Civil Liberties

The Claims of Nature

The "can gays change" debate is dodging the main issues.


In 1973, when the American Psychiatric Association took homosexuality off its list of mental disorders, this summer's controversy over whether gays can change would have been hard to imagine. Although there were always people understood to be spinsters and "confirmed bachelors" for reasons other than independence or social ineptitude, few heterosexuals knew any out-of-the-closet gays. Same-sex dates certainly weren't likely to show up at family gatherings or business dinner parties–much less White House functions or the Academy Awards. To be openly gay was to stand outside normal society. Bourgeois mores, it was thought, depended on pretending that homosexuality did not exist.

That has changed. Thanks to the simple but radical concept of persuading people to stop living double lives, the social equilibrium has shifted–more in some places, to be sure, than in others, but throughout American culture. Especially among younger people, it is no longer socially normal for homosexuals to pretend to be heterosexual. And it turns out that the old slogan was right: Gays are indeed "everywhere," a small percentage of the population but sprinkled throughout society. Like heterosexuals, gay individuals turn out not to be reducible to the single fact of sexual orientation. They are a diverse lot and, much to the chagrin of both radical gays and traditionalist conservatives, many are bourgeois and conventional.

That human beings have many aspects to their personalities shouldn't come as a big shock. But when the subject is sex, many commentators take leave of their senses and forget everything they know about people. The only other subjects that make for dumber political discussions are religion and statistics and, at a much more subtle level, nature. This summer's debate dumped all these sense-impairing topics into one big mess.

It all started when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, pressed by conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams, condemned homosexual activity as a "sin." Having thus satisfied the persistent demands of both grassroots fundamentalists and intellectual neoconservatives, Lott immediately tried to soften the message by grasping the language of addiction and disease: "My father has a problem, as I said, with alcoholism. Other people have sex addiction. Other people, you know, are kleptomaniacs. I mean, there are all kinds of problems and addictions and difficulties and experiences of things that you–that are wrong but you should try to, you know, work with that person to learn to control that problem."

Not surprisingly, gays didn't like having a powerful politician cast them as the morally diseased equivalent of thieves and out-of-control drinkers. Collectively and individually, they protested. Lott's conservative fans fought back, mingling two different messages. First, they portrayed themselves as victims. They embraced the argument of the speech-code police that criticizing other people's views is unacceptable–"anti-Christian," in this case. Usually this claim took the form of decrying "name-calling" and demanding "tolerance" for anti-gay views, treating disagreement as the equivalent of censorship. In a ceremony at Lott's office, an obscure conservative group called Public Advocate of the U.S. took the argument to its absurd conclusion, delivering 50,000 petitions asking Congress to "designate the public practice and promotion of `homosexuality' as a federal `hate crime.'" So much for tolerance and free speech.

Second, and far more successfully, conservative groups produced stories, featured in full-page newspaper ads, of homosexuals who had adopted heterosexual lifestyles for religious reasons. Janet Folger of the Center for Reclaiming America, who coordinated the $200,000 campaign, told National Public Radio that the ads' message "shatters the foundation of the homosexual movement. That foundation of all of their arguments is based on the myth that homosexuals are born that way and change is impossible. If that was true, then thousands would not disprove that. And that's what they've done and that's what these ads show."

Well, not exactly. Folger's claim depends on using sex, religion, and statistics–and some ambiguous language–to fool the public.

Start with the numbers. America is a huge country: more than 260 million people. Take a quarter billion people and drop them on a bell curve, and you will find some of everything. Considered in this light, the claim of fundamentalist Christian groups to have produced real, honest-to-God homosexuals now living as heterosexuals is completely believable, even if you exclude the possibility that some of those "converts" are people whose sexual orientation is neither strongly homosexual nor strongly heterosexual but somewhere in the middle. The number of gay Americans is in the millions; even if only 1 percent of those people are motivated to exchange sexual satisfaction for family life or quiet consciences, you've still got tens of thousands of "ex-gays." And the ministries in question don't generally claim that many successes.

Folger's ads don't, therefore, say what she wants them to say. An ad featuring a single anecdote proves nothing about sexual orientation in general or the arguments of the "homosexual movement." Neither would an ad featuring thousands of anecdotes.

