Gay Marriage and the Fascination with the “Immutable Characteristic”

I have a problem with the way the debate about gay marriage pans out these days. My problem isn’t with people who say that homosexual couples should or should not have the right to marry, but rather the reasoning behind it. The discourse has devolved into a mindless back and forth about whether or not homosexuality is biological or a choice, and without realizing it, both sides have just dug themselves into a trench that they are incapable of getting out of.

Let’s start with briefly attempting to define sexuality. To begin, it is incredibly naive to pretend that something as complicated as a person’s sexuality can be defined in concrete terms. In the modern world, it is difficult to claim that anybody is completely straight, gay, or bisexual. Rather, sexuality is most likely a spectrum, and people can fall anywhere along it. To those men who identify themselves as straight, do you really think you don’t have any homosexual tendencies? Think about this, when you watch pornography, do you prefer the penis to be large or small? Why do you think you are so turned on by lesbians? Admittedly, this is all anecdotal evidence, but studies have demonstrated that even people who claim to be completely confident in their sexuality have desires they either repress or are unaware of (see Richardson.  The Dilemma of Essentiality in Homosexual Theory.  The Journal of Homosexuality.  1984). Take incest as another example of the complexity of sexuality. Most people look at incest with disgust. Yet, if you visit nearly any pornographic website, the videos featuring incestuous relationships are among the most popular. You may consider it a taboo, but if nobody actually did it or fantasized about it, would it really need to be a taboo? We wouldn’t really need to stigmatize something so much if it didn’t happen. No, people can fall anywhere on a sexual gradient, having any manner of sexual preferences or desires, and no two individuals are necessarily the same. Essentialism is not an appropriate way to look at sexuality.

That being said, let’s move on the contentious part of the discussion, the origins of sexuality. Is it biological (genetic) or is it a choice? Contrary to what you may think, there is evidence for each. Researchers have found that gene manipulation can change sexual preference in fruit flies (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,983027,00.html). The problem is that an analogous gene has not yet been found in human beings. However, the research does suggest that sexuality may have direct biological origins. Speaking logically as well, if heterosexuality is biological, it doesn’t really make sense that homosexuality wouldn’t be. Personally, I do not think that researchers will ever find a sexuality gene in human beings, because I am troubled by the idea that our identities and their components can be “programmed” into anything. I find such a claim logically unsustainable. As far as the other side is concerned, psychological conditioning has been shown to elicit and eliminate homosexual desires (see Combined Intervention for Controlling Unwanted Homosexual Behavior.  Archives of Sexual Behavior.  1974 and Coping with homosexual expression in heterosexual marriages: Five case studies.  Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy.  1978.). This and much more evidence suggests that environment impacts a person’s sexual preference to a tremendous extent, and a variety of factors can influence them toward one end of the spectrum or another. In reality, sexual orientation is likely developed through a combination of biological and environmental influences. And if we separate sexual orientation from physical sexual preference, this becomes even more apparent. It is very possible to enjoy homosexual sex and not actually be homosexual. Research demonstrates that anal activity contributes greatly to the male orgasm (see Multiple orgasm in males.  Journal of Sex Research.  1978.). It is not hard to believe that a man could enjoy homosexual anal sex without having romantic feelings toward men, or even being attracted to men. After all, many men regularly have sex with women they don’t necessarily find attractive. And remember, all of this analysis applies to women as well.

Now let’s consider the implications. This is the part I am most concerned with, and my actual question to all those with a strong opinion on the issue is: Why does it matter? I don’t really think it does, and I will get into that later. To start, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that sexual orientation is strictly biologically determined. What are the implications? It becomes an immutable characteristic, and is therefore protected under that constitution thing we all admire so much. However, this doesn’t really matter to the people who think homosexuality is morally abhorrent. A mental handicap is an immutable characteristic, but a mentally handicapped person murdering somebody is still morally wrong. Similarly, homosexuality may be an immutable characteristic, but being in a homosexual relationship can still be considered immoral. Illnesses are biological too, and I imagine that biological confirmation will give the anti-gay movement an excuse to claim that homosexuality is an illness. What else? Homosexuals can be more secure in their identities. Those who are unsure about their orientation can have the reassurance that their desires are natural. But again, biological confirmation doesn’t change the fact that homosexuals are still in the minority and will likely continue to be stigmatized. I imagine that, for the most part, sexual identity issues arise as a result of social environmental influences rather than an uncertainty about one’s biological makeup. So let’s flip the argument. Let’s consider the implications of sexuality completely being a choice. That means it isn’t an immutable characteristic, so it isn’t protected under the U.S. Constitution. Really? Religion is a choice. Don’t we protect that? And didn’t marriage originate as a religious institution? So even if it is a choice, the anti-gay marriage folks don’t really have ground to say that homosexuals should not be allowed to get married. This would also mean that people could choose their sexual orientation and effectively “cure” their homosexuality. Again, really? I imagine that people who already have homosexual desires will just “choose” to be gay. Actually, this would force them to become more confident and secure in their choice of orientation as a necessary social survival mechanism.

I asked a little bit earlier why you think the origins of sexuality matter. Now, I invite you to consider that they don’t, at least when it comes to deciding whether or not homosexual marriages should be permitted. The proper justification is not that sexuality is an immutable characteristic, but rather, that marriages are protected under freedom of religion. Consider the religious zealot claiming that homosexuality is immoral. I imagine that he/she thinks being a member of a different faith is also immoral. Although, they would never stand up and actually argue that because we have a guaranteed freedom of religion in this country. The only potential argument against this is that we still limit religious expression. This really isn’t a response, however, because we only limit religious expression in the event that it violates the rights of other people, which homosexual marriages do not. Furthermore, there really is no reason not to allow homosexuals to get married, only benefits. Speaking in strictly utilitarian terms, it’s a great thing that there are more and more couples who will not reproduce with each other. This limits the exponentially growing world population, a population that our Earth will soon not be able to handle. Not to mention, there are millions of orphans who need a home, and increasing homosexual unions will undoubtedly lead to more adoptions. There are those who will contend that a child should not be raised by two homosexual parents. Consider this, whether you believe sexuality is biological or not, you really have no reason to worry. If it is biological, then the child will end up being whatever sexuality it is programmed to be, and if it is not biological, then the child will still just choose to be whatever orientation it wants. Also, it is naive to pretend the child will exist in an isolated homosexual bubble without ever being exposed to other influences.

My judgment of a person is not affected at all by his/her sexuality. In my view, you are welcome to your sexual preferences, so long as you are not harming those around you. That being said, I have a problem with the way the gay community is portrayed in the media, and with the way it often portrays itself. The images and depictions present in gay pride parades and gay neighborhoods like Castro in San Francisco are very troubling to me. Such encouragements of sexual promiscuity are damaging. Just because you are in a homosexual relationship or community, it does not mean that ideas of commitment and family values need to disappear. I’m not one of those people who claims that sex needs to be saved for marriage, but I do think that it is much more emotionally gratifying and meaningful in the confines of a committed relationship. AIDS is much more prevalent within homosexual communities, particularly among gay males. I visited several gay clubs in San Francisco and New York, and the prevalence of STD’s (I refuse to call them STI’s :P) is not at all surprising after being exposed to such environments. I admit that such environments also exist in heterosexual communities, but minority orientation populations seem to overemphasize or encourage them. I do not think the GLBT community has done enough to promote safe sexual practices and strong values. I do not think it has done enough to help its members address relevant psychological and identity issues, and I often feel as if many take an “in your face” approach which is just as tragic and close minded as the opposition’s. Or at least, that is my perception from the research I have done.

I want to see a time when sexual orientations are no longer stigmatized, a time when couples of varying orientations and compositions are permitted to be legally married. However, I think this will require dramatic changes in the attitudes of people on both sides of the issue. This change begins with an education informed by an examination of the actual reality and a willingness to address the real tangible issues within it. I can only hope that this piece has gotten you thinking about these issues in a more incisive and complicated way that is free from some of the prejudices and biases you may have had before.

