore the epitome of immorality. Bigotry, for example, is what drives perfectly normal, healthy, gay teenagers to kill themselves — suicide is found to be a disproportionate cause of death among gay teenagers. Bigotry is what drives individuals to live miserable, secret lives in the closet. Bigotry destroys lives, severs relationships, steals the right to the pursuit of happiness from countless victims. Bigotry must end. And we must end it by eliminating the memes that fuel it, the memes of religious thought, the incubators of bigotry.