‘From picket line to picket fence’, a quote from the back cover of Julie Bindel’s new book Straight Expectations, is a good indication of the content, style and tone of the book, in which she laments the decline of the gay liberation movement, with all its creative political resistance, in favour of assimilation and complacency. In this book she takes issue with gay marriage, the commercialisation of gay life-styles, and the lack of political solidarity amongst more privileged gays in the UK (those who have experienced a sea-change in attitudes towards homosexuality), with gays and lesbians internationally who face ongoing oppression and persecution. We here publish two extracts from the most controversial chapter in her book, Is It Something in the Genes?, in which she argues that gays and lesbians are ‘not born that way’, an argument which will be welcomed by most lesbian feminists, and readers of T&S, for whom the social construction of sexuality has long been a central plank of our politics (see the archive section for numerous articles on this subject, for example: Stevi Jackson Taking Liberties, or Deborah Cameron’s Old Het? ).
Nature or nurture?
The ‘nature versus nurture’ question has been bothering scientists, religious fundamentalists, parents and gay people themselves for over 100 years, with the first scientific study into the issue being published by the experimental psychologist Evelyn Hooker in 1956, and it was indeed her pioneering work that helped to establish the fact that homosexuality is not a mental disorder.
It is still a hotly debated subject. In July 2007 the New Statesman ran two articles on the topic in its ‘Gay Special’. One was by a gay man who had converted himself back to heterosexuality, and the other by a gay man who had spent two decades trying and failing to do the same, both with the ‘help’ of the anti-gay Christian conversion movement. The former argued strongly that being gay is a choice, the latter equally strongly that he was ‘born that way’.
For anyone vaguely liberal, it is persuasive to think that gay people are ‘born that way’, appealing to basic principles of tolerance, while reassuring the majority that support for minority rights will not impinge on their own prerogatives – that is, the need and desire to uphold the status quo. It reassures people more won’t choose to jump ship from traditional society. It is also about believing that gay people cannot help the way we are and therefore should not be on the receiving end of prejudice.
The positive side of the nature, or essentialist, argument is it allows some gay people surviving in a hostile environment not to have to feel responsible for their actions and desires; it can mean that heterosexuals having difficulty coming to terms with a loved one or colleague who is gay can rest assured that it is not catching; and for those who make the laws, policies and rules, thinking that ‘gayness’ is an inherent condition means that any sanctions against it are pointless.
The flip side of this is that those young men and women growing up in a hostile environment who do not wish to pursue a straight life and feel dissatisfied with their lot are being fed the line that some people are born gay and some straight, and that biology is most certainly destiny when it comes to sexual orientation. The nature line also gives the impression to bigots and sceptics that no one would actually choose such a lifestyle, and that everyone who is gay just can’t help it, otherwise they would be straight.
Obviously, the argument that being lesbian or gay is a choice gives the bigots an opportunity to argue that we should be made to live a straight life. After all, goes the logic, if one can choose to be gay, then one can choose to be heterosexual. However, it’s unlikely that any bigots will be reassured by the fact that some of us insist we are happily and proudly choosing being gay or lesbian over heterosexuality, even if it does mean more potential candidates for conversion therapy for them. Anyway, since when did a proud liberation movement allow its enemies to define the terms of the debate?
I have always believed that pushing nature over nurture plays straight into the hands of anti-gay bigots. By arguing that we are born this way, gay men and lesbians do not represent a challenge to the status quo. A gay gene is, by implication, something that is not really supposed to be present, and so to adopt this theory means that we are accepting that heterosexuality and straight folk are normal and we are outside of that, looking in.
When I argue that for me, being a lesbian is a positive choice rather than something imposed upon me by a quirk of nature, I am roundly criticised and viewed with suspicion. I have been accused of being a fake lesbian, a cold fish and of appropriating the term ‘lesbian’ to further my man-hating, anti-heterosexual agenda.
I made a conscious and happy choice to be a lesbian and reckon that when we have less anti-gay bigotry, more people will be free to do so. But when I use the word ‘choice’, I don’t mean in the same manner that you choose your cereal. Rather, I am suggesting that if we were not under such extreme pressure to be straight, and if we did not fear the inevitable prejudice and bigotry, we might be more open to falling for someone of the same sex.
In November 2012 I gave a speech on this very topic at the Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead, Newcastle, which was later broadcast on Radio 3. It was entitled ‘Not Born That Way’, and I argued that sexuality was a choice and not inherent, and that much of the science claiming to have discovered a gay gene was weak and had proved nothing. Following my speech, which was in front of a live audience, several heterosexual women and men approached me and told me that I had significantly challenged their beliefs – all had, prior to the event, assumed that sexuality was innate and therefore fixed and static. They all said that my arguments made sense to them, and that they had only ever heard anti- gay bigots suggest that gay people ‘choose’ their sexuality.
I abhor the bigoted view that promotes the notion of a cure for being lesbian or gay. My position is that if something is not a sickness or disease, there is no need to find a cure. I came away from the event feeling pleased that I had opened up some people’s minds to the possibility that being lesbian is such a positive alternative to heterosexuality it is good enough for some of us to choose it.
