There has been considerable discussion of Boyd Packer’s conference talk over the weekend. The main controversy stems from his remarks that homosexuals are not “preset” and do not have “inborn tendencies” but can but can “break the habit” and “conquer the addiction”. Many are defending him, but he has also been widely condemned for making “hateful” remarks. I must confess that I am simply not all that exercised by this debate, but I do have a few thoughts.
I suspect that Packer is wrong when he claims that no one is “born gay”. It seems plain enough to me that many are born gay. This is the almost universal report that I hear from my gay friends and acquaintances I think it is too strong to say that all homosexuals are “born that way”. I don’t have the study ready-to-hand, but Mapping American looked at rates of lesbian behavior and found that family structure made a difference (lowest rates occurred with woman in intact married families, rates were higher for single parent families and divorced families, and more than doubled for those in homes where a mother cohabited with a man not her father).
Be that as it may, here I think is the most important point: The discussion as to whether or not people are “born gay” is close to being morally irrelevant. Gay rights activist and philosopher John Corvino makes this point quite clearly. There are any number of desires that we are born with that we do not morally approve of people acting on. And there are any number of chosen desires that we think it morally permissible for people to act on. By itself, that you are born with or chose a desire is not morally relevant to the question of the whether acting on that desire is morally permissible. So both sides of this debate with homosexuality are wrong – gay advocates who think proving people are “born gay” clinches their argument, and opponents who think that proving it is a “lifestyle choice” clinches their argument. They are both wrong, the question of whether you are born that way is really not morally relevant to the question of whether homosexual acts are morally permissible. Some other question has to be answered – whether such acts are harmful, whether such acts violate the meaning of sexual acts, etc etc.
One more thought: I read Packer’s speech and I did not think it was “hateful”. Supposing that some people are “born gay”, at best Packer’s comments were ignorant. Now I don’t mean to pretend that ignorance is without consequence. It may well be that perpetuating this view leads to many unwelcome consequences (such as ineffective and often harmful “reparative therapy” treatments). And I have also been told by LDS students that such a view leads to lots of unnecessary guilt. It can turn into something where gay Mormon youths blame themselves for feelings that they cannot control (they can control their actions, but not their desires). Parents might feel they have somehow failed their children by thinking that ineffective parenting led to their children making this “choice”. I would certainly agree that such things are unfortunate and may in fact lead to tragic decisions by guilt ridden children and parents.
Across the board, though, I wish we could have this debate in a more elevated way. People need to make arguments and distinctions. We need to avoid demonizing the opposition and being so quick to find ourselves outraged.