People have the right to be gay

For another view of this issue, see Green on page 11.

Presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson made news when he opined in a television interview that homosexuality is a choice, because sometimes men go to prison straight and come out gay. Carson’s remarks caused a media firestorm. For many on the left, homosexual behavior must always be innate, and the right must never, ever say that it is a choice. If it is a choice, then homosexuality is not the same as race, which is determined by accident of birth, and therefore would not qualify for certain anti-discrimination laws. Choice implies moral decisions as well.

Despite the usual liberal outrage, the latest polls show Americans split down the middle on the issue, with about 40 percent equally agreeing to either the choice or no choice options.

Unable to find the “gay gene,” deterministic advocates point to brain scan studies, which purported to show differences in the structure of the brain between gays and straights. Some claim whether a person is gay or straight is determined by whether the brain is left hemisphere or right hemisphere dominant. But the same technology can show that Carson’s beliefs are also innate, and not a choice. Brain scans show where the blood rushes in the brain when presented with different stimuli. Conservatives are more fascinated by, but squeamish about, gross behavior, and place a higher value on purity and order than liberals. Conservatives process information through the parts of the brain that deal with fear and threats. Liberals process information through an area of the brain that deals with empathy rather than risk.

Carson and other conservatives who link homosexuality with behavior like bestiality can’t help themselves because their brains tell them to. Likewise, liberals are more likely to believe that negotiations with Iran will produce a positive outcome because their brains command them to.

As a libertarian, I defend free will and am put off by too easy a deterministic outlook on life.

Brain scan studies that purport to show permanent damage or alterations to the brain caused by drug addiction are coming under fire. It is becoming more accepted that drug use is not simply a matter of how chemicals are processed in the brain, and in most cases does not permanently alter brain structure.

The reasons are the “rat park” experiments, the experience of the Vietnam War veterans’ heroin addiction, and the experience of drug decriminalization in Portugal.

Early studies that showed how laboratory rats, given a choice between water laced with cocaine and just water, always chose the drug-laced liquid, even shunning food and starving to death. Drug warriors believe people become addicted because the drug irreversibly takes control of the brain. However, the “rat park” experiments show that the same rats, given companionship and other behavioral options in a rat friendly environment, actually drink the plain water, and avoid the cocaine.

The experience with heroin-addicted Vietnam veterans surprised us, because once home in America, the vast majority of the veterans simply stopped using heroin. The decade-long experience with drug decriminalization in Portugal shows us that even hard drug users, if given more options than prison and compulsory therapy, can and do quit their drug use.

It is too early to answer the nature/nurture question because of brain scans. We do not know for sure what causes drug addiction, political beliefs and sexual orientation. We do know that acceptance and toleration, human connectivity and choice are still the best ways to live with those who think or behave differently than we do.