Category Archives: civil rights

Access denied: A different kind of de facto segregation

blog for choice iconIt’s interesting that “Blog for Choice” day falls right after Martin Luther King Jr’s holiday. It has me thinking about intersections and parallels of civil rights issues. For those who’ve studied segregation, the terms “de facto” and “de jure” are familiar. They mean “in fact” and “by law” and they are used to describe the reality of segregation in the United States today. Segregation in schools, for example, has been illegal since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 yet there is a great deal of de facto segregation in American schools.

I mention the terms because I think there is a similar phenomenon going on with access to abortion services. Abortion services, since Roe v. Wade in 1973 have been legal — with restrictions — across the United States, and states have not been allowed to ban abortion outright. (Note: some have come perilously close.) But, abortion services are not accessible in many places, and so there is a kind of de facto abortion ban over much of the country.

I think about this on “Blog for Choice” day, because the right to choose to have an abortion is not very real for the women living in the overwhelming majority of counties without abortion services, for whom the cost of abortion is not only the price of the procedure and any attendant health care costs, but also the price of the travel and the cost of days away from work.

Recently, the Guttmacher Institute published the results of its study, “Abortion in the United States: Incidence and Access to Services, 2005” (PDF) and they found that the rate at which women have abortions has continued to fall since 1990. In 2005 there were 19.4 abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44. For comparison, in 1990 there were 27.4 and in 1995 there were 22.5. In raw numbers, this means that 1,206,200 abortions were performed in 2005, about 400,000 fewer than in 1990. (Table 1, p. 9)

This all sounds like good news, and it may be good news. Reducing the number of abortions as a result of reducing the number of unintended and unwanted pregnancies is certainly a good thing. But the report also indicates that the number of abortion providers continues to drop (though that drop has slowed). Taking the whole country into account, 87% of counties have no abortion providers, and what part of the country you live in matters a lot. If you’re in the northeast, where I am, you’re the luckiest. Only a bit more than half of counties have no providers (and we’re pretty densely populated, and counties are packed together, and transit options are not so terrible). If you live in the midwest, though, are among the least likely to have access. Ninety four percent of counties in the midwest have no abortion providers. Obviously that puts an enormous research and travel burden on the woman seeking an abortion. In the south 91% of counties have no provider and in the west 78% have none. (Table 3, p. 11)

Could this be among the reasons that, as reported in the New York Times this past December, the number of births per 1,000 women rose in nearly all age groups last year, ending a decline in teen births that had been going on since the early 1990s and rising above the replacement rate in general for the first time since 1971. As with most social phenomena, this one no doubt has many causes, and actually immigration (immigrant women tend to have more children, for an intersecting number of reasons) is no doubt a bigger cause. But I wonder whether we have reached a level of no-access that more unintended pregnancies are resulting in births than used to.

Amanda Marcotte made some interesting speculations about what else this could mean last week in her post “Could it be easier to force childbirth when abortion is legal“. She wonders whether, because there is no outrage over a legal prohibition in many of those areas, there is less organizing around issues of access. Certainly there are women’s health organizations and abortion access organizations that are trying hard to increase access for women who live in regions without their own providers, but it might be a good deal harder for those activists to drum up support (especially volunteers and money) because there is no legal issue for people to fight.

The theme for this year’s Blog for Choice is “why it is important to vote pro-choice.” I would extend that to “why it is important to vote, talk, agitate and live pro-choice.” Voting goes an important distance toward protecting legal rights. We certainly cannot afford another Supreme Court Justice who is opposed to abortion or weak on privacy rights, for example. But until the rights that are protected by law are made real by ensuring access (geographic and financial) to abortion services, they are pretty unevenly distributed, available to women with privilege to travel if needed, or with the good fortune to live in a place with providers.

The law is only the foundation for our rights. Real live access — to abortion, to education, to opportunity or to anything else — depends on much more than the law. We all need to walk the walk so that it is safe for people to provide the services that the law says we have a right to use.

