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social sciences

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The ideology of gay liberation did not seek an accounting of homosexuality's etiology from any source. Simply acknowledging one's gay identity, acting on that premise, and attempting to change hostile public opinion were sufficient. No one had ever bothered looking for the cause of heterosexuality, so why the pressing need to find a cause for homosexuality?

Although these gay and lesbian activists may have seen the question of etiology as in some ways antithetical to their aims, they nonetheless invoked a theory of causation when they insisted on characterizing gay identity as intrinsic to personhood and ultimately immutable.

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While such nineteenth-century luminaries as Ulrichs and Hirschfeld were regarded as pioneering heroes in their assertion that homosexuality was congenital, gay political thinkers of the 1970s seldom questioned what implications these men's theories of homosexual identity might have for contemporary gay and lesbian identities, which were rapidly refashioning themselves along political lines.

For example, gay liberation and lesbian feminism both reviled any association of homosexuality with gender non-conformity (butch women and fey men were seen as not politically astute), thus attempting to combat an age-old stereotype that was nonetheless at the core of both Ulrichs's and Hirschfeld's theories.

Moreover, anti-gay activism in the United States (from the late 1970s onward) has routinely challenged the blithe assertions of gay activists that homosexuality was congenital. Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign to overturn a gay civil rights ordinance in Miami drew very productively on an earlier generation's perception of homosexuals as "psychopaths" bent on recruiting innocents to populate their ranks by way of sexual molestation.

While a subsequent generation has modified this inflammatory rhetoric somewhat, in recent years the claim that a psychotherapy grounded in the practice of evangelical Christianity can "cure" homosexuality has posed a more insidious threat to gay and lesbian people's individual and group integrity.

In the face of political challenges such as these, as well as in the face of mounting evidence from gay and lesbian practitioners in the social sciences that homosexuality is a socially constructed phenomenon strongly demarcated by both historical and cultural domains, any direct investigation of the etiology of homosexuality on the part of gay people would be tantamount to collusion with the enemy.

If the claims of historians and sociologists were correct, and homosexuality was indeed a novel social identity, would this not add fuel (however unintentionally) to the Moral Majority's incendiary rhetoric that homosexuality was the product of a wantonly permissive modern society, a blight that might be extinguished with a return to the presumed piety and clean living of yesteryear?

The Return of Etiology: New Directions in Research

Inevitably, some gay and lesbian people saw a political value in investigating the etiology of homosexuality, insofar as conclusive evidence in favor of a congenital model would refute the outrageous claims made by their detractors.

Partly because the limitations of psychology and psychoanalysis for finding the answers to such questions had already become apparent, partly because the development of new scientific technologies was giving rise to new theories of human behavior as well as novel modes of exploration, research on the origins of homosexuality has in recent decades been concentrated in fields such as genetics and evolutionary biology.

The study of population genetics has exploded since the early 1980s, with the advent of technologies like the polymerase chain reaction, which helps scientists sequence the human genome. Some geneticists subscribe to a radical belief that all manifestations in the life of an organism are encoded chemically at the molecular level in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), found in every cell of every living creature. It is perhaps unsurprising that an ideology with seemingly limitless explanatory power should be so widely embraced by persons both inside and outside the scientific community and applied to all manner of age-old etiologic questions.

Genetics has been used to account for predispositions to everything from cancer and schizophrenia to violent behavior and homosexuality. Dean Hamer and colleagues' 1993 study claiming molecular genetic evidence of the existence of a gene disposing men to homosexuality epitomizes this kind of research. Taken together with other studies, it has rapidly become the irrefutable evidence that many have sought to back up political claims about the "naturalness" and inoffensive quality of homosexuality: not willful, not aggressive, not contagious, just one anomaly among many.

Yet there are many lingering questions that these studies are unable to answer. First and foremost among these is: how can we account for the incidence of homosexual behavior in persons who do not claim a homosexual identity? Over the course of the past century, such behavior (among inmates of institutions such as military installations, prisons, boarding schools, and asylums) has typically been believed to be compelled by the circumstance of their location in sex-segregated environments.

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