Biological Determinism And Sexual Orientation

Comment to Usenet group soc.feminism

David Mertz
January, 1997

Lulu of the Lotus-Eaters me <> wrote:

...On the other hand--and more important, really--it doesn't work to act as if "homosexuality" is an objective trait of human beings apart from the socio-historical creation of categories of sexuality.

Russell Turpin <> wrote previously:

This is a bogus complaint. All (yes, all!) categories are human constructs. Nature does not hand us categories; it is people who decide to measure height or effort or frequency, etc. If Lulu is complaining that the category has fuzzy boundaries; well, so do most categories used in biology and medicine.

Turpin is being dissimulative here (and in much of the deletae). Or perhaps sophistical. In any event, pointing out that all categories are human constructs is a banal (Kantian) irrelevancy. Of course categories are human constructs, but the manner of their construction differs between categories. Some categories are constructed to describe objective essences (see Kant here, of course). Other categories are constructed to describe performative acts of human beings. It is simply a category error to act as if categories are just categories sui generis. (There are lots more types of categories that I do not mention, of course).

Of course, I argue that categories are of sexual-identity are a bit different than either type of category mentioned above ("objective" and "performative"). Turpin is welcome to disagree (which he could do reasonably) with me on my characterization of sexual-identity categories. But it is tomfoolery to phrase such disagreement in an homogenous reduction of the category of "category".

My particular characterization of sexual-identity categories are that their true semantic scope is strictly performative, but that in meta-categorical discussion, words like gay are TREATED as if they are objective categories. In other words, I think most people make a category mistake when they talk ABOUT the category gay (and related ones). This is not quite so obvious as if someone spoke of yellow ideas; but neither is there anything mystical in the assertion that a lot of (scientific) speakers make category errors.

The example I give about party-membership, that Deborah May (sp?) repeats and appends with that of a "feminine desire to vacuum" are good examples historically conditioned categories. Unlike having a weight, being a Democrat is not something we could in principle assert of every historical person. It's not the Pliny the Elder WAS NOT a Democrat, the question simply cannot arise (he certainly wasn't meaningfully a "non-Democrat" either in the sense that a 20th C USA'n might choose to be). On the other hand, it is also not an EPISTEMIC question at issue either. Probably no one much has any idea what Pliny's weight was, but the category of weight is nontheless constructed (by humans) in such a manner as to have a priori in-principle application to Pliny. To my mind, being gay is pretty much the same kinda thing.

Yours, Lulu...