Is Sexual Orientation a “Choice”?

In light of the strong civil rights case which establishes that:

  1. Civil marriage is a “fundamental right” (Loving v. Virginia, 1967)
  2. Equal protection under the law requires equal availability of fundamental rights (14th Amendment to the US Constitution)
  3. Separate facilities and institutions are inherently unequal, even if they are “equal” by all measures (Brown v. Board of Education)

… the main avenue for denying that gay marriage is constitutionally protected is that the second point does not apply to homosexuals.

Certainly, “equal availability” does not equate to “equal use”. In other words, my second amendment right to organize a militia is not being violated if I choose to not own a gun. No matter what I choose, I have the right, and the Constitution prohibits the government from infringing upon that right.

So, the argument goes: marriage (heterosexual) is “available” to all people. If a homosexual wants to marry, all he needs to do is choose to live a heterosexual lifestyle, find a good Christian girl, and make himself a home!

The question is, though: is homosexuality a choice?

There are three major perspectives to consider, here, and so I will discuss them all. The first, and to my mind most important, is the scientific perspective: are homosexual traits determined pre-adulthood, or as a consequence of adult actions? The second is related: can the homosexual urges be “reversed” or reliably suppressed, without detriment to both the individual and society? The third is the most visceral: why would anyone “choose” this lifestyle in the first place?

The Scientific Concensus

For those not acquainted with how science works (and topics of homosexuality and other culture-war issues tend to bring out those who misunderstand the scientific vetting and peer review process), a quick overview:

  1. The scientific method allows for (1) initial observation, (2) hypothesis, (3) experimentation, (4) conclusion. A “hypothesis” is a statement backed by available evidence, which can be proven or disproven with some kind of test. If there is no available test for a hypothesis, then technically it is not a hypothesis.
  2. A theory is something which is well supported by the available evidence and has withstood multiple experiments and the scrutiny of peer review. The “theory of universal gravitation”, for instance, is a theory. The “theory of evolution” is another theory.
  3. Often the scientific community disagrees on particulars while agreeing to the general principles. In fact, this is the default state of science. For instance, there is very little disagreement that in the “normal universe” gravitational attraction decreases proportional to the square of distance (theory of universal gravitation); moving to the specific mechanisms there is a consensus but not universal agreement, and moving to the particulars of any given proposed mechanism there is widespread disagreement. It would be wholly inaccurate to cage the disagreement over how weak nuclear forces relate to gravitational forces as a disagreement over universal gravitation. The same could be said of the theory of evolution: disagreement over the “Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium Model” predicting likelihood of speciation, should not be seen as disagreement over the fundamental principle that species evolve over time via the mechanism of natural selection.
  4. If there is an idea out there, you’ll find at least one crackpot who agrees with it and another who disagrees. This is not the same as being backed by the “scientific community”. While the community is composed of individuals, which individuals by their very nature as well as occupation seek points of disagreement, there is often a “community view” of a particular issue or theory which the vast majority agree upon.

All that having been said, the vast preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the following is true:

  • Sexual orientation is a trait which is significantly influenced before or around the time of birth, and which is not affected by proximity to or knowledge of the “gay lifestyle”.

Some significant “twin studies” have looked into the effects of genetics on sexual orientation. For instance Bailey and Pillard (also summarized at World Policy) have compared samples from three groups of men and women, and relied on previous studies for a fourth:

  1. “Identical” twins of homosexuals
  2. “Fraternal” but same-gendered twins of homosexuals
  3. Adoptive same-gender/same-age siblings of homosexuals
  4. Natural same-gender/different-age siblings of homosexuals

In men and women both, they found that the first group was significantly but not completely predisposed to homosexuality (around 50%), the second group only slightly predisposed (around 20%) and the third group less than the second (about 10%). In females, the latter two groups were significantly less influential than in males (16% of fraternal females versus 22% of fraternal males; 6% of adoptive females versus 11% of adoptive males). Amongst “natural siblings” of homosexuals, the rate of homosexuality was found to be around 9%, approximately the same as with adoptive siblings.

General incidence of homosexuality in the population is about the same as seen in adoptive females (3-5% at the low end and 10% at the high end, depending on the specific study).

The main conclusions from twin studies are:

  1. There is not a complete determination of sexual orientation based on genetic code. This is something anti-gay sites tend to latch onto, forgetting the rest. It is absolutely true. Setting aside environmental pressures to suppress gay sexual orientation (which is significant, but IMHO not sufficient to explain the findings), we should see a vast majority of identical twins sharing orientation were a “gay gene” 100% selective.
  2. At the same time there is a significant predisposition to homosexuality born out in the genes. Homosexuality could not be explained by gross pre-birth or post-birth environmental factors, or the other two groups would have had the same highly-correlated results as the first group. Micro environmental factors (ie, which would affect one fetus or child but not the other) may exist, though.
  3. In-utero environmental effects appear to have a measurable effect on sexual orientation, as seen by comparing the second and fourth groups (both groups are natural siblings; the second group shared the womb).
  4. Finally, post-birth environment does not appear to be a significant driver of sexual orientation, as the adoptive siblings (who presumably encountered similar environments growing up) showed no appreciable change in occurrence of homosexuality than the general population. This is the most tentative of conclusions from this study, and should be seen as a hint rather than a conclusion.

