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Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines

Baby_2When I first came out into the gay community, one of the most common party lines going around was, “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids than straight parents.” Some of the big political battles being fought at the time had to do with gay parenting, and the community was trying to reassure/ convince the straight world that it was “safe” for gay people to have and raise kids, that our kids wouldn’t be any more likely to be gay than anyone else’s. (Of course, many of us personally thought, “So what if our kids turn out gay? There’s nothing wrong with being gay, so why does it matter?” But we knew the straight world didn’t feel that way. Hence, the line.)

Dna_double_helix_horizontalNot too long after that, I started hearing the party line, “Being gay isn’t a choice — we’re born that way.” Again, this was used in political discussions and debates, as a way of putting anti-gay discrimination in the same civil rights camp as racist or sexist discrimination… and as a way of gaining sympathy. Now, this would seem to be in direct contradiction with the “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids” line. If people are born gay, doesn’t that mean it’s genetic, and doesn’t that mean gay parents are more likely to have gay kids? But in fact, these two party lines overlapped. I heard them both at the same time for quite a while… and I never heard a good explanation for why they weren’t contradictory. (Please see addendum at the end of this post for clarification of this point.)

ConstructionismThen I started hearing the strict constructionist line. “Sexual orientation is a social construct,” it said. “Our sexuality is formed by our culture. All that ‘we’re born that way’ stuff — that’s biological determinism, rigid, limiting, a denial of the fluid nature of sexuality and sexual identity.” (I am embarrassed to admit that I bought and sold this line myself for quite some time, in a pretty hard-line way… solely because I liked the idea.)

ArgueAnd now… well, now it’s kind of a mess. Some in the queer community say, “it’s genetic,” and argue that this is a core foundation of our fight for acceptance. Others fear that the “genetic” argument will lead to eugenics, parents aborting their gay fetuses, the genocide of our community. The constructionist line about rigidity and determinism still gets a fair amount of play. And more and more I’m starting to hear the combination theory: sexual orientation is shaped partly by genetics, partly by environment, and may be shaped differently for different people.

And in all of these debates and party lines, here’s what I never heard very much of:

Evidence to support the theory.

Or, to be more precise: Solid evidence to support the theory. Carefully gathered evidence. Evidence that wasn’t just anecdotal, that wasn’t just personal experience.

The line of the day — and the debates in our community surrounding it — always seemed to be based primarily on personal feeling and political expedience. I’d occasionally hear mention of twin studies or gay sheep or something… but that was the exception, not the rule. And the line has shifted around over the years, based not on new evidence, but on shifting political needs, and shifting ways that our community has defined itself.

Man_using_microscopeI am profoundly disturbed by the ease with which many in the queer community are willing to dismiss the emerging science behind this question. Yes, of course, scientists are biased, and the research they do often reflects their biases. But flawed as it is, science is still the best method we have for getting at the truth of this question (and any other question about physical reality). Double-blinding, control groups, randomization of samples, replication of experiments, peer review: all of this has one purpose. The scientific method is deliberately designed to filter out bias and preconception, as much as is humanly possible.

Scientific_methodIt’s far from perfect. No reputable scientist would tell you otherwise. Among other things, it often takes time for this filtering process to happen. And it completely sucks when the filtering process is happening on your back: when you’re the one being put in a mental institution, for instance, because scientists haven’t yet figured out that homosexuality isn’t a mental illness. But when you look at the history of science over time, you see a consistent pattern of culturally biased science eventually being dropped in the face of a preponderance of evidence.

Biological_exuberanceAnd if you’re concerned about bias affecting science, I think it’s important to remember that many of the scientists researching this question are themselves gay or gay-positive. We can no longer assume that scientists are “them,” malevolent or ignorant straight people examining us like freakish specimens. Many of them are us… and if they’re not, they’re our allies. Yes, science often reflects current cultural biases… but right now, the current cultural biases are a lot more gay-positive than they used to be. And that’s even more true among highly educated groups such as the scientific community.

But more to the point: What other options are being offered? How else do we propose to answer this question? Or any other question about the possible causes of human behavior? If answering it based on science is subject to bias, then isn’t answering it based on our own feelings and instincts even more subject to bias? How can we accuse scientists of bias in their attempts to answer this question — and use that accusation as a reason to dismiss the science — when our own responses to the question have been so thinly based on evidence, and so heavily based on personal preference and political expedience?

