Time to speak out for sexual freedom

Earlier today I was catching up with the latest of the fascinating discussions that always go on in the comment threads at Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For blog.  In response to a topic that had come up, I began writing a comment that was far too long to appear in a comment queue.  So I cut most of it, and pasted it below. 

One commenter linked to this Newsweek story titled “The Anti-Lesbian Drug,” about a project that a scientist named Dr Maria New is currently conducting.  Another commenter, who is personally acquainted with Maria New, protested that Dr New is not at all the sort of person to try to invent an “anti-lesbian drug,” and gave reason to believe that her work has been caricatured.  Here is the comment I posted there: 

@Alex K #73: I’m perfectly willing to accept that Maria New’s research may have been distorted in the press. The standards for science coverage generally seem to be pretty low, even when no hot-button social issue is at stake. When right-wingers see a chance to twist the work of a female or minority researcher so that it sounds like something that supports their agendas, all restraint goes out the window.

Whether Dr New ever contemplated developing an “anti-lesbian drug,” the Newsweek article Calico links in #67 and the reactions it reports go to something I think about all the time. Lots of same-sexers and allies seem utterly certain that a scientific explanation of the biological basis of homosexuality will be a great blow to homophobia. Yet it seems obvious to me that nothing of the kind will happen. On the contrary. Homophobes will take that news as confirmation of their idea that homosexuality is a disease. That will be bad enough; what is vastly worse is the likelihood that they will be armed with drugs with which they can “treat” that “disease.”

Every time this comes up I have a very strong sense that I know just what’s going to happen, and it is horrible. So I’m writing a post on my own blog about it, because I don’t want choke up this thread with a long essay. Suffice it to say, I’m worried.

Here’s what I cut out:

Today, people who disapprove of homosexuality may make the same-sexers in their lives miserable by insisting that they should turn themselves into heterosexuals by some more or less magical process of willpower.  They may push them into various flagrantly bogus imitations of psychotherapy.  Or, they may resort to violence against them.  I doubt that any of these approaches has ever turned a homosexual into a heterosexual.  Each of them, however, has turned living people into corpses, whether directly from violence or indirectly in the suicides and addictions to which they sentence many of their targets.  To oppose these methods, same sexers and their allies need not discuss sexual morality.  We can simply appeal to the common decency that recoils from bullying and embraces life.   

Looking ahead, it seems to be just a matter of time before biologists and anthropologists identify some physiological processes that are associated with an increased rate of homosexuality and other processes that are associated with an increased rate of heterosexuality.  It’s hard to imagine that behaviors as widespread and persistent throughout human cultures as same-sex attraction and the construction of social identities built around that attraction could fail to have a biological basis that explains at least part of their prevalence.  When these processes are identified, the people who now support antigay bullying will see an opportunity to develop methods that will in fact achieve the goals their current strategies so consistently fail to meet.  They will demand that pharmacologists develop drugs that suppress processes associated with an increased rate of homosexuality and promote processes that are associated with an increased rate of heterosexuality.  And sooner or later, this demand will be supplied.

If society makes as much progress in coming to terms with the rights of same-sexers and the dignity of their relationships in the next 40 years as it has in the last 40 years, then perhaps by 2050 the world will be ready for an explanation of the physiological factors that contribute to sexual orientation, gender identity, and related social phenomena.  In that future, there wouldn’t be much demand for heterosexualizing drugs, and a definite stigma against anyone who promoted them. 

But that isn’t the way things are in 2010.  Public opinion surveys in the USA still consistently show that about one American in three believes that there should be criminal penalties for consenting adults who have same-sex sex in the privacy of their homes.  Billions of people around the world support violently heterosexist religious and political groups.  In the current climate, the first company to produce a viable drug to ensure prospective parents heterosexual offspring would make immense profits, probably well into the trillions of dollars.  For all that Dr Maria New and other self-respecting scientists might refuse to be part of the research that will produce that drug, they won’t be able to stop any number of others from joining in the contest, not when the prize is so fantastically lucrative. 

What happens once the heterosexualizing drugs are on the market?  If the world is like it is now, same-sex attraction will soon carry not only the stigmas already imposed on it, but also the stigma of low social class.  If the drugs are not paid for by public-sector insurance, as they likely would not be in countries where there are enough pro-gay forces to keep governments from endorsing them, then homosexuality will become a badge of poverty.  In those cases, parents who refuse on principle to use prenatal drugs to impose the standard sexuality on their prospective children can expect children who do turn out to be same-sexers to beg them for whatever treatments are available at their age.  Where the drugs are available to all, such parents can expect their own peers, and therefore their children’s peers as well, to regard them as neglectful and unfit.  Again, the children are likely to beg the parents for treatments rather than join in their disgrace. 

As heterosexualizing drugs become more effective, homosexuality will become less common.  That means that those same-sexers who remain will be less likely to find each other, less likely to come out, less likely to jolt the people who care about them into stopping for thought.  As unsatisfactory as the world of 2010 may be for millions of same-sexers, it may well seem a paradise compared with the world that is coming.  A world where homosexuality is not only seen as a disease, but as a disease of the past, is likely to look with incomprehension on the idea of sexual freedom. 

My view, therefore, is that those of us who do not want to see a world where a standardized sexuality is routinely imposed on children should move now to increase social acceptance of same-sexers and of others who do not comply with that standardized sexuality.  Time is running out.

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