Other studies on this concur with the above general findings.

Much of the scientific discussion around this area, in fact is not about if genes predispose one to a specific sexual orientation. The main discussions are: what are the secondary factors which make some predisposed individuals gay and others straight; what is the evolutionary advantage of homosexuality amongst a family group (obviously homosexuality is only rarely directly “passed on”, but the effect of having a homosexual sibling in the family might be advantageous); and can the “gay gene” be isolated in the genome (which brings forth ethical questions on unnatural selection against such a gene).

The scientific community has many questions about homosexuality, but on one thing its findings are resoundingly clear: homosexuality is NOT a choice!

Reorientation Therapy

In light of the above, the question that comes up most often is, can we “fix” homosexuals?

Many people and groups have tried. Many will say they have been successful, and pull out spot anecdotes almost as convincing as the guy who lost 150 pounds by just thinking happy thoughts and eating chocolate cake all day.

When exposed to scientific scrutiny, however, every single sexual reorientation therapy approach has proven ineffective.

Now, that is not to say that there is not ever going to be a “cure” for homosexuality. I strongly believe that the current approaches to therapy are unlikely to bear any fruit, as they tend to disregard completely all scientific understanding of sexual orientation. However, as I said, it is always possible that such a “cure” will be found.

At the same time, such hope for a “cure” can not influence policy today, and might not make sense to influence policy when it is found. Two reasons for that.

First, obviously, if there is no “cure” today, then homosexuals today are an involuntary minority. Yes, this is the same as racial minorities and disabled minorities. Constitutionally, they can and should be protected from the whims of the majority.

Second, if there were a “cure”, a major ethical question would come into play: can we as a society “force” someone to reverse their “God-created nature”, in order to enjoy fundamental rights? Were it possible (physically and economically) for a person to be “cured” of “blackness”, would it be right for us to strip all black people of rights, since they could easily obtain those rights just by way of a simple procedure?

Fundamentally, I come down on the side of this entire area of pursuit having no bearing on civil rights at all. Certainly not today, and IMHO not ever in the future, either. Men and women have fundamental civil rights from the day they are born, period.

Rational Actions

The third avenue here is really just a bit of a mind game.

Imagine for a moment that homosexuality is indeed a pure “choice”.

Who would choose that?

Well-known (to any rational chooser) attributes of the “gay lifestyle”:

  1. Denial of “natural” biological imperative. This is implicit in this mind game: homosexuality is not biological, and so the “normal” heterosexual biological imperatives continue to exist. There are very few segments of the population who successfully deny their biological imperatives (eg, Catholic priests). 3-10% of adult males would choose this?
  2. Systemic, officially sanctioned discrimination. As much as we are aiming to reverse some part of this in our lifetimes, discrimination against homosexuals has existed and been officially sanctioned for thousands of years, and likely will continue to exist for centuries to come.
  3. Systemic “blind eye” to discriminatory violence. Same as above, I’d love to see this reversed. However, even today in most of the country a gay man stands a much higher chance of being beaten to death by ignorant bigoted thugs than any straight man. And today is relatively speaking the “golden age” for homosexual tolerance!
  4. Artificially small pool of potential mates. Assuming the high end of 10% homosexuals, a male could choose from 5% of the population (10% of males) or 45% of the population (90% of women) as their potential mating pool. Sheer odds of finding someone you want to spend the rest of your life with are significantly higher with nine times as many people to choose from!

In return for all these negatives, a man choosing between homosexuality and not gets a feeling of inclusion in a “club”? Really?

Who would choose that? Keep in mind that a significant portion of the population would need to have been “choosing” just that, and in much less tolerant conditions than we know today, since before the start of recorded history.

This thought experiment always fails. There is no way we can reconcile a rational actor model with a choice to adopt a lifestyle with so many intrinsic and highly visible negative effects.

The only “rational” explanation for this would be that homosexual men are, somehow, irrational beings. However, if homosexuals are somehow generally irrational, that fact has been impossible to support in scientific studies.

So … Is There a Choice?

Scientifically, it is clear that (1) sexual orientation is most significantly determined well before adulthood and (2) attempts to change sexual orientation in adults have all failed. Rationally, it is clear that (3) were this a simple “choice” no one would choose homosexuality.

Given that, is there any argument at all in favor of the “this is a choice” / “lifestyle” / “sin” side of the debate?

As I’ve said previously, I firmly disagree with anyone who says a person should be held liable – in this life or the next – for something well outside their ability to choose. People are born poor and to bad parents and so forth, and of course it would be great if “born poor” didn’t mean “poor for life” to a statistically significant extent. However, those are failings of society, which are difficult to impossible to correct. Allowing a man or woman who was born gay to choose their soulmate, to live their life in our society with honor and dignity, and to contribute to the wealth of human progress: that is easy and cheap. And, as with all civil rights issues, the benefits will be immense beyond anything we can imagine today.

If we as a society can not stand on the side of God and our fellow man when doing so is easy, how can we hope to lay claim to righteousness when it is hard? Will we ever pull ourselves out of the dark ages of the soul, when we find it so imperative that those unlike ourselves not be allowed to enjoy life’s riches? Will the selfish miser ever find true happiness?


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