Monday, June 1, 2009

On Gayness

I was recently asked to engage a certain question...a question that I would "like" because of my enjoyment of so-called "wishy washy, non-quantitative (hence [my] hatred for statistics and deficiency in arguing an opponents' points directly, concisely and effectively), "let me tell you about my feelings" pop psychology kinds of topics". [Wow] Of course, such an assessment positioning the quantitative as more solid and less wishy-washy is comical to me since the quantitative still relies on the messiness of "words" or "language" to makes its just currently has a privileged place in most dominant discourses and perhaps suffers from some delusions about its can read the philosophy of science and other historical investigations of science as a discourse for more on this.

But, besides that, I would like to say two more things before I move to my wishy-washy answer...1) I don't hate statistics, I just don't use them. I find other means of rhetorical arguments more enjoyable and thus engage them. 2) In order to argue an opponents points I have to 1) have a legitimate argument to engage in and 2) be able to engage such a debate on my terms, not simply on my opponents terms which would obviously mess up notions of effectiveness, conciseness, and directness since we would both have different criteria by which to judge arguments...BUT

The question I was asked to speak to, in part because of my intelligence I imagine is as follows...

Is sexual orientation just what a person is attracted to ? Or, does it shape our personalities from a biological standpoint, considering that fMRI scans show that the gay male and hetero male brains are different.

An interesting question as it positions sexuality as something that can seemingly 1) be understood completely by the sciences and 2) relies on two discourses from my read - that of psychology (individual attraction) and biology (physical makeup). Since I am neither a psychologist nor a biologist, I do not engage this question from either perspective, although note that these two discourses have a rather immense power in how sexuality is understood/conceptualized in modernity.

Rather, what I find more fascinating is the very construction of sexuality historically. How it came to be that "gay" and "straight" men (and women) existed as such. When did it become possible to identify as a "gay" man, to "be" gay rather than partake in acts with bodies with similar "equipment". One can look at various histories of sexuality for this contested terrain - my go to would be that of Michel Foucault. My interests would also extend into thinking about how different discourses, including the sciences, have at times pathologized the "non-heterosexual" body while simultaneously such "non-hetero" bodies have resisted such pathologization (i.e. fighting the APA to have homosexuality removed from the DSM) but also relied on the sciences to "claim" legitimacy in the "rights" based movement (i.e. if it is genetic, then it is "natural" and we deserve to be human). One can look at the history of the modern "gay" movement for different examples of this, along with the work of various Queer Theorists (i.e. Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, David Halperin) for engagements with discourses and sexuality.

Yet, let me ponder for a second on the question asked of me...the question uses the fMRI as evidence that there is a difference between the "gay" and "straight" male. My question would be...what is the exact evidence and who was included in the sample? Since I don't have access to the actual statistics, I can't fully respond to the statistical analysis done but will ask some broad questions. Did the evidence divide neatly into two camps (all gay men's brains were the same and all straight men's were the same) or is there some overlap whereby it is not so neatly divided (I imagine it is the latter)? As for the sample, were these men self-identified as "straight" and "gay"? What about straight men who have sex with men, but are not gay? What about gay men who don't have sex with men? What about bisexual men? Or men who never come out as gay? Does this research require participants to "identify" in only the way the researchers conceptualize sexual orientation? If so, what does it mean to force someone to "identify" as something they may not actually identify as outside of the research space?

Finally, I will ask how do we know that the differences found in the fMRI are due to sexual orientation? If we, as humans, are looking at the images of brains, we makes sense of those images by interpreting them with the language we have access to at the time of looking. So, setting the research up to look at sexual orientation occludes other possible interpretations since we enter the research with sexual orientation as our "frame".

So, sexuality is could be caused by any number of things, it is never "just" anything. This (sexuality's cause), in my opinion does not matter. An individual who is "gay" does not need to justify their "life" using science (nature) or upbringing (nurture) to be seen as a legitimate human being that deserves rights. Nor should an individual be limited or violated should he/she/ze choose to imagine a life that is not defined by the discourses of sexuality currently dominant in contemporary Western thought (i.e. gay/straight binary). Doing so, making such things possible, is more complicated though as it requires critical resistance to the ways in which such issues are "framed" for us by various discourses (science, religion, psychology, law, education) and a movement away from identity based politics to a politics based on coalition/alliance.

1 comment:

The Goldfish said...

Another issue is that, as with looking at the difference in male and female brains (again, a matter of "typical" characteristics rather than anything universal), is that you're generally looking at adult brains. And we know that boys and girls have often had very different formative experiences, and these experiences will have contributed to any differences in brain architecture. In adult brains, it is very difficult to guess which are differences might be about biological sex and which are about the experience of growing up with a particular gender.

So if gayness is congenital - either genetic or something to do with the womb environment - then one has to ask whether or not there are common experiences in the development of gay boys which are distinct from those of straight boys. Experiences that have nothing to do with biology - even experiences that are all to do with the homophobic world in which we live - could actually be making a difference to the shape and activity of our brains.