Murray has dug deep into the historical Western construction of homosexuality as immoral, and in doing so has left us cognisant that homophobia has not shed its historical roots but has shift-shaped into new forms.
Book Review by Heather Brunskell-Evans
Given the celebratory hullabaloo about homosexuality in the broadcast media in the summer of 2017, some of us may have taken comfort that homophobia is now an outmoded, reactionary, cruel prejudice that has no place in liberal society. Indeed, we could be forgiven for thinking homosexuality, rather than being the unnatural, deviant or immoral form of sexuality that it has been historically characterised, possesses a capacity for joy and freedom of which heterosexuals, at least of the male, hidebound variety, may be justifiably envious. Fifty years after it was first decriminalised in the UK (for consenting adults over 21), it appears that homosexuality has now achieved a certain cultural cachet. In becoming aligned with other groups collectively described as LGBT, it ranks with all things Queer. Queer, it seems, finally kicks the norms, constraints, conventions, and perhaps the sheer boringness, of heterosexuality into touch. Media ‘stars’, actors, writers, poets, political activists and others highlighted, through personal testimony, the iniquity and barbarity of the policing of their homosexuality before 1967 and after the change in the law. The collective broadcast stories have thus narrated not only the journeys of individuals, but also of society’s trajectory from the historical dark ages of homosexual suppression and punishment, so recent in our memory, to the emerging liberal tolerance and acceptance of which decriminalisation was one important milestone. Although the tyrannies of homophobia may still be alive in some shadowy and uneducated pockets, it seems that society (on the whole) is now prepared to accept that homosexuality is merely one natural form of sexuality amongst others.
Is this happy picture of a sexually progressive society accurate? Or, more importantly, can this depiction of current freedoms, individual liberties and society’s enlightenment be both true and untrue at the same time? Terri Murray, author of Thinking Straight about Being Gay: Why it Matters if We’re Born That Way (2015, AuthorHouse; UK) , provides sobering responses. She cautions against the surface appearance that homophobia is increasingly consigned to a previous age and alerts us to a powerful substratum of homophobia which rumbles away whilst we’re not paying attention, and even while we are but looking in the wrong direction. Whilst the liberal left is congratulating itself, the legacy of Christian naturalist ethics, the discourses of social Darwinism, gene therapy, and the use to which gene therapy can currently be put by American liberal eugenics, are spectres that not only mooch around the edges of the current party but laud their wares in the full light of day. Homosexuality, they variously declare, is a crime against nature even if it is given in nature. Natural ethics declares something must be done to restore the values of the heterosexual God-given or biological moral order!
Murray’s book is not for the faint of philosophical heart. One of its overarching questions asks of the historical discourses of Western civilisation: ‘How do they describe human nature and what it is to be a morally responsible human?’. Her main addressee is Christianity. A substantive part of the book is devoted to Christianity’s historical exegesis of homosexuality: homosexuality is a sin because it is contrary to nature. For centuries, Pauline ethics have formed the backbone of the prohibition against homosexual acts. Paul’s doctrine was based on a form of naturalism which proposed homosexuality is not in accord with God’s intention or God’s will as manifest in creation. He deemed sexual congress between a man and a woman moral only when it could potentially lead to procreation. In contrast, “homosexual behaviour is morally bad because it is tantamount to rejecting the ‘natural’ or one’s own nature (and so the Creator of nature) in favour of what is ‘unnatural’ (against God’s intention)” (xvii). In this theological context, ‘freedom’ is not the responsibility arising from our free will and capacity for critical judgement but the freedom to obey or dissent (i.e. ‘sin’) from a presupposed set of religious truths. In the West, legal prohibitions against homosexual acts have been rationalised and defended with reference to this form of thinking which reduces morality to human nature’s reproductive capacity. Homosexuality represents a misuse of the sexual faculty, i.e. the engagement in non-procreative sexual activity which does not lead to the family, the building block of social order.
