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Austin Cline

Conservatives on Gender Roles: Innate or Learned?

By April 29, 2010

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One of the keys to conservative religious arguments against equality for gays is that homosexuality is "learned" rather than something you are born with. One of the keys to conservative religious arguments against equality for women is that gender roles in society are based on "innate" characteristics and aren't learned social, cultural conventions. Although it my not be immediate obvious, there is a conflict between these two positions.

Amanda Marcotte writes:

Their homophobia is clashing with their sexism, and showing how intellectually bankrupt both positions are. Social conservatives portray homosexuality as a "choice"---which makes sense. They want gays to get in the closet, and they're just portraying that as authentic heterosexuality. But in order to argue that it's a choice, you have to position homosexuality as a serious temptation and gays as simply very weak people who give in. If you buy into that argument, then you start to see homosexuality as a temptation that preys on all people, and your job as a parent becomes about shoring your child up to resist that temptation.

Focus on the Family has long taught its followers that homosexuality can be warded off with strict teaching of gender roles. In other words, they've been forced to make explicit what they've always pretended wasn't true, which is that gender roles are learned and performed. The irony is that the one avenue where they'll admit gender roles are learned is the one avenue where they're not actually going to have as much influence as they think. Forcing a little girl who wants to be a tomboy into dresses is not going to make her not be a lesbian, and also that many lesbians prefer to present a feminine manner to the world. And a lot of little girls allowed to be tomboys grow up straight.

It's fascinating, because this contradiction social conservatives carry around---where they claim gender roles are natural while expending tons of effort into teaching them---usually goes completely unacknowledged. Despite the fact that publishing especially makes unbelievable amounts of money teaching gender, from women's magazines to dating manuals, people love to front like men and women's roles are inborn (and heterosexual). I suppose open acceptance of homosexuality has thrown a wrench into the works, because it suggests perfectly healthy people can reject assigned gender roles, even when it comes to something as fundamental to mandatory gender roles as who you sleep with.

The reason for the conflict is that opposition to homosexuality, as Amanda Marcotte points out, is based in part on a desire to maintain strict gender roles. Martha C. Nussbaum writes in Hiding from Humanity:

Gays and lesbians are a symbol, in much of the public imagination, for sex without reproduction, for the decoupling of marriage from commitment to raising a family in the traditional way, which has certainly been a male-dominated way. ...The connection between recognition of gay unions and the erosion of traditional marriage is that if sex is thought to be available outside of the marriage bond, women will have fewer incentives to embark upon marriage and child rearing, and may not wish to do so if marriage continues to be a largely patriarchal and unequal institution.

In much of Europe, the birth rate has been falling alarmingly, largely, it is thought, because women have other opportunities in life and are unwilling to enter unions that will work to their disadvantage. ...gay marriage is scary because it is a symbol of sex, and therefore women, eluding patriarchal control. This sort of anxiety about change that eludes control, and the loss of control over cherished values, can easily awaken narcissistic fear and aggression. ...the panic about gay marriage is at least in part a panic about women eluding male control.

Conservative Christians aren't just aggravated over thoughts of gay sex, but also over the thought of men and women not filling their traditional gender roles -- men not being "manly" and women not being "feminine." Gay couples are thus the latest and most public example of people refusing to abide by traditional norms for gender roles and sexuality. Growing acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual relationships threatens to further erode traditional assumptions about male power, male roles, and the male sense of self.

But if homosexuality is a choice, then the adoption of the "wrong" gender roles by gays is also a choice and thus something that can be learned or indoctrinated. Ergo, it's something that has to be taught to each generation of little boys and girls so that they perpetuate the same power relationships into the future. This is precisely what religious conservatives want to do and some will even admit, to a certain extent, that this is their goal.

April 29, 2010 at 5:15 pm
(1) Edmond says:

I remember being 9 or 10 years old and beginning to be attracted to my other male classmates, and even some male teachers. I have known many gay men who had similar experiences in their youth. Conservatives MUST conclude, then, that CHILDREN of this age are making this “choice”, some even before they’re aware of what it is, and certainly before they’re aware of what sex even IS. How can they COME to such a conclusion? These CHILDREN are just looking for a life of “sin”? They WANT to be shunned by their families? They’re hoping to be victims of violence? They love the idea of lying about who they are to their friends, employers, landlord? The anti-gay right wing simply has not thought this through.

If you believe that being gay is a choice, there’s one simple way to prove that once and for all: choose it. Show us that ANY heterosexual person can make that choice and just BE gay at will. That should put the debate to rest.

April 29, 2010 at 9:24 pm
(2) Victoria says:

I have been a tomboy all my life. I am 54 and still a tomboy. I love my jeans. I am COMPLETELY heterosexual. I am just not a girly girl. I am just thankful that my parents were intelligent enough to not subscribe to the notion that I needed to go to the looney bin to force a girly girl attitude on me!!!

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