Beyond "I Can't Help It": Biological Determinism in American Queer Politics and Possibilities for Agency



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I explore the ways in which political strategies promoting biological determinism as the basis of same-sex desire have historically been used to argue for the social and legal toleration of queer sexuality in the United States. While acknowledging that the focus on a fundamental lack of agency in queer relationships has historically been a beneficial political tactic to gain social and legal toleration, I problematize this tactic and assert that emphasizing lack of agency, instead of positive aspects of queerness, is more harmful than helpful for the future of a unified queer rights movement. I begin by analyzing the political arguments of early twentieth century sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, who utilized biological determinism to argue for the social, political, and legal tolerance of same-sex desire. Through the idea of congenital inversion, Ellis worked to prove the naturalness of same-sex desire by virtue of its ineradicable roots in biology (even though his personal views about the origins of human sexuality were more complex). I argue that this sort of political advocacy created a trajectory for the American queer rights movement to follow in which biology is invoked in an effort to gain tolerance and civil rights. I include the analysis of historian Jennifer Terry to show how such a project of biological determinism has emphasized same-sex desire as involving a lack of control rather than as a positive choice. Through an analysis of radical lesbian feminism and early gay liberation movements in the 1960s-1970s United States, as well as the contemporary Queer by Choice movement, I show the existence of groups of people whose queer identities fall outside of the biologically-driven model. I compare discourses of agency with what I argue is a predominant stance in the mainstream American queer rights movement that to be pro-biological determinism is pro-queer and that to embrace choice or agency is automatically associated with being homophobic. After establishing the hegemonic influences of biological determinism in supposedly queer-friendly pop culture, including on liberal internet blogs, in movies, and in self-help literature, I ultimately posit that a focus on biological determinism shuts out the voices and experiences of queer people whose identities do not fit into this framework. Further, I argue that an emphasis on biology is inappropriately apologetic and fails to challenge heterosexism and heteronormativity. Finally, I propose that the American queer rights movement will be hindered in the future by clinging to biological determinism, and that as a movement, we must craft our identities in a positive framework for a more hopeful future for activism.



Sexuality, Gender, American history, Queer studies, Theory, Sexology, Radical, Lesbian, Feminism, Gay civil rights, Biology, Choice