Race, Ethnicity, and Gender are not always apparent when a child is born. Neither is sexual orientation.
In a recent column at USAToday.com, William Mattox proposes the idea that sexual orientation is “more like religion than race” – that is, that sexual orientation is a choice rather than an inborn trait, and thus undeserving of legal recognition such as same-sex marriage. I could take issue with a multitude of his statements, ranging from the inane labeling of same-sex marriage as “fashionable” and “cool” to the insidious invisibling of lesbians when he presents same-sex marriage as “not requiring a woman.” To dissect each of his absurdities would take far more space than I have here, so I’ll focus on the fundamental flaw: his categorization of identities, placing religion and sexuality on the “optional/fluid/personally decided” side against race and gender on the “inborn and obvious to everyone” side. There are deep and abiding problems with this separation, which can be boiled down to “it doesn’t work.”
Mattox’s subheading — a direct quote from the article — encapsulates this argument: “Everyone present at a child’s birth knows the newborn’s race and gender. But can any of us say for certain that we know a newborn’s sexual or religious orientation?” Let’s take this piece by piece. Does everyone present at a child’s birth know the newborn’s race? Presumably – because they know the family. Would a random nurse necessarily be able to tell a newborn white child from an Asian, hispanic, Native American, or even light-skinned black child? What about multiracial children? And this assumes that the parents and immediate family, those who think they know the race of the child and presumably have the most information about the child’s racial background, are not deceived, either through inaccurate family histories or adultery. So! Does everyone know a child’s race at birth? No. They know what they think the child’s race is, which may or may not be accurate. (Labeling a child as a particular race at birth also ignores the cultural connotations of race, especially relevant in the case of multiracial children or children raised in a culture dominated by another race, but that’s perhaps a larger issue for another time.)
Does everyone present at a child’s birth know the newborn’s gender? This depends entirely on how we define “gender,” a statement at which many will doubtless scoff and level accusations of hair-splitting, but, newsflash, words actually mean things. We don’t get to just ignore those meanings because, oh crap, taking those meanings into account requires us to spend more than three seconds’ thought before we blurt things out. “Gender” does not have only one dimension, no matter how much we may wish for it to be so simple. Gender is not determined by looking at a person’s genitals. That is what we who have passed seventh grade science refer to as a “phenotype,” a physical expression of one’s genes. It’s more than possible for a person who looks male or female to, in fact, be the other — or be neither, or both. Chromosomes — the X and Y chromosomes specifically — determine a person’s sex, and they do not always appear in nicely matched pairs. Gender is not necessarily the same as sex (transgender individuals? Tomboys? Male cheerleaders? Anybody hearing me here?), but even if it were, you can’t necessarily identify it just by looking at a person.
So, is sexual orientation like race and gender? Definitely: all three exist as continua, rather than several strictly defined options; none of them are verifiable just by looking at someone, although guesses can be made; and none of them are a deliberate choice. Oddly (or perhaps not?), most of these statements are more or less true of religion, as well. You cannot tell just by looking what religion a person is, and the way he/she practices his/her religion can vary dramatically from one person to another. Even the idea of what constitutes religion can vary wildly. The one major difference — and the linchpin of Mattox’s argument — is that religion is specifically chosen. (The question of how free a choice religion really is, considering the way religious parents tend to raise their children and the stigmas some religions hold about converts, either into or out of the religion, is perhaps a larger issue for another time.)
Mattox then claims that, because sexual orientation is something voluntarily chosen, something about which people may “experience confusion” and “bounce around” before choosing an identity, legitimizing homosexuality with legal marriage is akin to … forcing someone’s religious beliefs on the whole population. He even acknowledges that “one could argue” that our current laws do this, in the form of enforcing biblical Christianity’s views on marriage. (The actual biblical depiction of marriage, which involves multiple wives, handmaidens, and concubines; marrying one’s rape victims; and bridal prices, is perhaps a larger issue for another time.) And he draws this particularly obtuse comparison: “I mean, my Hindu neighbors don’t say to me that I must accept their beliefs in order for us to be friends. Nor do I say the same to them.”
And every single adult in this country has a right to marry, or not, whomever he or she pleases.
Now, I do believe William Mattox probably doesn’t ask his Hindu friends to convert in order to stay friends with him. But let’s extend this scenario a little. When he shares a meal with his Hindu friends, does he refrain from eating beef? Does he ask for God’s grace on the meal? Does he permit them their own prayers? Does he, in short, respect their religious practices, even though he does not participate in those practices? If not, he’s a self-righteous jerk for even bringing this analogy up, and I think we’d all be justified in no longer caring what he has to say.
And if he does, then his argument has just hit a serious snag, because that same respect is all gay couples are asking for. No one is telling Mattox to go marry a man. No one is saying he can’t marry a woman. No one is saying he has to get married at all, for that matter. They — we — are just saying that his beliefs do not govern our actions. His Hindu neighbors have a right to pray however they want. His atheist neighbors have a right to think religious people are blithering idiots for praying at all. (His English teacher has a right to cry over his woeful lack of reading comprehension, demonstrated here in his reference to “historic biblical teachings.”) And every single adult in this country has a right to marry, or not, whomever he or she pleases. Because it has nary a single thing to do with anyone else’s beliefs or forcing anything on anyone or even, for that matter, whether sexuality is inborn or chosen.
In short? Not only is Mattox’s argument founded on bad logic and worse science, since race, gender, and religion are nowhere near as different from each other or, in the case of the first two, from sexual orientation as you’d like them to sound, but he’s also arguing a non-point. Who the hell cares if people choose to be gay, or bisexual, or transgender, or straight, or whatever else they might want to be, and then they want to get married? It doesn’t affect anyone else. Just like Mattox’s neighbors’ religion, it is flatly none of his damn business, and when even your own analogies betray you, it’s time to stop writing editorials and start working on being a decent human being, instead.