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July 30th, 2008

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01:45 am - John Barrowman, Genetics, and Acceptance
In Torchwood and Dr. Who fandom, I've recently been hearing about John Barrowman's involvement in a BBC special looking at the origin of various traits called The Making of Me. Despite having only dial-up access at the moment (a situation due to be [at long last] fixed on Thursday), I watched this lovely segment with him and his partner. In addition to finding Barrowman both very attractive and charismatic (both in and out of character), I'm interested in how and openly gay man negotiates celebrity now that some of the sigma is (finally) fading.

In addition to the simple joy of seeing a happy queer couple on screen together, the thing that struck me most about this piece was Barrowman's reaction to stating that many researchers believe that sexual preference is genetic – it clearly made him both happy and to at least some degree relieved that it was something inborn. That made me sad.

As pretty much anyone who has read my lj for any length of time knows, I have little respect for sociobiology/evolutionary psychology, or whatever they are currently calling that (to me) exceptionally dubious field [[1]], and as with most other behavioral traits, I don't believe that homosexuality is genetic. I discuss my thoughts about this issue here.

However, more than the issue of whether or not homosexuality is genetic or not, what struck me most in seeing that short video was how important the idea that homosexuality was inborn seemed to be to John Barrowman. Watching his reaction helped me understand why so many people are so attached to this idea. This makes me sad because it seems to me that a strong investment in this idea either means that someone finds the idea that they "can't help what they are" to either be reassuring because of some lingering belief or worry that it would otherwise be wrong or (more likely in the case of someone like Barrowman) that it will help people uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality learn to accept it better. To me it's very sad indeed that in 2008 there are sufficient numbers of sufficiently vocal homophobes that attempting to gain their acceptance is still such an important issue. In any case, given the unfortunately long history, humanity has of discriminating against and even killing people for all manner of obviously inborn traits, I sincerely doubt that many of them care about the reason for it.

[[1]] It's worth noting that I have vast amounts of respect for E.O. Wilson, but think that he was incorrect in generalizing from his (truly vast) knowledge of ants to vertebrates, and am pleased that recently he's begun seriously questioning the ideas of kin selection and genetic determinism of behavior.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

(42 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 09:59 am (UTC)
While continuing to disagree with you over genetic influence, I most definitely agree that it shouldn't matter what the cause of one's sexual preference is - homosexuality is not evil, so its origins are irrelevant to how one should feel about it.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 11:42 am (UTC)
"Watching his reaction helped me understand why so many people are so attached to this idea."

If sexual orientation is NOT genetic, then those of us who are not straight will feel forced to change our behavior for society's sake. If it's not genetic, it's something we can control, you see, and we have an obligation to not do that which makes others uncomfortable if we can help it. Social acceptance is the new religion. The idea is for our benefit, not theirs.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 11:47 am (UTC)
we have an obligation to not do that which makes others uncomfortable if we can help it
No. No you don't.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 11:50 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, many homosexuals implicitly accept, at some level, the premise that homosexuality is a disability. As for disabilities, our society respects physical ailment while deriding the psychological anyway; many people are very comfortable with the idea of, say, depression as a "biochemical imbalance," when some of the best interventions are lifestyle changes and psychological counseling. Everyone wants a doctor's note to explain why they're not like everyone else.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 12:51 pm (UTC)
I believe that for a very small percentage of the gay population, there is something inborn, some quirk of genetics or very early hormones or something definitive and deeply biological at work, which I tend to call "biological-imperative gay". I believe an equally small percentage of the population is "biological-imperative straight". I've known less than a handful of people I could classify as each so far in my life. (Tori being the best example among any of my friends, and she may well better count as a transgendered individual lacking the energy to care.) It makes me more angry than sad that so much of the gay community and its supporters rally behind any evidence that some people are like this to simplify an explanation of their lives (most especially to themselves). It makes me more angry than sad because clinging to it as a "no choice, no fault" mentality denies my very existence. Openly bisexual long past college, I still get a lot of flak from the local Lesbian Community, and I honestly think less of that is derision for the conformity of being with a man in the long term than my embracing choices threatening their worldview, justifications, and legitimacy. Fuck that. (Or don't, I suppose.)
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 01:00 pm (UTC)
I agree that going to a "I have gene X, therefore I am person X" approach to life is ridiculous, and tends to lead to all sorts of essentialism which are nonsensical and socially harmful.