And that is not a matter of voting. That is a matter of speaking up in the eleven months of the year that there are no elections. It is a matter of declaring that we will not tolerate the infringement of anybody’s rights, regardless of where they live or how much money they have.

It is a matter of finally understanding that class and race and gender and geography all intersect in ways that put some US residents at much greater disadvantage than others, and it is about all of us understanding that such inequality is wrong.

And that goes beyond voting. That means we need to act.

Now.Loudly.

Without rest, until we all are free.

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ENDA: A sacrifice on the table?

Here is what I wrote at around 5:30 pm today on SexInThePublicSquare.org:

HRC is announcing that tomorrow, Wednesday November 7, the House is scheduled to vote on ENDA.

Please call Tammy Baldwin and urge her to offer her amendment and not to withdraw it. Then call your representative and urge that person to support her amendment.

If representatives are given the chance to avoid going on record about gender identity they’ll take it. I, for one, don’t want them to have that chance.

Click here to find contact information for your congressperson or use the Speak Out!! section on the left.

Oh, and happy election day.

Here is what I wrote 5 hours later:

UPDATE 10:00pm NOV 6: This is not such good news as it first appeared. This is the notation from GovTrack.us about the schedule debate and vote:

Last Action: Nov 5, 2007: Rules Committee Resolution H. Res. 793 Reported to House. Rule provides for consideration of H.R. 3685 with 1 hour of general debate. Previous question shall be considered as ordered without intervening motions except motion to recommit with or without instructions. Measure will be considered read. Specified amendments are in order. All points of order against consideration of the bill are waived except those arising under clause 9 or 10 of rule XXI.

So, maybe one of you can help decipher this but I read this to mean that the “previous question” (a yes or no vote on the bill as presented) will be considered without any other motions (e.g., amendments) except motions to send it back to committee.

This makes it sound like Tammy Baldwin’s amendment will not be offered.

Tune in tomorrow to see what the debate sounds like.

Meanwhile, expect an ENDA without gender identity included. In other words, expect a largely ineffective ENDA that reflects the needs of elite gays, lesbians and bisexuals but does not meet the needs of most of us.

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ENDA Tabled?

Khadijah Farmer, her mother Aliha and LGBT Center's Cristine HerraraSo you might have been following the ENDA stories and known that it was scheduled to come up for a vote in the House last week or the week before. And you might have noticed that that didn’t happen. And you might have been waiting for news about that. I even tried to put a legislation tracker on the site (SexInThePublicSquare.org) so we could more easily keep up with bills like ENDA. (Aside: you’ll probably have noticed that so far it is only working in Safari browser.) Even with all that, I’d noticed that, well, nothing seemed to be happening. So, I’ve been poking around trying to figure out what’s going on, and I just came across this, from October 31, by EJ Graff at TFM Cafe:

The latest news on this front: ENDA, which had been scheduled for a House floor vote this week, has been taken off the table.

The official reason that ENDA won’t come up for vote: it’s been pushed aside by other business. The generally accepted reason is the split between the Barney Frank faction and the Tammy Baldwin faction.

The Tammy Baldwin faction, remember, is the faction that was going to offer an amendment, on the floor, that would put gender identity back into ENDA. The Barney Frank faction is the one that “compromised” gender identity out of the bill.

Graff does a great job explaining, again, why keeping gender identity in the bill is so important. It isn’t just to protect the trangendered, though to my mind that would be reason enough. It is also important because much of the discrimination that lesbians and gays face comes not as a result of sexual orientation but as a result of refusal or inability to comply with gender normative behavior. Some examples from her piece that make this crystal clear:

After all, when grade school and middle school kids taunt or beat up some boy for acting “gay,” it’s not because he’s been kissing other boys; it’s because he hasn’t been masculine enough for their taste.

and

Consider what happened to Darlene Jespersen, who lost her bartending job at Harrah’s Casino after 21 years—when her employer instituted a policy that said all women had to wear makeup. She couldn’t do it; her whole being revolted against that mask. (And yes, the 9th circuit decided that this was legal)

These examples also make it clear that the teasing and the discrimination that we’re talking about can also be used to victimize heterosexual people who don’t conform to gender norms. In neither of the examples above do we even need to know the sexual orientation of the people involved (real or hypothetical) in order to know that their treatment is wrong.

