Does homosexuality need an excuse?

Our (post-)modern capitalist worldviews struggle to understand humanity as anything other than individuals, and struggle to understand ambiguity and complexity too.

So we only really have two ways of understanding human traits and behaviours:

1) Biology, genes, being ‘born that way’.
2) Free choice.

A common tendency in popular opinion and discussion is to choose one of these two, and use it to explain something (crime or financial success or sporting success or morality, etc) in a reductive and simplistic way.  So we end up thinking people are either ‘genetically predisposed’ to be a certain way, or they choose it (and work hard) and it happens; the rest of society offers no encouragement or resistance, and certainly bears no responsibility.

So it’s not surprising that since Louisa Wall’s gay marriage bill was drawn from the ballot recently, the public debate about homosexuality has separated along these lines too.

The bill’s most prominent opponent, Colin Craig, declared that homosexuality is a choice, and everyone from Wall to Michael Laws to Bomber Bradbury to Labour backbencher Damien O’Connor’s daughter responded, often rather defensively, that “People are born the way they are born” (Wall) and “They cannot change this” (O’Connor).

(The other possible individualist response is that of John Key, who’s exercising his liberal right not to concern himself with the whys and wherefores of homosexuality, and to let people do what they want so long as his relationships with Bronagh and Moonbeam aren’t affected).

The reality, of course, is that sexual and gender identity and practice are far more complicated than either being a slave to some mysterious ‘gay gene’ or waking up one day and ‘deciding to be gay’ (or straight for that matter).

While there may be some biological aspects and some choice aspects to sexuality, I’m inclined to put the most emphasis on what is most neglected; social factors.  Like all human traits or behaviours, our sexuality is to a large extent socially constructed … how we live our gender/sexuality develops in complex and ambiguous ways as we interact with people/structures/definitions/values/practices in the time and place where we live.  The extent of this is obviously up for debate, and there’s plenty of research and theory debating it, but I don’t see why the gender(s) we’re attracted to wouldn’t be part of this process too. (sorry about the google links, they’re meant to communicate that I should provide proper research for this stuff, but this is a blog and I’m lazy so you can do your own research)

Funnily enough, Colin Craig has come the closest to an understanding of the social construction of sexuality with some of his other suggestions, but he chooses the worst and crudest possible example of social influence, by suggesting that “child abuse can turn a person gay”.

Anyway.  What interests me most about this public debate is not what the two sides disagree on, but what they implicitly agree on. Both ‘choice’ and ‘birth’ explanations imply that homosexuality is not a good thing.

One side says you choose to be gay, so you should choose otherwise; the other side says you don’t choose to be gay, so you can’t choose otherwise. One side says there’s no genetic excuse for homosexuality, so we don’t have to tolerate it. The other side says there is a genetic excuse, so we have to tolerate it.

What I want to ask is: why is homosexuality something that needs an excuse; something that is either tolerated or not tolerated?

Why can’t it just be something that is?

Why does being the same gender as your romantic/sexual partner such a bad thing that we should either encourage people to ‘choose not to be that way’ or insist that they ‘can’t help it’?

Ethnicity and race are also mostly social constructs, but we don’t make people try to prove that their ethnicity is biological and ‘something they can’t change’ before we allow them to live their ethnic identity, or assume that if they can assimilate themselves into the dominant ethnicity, they should.

The supposedly pro-homosexual side of the debate should abandon the implicit homophobia of the way they are arguing, because their stance of jumping down the throats of anyone who suggests you aren’t ‘born gay’ is communicating that unless sexuality is primordial and pre-determined from birth, the Colin Craigs of the world are right.

I don’t really care if there’s a “gay gene” or not, I don’t even care if people do “choose” to be gay. Either way or (neither way), it would take a separate argument to establish what this public debate implicitly presumes… that homosexuality is bad. And I’ve never heard any good arguments explaining why homosexual relationships are inherently or necessarily bad relationships.

I support loving, equal, strong, healthy, nurturing, free, committed, honest, supportive, outward-focussed relationships; married or unmarried, with children or without.  And I support all controversial (at the time) legal changes that will make those healthy relationships more available to everyone… whether it’s banning polygamy or child marriage, banning sati (burning the wife on the husband’s funeral pire) in India in 1829, allowing inter-racial marriage in the US in 1967, or allowing gay marriage in New Zealand in 2012.


  1. Gates

    I agree with everything here except your opinion that banning polygamy helps to make loving, nurturing relationship more availible. Its seems that you are basing that on a very small sample of polygamous/polyamorous relationships, perhaps from variants of the LDS.
    But there are soo many of these relationships that are just as caring and loving as any other. So I think your statement is unfair. There is no comparison between polygamy/polyamory and child marriage and the wife burning in India. Those things are based on control of one partner of group over the other. Group relationships are not always based on a man having many wives in order to satisfy his need for power and sustenance of grandiose self. The bad may be over represented to the public thus your statement could be confirmation bias. But its not fair.


