I’m not exactly sure what people have in mind when they use the term ‘biologically normal’. I know that it comes up frequently in discussion on access issues regarding LBTBQ people which is why I am so aware of it, but I am having a hard time finding a definition of it. If this is a term you use, then feel free to add your definition below.
Normal has so many definitions. The Free Dictionary (1) tells me that normal is being something that is common. Common behaviour can be a standard or ‘norm’. Common is something that most people do. If I dig a little bit deeper, I start to feel a little uncomfortable. Normal becomes a standard, a measure. After normal we then have ‘abnormal’. Do we use abnormal to mean ‘uncommon’, or differing from what most people are doing? Is it a word that is valued positively or negatively? Abnormal is followed by unnatural. We tend to use natural to describe things that are positive, that are found in nature, and unnatural for negative things, that are also found in nature but for some reason are negative. I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable. I am gay and that, according to some, is not biologically normal.
So what is the definition of ‘biologically normal’? I presume this to mean something that is common in nature. It is something natural. Many natural things are uncommon and does that make them biologically abnormal? I’m beginning to confuse myself here. Let’s look at congenital malformations for instance. One of my daughters was born with a congenital malformation that affects approximately 1 in 700 newborns. Is that biologically normal or abnormal? Her malformation is considered an ‘abnormality’ but the incidence of it is biologically normal. Diversity in nature is common and therefore normal (and also desirable for the survival of the species).
In biology I have not come across the term ‘biologically normal’. My biology texts use the term ‘biological determinism’ i.e. the argument that we are a product of our genes. In lay terms I describe that as something we are programmed to do. Biologists themselves have defined biological determinism (the way our genes are programmed) as a ‘reductionist’ argument. We are all partly a product of our genes and partly a product of our environment.
A simple example; you are most likely reading this post on a computer, perhaps with reading glasses (as I am) sitting in a chair, wearing clothes, within some kind of building. None of these behaviours is biologically determined. When you have finished reading this, you will probably stand up, which was once not biologically determined – it is an effect of evolution, as is all of the other behaviours I have just described. You might go to the kitchen and prepare a cup of coffee – coffee that was cultivated at great distance to your house and may have arrived at your local supermarket via aeroplane, ship and other motor transport. None of this is determined in your genes. Being addicted to coffee may have a genetic basis, along with our desire to move faster and farther than our bodies were biologically determined to accomplish, but acquiring that coffee and that speed and ability to cover distances required evolution.
I often come across the argument that there are biologically normal ways to become and to be a parent. I am told that heterosexual families are normal and LGTBQ families are not. As to which is more common, then yes heterosexual families probably are, although the ‘traditional’ family seems to be less common than might be assumed (2). Statistically it is difficult to determine how common LGTBQ families are as people who identify within the LGBTQ umbrella may not be accurately counted on census populations (3). We assume that most families are heterosexual, but we don’t really know. Since I came out as a lesbian, many women and mothers I have met have privately disclosed that they do not identify as heterosexual, nor cisgender, but to all apparent purposes they appear to be so.
I am told that LGTBQ issues are difficult to discuss at an institutional level, as they raise emotions about what is biologically normal. My answer to that is if you have never been accused of not being ‘biologically normal’ then perhaps you have really nothing to get emotional about. To be told that you are biologically abnormal is an accusation that cuts like a knife, and if you haven’t felt that then please reconsider the effect of your words.
Just this morning I came across a blog discussing health policy and noted this question;
“Perhaps the need to view and walk in someone else’s shoes should be a requirement for deciding policy”.
I believe so and quite strongly. I think that anyone who makes policy decisions in reproductive health, birth and breastfeeding support – areas that are staunchly heteronormative (heterosexual couples at the head of a family are the ‘norm’) – should wear ‘biologically abnormal” for a time. You may never have the opportunity to experience it applied to something as fundamental as your right to become a parent and to receive support to do so.
So much of what we humans do in our everyday lives is not biologically determined. If we were to stop at what our bodies are genetically programmed for, then many of us would not have survived beyond infancy. Infants with a metabolic disorder such as PKU or Galactosaemia, require infant formula in order to survive and grow. Infants with diabetes require synthetic insulin. Many of us have used some form of birth control and have experienced technology during gestation and birth. Yet, we use the biological determinism debate to judge the way some people parent or how they become parents. Some people will contest IVF as a form of conception for any couple, heterosexual or not. But of those who accept IVF as a form of conception, not all accept LGBTQ access to it. Those who argue that IVF is not ‘biologically normal’ may also contest transgender parents or gay parents who conceive naturally. I will not discuss conception within or without ‘wedlock’ as marriage is a social construct, not biologically determined.
There are many ways to conceive a child. Our genes require that humans unite two gametes – an egg and a sperm. There are many ways to go about this the most common of which is penis in vagina sex – consciously or unconsciously, and sometimes violently (i.e. rape). Sometimes that happens within a relationship and sometimes not. Some couples, whether heterosexual or LGTBQ become parents via donor gametes, some through adoption and some through surrogacy. Can you show me where the line is drawn between biologically normal or determined and non? When is a form of conception normal for a heterosexual person and not for a person who is LGTBQ?
Is there a parenting gene that is linked to a heterosexual gene? Are heterosexual relationships the standard against which we must all be measured because they are more common (although we haven’t accurate proof of that)? I think not. The desire to parent appears to be universal across the heterosexual and LGTBQ communities. In nature, difference is normal. Diversity is desirable for the survival of the species. Diversity in parenting is however, frequently not considered normal, and therefore access to care, support and legal recognition is not equal.
To those policy makers, and professionals in the reproductive health, birth and breastfeeding communities who oppose the introduction of measure that would recognise LGTBQ people as having equal right to parental support I propose one question; “Are you biologically normal?”
I look forward to your comments,
- The Free Dictionary; definition of normal http://www.thefreedictionary.com/normal (accessed 05.2.2014)
- Angier, N., The Changing American Family, New York Times (online) 25.11.2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/health/families.html?_r=1& (accessed 05.2.2014)
- Barker, M., What’s wrong with heteronormativity?, Rewriting the rules http://rewritingtherules.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/whats-wrong-with-heteronormativity/#more-57 (accessed 05.02.2014)