There seem to be two main camps in the LGBT world when it comes to new scientific developments attempting to explain the natural causes underlying sexual orientation and/or sexual identity.
The first camp trumpets such news and hails each new study as a step toward an objective understanding of our situation which can only help our long term struggle for acceptance. Newly discovered biological factors underlying sexual orientation/identity? Great! More evidence backing up our assertion that these things aren’t based in mental illness or personal choice.
The second camp dismisses the news as a false hope at best, and perhaps even a step in the wrong direction. We are who we say we are. Why does anyone feel the need to quantify/define/measure us? Nature or nurture isn’t the point. We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!
The main arguments between these camps tend to come down to a couple of basic points. The first is that there is a danger in creating “medical tests” for the legitimacy of anyone’s identity. The second is that if science is able to explain us, it may also be used to “cure” us (or prevent us from being born at all).
Both of these arguments are really about the dangers in how scientific discoveries may be used, rather than about the value of the scientific information itself. I don’t want to undervalue the importance of such considerations. After all, when scientists discovered how to split the atom their work was used to annihilate cities well before it was used to provide clean energy to French people.
But the point is, the science itself doesn’t compel such outcomes. I think we in the LGBT community are well positioned to avoid such catastrophes in this particular case, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. However I do want to explore the argument about “medical tests for legitimacy” a bit more, as this one seems to come up frequently within the community itself.
Explaining the natural factors underlying one person’s LGBT condition shouldn’t be expected to account for every other person’s. That shouldn’t be taken as evidence that one is “real” and one is “false.” The applicable word here is “different.” Nature, being pretty big on variation, encourages difference. But that same difference makes it more difficult for singular scientific explanations to account for everything. Those who look for a single “gay gene,” to take one example, are off the mark for this reason alone. But that doesn’t mean genetics has nothing to do with sexual orientation or sexual identity either.
Leaving apart some questionable earlier work in psychology, science has only been engaged in serious study of sexual orientation and sexual identity for a very short time. The leaps and bounds taken to arrive at our current understanding will doubtless seem like baby steps with a few more decades of research behind us. Anyone trying to draw any but the most tentative conclusions at this point is making a grave mistake. Responsible scientists are well aware of this. Those who would use their work… perhaps less so.
Understanding how natural variation plays a role in the formation of LGBT identities is an important and meaningful thing, even if others may misuse the knowledge gained. Just like any field of knowledge, we’re not all going to use the same facts to arrive at the same conclusions. But working from the same facts will bring us closer to that point than working from different facts could ever hope to achieve.
I don’t pretend that scientific evidence for the natural causes of sexual orientation/identity is directly correlated to the well-being of LGBT people. But I believe there is something – indirect and far from perfect, but something – inherent to scientific progress that will move us all in a better direction over time.