Blaming people for making personal choices about who their partner is, because that choice hurts a political standpoint is something I find particularly repellent.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 01:38 pm (UTC)
Why do I keep writing about this on everyone's journal but mine?

I have to weigh in from two angles here -- one is that I do find the whole "oh, you're born with it" ting to be uncomfortable, in large part because while it may be politically expedient now, it could be a bigger nightmare than any of us have ever imagined in ten or twenty years. Should my celiac disease be cured? My left-handedness? My queerness?

In defense of where Barrowman is coming from (and I still haven't watched the whole thing), it is very very hard to be okay with who you are and have people around you who are okay with who you are but still, you know, wish things had been different or easier or had once harboured regret about it and are now over it. I have spent a lot of time having to tell my parents it's not their fault. Now, ideally, it's not something that should be a negative that "fault" is an issue, but when I was born, they had a fantasy of what my life and their lives by extension would be, and that hasn't come true.

JB"s parents seem a lot cooler than mine, but surely, they too had some such fantasy at some point (especially considering he's ten years older than me), and at some point he probably went through the process of either needing to assure them or feeling obligated to assure them that this wasn't their fault.

It's the most horrible thing in the world. And it stays with you. And despite not having an investment in it being nature, and in fact being uncomfortable with the idea in a lot of ways, lord knows, I get the desire for it to be clear cut in that way. And if I were a gay man? I'd probably feel even more strongly about that -- because as a woman, I live in a grey zone where peple expect my sexuality to be reactive to my environment and experiences. Men don't have that luxury. So yeah, I can see why it matters to the guy.

Edited at 2008-07-30 01:38 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
it could be a bigger nightmare than any of us have ever imagined in ten or twenty years. Should my celiac disease be cured? My left-handedness? My queerness?

Dear gods yes, and possibly in only a decade. I can see all manner of manditory (and not well-tested) gene therapy in more represive portions of the planet as well as all manner of parents inflicting this on their children.

So yeah, I can see why it matters to the guy.

*Nods* I can definitely see that. That fact that I've rejected that majority of my parent's worldview and am not emotionally close to them is in many ways exceptionally convenient for me.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 01:47 pm (UTC)
I suspect that there's a combination of factors at play in regards to someone's sexual orientation. I think that for some people there may be a genetic factor, for others it's a matter of preference or choice. I remember a gay friend once telling me that he knew he was gay from the age of 5. Personally, I never really had a thought about my sexual orientation until I was closer to 10 or 12. I'll grant that this may not be the best example, but it does make me wonder if in some cases like this one there's not a genetic factor, especially if you've come to that decision at such a young age. In general, I think that sexuality is a pretty complex subject and there are probably several valid theories regarding sexual preference.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 03:25 pm (UTC)
Almost all of what we are at age 5 is socially determined.

On the other hand, I wouldn't have that hard a time believing that some factors involved in the age of onset of awareness of sexual interest in other people and the connection to gender is genetically influenced. I find it easy to believe that there is some degree of genetic variation in how sexually aware and sexually interested people are.

Other factors that would influence the age at which someone becomes aware of their orientation seem fairly obviously socially determined (e.g. you and your friend may have had very different experiences of social expectation of romantic attachments, I've seen social circles in which parents and other adults spend a lot of time talking about other children as being their child's girlfriend or boyfriend, or how their child is going to marry any ("gender appropriate") child they show any social interest in, that has to have an influence on whether that child thinks about sexual orientation).

Personally, I was aware of being attracted to women at about age six or seven, and aware of being attracted to men at about age ten.

There are some interesting studies that suggest that sexual orientation is socially determined, but that it is often strongly influenced by the degree to which we have "gender appropriate" interests, which is partly genetically determined.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)

Tackling the essay

Dawkins' ideology is contained in his biological cosmology. He produces the ideas scientific model for the social Darwinist without drawing any explicit social Darwinist conclusions.

Dawkins explicitly opposes social Darwinist conclusions. Why is this not mentioned?

Certainly none of the evolutionary psychologists support major egalitarian change in social or gender arrangements.

Dawkins and Wilson are pretty liberal or even leftist, I think. Dawkins endorsed gender-neutral language in the introduction to one book, and wistfully said he'd considered using 'she' as the default pronoun, but had chickened out in fear it'd distract from his main message.