Does anybody else remember the amazing book, Homophobia as a Weapon of Sexism, written by Suzanne Pharr? I remember reading it in a Philosophy of Sexuality class in college (eternal thanks to the phenomenal Peggy Walsh) and having one of those “eureka moment” epiphanies where suddenly all kinds of seemingly disparate oppressions slid into their interlocking positions and I really got why this was all so important to me. (It’s no accident that we read this alongside a piece by Marilyn Frye describing oppression as a bird cage.)

Pharr’s argument, very briefly and probably oversimplified, is that homophobia is used to keep people obeying gender norms that are sexist and that privilege masculinity over femininity. Any thing that challenges that system is framed in homophobic terms, and their success depends on our own internalized homophobia.

ENDA, while being framed as a piece of gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender rights legislation, is really much bigger, but only if it includes gender identity. If it does, it is a piece of legislation that moves us forward in the enormous task of dismantling a gender role system that oppresses all who fail to conform to its narrow expectations. While some in the mainstream gay rights movement might not be comfortable with that goal (preferring a more liberal model where people of any sexual orientation are free to assimilate into the dominant culture) they need to realize that they won’t achieve protection for lots of gays and lesbians if they don’t back the gender identity part of ENDA. (This is something Barney Frank seems not to understand. In his statement in the House on October 9 he seemed to believe that ENDA could protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals effectively without the gender identity provision, and that later some bill could be written to protect the transgendered, who should effectively ‘wait their turn’. His mistake is in thinking that without specific gender identity protection that gays and lesbians can be protected effectively themselves.)

It irritates me that Barney Frank, a gay white man in power, is willing to sacrifice the effective protection of LGBT folks in order to look as though he’s done right by us. He doesn’t stand to lose if ENDA gets passed without gender identity, (though others of us do) but he does stand to lose of ENDA doesn’t pass at all.

ENDA is not for Barney Frank. ENDA is for all of us. It needs to be brought back to the table so that Tammy Baldwin can offer her amendment. The tabling of the bill is, I’m certain, in fear about Baldwin’s amendment, and I for one would much rather see the legislation voted down by people who have to go on record opposing the inclusion of gender identity then to see Baldwin and others intimidated behind the scenes into accepting the Frank compromise or having the bill die without a vote.

Note: This post is published on my blog at SexInThePublicSquare.org, our community site. Come join in!

Thanks to Feministing‘s always amazing Weekly Feminist Reader for the link to EJ Graff’s piece!

Photo of Khadijah Farmer, her mother Aliyah and Christine Herrara from the LGBT Center borrowed from GayCityNews story, “Not So Hot on Caliente” . Khadijah Farmer is the woman who was kicked out of Caliente Cab Company, a restaurant in New York City, because a bouncer believed she was a man using the women’s restroom. Though she offered to show him ID she and her party were still forced to leave. Her case, while not about employment, is an excellent example of how perception of gender identity is a source of discrimination. She was not kicked out because she was a lesbian. She was kicked out because a bouncer refused to believe she was a woman.

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Filed under civil rights, culture, ENDA, Gender, heterosexism, Homophobia, legislation, News and politics, public discourse, sex, sexuality

The danger of dismissing Fred Phelps

 Are he and his small band of followers on the lunatic fringe of the Christian Right, or aren’t they? First they blame the wildfires in California on homosexuality. Now the loss of American troops is also the fault of gays and America’s failure to properly condemn them?

The New York Times today has the story of a lawsuit against the Westboro Baptist Church, which is being sued for creating a media circus outside of a soldier’s funeral. They protested outside the funeral carrying signs that blamed the deaths of American soldiers on the fact that the U.S. condones homosexuality. Actually they’ve been doing this for at least two years now, but because the father of a soldier whose funeral was protested has filed a lawsuit, Fred Phelps and his crew are back in the news.

