For at least the past three decades, the belief that members of the LGBT communities are “born that way” has been a central tenet of those communities’ struggles for rights and recognition. Queer activists, thinkers, and politicians have won over many skeptics of LGBT equality by asserting that sexual orientation and gender identity are immutable and fixed at birth. And since they’re a matter of nature — like height, sex, and eye color — they should not be legislated against.
That claim has come under fire recently in an article written by Dr. Lawrence Mayer, a statistician from Arizona State University, and the notoriously antigay Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist in chief at John Hopkins and the religious right’s go-to guy whenever a patina of scientific respectability is required for its biblically based challenges to basic LGBT rights.
Together Mayer and McHugh produced a 143-page essay for The New Atlantis (for the record, it is not a peer-reviewed scientific journal) which claims to be “a careful summary and an up-to-date explanation of research...on sexual orientation and gender identity...offered to improve public understanding of these complicated subjects.”
The essay comes to a number of conclusions, including that sexual orientation and gender identity are not biologically fixed and that LGBT people are burdened by far higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and self-harm than their heterosexual counterparts. Additionally, there is a greasy layer of implication that sexual and gender nonconformity are by-products of sexual molestation.
Unsurprisingly, the study was touted and widely publicized by a cavalcade of publications with an antigay bent, from the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal to The Christian Post to Putin’s mouthpiece RT (formerly Russia Today), all eager to crow something along the lines of “Almost Everything the Media Tell You About Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Is Wrong.”
And then, using only 1,001 words, famed geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer demolishes all of their conclusions.
In an essay for Advocate.com, “New ‘Scientific’ Study on Sexuality, Gender Is Neither New nor Scientific,” Dr. Hamer details the many ways in which Mayer and McHugh use very unscientific methods in order to reach a set of predetermined conclusions. They cherry-pick data — for instance, ignoring well-supported studies of the sexuality of identical twins, while granting inordinate weight to an obscure sociological study. Mayer and McHugh ignore important research into the positive effects of affirming the gender identity of trans folk. And they — without any evidence — dismiss out of hand the idea that societal pressure could underpin LGBT health disparities, leaving the reader with the erroneous implication that queers are fundamentally broken and beyond help.
It’s clear that Mayer and McHugh crafted a piece of propaganda and called it “science.” But set aside the gaping holes easily poked in their study, a study absolutely dripping with agenda. For the sake of argument, let’s say that Mayer and McHugh’s fundamental conclusions — that gender identity and sexual orientation aren’t fixed — have merit. What if it is all, to use that right-wing dog whistle, a “lifestyle choice”? What would that change?
Here’s what it should change: nothing.
If there were somehow no biological or chemical component to gender identity whatsoever, we’d still want to affirm the expressed gender identity of trans folk, because mountains of empirical evidence show us that’s the course of action that leads to fewer adults and kids trying to kill themselves. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people should still deserve the right to have kids, serve in the military, and marry a member of the same sex — because study after study has shown us that our rights in no way harm children, the military, or society.
Even if Mayer and McHugh’s most ridiculous and unsubstantiated claim were true — that LGBTs’ higher rates of substance abuse, depression, and attempted suicide are somehow not rooted in society’s hostility toward us and are instead inherent to the condition of queerness itself — we have very conclusive evidence that forcing us to play straight only makes our health outcomes worse.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what makes LGBT folks different from our straight siblings. Zealots and fundamentalists will seek to attack and marginalize us regardless of whether our queerness is chosen or inborn. Yes, anchoring the struggle for LGBT rights in a “born this way” sensibility has been strategically effective, but it caries an implication of inferiority: Of course they must be born gay! Who wouldn’t choose to be straight if they could? And if being LGBT is rooted in our DNA, then the search for the “gay gene,” however innocuously and scientifically framed, is potentially disastrous for the queer communities. If there is a gay gene — no researcher has found it yet — inevitably some fundamentalist (a lifestyle choice if ever there was one) will try to turn it off, to save us from a lifelong “aberrant” condition.
Whether our queerness comes from nature, nurture, choice, all of the above, or none of the above, the right to love, work, build a family, and live a life of our choosing must be independent of any biological or genetic factors, like skin color or chromosomal makeup. In the same manner, we must be allowed the liberty to determine our sexual, romantic, and gender expressions.