Deconstruction_for_beginnersUnless you’re going to go with the hard-core deconstructionist argument that there is no reality and all of our perceptions and experiences are 100% socially constructed, then you have to accept that the question, “Is sexual orientation genetically determined, learned, or a combination of both — and if a combination, how much of each, and how do they work together?”… well, it’s a question with an answer. It’s not a matter of opinion. And it’s exactly the kind of question that science is designed to answer: a question of cause and effect in the physical world.

I’m not a scientist myself. But I’ve been following this question in the science blogs for a little while now. And as best I can tell, here’s the current scientific thinking on this question:

1) Sexual orientation is probably determined by some combination of genetics and environment (with in utero environment being another possible factor). (Here, btw, is a good summary of the current scientific research on this topic, and how it evolved.)

2) We really don’t know yet. The research is in the early stages. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment… but we really don’t know that for sure, and we don’t know which factor is more influential, or how they work together, or whether different people are shaped more by one factor and others by the other. We just don’t know.

Evidence_posterBut I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: We should not be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we would like to be true. We should not be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer we find most politically useful. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is true. We should be thinking about this question on the basis of which answer is best supported by the evidence.

Biology_for_christian_schoolsIf we don’t, then we are no better than the creationists, refusing to accept evolution because it screws up their view of the world. We are no better than the 17th century Catholic Church, refusing to accept that the Earth revolves around the Sun because it contradicted their theology. We are no better than the Bush administration, refusing to recognize clear warnings about Iraq and Katrina and global warming because it got in the way of their ideological happy thoughts. We are no better than the “Biology for Christian Schools” textbook, which states on Page 1 that, “”If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”

Gay_marriage_for_better_or_worseIf we expect the straight world to accept the reality of our community, the reality that our lives and relationships and families are as healthy and stable as any other, then we ourselves need to be a committed part of the reality-based community. And we therefore need to accept the reality of the causes of our orientation… whatever that reality turns out to be.

So why don’t we try a different angle for a while. Maybe something like this:

“We don’t really know what causes sexual orientation. And we don’t think it matters. It’s probably a combination of genetics and environment, but until more research is done, we don’t really know for sure. And we don’t think it matters. It’s an interesting question, one many people are curious about — but it doesn’t really matter. Homosexuality doesn’t harm anybody, and it doesn’t harm society, and our relationships are as healthy and stable and valid as anybody else’s… and it isn’t anybody’s business but our own.

Vows“We deserve rights and recognition because we are human beings and citizens: as much as racial minorities, whose skin color is inborn, and as much as religious minorities, whose religion or lack thereof is learned. The ‘born versus learned’ question is a fascinating one, with many possible implications about human consciousness generally. But it has absolutely no bearing on questions like job discrimination, or adoption of children by same-sex couples, or whether we should be able to marry. We don’t yet know the answer to this question… but for any practical, political, social, or moral purposes, it absolutely does not matter.”

*****

Addendum: As several commenters to this post have pointed out, it is actually possible for a trait (such as sexual orientation) to be genetically caused or influenced, and still not be any more likely for parents with that trait to have kids with it than parents without it. Fair point, and worth knowing. But I think my basic point about party lines, and the prioritization of political expedience over scientific evidence,still stands. After all, we didn’t know that in the early ’90s. Geneticists may have known it, I don’t know — but lay people in the queer community definitely didn’t. And yet we were still willing to repeat both tropes: the “we’re born that way” trope and the “gay parents aren’t any more likely than straight parents to have gay kids” trope.

Comments

  1. says

    I’d also like to point out that its not only gay and straight. There is a spectrum of sexuality (in addition to gender). I’ve always seen myself as bi with a leaning towards men…but not in that trashy sorority I just want attention way.
    It’s hard to even try to explain it to people, some people have a hard time understanding gay, let alone bi. And some think it doesn’t even exist…

  2. Dave says

    Nice post. You often hear someone ask ‘when did you decide to become straight?’ as if that has anything to do with anything.