Besides, the interpretation of these stories is misleading. All those examples prove is that religious conviction can affect the tradeoffs people make in their lives, including tradeoffs outsiders find hard to fathom. (The histories of religious martyrs are full of such tradeoffs. If you think celibacy is tough, try being burned at the stake.) As psychologist Patricia Hannigan sensibly told Newsweek, "If the foremost priority in one's life is religious faith, then personal happiness might come from conforming to faith rather than pursuing sexual orientation."

The slippery language also matters. The claim Folger calls a "myth" isn't refuted by her examples, because it is about inclination, not behavior. When Steve Forbes babbled on ABC that "a lot of people say you can overcome [homosexuality]. Some say you can't. The majority think you can overcome it," he was spouting nonsense. In fact, the consensus even among people who work in religious ministries to help gays live celibate or heterosexual lives is that sexual orientation is deeply rooted; erotic attraction almost never changes, only behavior does–and then only rarely.

Most people simply lack the conviction to engage in such self-sacrifice. It is easy enough to give up eating pork, a practice the Bible forbids, but even most American Jews don't do so, for the simple reason that most people see nothing wrong with that particular behavior. Love and intimacy are, needless to say, more important to a fulfilling life than unlimited menu choices. Folger's counterexamples say absolutely nothing about the many gays, both religious and irreligious, whose consciences are untroubled by their sexual feelings and who have no incentive to live lonely or frustrated lives. As a result, her anecdotes do nothing to counter the increased cultural tolerance that encourages homosexuals to accept their orientations and build responsible lives accordingly.

And there's the rub. This debate is not about a few people who believe God wants them to make certain sacrifices to conform to his will. It is about whether the choices of that minority should become the norm, enforced not just through religious persuasion (which works only on people who accept its premises) but through coercion. Pressed by Andrew Sullivan of The New Republic, Folger was forced to admit on Nightline that her political agenda includes support for sodomy laws that would imprison gays for having sexual relations. Her claim to speak for "tolerance" dissolved instantly.

Still, Folger's charge that the argument from nature is the linchpin of gay rights has some truth in it. And it has implications that reach far beyond the treatment of homosexuality.

To gain the sympathy of heterosexuals and claim the mantle of civil rights, gays have stressed again and again that their sexual orientation is innate, not a choice. It is like heterosexuality or, to take a once-stigmatized trait, left-handedness. It is like race or sex–something you're born with. This argument has worked well in the political arena. While a majority of Americans still call homosexuality a sin, a recent Newsweek poll found overwhelming support–upwards of three-quarters–for laws banning sexual-orientation discrimination in jobs or housing. Gays may be bad, the public seems to reason, but they can't help it, so it's wrong to pick on them.

Over the long run, however, the argument from nature is a trap. Left by itself, "we can't help it" leads to Lott's position and from there to Folger's. It goes straight back to the pre-1973 psychiatric view: Homosexuality may be a natural, biologically based condition, but so is disease. Kleptomaniacs can't help their inclinations. Neither can sex addicts or alcoholics. But we don't have to do what nature inclines us to. Diseases can be cured. Willpower, psychological support, and incentives can overcome, or at least dampen, these conditions. Hence, the friendly call for "recovery" programs and the not-so-friendly push for criminal sanctions.

In our "biological century," we are going to be confronted again and again with both the argument from nature and the claims of disease. The more we understand biology, the more we will see natural causes and potential "cures" for all sorts of human action. There is already evidence that much antisocial behavior–from violent sexual jealousy to serial killing–has a biological basis, as do such positive traits as nurturing one's children. Psychopharmacology demonstrates that we can alter personality by altering brain chemistry, and such interventions will become ever more possible as we unlock the genetic code. Although it is the great idol of those seeking a secular source of absolutes, nature alone cannot establish standards or norms. It cannot justify anything. It can only tell us what is, not what ought to be. Appealing to nature can excuse terrible acts; conversely, it can stamp out individual identity in the name of curing disease. If we want a peaceful society in which a wide range of individuals can flourish, we'd better get used to evaluating behavior by its consequences, not its causes.

Ultimately, Trent Lott may have done gay rights a favor, by inadvertently clarifying the argument. What distinguishes homosexuality from kleptomania isn't that one is natural and the other isn't. It's that love and theft have dramatically different consequences. "To be able to live one's life loving and being loved by some other person is not something that is a disease," said Sullivan on Nightline. "It is the essence of what it is to be human, and that's what we're asking, the tolerance to be human and to be allowed to live our lives in peace." That humane, pluralist argument, not invocations of biological determinism, is what a confused public needs to hear.