A Lesbian's Perspective: Biology, My Ass
by Karla Mantilla
The religious right's recent media blitz about how gay people can change
comes as no surprise to me. Partly that's because I have a long commute and so
listen to a religious right radio station to keep abreast of their thinking. And
partly it's because I have long thought the strategy
used by the gay rights movement of saying that it's biological is incredibly lame. In a strange way I agree with the religious right. Of course it's a choice--how could it not be? We make decisions (constrained choices, but choices nevertheless) about everything else in our lives--where we want to live, what we like to eat, how to dress. So we cannot make a decision about who we are lovers with? Of course we do.
If that's what it takes to be a lesbian, then all women are lesbians When I was coming out I went briefly to a support group for women coming out of marriage. At one point I asked, "How do you know you're a lesbian?" One woman answered that she had never felt emotionally close to men and that she always could talk better with women. Another chimed in, saying she too had felt that way, that she could only be emotionally open with women. The rest nodded in agreement.
What's wrong with this picture? Practically all women feel that way. Every straight woman I have ever known has felt more comfortable confiding in her girlfriends, felt closer to them, felt more understood by and able to open up to women. If that's what it takes to be a lesbian, then all women are lesbians. The age-old complaint of straight women is that their men don't talk to them, don't understand their feelings, and don't seem interested in what they are saying. One of the most common article topics in magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Woman's Day, is how to get your husband to open up and talk to you.
Clearly, if the reason these women felt they were lesbians was because they felt emotionally closer to women, then being a lesbian cannot be biological. First of all, since most women feel that way, we would have to say that most women are born lesbians and that can't be true (except perhaps on a theoretical level). Secondly, whether you feel emotionally close to someone does not seem likely to be biological: it seems much more plausible that it has something to do with the emotional and psychological characteristics of the person.
…that it was biological, appealed to them because it absolved them of guilt… When I replied to the group, "But all women feel closer to women," the conversation slammed to a halt. They were not going there. Instead, the line was, "my husband is a great guy, really he is, it's just that I'm a lesbian--that's why I have to leave him." Over time, it became clear to me that these women experienced tremendous guilt over leaving their husbands at a time when divorce is billed as the cause of all social ills. So the idea that they couldn't help being a lesbian, that it was biological, appealed to them because it absolved them of guilt, and of responsibility for their actions. When I tried to suggest that they were dissatisfied with the current state of relations between women and men, their husbands in particular, they could not think about it because that took away their special dispensation to feel less guilty about leaving their husbands--the dogma was they had to since they were lesbians. (Even conservative radio talk show "psychologist" Dr. Laura approves of gay people getting a divorce while allowing no other legitimate reason for divorce except extreme circumstances like battering or alcoholism.)
Biology as an explanation
Biology is evoked all the time to explain or justify human choices and social patterns. There is a long history of using biology to justify inequality as inevitable due to the genetic characteristics of women or people of color. In general, biological explanations serve to delude people into believing that they can't help their choices; that it can be no other way; that their actions are not borne out of human volition or choice but rather inborn inescapable drives. But while the idea that if gays can't help it because they are born that way seemingly might arrive at our acceptance into society, it also diminishes us as thinking purposeful beings.
Hunger may be biological, but eating M&Ms is a choice
Clearly, there is some biological element to sexuality, but it is limited to the generic desire for sex, in the same manner that hunger is biological which leads us to want to ingest food. But what we end up eating is as varied as human cultures are; what we are convinced is nourishing varies as well. And our gastronomical proclivities change over time too. In the United States, during the first part of the twentieth century, a healthy and nourishing diet was considered to be one which included plenty of meat and potatoes; only the poor ate beans and rice and greens. It has now flip-flopped almost completely, and the tony restaurants will serve rice and beans long before they will serve meat and potatoes (admittedly some obscure variety of bean and specially flavored rice) So while hunger itself, in its most basic state is biological, the means with which humans have acquired to sate it vary to a large extent.
Bagels vs. cow's blood
Yet, when we crave some food, we feel it is biological. It seems that our body cries out for bagels, perhaps. But if we were Maori tribespeople, our stomach would surely cry out not for bagels, but cow's blood.
In a like manner with sexuality. I know someone who believes he was born to have a sexual penchant for wearing lacy silky women's underwear. But, come on, how could that be biological? Would some random Maori have a sexual fetish for underwear from Victoria's Secret any more than he might have a hankering for a bagel with cream cheese and lox? Clearly, however early in youth this man perceived his sexual proclivity beginning, there is no gene that codes for Victoria's Secret.
But how can people's experience be denied? If a gay man says that he was born that way, how can I deny his experience? First, no one can deny someone's experience, but people's interpretation of their experience is what is truly in debate. And I think people's interpretations, even about their own experience, can be and have been wrong. I had one friend who was born in Nicaragua and a very committed catholic. He told me that the reason he was so committed to catholicism was that he could tell that it was the true faith. I asked him if he didn't think perhaps growing up in a country where 95% of the population was catholic might have influenced his beliefs. Absolutely not, was his answer. I then asked him if he had been born and raised in Saudia Arabia, whether he would still see the truth of catholicism, and he was positively certain that, having been raised muslim, he would still have seen the truth of the catholic religion and changed his faith.
I think he is wrong about his interpretation both about his religion (catholicism is not the one true religion) and his experience (of course he was influenced by his culture whether he was aware of it or not). People can and frequently do underestimate the influence of their culture on their own beliefs and tastes. So just because people think they were born a certain way, that is they were that way ever since they can remember, this does not mean it is true. And I also do not agree with the increasingly popular compromise position that maybe for some people it's biological and for others it's not. I see no convincing evidence or plausible explanations that it is biological for anyone, I only see that some people feel they know what its etiology is.