  3. Nurse Ingrid says

    I hate “nature vs. nurture” arguments. Human behavior is complex and multifactorial, and almost any quirk you can think of is likely to have both genetic and environmental causes, all twined together. As for sexual orientation, I defy anyone to claim that either heredity or environment plays NO role.
    That being said, as a bisexual there is one thing about this discussion that has always bugged me. What if there is a “gay gene” or genes…and I don’t have it? Does that mean I don’t get to be queer or have civil rights, because I don’t “qualify?”
    Like Greta said, it matters not at all what “causes” different sexual orientations. Adults have the right to engage in any sexual activity that is safe, sane, and consensual. End of story.

  4. Ben says

    Just because it’s genetic doesn’t mean you get it from your parents. Or, well, look at it like this.
    Type 1 diabetes certainly has a genetic component. It might have environmental components as well. But certainly a genetic predisposition plays a role. And, true, parents with Type 1 might be more likely to have children with Type 1. But not every person with Type 1 diabetes has parents who have it.
    Couldn’t homosexuality work the same way? Maybe gays and lesbians ARE no more likely to have gay or lesbian children. Even if that’s true, that doesn’t mean homosexuality has no genetic component.

  5. says

    I’ve read over the last post that I commented on, and I’m not sure whether I disagree with you, although it might have sounded like I did. I think there’s serious scientific evidence that there’s a genetic and environmental component, and like most things, some people are more likely to be affected by one more than the other on some occasions.
    I’m seriously against the 100% essentialist view, though, just like I’m against the 100% constructivist view. I think that if people only say that we’re born gay, it eliminates many people with queer identities who didn’t experience it that way, and if people say we’re only gay because of our environment, it’s eliminating the people who knew something was different from when they were little.
    I hate the whole nature vs. nurture argument. Everything seems to point to both, particularly because there’s no real way to separate them.

  6. Nurse Ingrid says

    The question of whether queer parents are more likely to have queer kids is an interesting one. Obviously both heredity and environment could play a role there. Has anyone done a study that compared adopted vs biological kids of queer parents? That might be illuminating.

  7. Patience says

    The way you say this:
    Unless [cut for length] then you have to accept that the question, “Is sexual orientation genetically determined, learned, or a combination of both — and if a combination, how much of each, and how do they work together?”
    And then go on to say that it could be environmental, they don’t seem to be the same thing at all to me. Learned implies that there is teaching going on (like with religion) (active OR passive teaching), while environmental implies that it is something outside of the person that influences them biologically. At least, to me, that is how I read and understand those words. I don’t think many people would agree with a “learned” stance; as the ex-gay programs show pretty well, you can’t teach someone to BE contradictory to their person, you can just teach them to ACT contradictory. For clarity’s sake, since you seem to argue that the current science is that it’s probably a combination of genetics and enviroment, you might wish to edit a bit.
    Personally, I do think it’s some combination of genetics and environment. For me, it seems to be largely genetic: my dad and his younger sister are both gay, and they have a few gay cousins; there are a few gay cousins on my mom’s side; I’m bisexual with a preference for women.

  8. says

    I don’t mean “learned” as in “learned consciously,” Patience. Learning can happen unconsciously as well, and I don’t think it does imply that there is teaching. I mean it as a shorthand for “caused by environment,” which is cumbersome to say every single time.

  9. says

    Something both Nurse Ingrid and Rose / Intergalactic Hussy said put me in mind of another point: which is that the “we’re born this way, we can’t help it” leaves us bisexuals out in the cold.
    Look at it this way. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that sexual orientation *is* 100% genetically set at birth. (I doubt that it is, but for the sake of argument let’s assume it is.) As a purely practical matter, those of us who are born bisexual *do* have some choice about which gender we get involved with. (To some extent that’s true of monosexuals as well… but bisexuals can choose women or men without having themselves and their partners made miserable by the choice.)
    So when gay activists push the “we can’t help it” line as a primary foundation for our civil rights, it pretty much says to bisexuals, “We don’t care that much about your rights. You do have a choice… so you can suck an egg.”

