Tuesday, May 10, 2005

A different kind of choice

According to a new study, there is evidence that sexual orientation, at least in men, may be more biological than learned behavior.

The Swedish researchers divided 36 subjects into three groups - heterosexual men, heterosexual women and homosexual men. They studied the brain response to sniffing the chemicals, using PET scans. All the subjects were healthy, unmedicated, right-handed and HIV-negative.

When they smelled odors like cedar or lavender, all of the subjects' brains reacted only in the olfactory region that handles smells. But when confronted by a chemical from testosterone, the male hormone, portions of the brains active in sexual activity were activated in straight women and in gay men, but not in straight men, the researchers found.

The response in gay men and straight women was concentrated in the hypothalamus with a maximum in the preoptic area that is active in hormonal and sensory responses necessary for sexual behavior, the researchers said.

And when estrogen, the female hormone was used, there was only a response in the olfactory portion of the brains of straight women. Homosexual men had their primary response also in the olfactory area, with a very small reaction in the hypothalamus, while heterosexual men responded strongly in the reproductive region of the brain.

Fascinating results, but it likely will have little to no impact on the current debate about same-sex relationships. When all is said and done, the fact that sexual orientation may be biological rather than learned behavior doesn't answer the question of whether or not same-sex relationships are sinful. Straight men's biology hard-wires them to be attracted to many different women. This doesn't make acting on this attraction by committing adultery any less a sin. (Although to be fair, a strict Old Testament interpretation of adultery only cares whether or not the woman is married; men could have as many partners as they want without being adulterous, so long as none of their partners were married to another man. An example of how definitions of sin have changed over time, but then that's a different discussion.)

Hopefully, however, this will get groups like Exodus International to recognize that sexual orientation can't be changed through therapy. Or, since that's probably an overly optimistic wish, that at least it will bring recognition that groups like this are just plain wrong and they will lose some of their power to ruin people’s lives.

On the other hand, studies about the biology of sexual orientation could lead to a search for medical "cures," trading one form of therapy for another. I imagine the reaction to this from the LGBT community would be similar to that of the deaf community to cochlear implants: they'll be appalled. From an outside perspective that views deafness as a disability and nothing more, that position is very difficult to comprehend. Why wouldn't any deaf person want to be able to hear? But there is so much involved with being deaf that goes far beyond the biological function of hearing.

Similarly, there is more to sexual orientation than the biological function of attraction and the issue is far more complicated than whether or not it's a "disability" that needs to be cured. I hope that both sides will tread lightly with this new information. Ultimately, hearing people can't decide for deaf people whether it would be better to hear or not, and neither can straight people decide for gays and lesbians whether or not it would be better to be straight. Every individual has to make that decision for him or herself, should science get to the point that that would be possible.

This is true for other disabilities as well, particularly where people are born "disabled." A former student of mine was born blind. He once told me that even if they came up with a way to cure his blindness, he wouldn't accept the cure. He'd lived his whole life, a very full and active life, as a blind man. To accept a "cure" would be to change his very identity. He would have to relearn everything just so he could fit an outsider's definition of "normal" when he already was living the life he wanted. He would no more choose that for his life than I would choose to lose my eyesight, and why should he? More importantly, would we want to be in a position of forcing that choice on him for "his own good" as if he couldn't decide his own good for himself?

And that doesn't even get into whether or not a potential medical "cure" for same-sex attraction would work for everyone or not. Cochlear implants certainly don't work for all forms of deafness.

All of this, however, is really a tangent to the debate about civil rights. Even if we were to suppose that all deaf people could be cured by cochlear implants but some chose not to be, would that make it okay for society to legally discriminate against the deaf? If my former student could be cured but chose not to be, should he be denied rights under the American's with Disabilites Act because he chose to stay blind? Is choice the deciding factor on whether or not something is acceptable? We choose our religion, for example, but does that make it okay to discriminate on the basis of religion? If the answer to these questions is "no," then the answer should also be "no" for discrimination against GLBT people. Even if the study proved the opposite, that sexual orientation was learned behavior and a choice, that doesn't make it okay to decide for others that their choice of a life partner is unacceptable. I chose my husband and the law supports that choice by making him my next of kin and giving us each rights and obligations toward each other. My gay friends choose their partners and should have the same rights and obligations in regard to their partners as I do. Nature, nurture, sin, choice, none of that matters in the civil issues about sexual orientation. The only thing that does is that none of us has the right to dictate these kind of life decisions to another. It's presumptuous and un-Christlike. Jesus said "Go and sin no more," not "force your view of sin onto others through the legal system."


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