Westboro Baptist Church members protesting Laramie Project in Ann ArborIt is easy to cast Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church as a kind of lunatic fringe among Christians. The Wikipedia page for Westboro Baptist Church cites sources estimating its membership as between 70 and 150 people and most of them are related by blood or marriage. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Westboro Baptist Church to be a hate group. Phelps, and Westboro, maintain the web sites “God Hates Fags” and “God Hates America“. They also hate Jews, Catholics, Muslims and anybody who supports any of those groups. (They are certain that God hates Canada and Sweden , for example.) And they’ve been around for a long time. Phelps started out protesting the funerals of people with AIDS. You may recall that he and his followers picketed the funeral of Matthew Shepard. There is a counter on GodHatesFags.com, that keeps track of the days Shepard “has been in hell.” (Shepard isn’t the only one, either. They also have a counter for Diana Whipple, a lesbian who was mauled to death by dogs that Fred Phelps believes God sent to punish her for her sins.)

Yes, he sounds like nothing more than lunatic fringe, and it would be reassuring to put him in that box, put that box away on a shelf, and ignore it.

Yet in many ways he is not so much “fringe” as we might want to believe. While Fred Phelps might be crazy, and may lead a small number of people, there are folks like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and others who ultimately promote the same basic ideas but in more mainstream venues and who as a result have exponentially larger audiences, and access to Congress, and to power. Dobson, for example, has a radio show that is reportedly run on over 1,000 radio stations, and reaches over 3 million listeners. His Focus on the Family organization has much more political clout than Phelps could ever muster, yet it works for the same basic agenda. When Dobson came out against Republican presidential hopefuls like Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson it made national news, with stories on CNN, the Washington Post, and other mainstream news outlets.

Conservatives for American Values, which runs the disclaimer “Everything posted on this blog is satire and should be read as such” spoke more truth than satire about the relationship between Phelps’s lunacy and Dobson’s comparatively staid performance when it published this in 2005:

Also, it’s people like Fred Phelps who limit the donations that groups like Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family can get from righteous Christians who dislike gay people. He hurts the rest of us because he’s too stupid to know how to effectively frame his own disgust with homosexuality. Simply put, he’s hurting the cause he claims to support.

Listen, I’m sure if Fred Phelps, Dr. Dobson and I all sat down at a table we’d find a lot we could agree on. I mean we all understand what James Dobson meant when he spoke out against the Texas sodomy case. When he says that he doesn’t want homosexuals to have the right to have sex because it will destroy the family we catch his drift. He didn’t come out and say, “I don’t want homosexuals to have sex because they’re gross and I hate fags.” Dr. Dobson is much too smart for that.

It will remain difficult to believe that Phelps and Dobson don’t represent mainstream Christian thought until many more Christian groups stand up and speak out against them, and call for more understanding and respect for sexual diversity. The silence of the real mainstream lends credibility to the extremists. It isn’t enough to denounce Phelps, either.

It is important to see past the theatrics of the Westboro Baptist protests and recognize that the basic principles of sexual oppression that motivate Phelps and clan are the same ones that motivate folks like Dobson.

In fact, the danger Phelps poses is really that he makes the Dobson crew look reasonable. Yet Dobson’s rhetoric is just as dangerous when it comes to disenfranchising people because of their sexualities. Without similarly denouncing Dobson, mainstream Christians will just be making the hate and the heterosexism seem more polite.

I give a lot of credit to groups like the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing. Debra Haffner and her organization do important work. But many more mainstream religious organizations and left-leaning religious organizations need to add their voices to the call for acceptance of sexual diversity.

Otherwise, it’s going to seem more and more like the “the love-thy-neighbor” and “judge-not” Christians are the fringe, and the one’s who’d like to bring back stoning are the majority.

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Photo of Westboro members protesting the Laramie Project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2005 taken by AlanLK and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license.

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Filed under civil rights, discrimination, heterosexism, Homophobia, News and politics, public discourse, Religion, sex, sexual orientation, sexuality

Verizon to customers: NARAL 2 CNTRVRSL 4 U

The New York Times reports this morning that Verizon has rejected a proposal by Naral Pro-Choice America to use its network for sending text messages to people who sign up for them. Other cell phone networks have accepted the proposal which allows subscribers to sign up to receive text message updates from NARAL.

According to a communication with Verizon that NARAL gave to the times, the company’s policy is to reject proposals from groups that “promote an agenda or distribute content that, in its [Verizon’s] discretion, may be seen as controversial or unsavory to any of our users.”

There are at least three very troubling pieces of this rationale.One is that a communications company should be allowed to censor the legal content that is transmitted over its network in the first place. This would seem to erode the “common carrier” rule and tremendously limit free speech. Cell phones now are as important to political activity, community organizing, and ordinary everyday life as landlines and the US mail have been in the past and we would never accept such a limitation from either of them. Can you imagine if Verizon’s landline division made a ruling saying that NARAL could not phone anybody who uses a Verizon phone service? Why should text messages be any different? (Sunburnt Kamal, I think we really need your “on the Internet there are no sidewalks” essay! Can you include cell networks too?)

Beyond that, even if Verizon’s policy is legal, applying it in this way is illogical. The messages sent by NARAL would only be sent to people who requested them by texting a 5 digit code specfically subscribing them to the updates. These are people who, by definition, would not find the messages controversial or “unsavory.”
Last, until I’ve had more coffee and thought a bit more about this, it would seem that just about anything could be “seen as controversial” by some user or anyother and Verizon’s policy is written to reject any program that might be seen as controversial to any of their users. To really be consistent then, they should accept no text message advocacy programs at all. Presidential candidates use these programs and have not, apparently been rejected by Verizon and yet presidential politics is by its nature controversial. Even the Repblican National Committee has such a program.

Jeffrey Nelson is Verizon’s media contact for Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs and he’s is quoted in the Times article indicating that Verizon might be considering a change in its policy:

“As text messaging and multimedia services become more and more mainstream,” he said, “we are continuing to review our content standards.” The review will be made, he said, “with an eye toward making more information available across ideological and political views.”

Want to let him know that you don’t think that a communications company ought to be restricting the kinds of information its customers can access? His phone and email info are on this Verizon Wireless Media Contacts page but in case you don’t want to go look him up yourself, his email is jeffrey.nelson (at) verizonwireless (dot) com and his phone number is 908-559-7519.

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Filed under abortion, activism, censorship, civil rights, Education, feminism, New York Times, News and politics, pro-choice, public discourse, reproductive freedom, sex, technology

Over the Boardwalk

It’s Labor Day in the United States, and in the US for most people that doesn’t mean “let’s celebrate workers,” it means “let’s get to the beach” so I was pleased to find a story in this morning’s New York Times that was a beach-related public/private space kind of story that touches on issues of sexuality and human rights.

The question is whether the Boardwalk Pavilion in Ocean Grove, NJ, is public space or private space, and whether the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association (a Methodist organization) must let the space be used by by gay and lesbian couples for the same purposes that straight couples use it: that is, for ceremonies celebrating their state-recognized unions.

The Camp Meeting Association owns all the property in Ocean Grove. Even home owners and business owners there don’t own the property their buildings sit on. According to the Times article, “all the land, beach and 1,000 feet of the sea itself” have belonged to the Camp Meeting Association starting with some purchases in 1870. Their ownership of the property is not really in question in question.

However, according to the Times, for the past 18 years the beach, boardwalk and oceanfront have been part of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s “Green Acres” program, which includes a tax exemption for the property owner in exchange for allowing privately owned space to be used for “public recreation and conservation.” The tax exemption reportedly saves the Camp Meeting Association half a million dollars in taxes per year.

Clearly the state realizes that public access to places like beaches, forests, deserts, lakes, and rivers is important. That’s why governments maintain parks. But sometimes important spaces are privately owned and then the government might create a program like the Green Acres program in order to increase public access to space that would otherwise be off limits. You can think of the tax exemption received by the Camp Meeting Association this way: The State of New Jersey is paying the Camp Meeting Association about $500,000 per year to assure that the land in question remains accessible to the public.

So, on the stretches of property covered by the tax-exemption should the CMA be able to discriminate in deciding who can use the property?

They think they can. In fact, the CMA has sued the State of New Jersey for abridging its First Amendment rights while receiving a half million dollar tax exemption for public use of its property. They make a comparison to disaster aid saying that the receipt of disaster aid money doesn’t obligate a church to operate differently than it otherwise would, and thus that receipt of this tax exemption should not require them to allow people to use their property for purposes that they would not allow in their church.

Put aside, for a moment, your visions of bikini-clad women and well-oiled men streaming in for Sunday services. We’re talking about marriage and civil union ceremonies, it is certainly true that receiving disaster aid might not obligate a church to start allowing civil unions to be performed in their building.

But the rules governing the Green Acres program cannot really be compared to those governing something like disaster relief money. The Green Acres program is all about enabling public use of private property. That’s why they give such big tax exemptions in return. Here is the definition of “Public Use” from the Eligibility document governing the Green Acres program:

“Public use” means a use or right of use available to the general public or some portion thereof for conservation or recreation purposes. Such use, and any limits thereon, shall be based on the uses best suited to the land, the capacity of the facility and the public benefits or advantages to be derived therefrom.

Further, in determining what property is eligible, the document specifies that eligible property “must be open for public use on an equal basis” (my emphasis).

And, in addressing what restrictions can be made on the use of the property, the document states:

Restrictions on the use of the real property by the public must be determined by the Commissioner to be necessary for proper maintenance and improvement of the property or because significant natural features of the land may be adversely affected by unrestricted access.

You can read a copy of the document here (MS Word file).

So back to the original question: In order to be eligible for this tax exemption can the CMA prevent some people from having civil union ceremonies on their Boardwalk but allow others to do so? That would seem to violate the “equal basis” clause of the guidelines. And it seems more than unlikely that allowing civil union ceremonies would interfere with “proper maintenance” or cause adverse affects in any way that marriage ceremonies would not. And in any case, the Commissioner didn’t make the decision. The CMA folks did.

If the CMA is unhappy with the deal it made, it needs to find a way to withdraw its participation in the Green Acres program and start paying its full share of taxes.
And the rest of us need to be mindful that the maintenance of public space is incredibly important not just so we can go to the beach, but more importantly to protect our civil rights.

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The “Biology v. Choice debate” has no place in a discussion of sexual freedom and civil rights

I’m more than tired of all the uproar over whether sexuality is biologically determined or chosen. Actually, that’s not true. It’s ultimately more complicated than that dichotomy would indicate, and the answer has no place in a discussion of rights for gays.

It’s bad enough to hear the fundamentalists harp on the “gay lifestyle,” but LBGT groups also seem inclined to use the question of choice v. biology as a new potential litmus test for politicians. For example, In the HRC/Logo LBGT Presidential Forum, Melissa Etheridge asks Bill Richardson if he thinks sexual orientation is a choice or is biological. He’s been criticized for his answer but it’s actually not so far from mine: It really doesn’t matter. People should have rights whether they choose aspects of their identity or whether they are born with certain characteristics. (NB: There may be plenty of good reasons to be critical of Bill Richardson, but his answer to that question, which was essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s really complicated and so honestly I don’t really know, and besides it doesn’t really matter because people deserve rights either way.”)

You can see Bill Richardson’s segments of the forum here, and all the others here.

Intellectually, or scientifically, what factors shape a person’s sexuality is an interesting question. But in terms of the law it ought to be irrelevent. Discrimination against people based on the kinds of sex they have, or the genders of their partners ought to be illegal. Period. End of sentence.

It feels like another instance of where those in favor of sexual and reproductive freedom have ceded the framing of the debate to those who would like to lock sexuality down. Only this time the word “choice” has been adopted by the other side.

Conservatives focus a lot on their claim that sexual orientation is not an orientation at all but is rather a “chosen lifestyle” because they are fond of punishing people for what they see as “bad” or “immoral” choices. By that logic, they feel justified denying marriage to same sex couples because they should have ‘chosen’ differently.

That’s ridiculous. Even if sexuality is to some degree chosen — and I would argue that all kinds of sexual expression is chosen, and much is shaped by culture, even though some is likely influenced by biology — I should still be allowed to marry who I want, as long as that person is legally able to consent to the marriage. I should not be discriminated against at work or in housing matters or health care because of the partners I choose.

Why should sexual choices (between people capable of consent) be seen as somehow different from other choices we are freely able to make? Sexuality is complex and there are lots of desires that we choose to act on and explore and others we choose never to explore. And sexuality should not be reduced to sexual orientation, either. Go beyond the gender of your partner and think about explorations in bondage or flogging or sex at play parties. Do we need to argue that those desires or explorations are driven biological predispositions in order to assert that we should be free to act on them and that our rights should not be limited if we choose to do so? Should it be legal to deny housing to people who are polyamorous? Should it be legal to fire a person who is into leather and whips? Of course not. So why, when we talk about LGBT rights, which are extremely important, do we end up arguing based on biological determinism?

I think we do so because it’s easier to argue that people shouldn’t be denied rights because of something over which they have no control. The comparisons to race, ethnicity, disability should not be missed. But there are other “protected categories” that are seen as sacred in terms of rights and freedom and are certainly a matter of choice. Religion comes to mind first. Religious faith is a matter of conscience and culture and not at all something you are born with. (I know, some religions are “passed on” through families but there is generally a moment when the individual has to choose to become a full member of the religious community by way of some consciously engaged-in ritual.)

And even regarding race, which is not chosen but is a characteristic others ascribe to us based on physical appearances, there is precedent for adopting “choice” as a basis for rights, especially where sexual relationships are concerned.

In 1967 the Loving v. Virginia case made it clear that it is unconstitutional for states to prevent interracial couples from marrying. Does anybody argue about whether the partners in interracial couples are “born that way” (i.e., somehow biologically inclined to sexual attraction and love of people from other racial groups) or whether they’ve “chosen” to partner with people outside their own races? No. In fact the biology of sexual attraction never entered the picture in the Loving decision. The question was one of whether or not it was legal for the state to regulate marriage by taking race into account.

We should not allow a “biology v. choice” framing of the rights debate to continue. If we do, we will likely find ourselves backed into a very unpleasant corner. We will be forced to argue that we are helpless over our sexuality, and then will be faced with the very frightening prospect of arguing in favor of a medical definition of sexual orientation — which can then be used against us when people decide to start looking for “cures.” For make no mistake about it: if they think they can “cure” us by counseling us into making different choices, they will be no less likely to try to “cure” us of a sexual orientation that they can frame as a disease. If there is a “gay gene” we should be very wary of what happens if it’s found. It will then be possible for genetic testing to “discover” the sexual orientation of a child and gene therapy may be used to “fix” that child. We’ve been there before in less technologically sophisticated ways. Sexual orientation was only declassified as a disease in the 1970s!

Choice v. Biology is no way to have a debate about rights. When we fought for civil rights we didn’t ask what causes race (though we certainly have debated what defines race). We shouldn’t be arguing about what causes sexual orientation. Its an interesting scientific question, and probably has a very complex answer that combines biological and social factors, and I’d be very curious to know more about it. But it has no place in the politics of anti-discrimination policy.

Ultimately sexuality is a blend of biological, cultural, and individual factors. Rights, on the other hand, are determined through the political process, and sexual freedom and civil rights should not depend on whether we are born with a sexual orientation or choose how to express our sexual selves. Sexual freedom and civil rights should be granted to all. Period.

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