Waldlaw Blog

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Thinking About Race & Sexual Orientation

I just had a fascinating conversation with an old friend. She is African American, and had been at a talk last night where a scientist was critiquing current research trying to identify the genetic markers of specific races, in a supposed effort to make it easier to treat race-specific medical conditions. This effort is being touted as an attempt to better serve the medical needs of ethnic minorities in the US -- but she, and many friends and acquaintances in the progressive scientific community, are highly skeptical. After all, haven't efforts to identify the "scientific" differences between the races generally been linked to highly racist endeavors such as eugenics or, much worse, ethnic cleansing? Anyway, she and I had a discussion about the commonalities and differences of efforts to make both race and sexual orientation into "scientific" categories. After all, many in the gay community seem to think that it is to our benefit to have sexual orientation be a scientific fact, rather than a choice. And maybe sexual orientation is genetic, for some people, although I can't possibly count the number of people in my life who have been "absolutely gay" for some portion of their lives and "absolutely straight" for others -- and not in any particular order. But here is my question: why is the "scientific" inquiry into the question of whether race or sexual orientation has a genetic root an important inquiry?? Why is it important to ask the question?? What is wrong with accepting that "social" identifications can be equally valid and important as "scientific" ones?? My friend was arguing for accepting self-identification as the ultimate, valid way of determining race -- if I say I'm black, I'm black; if I say I'm latino, I'm latino; if I say I'm asian, I'm asian; if I say I'm white, I'm white; and so on.... (And, of course, so many of us are a mixture of those things....) I would make the same argument re: sexual orientation. We can fight for years about whether sexual orientation -- or gender identity -- is social or genetic, but my fundamental question is: why does this matter?? I don't really care whether you've chosen to identify as lesbian or gay -- or as African American or Latino or Caucasian -- or whether these identifications are the result of some immutable markers on your genes. I am prepared to take the identifications -- and their social consequences -- equally seriously either way. And there lies the crux of the issue -- isn't it fundamentally an acknowledgment of the validity of racial and/or gender and/or sexual orientation discrimination if our best defense is "I can't help being ... [fill in the blank]"? Isn't it more important -- and, fundamentally, more revolutionary -- to say "it may be a choice or it may be a scientific fact and it doesn't matter -- you still have to respect it"? This is a subject we need to talk about. So let's start talking....


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