This Pride month, there is much to celebrate. State after state is falling in line for marriage equality, macho-macho football stars are coming out, Orange is the New Black is must-see TV for queers and straights alike, and President Obama is (finally) ready to sign an executive order banning discrimination against LBGT folks in government contracts. Even the nasty anti-gay March for Marriage in D.C. on the June 19 was more pathetic than powerful, with a few thousand die-hard homophobes blustering on incoherently in their sweaty polyester. But just when you think that hardcore anti-gay animus is becoming as hard to find as a Republican who understands science, up pops our old friend Rick Perry to amuse, confuse, and certainly bemuse.
First, he goes to the city of homolove (no, not Philly, but San Francisco) and proceeds to compare homosexuality to alcoholism by claiming that “I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.” Which, frankly, made me reach for the Scotch and the barf bag simultaneously. Then, to make matters worse, his response to the Texas Republican Party’s adoption of a policy endorsing “reparative therapy” for gays was to claim that “he didn’t know “ if this was good or bad, since he wanted to “leave that to the psychologists and doctors.” Now, of course, the “psychologists and doctors” have all weighed in on this issue, coming to the conclusion that this “therapy” is neither therapeutic or ethical and all the major professional organizations and even some states themselves have condemned and refuted it.
But the Perry debacle should wake us up to a few persistent problems in the struggle for queer equality and liberation. First, we need to remember that the fight is far from over and that—while much has changed—both wacky haters and everyday garden-variety homophobes are alive and well. Anti-gay violence is still on the rise, Congress is unable to pass ENDA, queer youth are disproportionately represented in our homeless population and in rates of suicide and self-harm, and the closet still presents a formidable obstacle to many who wish to live open lives free of harassment.
But even more worrisome to me is the way in which we—the gay movement and our straight allies—have relied on theories of biological determinism and immutability to contest homophobic ideas and practices. So, for example, our beloved Jon Stewart hilariously mocked Rick Perry by declaring on The Daily Show that, “Being gay is not a choice, but being a Texas Republican is.’ " While a funny punch at an easy punching-bag, Stewart’s take on the Perry remarks uses the “born this way” belief to undermine the apparently worrisome idea of “choice.” But “born this way” is not only thin science that ignores the complex and changing nature of human sexuality, it is a terrible ground for civil rights claims.
Whether you choose your sexuality or feel that it is in some way “predetermined” is (like our protection of religious belief) irrelevant to civil rights. Equality can’t be based on some glib notion of “give me my rights because I can’t help myself” but rather “give me my rights because I am a human being, and a citizen.” When gays and their straight allies fight homophobia on the grounds of biological determinism, they should be aware of the damaging history of such arguments—from eugenicist ideas around race to anti-Semitic tirades against Jews as another “species,” to the uses of biology to declare women unfit for public office and social leadership. We need to fight reparative therapy not because it “can’t work” because we are “born this way,” but rather because it is unethical and there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay in the first place! Indeed, if reparative therapy “worked” would it then be perfectly fine? It is our ethics that matter here, not our genes. Now, excuse me while I choose my booze, and my woman to drink it with.
Suzanna Danuta Walters is Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University and the author of the new book, The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality.