Essay on equal marriage

The topic of equal marriage has come up in conversation a lot recently. I therefore thought I’d publish an essay I wrote at seminary: here.

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Submission to Ma Whea? Commission on Same-Gender Relationships, Ordination and Blessing

Dear Ma Whea? Commission,

Thank you for opening up this conversation, and for your willingness to listen to the various points of view on these matters, so often held so stridently and uncompromisingly. The perspective from which I come to the issue of same-gender relationships is psychological and philosophical, as these are the disciplines in which I was trained. This submission will therefore be thin on biblical scholarship and theology; that task, I leave to those who are better qualified.

Some months ago, there was a discussion in the Diocese of Dunedin about “the nature of homosexuality and homosexual relationships”. My contribution to this discussion was a written response to a document circulated within the Diocese about this matter; in my response, I corrected certain fundamental factual and conceptual errors that seem to have currency in arguments against same-sex or same-gender relationships (and, concomitantly, the blessing of such relationships and the ordination of individuals in such relationships). In case such errors are still in currency, this submission seeks to put an end to their influence in the current conversation. The document in question variously concludes that:

  1. “[N]on-monogamy is essential for satisfying the male homosexual’s need for ever more satisfying sexual partners, and for ensuring the longevity of committed male same-sex relationships”,
  2. “[T]he blessing of gay relationships by the church will open, even wider, the gates to a lifestyle that is self-centred, necessarily promiscuous, and prone to reduced levels of emotional and psychological wellbeing regardless of how much or how well gay relationships are accepted, integrated, or protected by our society”, and
  3. People on the pro-LGBT side of things “are ignorantly actually working against wholeness, wellbeing, and a sense of contentment for those identifying as gay”.

The concern for the welfare of those who self-identify as LGBT demonstrated by the author of the document in question is commendable; however, its catastrophic view of same-sex or same-gender relationships is misguided by conceptual confusion and partial information. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

First, let it be clear that I am neither an expert on the psychology of sexual orientation, nor am I a scholar of the theology on such matters. My only qualification to comment is that I taught psychosexual development to bright University of Otago undergraduates for a few years as a doctoral candidate in the departments of Psychology and Philosophy. I might know just enough to be qualified to point out where certain arguments concerning same-sex relationships have gone awry. Second, it should be noted that the willingness from certain parties to take an evidence-based approach on this issue is also commendable. On that point, I suggest that anyone interested in this issue should be familiar with the American Psychological Association’s official statement on the matter, which summarizes the empirical evidence concerning the causes and effects of non-heterosexual orientation, available here: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/sexual-orientation.aspx. Of particular interest, which I am unfortunately not covering here is the recent research on LGBT and parenting. To summarize, in somewhat sloganistic language co-opted from those who are against same-sex relationships: first, gay parents do not make gay children. second, gay parents do not make worse parents than straight parents. But I digress.

As exemplified by the quotes provided above, there are two issues I would like to address. The first concerns claims about the immutability of sexual orientation. In the document circulated in the Diocese of Dunedin, the author claims—allegedly pace LGBT rights activists—that sexual orientation is not an immutable trait, wholly genetically determined by the time an individual is born. It is my contention that this claim is trivially true, that it amounts to a Straw Man fallacy, and that it cannot constitute an argument against same-sex or same-gender relationships. The second concerns claims about homosexual relationships “essentially” repudiating monogamy (and instead entailing self-centredness, promiscuity, and reduced well-being); such claims are clearly exemplified in the quotes above. It is my contention that such claims, and those like them (even if couched in friendlier terms) are recklessly under-determined by data. To wit, they commit non sequiters. Incidentally, as we shall see both points concern essentialism, an issue concerning which I have an abiding academic interest.

First, the immutability/innateness/genetic determination of sexual orientation. I am certain that some people on the pro-LGBT side have odd essentialist beliefs about sexual orientation. I am even more certain that such essentialist beliefs about sexual orientation are demonstrably false. Indeed, with all due respect to Putnam and Kripke (and their successors), I think essentialist beliefs about all kinds of things are false. Incidentally, essentialist beliefs about sex and gender are false too: there are no necessary and sufficient conditions that make an individual a “man” or a “woman”. The presence/absence of secondary sexual characteristics (e.g., breasts, penis), reproductive organs (e.g., testes, ovaries), sex chromosomes (e.g., XY, XX), sex hormones (e.g., oestrogen, testosterone), and gendered behaviour and roles (e.g., female maternal impulses, male aggression) are all empirically dissociable. During my time at the University of Otago, I taught psychology undergraduates about interesting cases in which individuals have some typically male characteristic and some typically female ones. There are, for example,  XY males who have breasts and vaginas; there are XX females with (what appear to be) penises; there are XX females who self-identify as male and XY males who self-identify as female; there are XY males who have female hormonal profiles and XX females who have male hormonal profiles…and we haven’t even gotten to individuals who are neither chromosomally XX or XY. My favourite case is that of 5-alpha-reductase. There is, in the Dominican Republic (but not only here), a tribe of people among whom some infants are born seemingly female and are brought up female with nary a hitch. The children look like girls, self-identify as girls, and are treated as girls. But at age twelve, they begin to grow penises and testes, and rapidly transition into “manhood”. The world is a fascinating place, and our White middle-class bimodal categories of gender do not even begin to capture the diversity in creation. But I digress. Suffice to say, natural scientists like myself have largely abandoned essentialism about all kinds of categories—sexual orientation, gender, even species—and have done so for decades. However, we are not worried about the implications of this anti-essentialism for the ethics regarding homosexuality, and for good reason: the assumption that the pro-LGBT position requires essentialism about sexual orientation is simply false. (By the by, perhaps the anti-LGBT camp would like to stop and think about what the rejection of “male” and “female” as natural kinds means for their positions. What sense does the injunction against homosexuality make if gender is not an essential category? There’s a dissertation in here somewhere, to be sure.[1])

I have claimed that we do not need essentialism about sexual orientation to be pro-gay marriage (or to be against heteronormativity in general). Neither do we need to be genetic determinists about sexual orientation. Any developmental psychologist worth her salt will be able to tell us that just about nothing is genetically determined by the time we are born. And when it comes to psychological traits, of course there are social variables in play. But this is beside the point. What then is the point? Why do pro-LGBT folk often invoke scientific studies on sexual development? The point my pro-LGBT colleagues wish to make is that, by and large, those who self-identify as gay did not choose to be sexually attracted to members of their own sex and/or gender. Furthermore, it is notoriously difficult (I refrain for using absolutes like “impossible”) for them to choose to be sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex and/or gender. Furthermore, efforts to reform them—to render them heterosexual—are almost uniformly ineffective. The claims are no more and no less than these; no nativism or genetic determinism is required. Nothing rides on the fact that there are non-biological factors relevant to the development of sexual orientation. By and large, those who self-identify as LGBT did not choose their sexual orientation any more than do those who are against same-sex relationships have chosen theirs.

But so what? Why do the developmental origins of sexual orientation matter at all in the ethical debate? Allow me to briefly dissent from the majority of my colleagues, and say that this entire debate over the aetiology of sexual orientation is a big, fat red herring. The debate seems to assume that:

  1. “genetic” (or “innate”, both conceptually problematic concepts, by the way) entails “natural”, and that
  2. “natural” entails “good” or “permissible”.

The first assumption is to privilege the gene, and it is unclear that there are any good reasons to do that. Why are genetic variables more “natural” than environmental ones? Is there some metaphysical superiority of genes over non-genetic variables (cf. the excellent work of Paul Griffiths, Elliot Sober, and Richard Lewontin on the nature-nuture debate)?

The second assumption is to commit what is now known as the “naturalistic fallacy” (though, as a pedant, I should point out that this is not what G. E. Moore meant when he coined the phrase). Why is “natural” good? Leaving aside the conceptual bankruptcy of the natural/non-natural distinction about which I have written elsewhere (better yet, see Nicholas Lash’s analysis of this from a theological perspective in Believing Three Ways in One God), there seems to be no good reason to morally privilege the natural. After all, if the social psychologists are right—and I’m inclined to think they are, seeing as I am counted among their ranks—then human beings are naturally selfish and prejudiced and, indeed, promiscuous. Indeed, if we are to normativize statistically or psychologically “normal” mating tendencies, we are going to have to revisit all kinds of ethical questions. Women normally prefer typically masculine men during ovulation and more effeminate men during other parts of their cycle; should we normativize bigandry for women? Human beings the world over tend to be sexually attracted to members of their own ethnic groups over those of other ethnic groups; should we normativize intra-ethnic mating? The move from “It’s natural” to “It’s good” is straightforwardly illegitimate. The move from “It’s innate” to “It’s natural” is too. These are non sequiters. As such, this entire debate over where homosexuality comes from is a disproportional waste of time.

Second, the essential repudiation of cherished values in homosexual relationships. In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published an infamous book, entitled The Bell Curve. It is a much maligned book these days, somewhat unfairly, but it is what some conservative pundits took from the book that I am really concerned with, as much of the rhetoric over the apocalyptic repercussions of blessing or legalizing same-sex relationships smack of such irresponsible punditry. Herrnstein and Murray reported, among many other things, that racial differences in IQ were largely (but not entirely) inherited from parent to offspring. Furthermore, they show that attempts to close the IQ gap between racial groups (in this case, Blacks and Whites in particular; I am told that “Blacks” is socially acceptable, so I shall prefer this over the more cumbersome “African American”) have failed. Now, what some pundits did with this information is to claim that there are essential differences between Blacks and Whites with respect to intelligence, which is a very powerful determinant of well-being in the modern context. As such, these pundits argued, it is pointless to encourage Blacks to better themselves; their lot has been determined, after all. Giving them false hope would just be a waste of resources and, furthermore, would lead to disappointment among them. Really, the pundits argued, it is better for the welfare of Blacks that they keep in their (limited) place. Since 1994, psychologists and political scientists the world over—including the University of Otago’s very own Prof. Jim Flynn—have pointed out that this is all nonsense. Yes, Blacks are still disproportionately imprisoned and murdered, but no, as it turns out, drug use is no longer more prevalent in Black communities, nor are Blacks inevitably stuck in lower socioeconomic groups. Even the IQ gap is shrinking. A lot has happened since 1994, not least the fact that Barack Obama was elected to the highest political office in the United States in 2008, and again in 2012.

Perhaps you see where this is going. Similar things were said about the gay community, and are still being said. For a long time AIDS was seen as an essentially gay problem. No longer is this so. Similarly, promiscuity is still thought to be—apparently, reading the document recently circulated in Dunedin—essentially a gay problem. This is patently false, as anyone who has exercised pastoral ministry in marital and romantic relational contexts can testify, let alone psychologists and sociologists. It is an understatement to say that heterosexuals—men and women both—are a promiscuous bunch. After all, there is an evolutionary imperative to propagate our genetic material. But that is another matter. My point is that evidence regarding current aggregate differences between groups does not entail essential and immutable differences between groups. The differences between Blacks and Whites that Herrnstein and Murray reported were not immutable and essential. Leaders in the civil Rights movement were not “ignorantly actually working against wholeness, wellbeing, and a sense of contentment” for Blacks. Mutatis mutandis those who fight for equal rights among women, who, like Blacks, were once thought to be intellectually inferior to (White) men, and inherently predisposed to flourish better in the kitchen and nursery. Misogyny is oddly still socially acceptable in some circles, even where racism has thankfully receded. The previously popular notions, based on synchronic aggregate data, that there are essential differences between Blacks and Whites, women and men have proven false. It would be prudent not to assume that aggregate differences between groups entails essentialism. Ironically, while accusations against the pro-LGBT community regarding the immutability of sexual orientation are off the mark, these assertions about the essential and immutable nature of homosexual relationships are just so much wishful thinking. Lest I am accused of committing a Straw Man argument, allow me to quote the document again, where it says that “non-monogamy is essential” (emphasis mine) in long-term homosexual relationships, and that homosexual relationships are “self-centred, necessarily promiscuous, and prone to reduced levels of emotional and psychological wellbeing regardless of how much or how well gay relationships are accepted” (emphasis mine). From the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Ma Whea? Where to? Toward a more evidentially and, more broadly, intellectually rigourous approach to LGBT issues, hopefully. Whatever we decide about the blessing of same-sex or same-gender relationships and the ordination of individuals in such relationships, we had better not do it for intellectually disreputable reasons. We had better not do it because of sloppy thinking, partial information, fear-mongering, and blatant prejudice.

I have consumed enough of your time, I am sure, as well as my own. Thank you for your patience and forgive my loquaciousness. Please register my grave concern over certain attitudes widely circulated in religious circles like the Diocese of Dunedin. The questionableness of the intellectual rigour aside, such documents are potentially hurtful and damaging. It is surprising and disappointing that people ostensibly concerned with the well-being of LGBT individuals should send out such an abuse of partial knowledge and influence. I am, of course, more than happy to contribute to any further conversation that takes place on the issue, but till then, I am

Faithfully yours,
Jonathan Jong


[1] As a foretaste: those who desire to forbid or discriminate against “same-sex” or “same-gender” relationships need to be able to identify offending relationships from benign ones. The inability to define “male” and “female” (which, recall, do not exhaust the diversity in sex and gender) problematizes the effort to identify two individuals as being of the same or different sex. As a trivial example, say our definition of “male” just is “an individual who is sexually attracted to females” and our definition of “female” is the complementary “an individual who is sexually attracted to males”, LGBT couples can conveniently claim that one half of the couple is “male” (by virtue of being attracted to the other) and the other is “female”. More simply, if gender is simply a matter of self-identification, there is no stopping two individuals from just asserting that one of them identified as male and the other female, regardless of what others think. If those against same-sex or same-gender relationships protest against these construals of sex/gender, let them some up with criteria of identification. Without such criteria, they cannot get their project off the ground; it is conceptually bankrupt.