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Gay Brains, Gay Gene, Gay Rights: The Double-Edged Sword of Essentialism

As the semester drew to an end, and Kristina Gupta and I
closed out our course on Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics, I have been
thinking a lot about the science of sexual identity. Participants in our class set out to consider the ethics of separating human beings into distinct kinds and
conducting neuroscientific research into those separations. Along the way, we
all thought about what the boundaries of sexuality and gender were, how they
are culturally bound, how desire is measured (and mismeasured), both in the
contemporary era and throughout history. We considered the use of these
differences to create legislation and the effects of both medicalization and
pathologization for members of sexual minorities.

I’m sure this is exactly what happens.

(Original image from

On the last day of class, we asked our students to take into
consideration all the discussions we had had over the course of the semester
and reflect on their own opinions about the scientific study of sexuality. One
student answered almost immediately.[1] Of
course it is appropriate for science to study sexuality, said the first student. Science is
always appropriate. It is always better to know than not to know. There were
nods. Yes – we were all solidly on board with the acquisition of knowledge. But
then a second student responded. This is an area where we have to be careful. Any advance in the study of sexuality could be taken as evidence of
an essential difference between gay and straight people. The second student could think of no
positive use for such knowledge, given the prejudice towards gay people in much
of the world.  Science, the student concluded,
should not be used to make the lives of these people worse.

These two viewpoints get at a question I am often asked (this is what happens when you introduce yourself as a sexuality scholar at parties) – Do I think gay people are born that way? (I generally answer that I don’t think it matters, for reasons I hope are about
to become clear.)

To explain, I will go back a little bit to 1994, when legal scholar Janet Halley published an article in
the Stanford Law review called “Sexual Orientation and the Politics of Biology:
a Critique of the Argument from Immutability.”[2]
The article is largely a critique of a certain legal strategy in which the biological basis of homosexuality is used to argue
for making gay men and lesbian a suspect class under the Equal Protection
Clause of the constitution. I won’t go into the details of that here, both
because it isn’t really the main reason I bring up Halley’s argument and
because this strategy is less relevant than it once was,[3]
except to say that Halley argues for abandoning the use of biological arguments
as a premise for gay and lesbian rights.

Halley points out that
the argument from immutability is not, in and of itself, necessarily pro-gay.
That is, there is no correlation between ethical beliefs about homosexuality
and the supposed “naturalness” of that sexuality. Regardless of whether finding a gay gene would help secure
equal marriage rights,[4]
finding a gay gene won’t even necessarily convince people that being gay is
morally acceptable.

Halley’s article contains a clear and concise map of what she sees as four opposing positions in the argument for gay and lesbian rights. She separates theories of sexuality into two basic types: essentialist arguments, which include any theory that sexuality is fixed, whether it be material or pathological, and constructivist ones, in which sexuality is fluid. Either argument can be used in a pro-gay or an anti-gay way, leaving us with the four opposing positions: : pro-gay essentialism, pro-gay constructivism, anti-gay essentialism, and anti-gay constructivism. She argues that legal theorists should seek out the
support of pro-gay constructivist activists, because this, in the end, is the
model that would achieve the widest social change.

Born This Way!
Sexual Freedom!

Looking at Halley’s four categories, we can see that some of
them are pretty straightforward, while others are a bit more complicated. One
particular brilliant part of Halley’s system is how quickly these categories
can unfold. For example, if we consider the idea of anti-gay constructivism, it
allows us to see how the arguments that homosexuality is a choice or a
lifestyle are related to arguments for how legalizing
same-sex marriage undermines different-sex marriage. That is, the mutability of
heterosexuality is implicit in any argument that “promoting the gay lifestyle”
is eroding family values because this argument assumes that straight people could choose to become gay.

However, these categories are not absolute, nor do they map perfectly onto our current understanding of sexuality. For Halley, seeing homosexuality as a psychological perversion is a form of anti-gay essentialism because it assumes gayness can be cured under treatment by a doctor. This always makes sense to me initially, but then I think, wait, if sexuality can be changed by talk therapy, is it an essential material truth? What if it requires medication? Shock therapy? Exorcism? The line here is much harder to see, which, of course, belies the true aim of this article: that actual human sexual behavior is too complex to fit into discreet categories.

Anti-gay Essentialism…?

Now- what does this have to do with the science of
sexuality? It comes down to this: our student expressed a concern about
doing research in an area of current social and moral debate where it was possible scientific knowledge could be used in a way the researchers had not intended.
If neuroscientific research were to uncover a biological basis for sexuality,
or a correlation between a certain brain region and certain sexual thoughts,
there is no question that there would be some people who would see this as an
opportunity to control homosexual behavior.

Yet, at the same time, greater understanding of human sexual
behavior does lead to wider acceptance. Take that anti-gay therapy I just mentioned.
There has been a recent spate of news articles about the widespread failure of
what was once promoted as a cure for homosexuality.[5]
There is a feeling of triumph of nature (whatever that may mean to each of us)
over nurture, that is, it seems that many assume the reason psychological
treatments and behavioral modification therapies do not work is because gayness
is innate, and innate in a way that cannot be reached psychologically. This is a monumental triumph for many, many men and women who
suffered in silence in these treatment programs, who internalized their
inability to change and viewed it as their own personal failure. To people in
these situations, scientific proof of innate sexual difference would come as a

Pro-Gay Essentialism

And this is the double-edged sword of biological determinism.
On the one hand, proof that gay people are born this way could put the final
nail in the coffin of the Exodus movement, and could, perhaps, begin to build
the foundation for a new form of sexual ethics. On the other hand, material
difference in sexuality could lead to a whole new form of gay cures and
treatments. For some, this treatment may come as a different kind of reprieve.
Others might not be given a choice.

In the end, the question “Are gay people born that way?” matters because whether or not someone is gay matters, and why it matters has more to do with people’s ethical beliefs about sexual practice than with any concept of the natural. What dictates the acceptability of material proof of sexuality is the acceptability of sexuality, not the form of material proof. Further, although these discussions tend to break down into deciding the difference between “gay” and “straight,” the fact of the matter is that there is a staggering array of diversity in sexual practice and sexual identity. It is not as simple as deciding
what we should or should not do about the “gay gene” or the “gay brain:”[6]
not only because of the complexities of genes, brains and gayness, but also
because it is impossible to imagine a one-size-fits all ethics for the study of
sexuality. As we close out another school year, I imagine, or at least I hope, the participants in our class this semester go out into the world with a greater appreciation for this complexity. I wish you all enjoyable and restful summers!

Want to cite this post?

Cipolla, C. (2012). Gay Brains, Gay Gene, Gay Rights: The Double-Edged Sword of Essentialism. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
, from

[1] I paraphrase here because my memory is not perfect and my note-taking skills leave something to be desired. I believe I have gotten
the spirit of their comments right if not the exact form.
[2] Janet E. Halley, “Sexual Orientation and the Politics
of Biology: A Critique of the Argument from Immutability,” Stanford Law Review 46, no. 3 (1994).
[3] Lawrence v. Texas; Evan Gerstmann, The
Constitutional Underclass : Gays, Lesbians, and the Failure of Class-Based
Equal Protection
(Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 1999).
[4] Spoiler
alert: It probably wouldn’t, see note 3.
[5] See Gabriel Arana’s
of his own experience in ex-gay therapy, and Robert
L. Spizter apologizing
for backing the idea.
[6] Both of
which seemed much more plausible in 1994, when Halley’s article was published.


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