Sunday, 20 November 2011

Playing the determinism card

Frances Ryan on the case of Peter and Hazelmary Bull, the Evangelical Cornish hoteliers who didn't want a gay couple doing the dirty on their godly beds:

When civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy were denied a double room, the harm didn't simply come from the effort of re-arranging their plans, or even the (at best) embarrassment that such a need would cause. It came from being excluded because of a biologically determined difference, from being banned from doing something because of who they are.

Oh dear. Why do so many proponents of gay rights make biological determinism a central plank of their argument? It's a dangerous route to take, whatever the current (and unsettled) state of the science. What creates homosexual orientation is a fascinating question for scientists, but it is wholly irrelevant to the matter at hand. Nor is it conducive to true tolerance or equality to imply that gay people are somehow fundamentally different from the heterosexual majority.

Homosexuality is not genetically determined in the same way as skin colour (I do not say "race", because race is an artificial construct that ignores the basic genetic homogeneity of homo sapiens). On the other hand, it's clear that sexual orientation is not freely chosen - some interplay of biology and environment is at work, over neither of which individuals have any control. How much of it is genetic, how much embryological, how much rooted in early childhood experiences: these are open questions. But not relevant ones. And even if sexuality were purely a matter of choice, that would not detract one iota from the right of gay people to live their lives and pursue their happiness as they see fit.

By stressing biological determinism, gay rights activists offer up a hostage to fortune. They make their case dependent upon a particular interpretation of the science that may turn out to be erroneous, rather than on the humanistic principles of autonomy and justice. And it's certainly not the case that sexual orientation is "biologically determined" in a strong sense. There may be a "gay gene", but in the absence of environmental factors it may never be "turned on". And there are undoubtedly practising homosexuals who do not have it. Behavioural genetics is based on tendencies, on statistical averages. At most sexuality is biologically influenced. But so what? These are questions of fact, not morality.

The modern view of homosexuality as an "orientation" - and thus as a source of "identity" - is in any case quite recent. It would have made little sense even in the era of Oscar Wilde (married, not unhappily, with children) and may seem equally strange to our descendants. In ancient Athens male homosexuality - in a particular, culturally endorsed form - was all but universal; yet while it was expected that a man would take an adolescent boy as his lover it would have caused bemusement if he did not also have a wife. Was this all the result of some genetic peculiarity of the ancient Greeks? Somehow I doubt it.

The notion of innate, or biologically determined, sexuality is at best wildly simplistic. The law restricts "sexual orientation" to the gender of the person or persons to whom one is attracted, but sexuality is far more fluid and complex than that allows. But in any case the only principle that matters is that in a free society people should be allowed to live their lives in whatever way they choose, provided it does not harm others, and they should not face oppression or discrimination if their private habits differ from some conventional norm.