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6 responses to “Gay Marriage and the Fascination with the “Immutable Characteristic”

  1. I definitely agree with your comments about the origins of sexual attraction, in that people are on a spectrum. It’s a hard thing to pin down, and, depending on what role it plays in a person’s life, sometimes it’s not as significant. I believe it is everyone’s responsibility to choose to keep their bodies pure, but that doesn’t mean that everybody has the same experience. The distance between what you’re inclined to do and what you should do doesn’t change the “should,” and that could go for a lot of things across the board.
    I wasn’t young when I got married, so I didn’t have sex until I was in my early thirties. (I probably wouldn’t talk about that publically, as it’s private, but I mention it here.) But my point is that I wasn’t really much different that other girls in my teens and twenties, but I just couldn’t embrace their philosophy comfortably. We are not defined by our desires, but it’s pretty easy to believe we are. Gay people who try to resist doing something that they really believe is a sin–or a mistake, are often ridiculed, especially if they have any degree of success. I think you could do far worse.

    Marriage, however separated from the Holy Bible its current social mores may be, IS a religious institution, and the legal and familial structure it purports come from the Anglican, then the Catholic cannon, and from the early church. Probably the reason gay marriage causes such a dust-up among “religious” people is that never has anything (including divorce, polygamy, etc.) so departed from the doctrine from which it originates. There are specific condemnations of sexual immorality in the form of same-sex sex in both Testaments, but there’s also a pretty big emphasis on marriage as a spiritual symbol.
    Up until relatively recently we’ve understood that marriage is about the legitimization of a sexual relationship, and the protection by church and state of that union and any progeny that may result. Well, a lot of things have changed, with technology, with the embrace of casual sex, with the ever greater absorption with the needs of the individual–who needs their sexual relationship “legitimized,” by anybody? Sex is not something that needs any justification beyond the consent of the bodies involved. If you’re of this mind, and more are than aren’t, you may not see why anybody would object, or even CARE about gay marriage. I was recently in this very conversation, and I was aware that where we began to disagree (legalizing same-sex marriage) was not really where we really diverged (what marriage is).
    The state where I live does not acknowledge marriage between two people of the same sex, and I doubt it will anytime soon. If the city of Washington, DC, (not far from where I currently live) says that two women or two men are married together under the law, the bottom line is: they can still never be married in any real way, i.e. in the eyes of God, and therefore it is not just a mockery to call them “married,” but a sham as well.

    • Hi Jayne,

      Thank you for your comments. If you’ll allow me the time, I’d like to respond to some of them.

      Philosophically speaking, there is a long tradition of philosophers who argue that institutions such as religion attempt to unfairly limit our desires. They contend that our “want” ought to coincide with our “should” but we don’t let it. I think you should read Nietzsche’s works Antichrist and also So Spake Zarathustra. I think they will help give you insight into how people function on a deeper level.

      Let’s talk about your references to religion. I agree that marriage is a religious institution. Though you must remember, Christianity and its derivatives are not the only religions which exist in the world. If you recall, I mention in my post that one cannot claim that marriage is a religious institution and at the same time claim that homosexuals should not be allowed to get married. Do you believe in freedom of religion? Then you must allow each religion to define marriage in its own terms. Continually, you claim that the Bible proscribes prohibitions for homosexual sex. I agree, it does. However, if we are taking the Bible literally, then we should also keep slaves and take away women’s rights. We should use bird’s blood to cure leprosy, and use the bitter water test prescribed in Mark to test for an adulterous woman. You cannot be a selective literalist Jayne. If you choose to believe and adopt some of the Bible, then you need to justify why you chose those particular portions. Also, the Bible only prohibits homosexual sex, not a homosexual relationship, or homosexual desires. Not to mention, the main prohibition is found in Leviticus, the book where most scholars disagree about the legitimacy of the Biblical text. Are you aware that the NRV removed all mentions of the Holy Trinity? Scholars claimed that the Trinity was fabricated. How are we supposed to know which verses of the Bible are authentic and how to interpret them? I admonish you not to make points about religious scripture unless you have engaged in the proper analysis and exegesis to back up your claims.

      As far as legitimation of a sexual relationship is concerned, you are quite wrong Jayne. Marriage has rarely been about sex. In fact, historically speaking, marriage has been utilized as a political tool more than anything. Sexual relationships were conducted in all societies outside the confines of marriage in all societies during Biblical times. Scripturally speaking, yes, the confines of marriage legitimate sexual relationships in most faiths. Although, there is no such prescription in the Bible. If you will reread my post, you will note that I am not of the mind that sex does not require additional justification. In fact, I would that sex, because of its incredibly personal emotional nature, should only be conducted in the confines of a committed and loving relationship. However, I do not think this relationship needs to be marriage. It troubles me that you would attribute this “care free” outlook to most people who support legalizing same sex marriage.