  2. calebmorgan

    Fair points Gates, and well put.

    I was more talking about hundreds of years ago when banning polygamy made for more equality because the predominant expression of polygamy at the time was the patriarchal form of one man and a repertoire of wives, or as you put it “a man having many wives in order to satisfy his need for power and sustenance of grandiose self”. The nuclear family was an improvement on that, although of course the nuclear family has a whole plethora of problems of its own, and can hardly pretend to be innocent of patriarchy and exploitation.

    Obviously no one family form can guarantee a healthy (or unhealthy?) relationship, and while some people will say that the nuclear family is inherently patriarchal and corrupt, I hope to live out a healthier more equal form of it … So perhaps I shouldn’t write off polygamy so easily if some people want to try and live out a healthy form of it? You definitely have a point that it’s not fair to lump all group relationships together with the old patriarchal model. There’s definitely more of a case now to allow (healthy expressions of) polyamory.

    Personally I think one person is more than enough for me, but I wouldn’t try to ban other people from getting into polyamory if they want to… it’s going to be them who are most affected by it if it goes wrong after all, not me. I was talking to someone once who said it had kind of backfired when both her girlfriends broke up with her on the same day, but I’ve never known anyone who’s made a serious attempt at it.


  3. J-L

    Hi Caleb
    We should sit down and talk about this one day.
    I’m struggling to follow your reasoning here. I wholeheartedly agree with you that sexuality is caused by an almost inexhaustible number of factors. The most dominant factor being, I agree, that sexuality is a social construct. In other words, sexuality is permissible insofar as it is normalised by society.
    Having said that, you then discuss some standards to check the social construct argument: “I support loving, equal, strong, healthy, nurturing, free, committed, honest, supportive, outward-focussed relationships; married or unmarried, with children or without.” This sentence is then built on in your later comments – you clearly condemn sexualities which you perceive oppress others, and celebrate sexualities which don’t.
    I’m curious why you think sexuality can “just be”/doesn’t need an excuse, but then you obviously do have a way of measuring the legitimacy of a sexuality. Or, to put it another way, you arrive at a conclusion that there sexuality doesn’t need a reason, but then you give reasons why some sexualities are ok and others are not.
    Is that a fair analysis of your blog post?


  4. calebmorgan

    Yeah, that’s a fair paraphrase of my position, and it illustrates that observing social construction doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing ethical relativism.

    “Just is” was an unfortunate choice of words by me, I don’t mean that it “just is” and nothing can be said positively or negatively about it, nor do I mean that it doesn’t need a reason (though heterosexuals’ sexual quirks don’t seem to demand as much discussion of their reasons). I mean that ethical opinions on homosexuality don’t flow directly from analysing the reasons for it. Regardless of the reason(s), further information and arguments are necessary to establish whether homosexuality(/ies) is good or bad. So I think there’s a problem with a debate on causes that has already implicitly presumed that it’s not really a good thing (I don’t think most of the “born that way” camp would intend that of course, but they do imply this by accepting the terms of the other side, and its presumption that if it can possibly be changed/”cured”, it should be).

    Saying near the end of the blog that I don’t care if it’s a genetic thing or a chosen thing (or neither or both) wasn’t quite accurate either, well, it was hyperbole. I am interested in that, but I’m much more interested in what healthy sexuality/relationships look like, what principles we can/should use to measure this, and how we can influence sexuality/relationships for the better. Obviously an understanding of causes forms part of that – analysing what has caused current sexuality can help us try to ’cause’ it in the direction we want to cause it in. But the current debate on causes with its reductive understanding of biology and choice seems to be sidestepping the ethical argument about what healthy sexuality/relationships are and how we could encourage and grow them. But it’s not actually bypassing the ethical argument, it’s just presuming a certain unexamined, unempowering and probably inaccurate answer to it: that either sexuality can’t be changed, or it can be easily changed and should be changed by all homosexuals becoming heterosexuals.

    I do condemn sexualities which oppress others, and celebrate (some) sexualities that don’t. And I think all of them are (largely) socially constructed, but insofar as we control social construction I think that we should be encouraging some and discouraging others (and perhaps tolerating others… like I said to the last commenter I would probably be willing to give people the freedom to experiment with healthy forms of polyamory, but after thinking about it, I don’t think I would go so far as encouraging or celebrating it, let alone participating in it).
    I’d rather do that encouraging/discouraging/tolerating on the basis of Christian/human virtues of love, justice, freedom (etc), rather than on the basis of somewhat arbitrary rules with what seem to me to be rather dubious biblical foundations.

    Also, I think the social construction of sexuality is probably more complicated than “sexuality is permissible insofar as it is normalised by society”, although that’s part of it. “Abnormal” sexualities are normal too, and the same society can produce certain forms of sexuality while simultaneously producing moral opposition to it (the same would go for most things too, eg. the structure of capitalist society produces property crime while also producing revulsion at thieves).


  5. Pingback: Colin Craig does the research, proves self wrong « Cut Your Hair

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