Lewontin has criticized Dawkins' theory by claiming that it confuses classes with individuals. The genes which are reproduced by the relative are not physically identical with the sacrificed individual's genes, but are simply similar, the same kind of gene.

...what? That sounds really dumb for Lewontin. It's like saying self-replication makes no sense.

But if that algorithm is applied weakly or not at all in many areas in which environmental catastrophes, developmental constraints, and purely random drift account for major results, then the algorithmic natural selection will not account for many biological features of interest. ... He than grants that body plans may constrain the direction of natural selection, but tries to play down its significance

Yes, because there is no proposed mechanism by which neutralism (genetic drift), catastrophes, group selection or bodyplan constraints can explain the design of complex structure (including behaviors), which was after all the whole point. It is natural selection that cuts through the Argument from Design or Hoyle's "747 in a whirlwind", not the other things.

This connects IMO to the bugaboo about "pan-selectionism". Simple traits like skin color or ear shape might not be selected for, if they're the results of more important things. But complex traits will have to be the result of something that was selected for, because only selection can explain complexity. The complex traits need not be functioning in their original role, of course, and *really* complex organs like the brain may have less-but-still complex spinoffs.

Back to you:
[Wilson] he's begun seriously questioning the ideas of kin selection


Edited at 2008-07-30 04:25 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 09:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Tackling the essay

I don't remember where I saw the reference, and won't try to search until I have DSL back (tomorrow), but I read a recent (last 2-3 years) interview with Wilson, where he mentioned that he's coming out with a new book and that he's significantly revised his ideas about evolution and has largely discarded the idea of kin-selection. I was both surprised and quite pleased.

As for politics and evo psych, I agree that Dawkins is moderately liberal, but pretty much even major US evo psych figure is a raving wing-nut. This fits perfectly well with the history of social darwinism/eugenics/sociobiology/evo psych in the US. I've studied that history of US social science, and it's riddled with a persistent use of social science for regressive political ends, by both scientists and social and political leaders. In much US evo psych, I see a whole lot of science in the service of ideology in everything from research design (which is often laughably bad when it is on topics related to mental gender differences or sexual preference) to how it is reported (which is admittedly not the fault of the researchers).
Date:July 30th, 2008 05:46 pm (UTC)
The point is that homosexuality, (and heterosexuality, for that matter) is physiological NOT psychological, and certainly not a "choice" anyone can physically make for themselves. The only thing people can "choose" about their true sexuality is to hide their real feelings and desires, like that sad man denying his true self to placate his family. There is not such thing as being "ex-gay." People are wired the way they are wired, and no amount of telling yourself you're not gay is going to change that.

Yes, it is sad that in this day and age an openly gay man has to feel "relieved" that it is inborn, but completely understandable. Obviously, John is NOT unhappy about being gay, his quest is to, challenge the belief systems of the those small minded people who still believe that a kindergartener who likes to wear dresses and put on make-up is "chosing" to be gay.

Unfortunately, until vocal homophobes are no longer in positions of great power, proving a physiological link and gaining "acceptance" may be the only way to stop ignorance from dictating future discriminatory laws.
[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC)
The best part of that documentary was seeing the very American Barrowman with his parents, who had emigrated to the US from Glasgow iirc and the way he suddenly talked with a thick Scottish brogue when talking to them.

...Also the closet full of Barbies.

I can see arguments either way why people chose to belief sexual preferences are inborn or mallable, depending on circumstances and background. Believing in either and having that choice be important for being happy with who you are should not be disapproved of.

[User Picture]
Date:July 30th, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
Believing in either and having that choice be important for being happy with who you are should not be disapproved of.

Well said.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2008 03:59 am (UTC)
Any distinction between the biological and psychological (and cultural, and social) is one of linguistic convenience. Huamns are part of a system, and it is very difficult to talk about an original cause in a system.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2008 06:49 am (UTC)
I just made a post in which I contrasted your post with http://contentlove.livejournal.com/1124682.html

Seems to me that genetic determination could easily be used as a justification for a pogrom against gays. Whereas focusing on choice of sexual orientation has the potential of eventual societal acceptance of all sexual orientation.
[User Picture]
Date:July 31st, 2008 07:50 am (UTC)
I liked your post and I completely agree.

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