      You claim that you disagreed in a previous conversation about what marriage really is. Again, I would like to bring up your own point that marriage is a religious institution. If you believe in freedom of religion, then you must allow everyone, including homosexuals, to have their own interpretation of marriage. I think marriage is a lifelong commitment to share your life entirely and exclusively with another person. I do not doubt that homosexuals experience these same emotions and desires, which are notably not about sex.

      Simply put, gay people do not want the right to marry so they can legitimately have sex. There is lots of gay sex already. Go to most gay clubs, and you can witness it. Gay people want marriage rights so they can share that commitment that everyone else has the ability to share, so they can express their love, so they can earn marriage benefits, and so they can be equals with the rest of society. You claim that they cannot be married under the eyes of God, but remember that is your interpretation and definition. Homosexuals do not want to change how you interpret marriage; you can continue to exercise that freedom. They just want the equal right and opportunity to exercise it as well.

  2. “Homosexuals do not want to change how you interpret marriage; you can continue to exercise that freedom. They just want the equal right and opportunity to exercise it as well.”

    There is a limit to that freedom when others in your society do not acknowledge your marriage, because of said interpretation. What separates marriage from other public actions is that it necessarily involves the acknowledgement of other people. It’s not permission, or even legislation, but acceptance and approval. It is acquiescence to your view, not tolerance of it as a separate view irrelevant to your own.
    I must take issue with your claim that “Homosexuals do not want to change how you interpret marriage.” I think that is precisely the goal. It is logical that it would be. Everyone is interested in the triumph is his argument, whether it is simple or complex, popular or not.
    It is sometimes interesting to read comments on different topics–although some are just painful–but ultimately I think debate really belongs to those who believe in their ability to change the world. I am not one of them.

    • Again Jayne, I would like to remind you that you live in a society accepting freedom of religion. Why is marriage any different from an interpretation of God, diet restrictions, or prayer? You claim that it is acceptance and approval, but then you are saying that you accept and approve of religious interpretations of things other than marriage. I wonder why marriage is so unique for you? Prayer, family relationships, and most aspects of morality involve interaction with and acceptance of other people. Marriage should really be no different in my opinion.

  3. I forgot to mention this before, as it really isn’t that pertinent, but there is a big gap between our understandings of the Bible. I believe that the Bible is something that is understood not just by literal reading of it, but also by revelation by God. So it’s not really a thing that I feel comfortable getting on my soap box about. I am not a preacher. I have read many explanations for why the Bible does not really condemn homosexuality, usually concerning Levitical law and the real meaning behind references in the old testament, etc. Well, Leviticus is a pretty complex book, and I come away from a lot of books in the old testament not understanding a lot of it, but I still think you’d have to perform some theological acrobatics to reach that conclusion. There’s not a lot more to say on the subject without getting into the language and the Hebrew text and so forth. But I don’t read the Bible just out of curiousity, as I would another book, I really believe it, and I think it does have a true meaning. If someone could explain to me that nowhere in the Bible does it genuinely mean to condemn homosexuality, or limit marriage to opposite sexes, what is the value of that scholarship if it originates only in the mind of a human being, and is not divinely inspired? This could apply to many subjects, probably the least of which is sexual morality. This, I feel, is getting at the heart of the matter–though probably away from the general theme, as any talk of God usually does.

    • Actually Jayne, our interpretations of the Bible are very similar. If you recall my comments, I agreed with you that the Bible condemns homosexual sex. It literally does so. I further agree that the Bible is best understood in a divine context, this is to say as a revelation of God. However, my purpose was to ask you how you decide which parts are actually the word of God and which parts you choose to act upon. Because as I mentioned, if you are claiming that the entire Bible is the word of God, then slavery ought to be permitted, even encouraged. It does not seem to me that you believe in the entire Bible, but rather that you selectively choose to believe what suits you. I do not intend to say this in an insulting way, but rather to point out an inconsistency. I understand that faith is not a reasoned, but emotional enterprise, and therefore does not always lend itself to clear logic, which is perfectly fine. However, I would like to see you take a more comprehensive approach to your faith and your text and try to examine why you think marriage is such a unique issue, and why you feel threatened by a different interpretation of it.

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