As a part of the panel Steve Rouse, my friend and a fellow psychologist from Pepperdine, started off the session with a review of the biological and social scientific data regarding the nature vs. nurture issues regarding LGBTQ attraction, behavior and identity. Steve was followed by a paper from Jeanine Thweatt-Bates (who blogs at rude truth) who offered some theological reflections regarding how theology should handle data from the sciences, in this case data related to gender and sexuality. The final paper of the session was given by Rob McFarland from the Jones School of Law at Faulkner University. Rob's paper focused on the legal issues that have been swirling around gay marriage in recent years.
During the Q&A I asked a question that I wanted to share here as it's something I've been pondering for some time.
Specifically, it has to with what I perceive to be an epistemological disjoint between the sciences and the humanities and how LGBTQ advocates working from within those respective disciplines can, sadly, find themselves in conflict.
The provocative way I framed my question was this.
It seems to me that some advocates working within or informed by feminist and queer studies, specifically those who rely a great deal upon social deconstruction, often find themselves as unwitting supporters of conservative Christians who support things like reparative/conversion therapy for LGBTQ persons.
The issue boils down to if "sexuality/gender is a choice." Many conservative Christians, believing that same-sex attraction, behavior and/or identity is a sin, conclude that all these are "choices." And if these are "choices" then the LGBTQ person could "chose differently." This is the belief at the core of reparative/conversion therapy. In the language of the session title, LGBTQ persons are not "born this way." Biology has nothing to do with it, it's all a matter of choice.
Note how there is a Gnostic vision at work here, a strong dualism where the biological and bodily aspects of human sexuality--for example, they way you might be sexually attracted (or not) to a particular gender--can be easily jettisoned by the soul/mind making a "choice."
Most psychologists would reject this Gnostic vision, this strict distinction between embodiment and "choice." Biology affects psychology. As Steve presented in his paper, the current scientific consensus is that same-sex attraction and orientation have genetic and biological foundations. Thus, as Jeanine pointed out in her paper, the notion of "heteronormativity" is belied by the biological data. Biologically speaking, there is diversity in gender and sexual expressions. As the theologian James Alison says it, same-sex attraction/orientation is a "non-pathological minority variant."
Crucially, this diversity is rooted in the human genome and is not wholly a matter of choice.
And yet, when you move into various areas of feminist and queer studies, especially those devoted to social deconstruction, appeals to this biological data can often create confusion and conflict.
Specifically, it is often axiomatic in these disciplines that "gender and sexuality are socially constructed." That is to say, the body, gender and sexuality are "texts" that can be "read" in any number of ways. Gender and sexuality are, at root, interpretations. All is hermeneutics.
It's easy to see how such perspectives originate within humanities departments where hermeneutical analysis is the primary tool of inquiry. And I am very sympathetic to how these views create an emancipatory vision. If "there is no such thing as gender or sexuality" then people should be free to explore--creatively and playfully--with gender and sexual expression. Thus, any attempt to insist on a gender or sexual "norm" is, applying a hermeneutics of suspicion, a power play, an exercise in oppression.
And yet, while I agree with the end goal here I have a problem with the epistemological warrant that supports this position. As noted above, the scientific data suggests that there is such a thing as gender and sexuality. People are, to but it crudely, "born this way." Gender and sexual diversity exist but this diversity is not the result of "choice," social deconstruction or hermeneutics. The diversity is rooted, rather, in a biological account.
Before going on, let me pause to make a clarification.
In these conversations a distinction often made between "sex" and "gender" and it could be argued that I'm confusing the two. "Sex" refers to the anatomical particulars of a child (e.g., how we designate infants as either "boy" or "girl" on a birth certificate). By contrast, "gender" refers to the social constructions of "masculinity" and "femininity" (among other constructions related to gender and sexual expression), what it means to be a "man" or a "woman."
In light of that distinction, I wholly agree that from the get-go we start imposing gendered constructions of the world upon our children depending upon their respective genitalia. Boys get blue and girls get pink, and on and on. And most crucially, I want to affirm that these gendered constructions have been oppressive toward women.