Finally, why do we think that individual people have more insight into their own genetic make-up than science has? Just because something feels fundamental to a person, does that make her an authority on her genetic structure, able to authoritatively interpret her feelings as having biological roots? I think not.
In a strange way, the christian fundamentalists have this right--they believe homosexuality is a choice people make and that people can choose another way to live. I cannot conceive of rationally arguing otherwise. Of course any homosexual could choose tomorrow to reject homosexuality and attempt to find a partner of the opposite sex. But they don't want to, it would not feel right, they would be unhappy (why they think fundamentalists would care about the little detail of personal unhappiness only reflects their thorough misunderstanding of the fundamentalist project).
But this is the point. Homosexuals choose to be homosexuals because something about homosexuality appeals to them, they like it, they prefer it to heterosexuality. When this is attributed to biology, any further examination must stop there. Why do some people prefer same sex partnerships over opposite sex partnerships? What seems preferable about it to them? What don't they like about heterosexual relations? That is the rub right there. What if there are reasons that people reject heterosexuality and embrace same sex relations? What reasons would people have to prefer same sex relations over heterosexuality? Calling it biology does not allow us to even ask the questions.
The truth is, a lot of heterosexuals don't like heterosexual relations either. When Ellen came out on the Oprah Winfrey show, she said that she tried having sex with men, but something was missing, she just didn't feel something she hoped to feel. What was overlooked in the hubbub was Oprah's response: she responded, "A lot of heterosexual women feel the same way [about sex with men]," kind of under her breath and meant to be taken only as a funny complaint. But it is true that a lot of heterosexual women are deeply disappointed in heterosexual sex, or to their thinking, with sex. To wit, the great Ann Landers survey in which over 70% of women answered that they would prefer cuddling to "the act," a survey which was taken to mean that women don't like sex much. No one thought that it meant that these women don't like heterosexual sex as it is currently played out in the problematic gender relations between men and women.
They would be special rights for fundamentalists
The reason fundamentalists think homosexuals can change to heterosexuality is that they know people can force themselves to adapt to circumstances which they do not find particularly pleasurable. And so they resent the assertion by homosexuals that they must do what feels right; for fundamentalists, this is giving homosexuals special rights which they themselves do not have--doing what feels good or right for themselves is not something they do, after all. So there are millions of heterosexual women for whom sex does not feel right; they would prefer not to have it and only cuddle, but they do not follow their feelings and abstain from sex--they continue to have sex without liking it much or without getting that "special feeling' that they would like. This explains the romance novels which so many heterosexual housewives indulge themselves in--it is what they are lacking in their own lives. They dream of it, and yet console themselves that it is an impossibility and so settle for their husband.
That might explain lesbians, but what about gay men?
It is my suspicion that similar forces operate for gay men. They don't like being in heterosexual relationships perhaps because they rebel against the role that straight men must play to a woman counterpart. They find themselves dissatisfied --it seems uncomfortable--certainly too stoic and self-restrained. They prefer being more emotional, more spontaneous, more pleasure-seeking, so they conclude that they are gay, rather than critique the role of men in patriarchy. Of course I do not mean to characterize all gay men as being the same on this count; I only want to suggest one scenario in which preferring men might occur which comes out of problems with the expectations of being a straight male and not biology.
Reasons for women to be dissatisfied with heterosexuality
Unfortunately, rather than looking into what parts of sex heterosexual women don't like and what things they do like (ie., cuddling--does this mean they don't get enough affection to feel like sex?), many heterosexual women feel that they simply don't like sex. But what does "sex" mean? It can be can be many different things. Clearly sex between same sex partners is very different from sex between opposite-sex partners, enough so for sizeable segments of the population to exclusively prefer one or the other. Sex can be construed any way we choose--if we like more cuddling, then cuddling could be construed to be an integral part of sex. Sex does not have to be the heterosexually male model of sex--very little foreplay, cuddling, tenderness or caressing, followed by intercourse, followed by little or no talking. It could be entirely different. Sex between women, for example, involves a much longer time span than heterosexual sex, with more communication and expressions of affection.
The discontents of heterosexuality
So we have a situation where sizeable numbers of heterosexuals are dissatisfied either with sex or their heterosexual relationships or both, and yet think that "that's life," sex and relationships are just like that. And then we have a group of people who are also dissatisfied with heterosexual relations and think "I'm gay."
The problem with the biological explanation is it does not allow people to seek to understand what precisely it is about heterosexual relations they did not like, what made them uncomfortable, what was unpleasant. Homosexuals in a way have an edge, because they are willing to have enough imagination to seek something better when they do not like (hetero) sex. But they don't have enough imagination to see that they are not alone in their dissatisfaction with heterosexual relations.
I think that using the biological explanation is a poor strategy for several reasons. First, it maintains the current social order (the way eterosexuality is socially constructed currently) as stable and only gives individual escape hatches to a small number of people. Calling it biology is a neat way of sidestepping any critique of patriarchy or gender relations by attributing rebellion against the current structure to biology rather than dissatisfaction. Secondly, it does not allow people to think very deeply about why they choose on thing or another and so helps maintain the status quo of heterosexual relations. If people could say, heterosexuality sucks, and that's why I'm gay, then we could begin to see more clearly that patriarchy sucks, that male-female gender relations suck, that marriage sucks, etc. Third, it inhibits agency among gay people. Rather than being responsible for and proud of our choices, it makes us seem we are helpless pawns reacting to our biology. Fourth, it keeps other who are dissatisfied with patriarchy or gender relations from making the choice to become gay. We ought to recruit--we don't have much of a movement if we restrict new members only to those "born" to be gay. And finally, it is an exceptionally inadequate defense against the religious rights assertions that we can change. We would do better to say of course we could change if we wanted to, but we don't want to, because it is better to be gay.