Yet clearly not everyone thinks this way. Why has so much time and effort been invested in discovering a cause for being gay or lesbian? So parents can decide whether to abort? Or is it because the majority of people cannot get to grips with the fact that bigotry and prejudice are the problems that need solving, and we do not need a cure. All the comments us lezzers have endured over the years – such as ‘you don’t you know what you’re missing’ – come from the mistaken belief that batting for the other side is a disadvantage. Actually, a lot of us know precisely what we are missing. That is the point.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
How beliefs about sexuality have changed over time
Despite the domination of the ‘born that way’ theory these days, it is interesting to note that it is a relatively recent phenomenon and has only become prevalent in the last couple of decades. In her 1999 book Generations of Women Choosing to Become Lesbian: Questioning the Essentialist Link, Australian academic Lorene Gottschalk interviewed three different generations of lesbians on whether or not they believed in biology. Gottschalk found that those who became lesbians in the 1970s believed they chose their sexuality, but those who became lesbians in the 1990s thought it was biology. More evidence that what we’re talking about is a set of fashionable ideas, rather than something that has a scientific basis.
Certainly, starting in the 1950s to the 1960s and 1970s, social constructionism was fashionable among scientists and academics generally. In 1968, for example, British sociologist Mary McIntosh wrote a wonderful piece entitled ‘The Homosexual Role’, which argued that the idea of the homosexual was constructed to keep the rest of the hetero-patriarchy safe: as long as they separated it out and said it was biological, everybody else was OK.
It seems, therefore, that gay sociologists were questioning the notion of innate sexuality as far back as the 1960s and 1970s. And before this time it was fashionable to believe that turning out lesbian or gay was all down to the parents: for men, an emotionally distant father or stifling mother; for women, an under-emotional mother and father, who took her to the pub often due to the absence of a son.
But by the 1980s this began to change and the idea of the gay gene (or, as anti-gays refer to it, ‘gay germ’ – homosexuality transmitted as some sort of infection) was born. Work began in earnest the following decade to try to track down the elusive gene. Such research was often perceived as pro-gay because it presented homosexuality as something that could not be freely chosen. However, biological accounts continued to describe gays and lesbians as somehow ill, deficient or imbalanced, and to suggest that heterosexuality was the norm.
The GLF, as evidenced in its 1971 manifesto, spurned the idea of a gay gene. But today we have an almost 180-degree shift in thinking. I asked Peter Tatchell, who was a member of the GLF, his views on the debate.
‘My argument at the time [of the GLF] was: “Let’s not play fast and loose with the truth. Let’s stick to the principle that the right to be different is a fundamental human right. We don’t have to be the same to get equal respect; we shouldn’t have to be the same to get equal respect and equal rights.” In this period there was very little evidence that gave any biological credibility to the coordination of homosexuality. A much more plausible explanation was the Freudian one that everyone is born with bisexual potential and that homosexuality is part of the natural spectrum of human sexuality. My view at the time was: “What causes homosexuality or heterosexuality is irrelevant; we are human beings and we deserve human rights.”’
In recent years, however, Tatchell’s views have shifted towards believing in a genetic or biological basis of sexual orientation, as he argues that the science is now more advanced. He believes that there is a ‘genetic component to sexual orientation’ and that there is ‘some significant influence from hormones in the womb’. He continues: ‘I say that as someone in the past who in the absence of this research was very sceptical about the biological factors having anything other than a small marginal influence, but I think over time the evidence has grown. However, I don’t believe it is the whole story, only part of it.’ Indeed, he retains an essential clarity as to the reason why so many people wish to argue in favour of the ‘innate’ argument: ‘I think there was really this kind of desperate sense to make whatever appeal might work. It was all about sympathy and appealing to people’s conscience regardless of the facts or the truth.’
The idea of being born gay has always seemed bonkers to me. I don’t know about you but I was born a baby, not a lesbian. At least, I don’t remember fancying the midwife. But perhaps my holding such strong and contrary views on this topic is partly because of the fact that I was exposed, while still in my teens, to the radical but commonsense position of some feminists on sexual preference – ie that it, like gender, is a social construction.
These feminists, living in the West Yorkshire city of Leeds, subscribed to the theory of political lesbianism that came from the early US feminists such as Jill Johnson and Adrienne Rich. In 1981 small group of them had written the infamous booklet Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism. It reads: ‘All feminists can and should be lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.’
Appealing to their heterosexual sisters to get rid of men ‘from your beds and your heads’, the authors of Love Your Enemy? called for all feminists to embrace lesbianism. ‘We think serious feminists have no choice but to abandon heterosexuality,’ the manifesto reads. ‘Only in the system of oppression that is male supremacy does the oppressor actually invade and colonise the interior of the body of the oppressed.’
The message of Love Your Enemy? immediately provoked a strong and often negative reaction. While some radical feminists agreed with the group’s arguments, many went wild at being told they were ‘counter-revolutionaries’, undermining the fight for women’s liberation by sleeping with men.
The publication of Love Your Enemy? was one of the first times that the notion of sexuality as a choice had been publicly raised in the UK women’s movement. Many feminists considered sexuality purely a matter of personal desire, and the idea that lesbianism could be a political decision was perceived as ‘cold-blooded’. Heterosexual women tended to believe that one did not choose sexual orientation or feelings, but was overcome by them.
I learned from the feminists that, to them, lesbianism was a choice that women could make, not a condition we are born with. ‘All women can be lesbians’ was the mantra. I loved the sense that I had chosen my sexuality. Rather than being ashamed or apologetic about it, as many women were, I could be proud and see it as a privilege.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Julie Bindel, Straight Expectations: What Does it Mean to be Gay Today? (Guardian Books, London, 2014)
For some current commentary on the book, see:
Review by Rosa Bennathan in Bad Housekeeping Magazine
Review by Alex Hopkins in The Huffington Post
Interview with Julie Bindel by Patrick Strudwick in The Independent: