Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Racism, Homophobia and the Seduction of Science (A Speech Before Hope For Peace and Justice in Dallas, June 30, 2008)

At best, gay men and women have experienced a conflicted relationship with science. Until 1973 the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a mental illness. In pursuit of curing this so-called disease, doctors subjected gay patients to castration, overdoses of insulin, as well as electro-shock and “aversion” therapy. Ironically, after the gay rights movement persuaded the APA to drop homosexuality from its “Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” many gays began to see science in general and psychiatry in particular as an ally.

The main attacks on gays in the post-1973 world have come from the religious right which views homosexuality as a chosen behavior and a sin. Many gay activists have therefore embraced scientific studies suggesting that one is “born gay” and that gay men and women differ genetically from straights. National Public Radio and “Newsweek” created a huge stir in 1993 when they reported the discovery of a “gay gene.” No such gene, in fact, had been discovered. In 2006, a Swiss study purportedly demonstrated a greater neural response by heterosexual women and homosexual men when shown male faces, and a similar stronger response by heterosexual men and homosexual women to female faces.

Studies suggesting that gay sexuality stems from nature and not nurture have made headlines in recent weeks. A June 16 wire report described a Swedish study that examined 90 gay and heterosexual men and women. The Swedish scientists measured the volume of both hemispheres of the brain and announced that lesbians and heterosexual men displayed asymmetry in the sizes of the hemisphere while heterosexual women and gay men showed no significant size differences between the hemispheres. In brief, the brains of gay men were more like straight women and gay women were more like straight men.

The meaning of this study was immediately apparent to Dr Qazi Rahman, a lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary University of London. "As far as I'm concerned there is no argument any more -- if you are gay, you are born gay," he said. The Swedish study also suggested differences between gay men and straight women on one side and straight men and gay women on the other regarding the number of neural connections on the right side of the amygdala, with straight men and gay women having more connections.

The motives gay men and women have in welcoming such research is certainly understandable. If gayness comes from genetics, it is harder for the Christian Right to suggest that it is an ethical issue. But I would advise caution. The scientific method has been one of the great legacies of the modern era, but scientists work within a social context. Scientists can be liberal or conservative, tolerant or racist, supportive of gay rights or homophobic. One need not embrace the know-nothingism that characterizes many assaults on evolution and global warming when one points out that the biases of scientists might influence the questions they ask in their research, their methodology, and the interpretations they derive from their observations. However, yhe influence of ideology on science is often obscured because to the average person science is about objective facts rather than interpretation. The experimental sciences produce what is perceived as empirical reality and the general public grants scientist credulity not granted other disciplines.

A useful comparison can be made between scientific theories regarding homosexuality and scientific studies of race. In the 19th century, there was no doubt in the scientific community that humans could be divided into clear racial categories that bore distinct innate characteristics regarding intelligence and character. Even as scientists struggled to define racial categories, and couldn’t even agree on how many existed (some said three, others five, and one 19th century writer suggested there were more than 60 racial categories), late 19th and early twentieth century biologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other specialists had no doubt that races were real and that some races could be objectively categorized as “superior.”

Scientific racists, such as Samuel Morton, sought empirical proof for their prejudices. Morton accumulated one of the largest collections of human skulls in the world, skulls that represented a variety of what he defined as races. Morton assumed that there was a correlation between brain size and intelligence. Morton sought to measure differences in brain capacity by race by filling the cranial cavities with sifted white mustard seed, pouring the seed back into a graduated cylinder after the cavity had been full and then measuring the results in cubic inches. Later, dissatisfied with the mustard seeds because they varied too much in size to give consistent readings, he replaced the seeds with "BB"-sized lead shot.

Not surprisingly, given that Morton was a mid-19th century white scientist, his findings reflected contemporary white prejudices. Whites had the biggest brains, he declared, with Indians in the middle and blacks at the bottom. Of Africans Morton wrote, “In disposition the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity . . .” Morton announced that different white groups also had varying brain capacities, and therefore, different intellectual capabilities. Anglo Saxons and Teutons were the smartest whites, Jews were in the middle, and "Hindus" ranked at the bottom. Morton shared his findings in a pair of books, “Crania Americana; or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America” published in 1839 and “Crania Aegyptiaca; or, Observations on Egyptian ethnography, derived from anatomy, history, and the monuments” published in 1844.

Morton's work is flawed on several grounds. He begins with a false premise -- that there is a correlation between cranial capacity and intellect. In fact, there is only a connection between skull size and body size. Bigger people tend to have larger skulls with more cranial capacity. Additionally, Morton's math was inconsistent and shaped by racism. Recently deceased Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould re-examined Morton's data and founded racial bias influenced the 19th century doctor in several ways. He weighted different races inconsistently in his sample, for instance using a disproportionate number of large skulls to represent Anglo Saxons and a disproportionate number of small skulls to represent Indians. Morton heavily weighted his samples of black's skulls with smaller sized females.

More than a six decades later Franklin P. Mall, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, conducted similar experiments on the relative brain size of whites and blacks, attempting to replicate Morton’s findings. Suspicious because his numbers too closely matched his expectations, Mall asked an assistant to resort the brains and not tell him if a brain came from a black or white subject. Not biased with this information beforehand, Mall found there was no statistical brain size difference. Gould speculates that Morton, aware that some skulls were white, some Indian, and some black, packed white skulls more tightly with mustard seed or BB shot and black skulls more loosely. Gould believes these differences were subconscious, but shaped by Morton's racism and cultural expectations.

Morton measured phantoms. Race is an illusion. Human life originated in Africa. It seems certain that the first human inhabitants of Europe shared dark skin with their African ancestors. In late 2005, a group of scientists announced that they had discovered a mutation that likely caused “white skin” on a single letter of genetic code out of a complete 3.1 billion-letter DNA alphabet. This mutation occurred 20,000 to 50,000 years ago, a blink in the 4 million year evolution of the human race. Recent DNA mapping, meanwhile, demonstrates that all present-day homo sapiens are more than 99.9 percent genetically identical.

Gould noted that more genetic variation, represented by variety in skin pigment, hair texture or inherited disorders, exists inside arbitrary racial categories than between each supposedly discreet group. . “Although frequencies for different states of a gene differ among the races, we have found no ‘race genes’ —— that is, states fixed in certain races and absent from all others.” Gould wrote. The notion of distinct separate racial categories dividing humanity does not stand up historically either. As sociologist Howard Winant argued, " . . . in the United States, hybridity is universal: most blacks have ‘white blood,’ and many millions of whites have ‘black blood.’ . . . colonial rule, enslavement, and migration have dubious merits, but they are all effective 'race mixers.'"

Scientists seeking to understand homosexuality also chase phantoms. French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault argued that scientists invented the "homosexual" in the late 19th century. The notion that all people are either "homosexual," "heterosexual," or "bisexual" is now so universal that it seems that the world must have always been seen in that way. In classical Greece and Rome, no sanction was attached to homosexuality per se. Ancient Greece and Rome were solidly male supremacist. It was assumed that intense relationships between men were spiritually and morally superior than what could be enjoyed between a man and a woman. A hierarchy existed, however, within same-sex unions. Men who performed the supposedly more masculine, assertive role in gay sexual relations, and had a more "manly" personality" were held in higher esteem than those who played a passive, "feminine" role and had more effeminate personalities. Masculine men with male lovers were also expected to marry and have children. People were not defined as "homosexuals" if they had same sex lovers. Each sexual act was judged individually and did not define who a person was.

As Europe Christianized, "sodomy" was held as a sin. In times of crisis such as the Bubonic Plague of the 1300s, men and women accused of "sodomy" were blamed for such disasters, which were interpreted as God's judgments against this sin. Hundreds of men and women were burned at the stake or hanged in such times. Nevertheless, the idea of a distinctly "gay" personality, or the idea that a person's identity could be based on a sexual preference, had not yet been conceived. The Catholic Church defined sodomy as being as grave as murder because it undermined the only sanctioned use of sex, which was reproduction. However, sodomy was one of many sins that could theoretically be repented.

Before the late 19th century, people were not defined by their choice of sexual partners, but rather whether their personalities were considered masculine or feminine. A man in prison or on a ship might have sex with other men, but he would not be considered less masculine when he entered the larger society and resumed sex with women.
It was after the Enlightenment in the 18th century and afterwards, when European scientists began to classify life, to develop biological taxonomies and assign peoples to distinct racial categories, that Western society began to imagine that people could be divided into categories based on their choice of sexual partners.

This division was based on three assumptions. First, there were two and only two sexes. The second assumption was that these sexes, male and female, were fundamentally different and, at best, complimentary halves of a whole designed to culminate in heterosexual reproduction. Third, genders could be slotted in an hierarchical order, with males assumed to be superior, thanks to their supposedly superior reasoning intelligence and moral fortitude.

Beginning in the late 19th century, Western scientists sought to define the proper relationship between genders and define the genders themselves. The "true woman" was one who was submissive sexually and socially, focused on domestic life, pious and morally pure. Men were, de facto, defined as opposites — sexually and socially assertive, they ruled the patriarchal family and were the active providers of material goods (a role often threatened in the late 19th century.) Victorian scientists assumed these roles were dictated by biology. A biological woman was naturally "feminine" and a biological man was naturally "masculine." Natural sex was defined as male penetration, with the woman playing the passive role. Personalities and sexualities not fitting these narrow roles were deemed biological aberrations.

Western philosophers and scientists nevertheless had to deal with the fact that even if sex was meant to be solely for the purpose of reproduction, that some men desired sex with other men and some women desired sex with other women. Since 19th century psychology and sexual science assumed, however, that no real man would desire a same-sex partner, late 19th century theorists such as the German sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs posited the existence of a so-called "third sex." Members of this third sex were called "inverts." (An Ulrichs associate, Karl Maria Benkert, coined the terms "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" in the 1860s). Such people were held to have an inborn constitutional defect that made some men inwardly women and some women inwardly men. Sexual inversion was seen as a disease.

Social Darwinists used Herbert Spencer's concept of overspecialization, which resulted from the complexity of human civilization. According to this idea, as the human species became more complex, and Europeans and white Americans were seen as the most complex, less energy was available to spend on reproduction. So-called inverts, whose number was thought to be increasing, represented a pathological response to the energy demands of high culture and civilization.

James Baldwin noted in his 1949 essay "Preservation of Innocence: Studies for a New Morality," an inherent link between sexism and homophobia. Women and homosexuals are held in contempt by American society, Baldwin argued, because they are not "men." This homophobia-as-a-form-of-sexism explains the differences in intensity regarding bias against gay men as opposed to gay women. By the late 19th century, the new field of psychology had deemed that homosexuals were in fact insane. Homosexuals came to be associated by Western scientists with other groups thought to be inferior, such as African Americans and the poor. Some scientists argued that gays represented a “throwback” to an earlier stage of human evolution.

In 1913, Dr. La Forest Potter argued that, just as different “races” supposedly had different physiologies homosexuals were different not just in character and sexual preference, but also in physical traits. Male homosexuals, he said, "have a more feminine facial appearance than heterosexual men of similar age.” The contours of their body, Porter said, were more "gracefully rounded than those of a normal male." Their skin was "more delicate" while square, large-boned shoulders “[are a mark] of the average heterosexual man." Homosexual men, he said, could be detected by "the peculiar rounding and slope of their shoulders" and "the remarkable whiteness of their skin, even no powder has been applied." Posing the question, "why the invert swings his hips," Potter in his book offered a page of physiological explanations, insisting that this alleged trait appears very early in life and "is one of the constant differences that exist between the homosexual and heterosexual man." Some homosexual men suffered from unbalanced endocrines, poor diet, or faulty habits of hygiene, he argued. In his book, which went through six printings, Potter suggested that marriage might cure some such inverts, restoring their psychological equilibrium. Inverts refusing to transition to “normal sex” should receive more severe treatments. "Those who suffer from curable abnormalities should be institutionalized and cured," he wrote. “The others should be kept in permanent restraint." Some, he suggested, "We would probably kill."

The brain, according to most medical authorities a century ago, was the seat of gender identity. Such early 20th century authorities, such as Dr. William Lee Howard, believed that only a woman could be attracted sexually to a man, therefore "inverts" must have a non-male identity. At the turn of the century, the term "bisexual" did not refer to people who had male and female sexual partners, but was a synonym for "invert," and referred to people with male and female characteristics. It was only later, when the world was divided into clear, separate gay and straight worlds, that bisexuality came to refer to a person's choice of sexual partners.

From the beginning of the twentieth century to today, a number of explanations for homosexuality have been offered: childhood sexual trauma; an imbalance of hormones; absent fathers; overbearing mothers; excessive masturbation; the corrupting influence of jazz, or rhythm and blues, or rock, or disco music; recruitment by adult homosexuals; natal over-exposure to estrogen, testosterone or some other hormone; of course, the quixotic gay gene.

One part of the brain over the years has served as a battleground on which have been fought scientific controversies over whether races differ in inherited intellect, whether men and women’s brains are structurally different and if similar differences exist in the brains of straight and gay individuals. At issue is the corpus callosum. The corpus collosum consists of a network of nerves connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain. At different times, scientists have claimed that African Americans, women and gay men have different-sized corpus collosums. According to some brain researchers this difference means that blacks, gay men and women enjoy less ability regarding science, math, engineering, and perception of spatial relations, but greater verbal skills. The corpus collosum, some claim can be credited for so-called “women’s intuition.”

As already noted scientists in the past (and some today) have claimed that brain size correlates to intelligence – the bigger the brain, the smarter person. However, women, blacks and gay men have been said to have a more bulbous and larger corpus collosum. In this case, larger size is supposed to be a handicap. For instance, in the early twentieth century, Robert Bennett Bean compared the corpus collosums of African Americans and whites and concluded that blacks possessed a larger posterior portion and a smaller anterior portion, meaning that African Americans share “undeveloped artistic power and taste . . . and instability of character incident to lack of self-control, especially in connection with the sexual relation.”

As far as the corpus collosum’s role in gender differences, the supposed larger number of nerve connections between the brain’s hemispheres possessed by women result, some claim, in women using both their rational and their intuitive gifts in solving problems. This makes women more able to read the emotions of others more accurately and to analyze problems holistically.

Based on media reports, you would think that measuring the corpus collosum and comparing the size of a woman’s and a man’s would be rather simple. However, as biologist and historian of science Anne Fausto-Sterling has observed in her book, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, measuring this part of the brain presents significant challenges. First of all, she writes, the corpus collosum is not a flat, two-dimensional object, but a complex, irregularly shaped 3-D series of ridges and valleys which makes estimates of total volume vary widely by measuring technique. Furthermore, the fibers of the corpus collosum don’t abruptly stop and cleanly connect with clearly distinct other tissues of the brain like the organs in a “Visible Man” or “Visible Woman” kit. As Fausto-Sterling observes, the millions of nerves in the corpus collosum connect with and entangle thoroughly with surrounding parts of the brain making a definition of exactly where the corpus collosum ends and the rest of the brain begins ambiguous and controversial. As its nerve fibers extend into single strands far into other regions of the brain, the corpus collosum, Fausto-Sterling writes, “loses its structural definition, merging into the architecture of the cerebrum itself.”

Furthermore, scientists don’t measure the entire CC because of the incredible complexity of detaching its endless series of fibrous connections to the rest of the brain. They take a two-dimensional slice of the CC where the left and right hemispheres meet. When using actual slices of brains, scientists using different methods of preservation which cause wide variation in the shrinkage of the tissue and distortion of the CC’s shape. Furthermore, the post-mortem brain samples come by necessity from individuals who have died, and therefore have experienced disease, trauma, age, and any number of factors that may have impacted the volume of the CC before death. Another technique for measurement, the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging, suffers a serious draw back in that the pictures developed are less clear about where the CC begins and ends than examination of post-mortem tissue.

CC studies share a flaw with studies that purport to demonstrate differences between supposed racial groups. I mentioned earlier that there is more genetic variation among blacks, for instance, than there is between blacks and whites. Similarly, there is more variation in even the highly flawed measurements of the CC among women and among men, and among gays and straights, than between them. Finally, these studies are based on the flawed premises that genders and sexual preferences are distinct and clearly defined rather than being points on a spectrum. For instance, about 1.7 percent of children born in the United States are neither clearly male or female. By comparison, 2 percent of the U.S. population is Jewish. Among the most common forms of “intersexuality” include androgen insensitivity syndrome, congenital adrenal hyperplasia, gonadal dysgenesis, Kleinfelter’s Syndrome (children with an XXY genetic compostion) and Turner’s Syndrome (a XO alignment.)

If something as seemingly basic as gender identity represents a widely variable spectrum that is even more the case with sexual preference. For political reasons, both gay bashers and gay rights activists prefer to imagine the sexual universe consists of clearly distinct and defined straight and gay universes. Some gay activists want to eliminate ambiguous sexuality categories in order to claim as part of the gay communities those often called “bisexual.” Homophobes want to exclude bisexuals from any gay census because they wish to convince the public that the gay population is so small that their civil rights do not merit attention. Just as comparing the IQs of racial groups when the racial categories are impossible to define with any precision seems a fool’s errand, comparing the brain characteristics of genders or people with different sexualities when we can’t with any precision define what we mean by “male” and “female” or “gay” and “straight” is problematic at best.

Fausto-Sterling compares sexual and gender identity to Russian stacking dolls. Sexuality and sexual identity, she argues, consists of numerous layers, “from the cellular to the social and historical.” She argues, “Academics can take the system apart for display or to study one of the dolls in more detail. But an individual doll is hollow. Only the complete assembly makes sense.” In taking these dolls apart, we need to recognize that scientists cannot pretend to be mere objective investigators of reality. Science represents an innately political act. Acknowledging this is not claiming that science is without value or is empty of truth. However, too often science has offered to society the politics of division. When scientists assert the existence of innate differences between different parts of the human family, the comparisons are rarely flattering to politically and economically marginalized groups. More often science has been used to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. We who are non- scientists are obligated to confront the ideological dimensions of scientific claims. We are no less qualified than the men and women in the lab coats to insist they promote the politics of inclusion.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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