By the 1990s, a ‘gay science’ emerged which seemed to challenge morality founded on the heterosexual couple. It proposed that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a naturally occurring trait genetically (or otherwise biologically) encoded in the body. In this conceptual framework, homosexual character traits are less the products of the individual’s choice than of the individual’s biological inheritance – some people are born gay and thus cannot be held personally culpable for their homosexuality. Murray alerts us to two quasi-eugenic strains of thinking in the late 20th century and early 21st century that have emerged out of the gay essentialist hypothesis – one theological and the other secular (and ostensibly liberal).
Firstly, Christian bio-ethicists began to abandon some of Christianity’s basic principles. Instead of deploying the ‘given’ aspects of natural creation as the very benchmark of God’s design and plan, they began to consider how gene science might facilitate human intervention into God’s creation in order to restore it to its former glory. According to this rationale, the bio-technological modification of the causes of same-sex sexual attraction in the fetus could potentially prevent or reduce the future possibility of corresponding behaviour. So, like the salvation doctrines derived from Pauline Christianity, the aim of Christian eugenics is to correct homosexual behaviour but this time from the outside rather than through internal conscience and guilt. The church thus simultaneously pathologises the homosexual’s innate sexual orientation while tentatively accepting that homosexuality occurs naturally.
Secondly, conceptualising homosexuality as biologically determined but controllable by medical intervention has provided the ideological means by which US secular eugenics have got a foothold in society. In contrast to Christian eugenics, secular eugenics leaves decisions to the market as to whether any fetus should be modified. Medical practitioners present themselves as non-ideological, responding only to the demands of consumers and regulated by the discretion of parents. Murray warns that accepting social biology can – and should – make us morally good or bad could potentially become deeply enmeshed with new scientific developments. Moreover, the belief that enhancements in human biology can prevent human immorality seriously undermines the liberal, ethical principles of personal and social responsibility. In modern societies, the very concept of immoral behaviour “depends on the voluntary aspects of human behaviour or what might be called human agency” (xviii). This freedom, and how we conduct ourselves with others to prevent harm, “ought to continue to be the locus of public and private efforts to prevent illegal or immoral behaviour” (xix). Both Christian and liberal eugenics threaten to demolish the idea that human beings are autonomous agents, possessing both biological urges and the ability to learn, choose, and assume responsibility for their actions.
Murray’s book cuts out a distinct path between a naturalism that is morally neutral, and the form of naturalistic moralism which clearly still surrounds homosexuality. She agrees that homosexuality is a naturally occurring variant of sexuality that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. In making assertions about human nature, she is brave, since declared naturalism can lead so easily to accusations by others of conservativism and a tacit endorsement of heteronormativity. She makes it abundantly clear that her model of naturalism is commensurable with her fierce liberal politics and ethics. While biological factors go some way to explaining sexual attraction, they do not determine our sexual behaviour or override our free will. Like heterosexuality, homosexuality bears no intrinsic moral or immoral value.
In conclusion, Murray has dug deep into the historical Western construction of homosexuality as immoral, and in doing so has left us cognisant that homophobia has not shed its historical roots but has shift-shaped into new forms. She interrogates Christian discourses around homosexuality – moral, religious, pseudo-medical and bioethical – and demonstrates how homophobia can be perpetuated by new developments in genetics and biotechnology. As human beings, we sometimes find it much easier to embrace liberal narratives about sexual progress which (re)assure us that all is increasingly well in the West. We know that lesbians and gay men worldwide still experience social discrimination and human rights violations, and that, in the vast majority of cases, the hatred and violence is motivated by religious beliefs about what is or is not natural according to God’s purposes. Since Christian naturalist ethics are no longer tenable to most liberals in a modern Western context, we might be tempted to imagine their oppressive powers are now defunct. Murray raises alarm bells against any such complacency. The institutional authority to buttress heteronormative hierarchies, and to designate homosexuality as disruptive to the natural moral order, may increasingly become the preserve of science, with its perceived infallibility, objectivity and moral neutrality. The book alerts us to the fact that our Western Christian heritage still determines aspects of homophobia, and urges us to keep thinking straight about being gay.