However, the sex/gender distinction leaves a lot of questions unanswered, especially the degree to which biology is implicated in sexual and gender psychology. For example, things like sexual orientation can't be read off the anatomy of a baby. And yet, as Steve discussed in his paper, sexual orientation has biological origins. Thus, there is no clean separation between sex-as-biology and gender-as-social construction.
This creates some ambiguity and confusion as people try to talk about social construction as it relates to gender and sexuality.
On the one hand, there are those who accept that biology shapes gender and sexual psychology. While biology is not destiny and there is a degree of plasticity, gender and sexual psychology is not a "blank slate." To some extent, we are "born this way." For most of us, we "discover" rather than "chose" our sexual orientation.
However, there are some who adopt a more radical position. This is the position I am criticizing. This is the "blank slate" view that suggests that the biology of the child has no biasing effect whatsoever upon gender or sexual psychology. On the surface, on the outside, at the level of anatomy and genitalia, there are distinctions. But everything "on the inside," every aspect of gender and sexual psychology, is a matter of social construction.
There are two reasons I'm critical of this more radical view.
First, as noted above, I believe this view ignores the scientific data that sexual orientation has biological foundations. And I worry when ideology, of whatever sort, starts ignoring scientific data.
(Incidentally, why do many on the left struggle with accepting the data regarding the biological foundations of sexual orientation? This is my guess. I think the influence of social deconstruction in feminist scholarship, which worked very well in the case of gender, has created epistemological problems when it turned to queer studies. The two--feminist and queer studies--often go hand in hand, but there is some epistemological awkwardness as standard tools like the sex/gender distinction are ill-suited to handle psychological features, like sexual orientation, that are rooted in biology.)
The second reason I'm critical of this view goes to the heart of the question I asked in the session.
Specifically, the radical "blank slate" claim that gender and sexuality are wholly socially constructed is the exact same "it's a choice" Gnostic vision at the heart of reparative/conversion therapy.
When the "blank slate" claim is made that "gender doesn't exit" or "gender is a social construction" we radically reject any biological and psychological givenness. And if all is hermeneutics then all is a matter of choice. And that is the very notion at the heart of reparative/conversion therapy. If you've "constructed" your gender or sexuality in one way then you are free, hermeneutically, to "construct" your gender or sexuality a different way.
But as Steve pointed out in his paper, the empirical data has shown that reparative/conversion therapy is ineffective. And why is that? Because the clients are hermeneutically inept? That can't be the case. Recall, many clients who seek out reparative/conversion therapy are highly motivated. They want to change. And yet, they find that they cannot. And why is that? Because there is a certain biological and psychological givenness that can't be "interpreted" or "constructed" in a radically different way. The hermeneutical realignment being attempted in reparative/conversion therapy is going against the grain. And it's this going against the grain that is the locus of suffering in reparative/conversion therapy, trying to hermeneutically become something that, biologically and psychologically, you are not.
Which means that gender and sexuality are not wholly hermeneutical constructions. To put it crudely once again, we are "born this way." And while biology is never destiny and is interpreted, often oppressively, within cultural contexts, the failures of reparative/conversion therapy suggest that gender and sexuality cannot be wholly reduced to social construction.
To be sure, most people working with social deconstruction limit their focus to gender roles and expressions. They admit certain biological and psychological influences are at work between the sexes and across the spectrum of sexual orientations. And yet, there are many who do make more radical claims regarding gender and sexuality being social constructions. Andrew Sullivan, author of The Dish and one of the most influential voices in LGBTQ advocacy, has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the radical deconstructionism on the political left from those who espouse the view that biology doesn't affect gender and sexual psychology. Sullivan thinks that view is nonsense. And I agree with him.
Of course, the alarm this causes is that if biology is a factor in shaping "gender" (via psychology) then biology would become morally "normative." And given that the biological majority is comprised of cisgendered heterosexual persons we'll always be tempted to see this gender and sexual arrangement as the social and moral "ideal." Anything different is "deviant."
I agree that this is a problem and a worry. And there are a variety of ways it can and should be dealt with.
But I don't think deconstructing the biology is the best approach as it 1) ignores the science in favor of ideology, 2) supports (unwittingly) the Gnostic and therapeutic tenets of reparative/conversion therapy and 3) ignores the narratives of LGBTQ persons who tell us that, no, this was not a choice, I was born this way.