Media Circus

While the rest of the world has moved beyond last month's cloning madness, a number of gay writers and activists have seized on Cloning Rights as the next big crusade. They're wasting their time.

Published April 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the emergence earlier this year of Dolly the Cloned Sheep excited no one quite so much as the headline writers of the world, who were quick to festoon all the newspapers and magazines within their reach with endless variations on the same few themes: Hello Dolly! Send in the Clones! Irreplaceable Ewe! But the excitement wasn't to last very long: After running through the most obvious half-dozen headline possibilities, they lost interest -- and so, it seems, have the rest of us. Like many a has-been celebrity, Dolly has been abandoned by the paparazzi of the scientific world, and we've turned our attention to a whole host of new scientific teasers: the possibility of life on Jupiter's moons, the strange bacteria found in volcano vents on the ocean floor, the incredible levitating frog of Nottingham, England, held above the ground by powerful magnetic forces.

But the debate over cloning is still smoldering in the gay and lesbian press, where an odd assortment of writers and activists are attempting to sell Clone Rights as the burning issue of the coming century. Ann Northrop, a columnist for New York's LGNY newspaper and co-host of a gay cable show, declared cloning to be "very definitely about gay people being able to reproduce a gay person," as she put it in an interview with the publication GayToday.. Rather than depending on a supply of excess babies from heterosexual couples, or on the unreliable turkey-baster method of artificial insemination, gays and lesbians would finally be able to reproduce a new generation of baby dykes and gay boys just like them -- from eye color right on down to a taste for Melissa Etheridge. "It may come down to us to perpetuate ourselves and we should be prepared to do that!" Northrop declared. "And wouldn't the world be a better place if there were more gay people, creatively anyway."

Meanwhile, in the pages of the Advocate, Chandler Burr made a similar point, albeit in language slightly more restrained. Burr, the author of "A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation," suggests that, genetically speaking, cloning represents the best reproductive method for gays and lesbians who want to propagate the species, so to speak. "Homosexual orientation (not the behavior that expresses it) is probably a 100 percent biological trait," he writes. "So if having a homosexual kid to 'preserve the race' is important to you, cloning gives you your best odds for getting one."

Northrop and Burr are moderates compared with the noisiest Clone Rights crusader of all, a media savvy tummler and longtime activist named Randolfe Wicker, the driving force behind something called the Clone Rights United Front. Cloning, he told Gay Today, is not only "a gay issue ... It is a feminist issue and a male liberation issue too because men and women, not the government, have a natural right to maintain reproductive control over their own bodies. Government, led by excitable, homophobic and foolish politicians ... has no right to keep us from reproducing ourselves." Or, for that matter, from reproducing Brad Pitt. "You can have a thousand Brad Pitts, bring up a whole flock of Brad Pitts," Wicker remarked, envisioning what for some (particularly those with a weak sense of smell) would be close to a utopian future. And so CRUF has set up a Clone Rights Action Center, and has released a special Clone Rights United Front Bill of Rights, declaring cloning to be a fundamental constitutional right. "Heterosexuality as a route to reproduction," Wicker concludes, "is now historically obsolete."

Well, not exactly: On a purely practical level, cloning has no more rendered the old-fashioned reproductive route moot than Nottingham's Levitating Frog has made conventional air travel a thing of the past. And the Clone Rights crusade has not exactly become a mass movement. The overwhelming majority of Americans -- close to 90 percent, according to one CNN/Time poll -- consider cloning to be "morally unacceptable," and nearly 30 percent say they'd go so far as to participate in an anti-cloning demonstration. (I'll believe it when I see it.) In any case, CRUF's first demonstration, a small action in front of New York's Sheridan Square "Gay Liberation" monument, brought out only a dozen or so demonstrators -- and some of the organization's "volunteers," the New York Observer cattily suggested, may simply be people who owe Wicker a favor.

But Wicker and the other Clonistas make a few good points. For the most part, as they point out, the initial reactions to cloning were hasty and unthinking -- as if even considering the possibilities of human cloning were somehow repugnant. Conservatives fulminated about human hubris and the dangers of mere mortals playing God. ("We ought not permit a cottage industry in the God business," declared New York state Sen. John Marchi.) Liberals and lefties worried about Nazi eugenics and the dangers of rich kooks making endless copies of themselves -- or generating a race of slaves. Would evil capitalists begin popping out babies for spare parts? Ruth Hubbard asked in the pages of the Nation. Would an emergent "Nazi empire (try) to clone a master race?"

Well, it didn't work for the Nazis last time, and I can't imagine the assortment of kooks and rejects that make up the neo-Nazi movement today having much more luck in cloning a new race of superior beings. (Whose DNA, after all, could they use? Certainly not their own, if they have any concerns about quality control.) I have to say I understand the CRUF's frustration with what it describes as an unholy alliance of "modern day scientific luddites, homophobic religious zealots, and ... tin pan alley politicians preening and catering to public fears." I don't want John Marchi or Ruth Hubbard to poke their hands in my genetic soup.

But at the same time, I think the Cloning Rights crusade reinforces some of the most dismaying tendencies in queer activism, notably an overhasty embrace of an intellectually and politically troubling kind of genetic determinism. Sure, the notion of a "gay gene" helps to put the kibosh on the notion, fervently held by fundamentalists and their ilk, that gays and lesbians "choose" their sexuality much as one might choose a new couch. But do we really need biology to tell us this? No one chooses to feel the desires they do. More troubling, the scientists who've searched for gay genes and other biological markers of gayness tend to assume that what they're studying is a straightforward proposition. But by reducing gayness to a simple either/or proposition, biology effaces homosexual history -- and simply ignores the category-challenging meaning of bisexuality. Human beings, gay and straight alike, are far more than the sum of their DNA -- as some writers in the gay press have tried to point out.

Since the beginnings of history, heterosexual couples have tended to look upon their children as miniature editions of themselves -- and have watched in horror as the kids have grown up to go their own way. If Randolfe Wicker wants to clone himself, I won't stand in his way; it's his DNA. But he won't get much sympathy from me if Randolfe Jr. grows up to have an entirely unnatural interest in girls.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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