Washington D.C.’s Council has given final approval to a gay marriage bill and the mayor has signed it, so it now just requires Congress to ignore it for the law to take effect. Earlier, I wrote that universal civil rights is a good case of the need to protect the minority from the majority, using legislatures and courts rather than referendums.
As I’ve been reading about the history of sexual identities, I was drawn into the origins of sexual orientation (sum: not much known). There was an exchange from the D.C. debate, which pitted an older generation of Black civil rights activists (such as Marion Barry), who oppose the analogy between gay and Black rights struggles, and a younger generation that supports gay rights.
Kwame Brown (D-At Large) supports gay marriage, seeing it as the next chapter in the fight for equality. But his father, a political campaign consultant in the city, bristles when the drive for same-sex marriage is compared with the civil rights movement.
“You can choose to be gay or not,” Marshall Brown said. “You can never choose to be black or not.”
Not so, his son said. “People are born that way,” Kwame Brown said.
(This racial angle shouldn’t be exaggerated, as two Black pastors testify.)
It’s really not just “born that way” versus a “choice,” of course, because, as United Families (which opposes gay rights) puts it, “Predisposition toward something does not mean that it is inevitable…” which is true, though the second half of the sentence is gratuitous: “…or that such a predisposition cannot or should not be resisted and overcome.” Nevertheless, the “born that way” claim is the Number 1 “myth” they feel the need to dispel.
And that’s not an accident. It turns out that the “strongest predictor” of positive views toward gays and lesbians, and policies that support them, is the view that homosexuality is something people are “born with.” A study by Haider-Markel and Joslyn tested an “attribution theory of controllability.”
If the cause of homosexuality is perceived as controllable (learned, environmental, or an individual choice), negative affect toward homosexuals and reduced support for policies relevant to the group can be expected. If the cause is perceived as uncontrollable (biological or genetic in origin), positive affect and increased support for polices is anticipated.
In their data about a third of people agreed that, “when a person is homosexual,” it is “something that people are born with.” Sure enough:
Our analyses of data from two unique surveys of national adults corroborate these hypotheses, showing that positive feelings toward gays, support for gay civil rights, civil unions, and same-sex marriage are strongly determined by a genetic attribution for homosexuality. Attributions are in fact the strongest predictor of support.
The civil rights movement for African Americans didn’t base its moral claims on the idea that people don’t “choose” to be Black. I don’t know enough history of the gay rights movement to make the parallel all the way through. But it seems to me this tendency among the public reflects the stigmatized status of homosexuality – not something the movement wants to hang its hat on, even if it’s true.