  10. Amii says

    Brava! Excellent point, and one that I will use myself. It doesn’t matter a bit whether genetic or environment…or even if self determined as so many gay bashers have argued.
    And just to weigh in on the debate itself, I think it’s a combination of genetics and environment (but I suspect any gay gene wqould be a recessive one).
    Environmentally, it seems that sexuality evolves for everyone and sometimes, that crosses over from how one has always identified oneself. Genetically, there are plenty of people that say they knew as long as they could consider it that they were gay.
    When I first became sexually active, I hated porn, and distrusted any boyfriends that indulged in it. In addition, I identfied myself as strictly hetero, and only had hetero fantasies. 29 years later I still identify as hetero, though I’ve enjoyed lovers of the same sex, and indeed, have same sex fantasies during hetero sex.
    All of our experiences are anecdotal, which is valuable to science, but only really as a jumping off point.

  11. says

    i love the honesty. the oh-so-humble words “i don’t know” receive a bad rap these days when more writers, scientists and religionists should embrace them. on a completely unrelated corollary, this is exactly how i feel about people who claim to know the age of earth one way or the other.

  12. says

    “Now, this would seem to be in direct contradiction with the “Gay parents aren’t any more likely to have gay kids” line. If people are born gay, doesn’t that mean it’s genetic, and doesn’t that mean gay parents are more likely to have gay kids?”
    Not necessarily. Genetics is complicated and tricksy, and genes are not always transmitted by the same people they are expressed in.
    As a trivial and simplistic analogy: Male-pattern baldness is genetic. Yet a man who is bald is not more likely to have a bald son than a man who isn’t–because while the gene is (usually) expressed in men, it is transmitted to the offspring by the mother, not the father. A bald man isn’t more likely to have a bald son because the bald man isn’t the one who gives that gene to his children.
    If tere is a genetic component to sexuality, it’s clearly not a simple “you have this gene, you pass it to your offspring, you and your offspring are gay” kind of deal. If it were, it’d pass out of th population in short order; people who are gay are statistically less likely to have biological offspring than people who are straight, and even a very tiny tilt in the statistical probability of bearing young is enough.

  13. says

    This is a thoughtful post, one of the best on this subject that I’ve seen. I think it’s ridiculous (and barring any subsequent genetic proof, I believe I can keep thinking that way)to believe that sexual orientation is in any way genetic. As an occasional bi-sexual myself, I understand that my attraction to my own sex stems from me being open to homosexuality via the environment I was raised in. It may be lust, but its all choice. If it were to be some kind of genetic DNA, then I guess there must be one for the gay guy who only likes guys, one for the gay girl, one DNA for the guy who likes girls 1/2 the time, and guys the other. One DNA for the guy who likes girls 2/3 of the time,blah blah blah. Until you break into so many fractions that it no longer matters. I’ve known many many Non-Straights. My Father is gay and my son (who doesn’t know I know yet) apparently is too. Do I believe this be genetic? Hell no! And believing so, even tho it may win a short-term argument as far as “choice” – in the end, as this post indicates- the genetic “answer” foreshadows many deeper future issues. I am attracted to both guys and girls. This should be of no more import than a person’s preference to a certain type of fashion. And hopefully, as we move further into the 21st century, minds will adapt to a matter of simple preference with no more than a shrug.

  14. says

    This is a thoughtful post, one of the best on this subject that I’ve seen. I think it’s ridiculous (and barring any subsequent genetic proof, I believe I can keep thinking that way)to believe that sexual orientation is in any way genetic. As an occasional bi-sexual myself, I understand that my attraction to my own sex stems from me being open to homosexuality via the environment I was raised in. It may be lust, but its all choice. If it were to be some kind of genetic DNA, then I guess there must be one for the gay guy who only likes guys, one for the gay girl, one DNA for the guy who likes girls 1/2 the time, and guys the other. One DNA for the guy who likes girls 2/3 of the time,blah blah blah. Until you break into so many fractions that it no longer matters. I’ve known many many Non-Straights. My Father is gay and my son (who doesn’t know I know yet) apparently is too. Do I believe this be genetic? Hell no! And believing so, even tho it may win a short-term argument as far as “choice” – in the end, as this post indicates- the genetic “answer” foreshadows many deeper future issues. I am attracted to both guys and girls. This should be of no more import than a person’s preference to a certain type of fashion. And hopefully, as we move further into the 21st century, minds will adapt to a matter of simple preference with no more than a shrug.

  15. luke says

    I’ve always been under the assumption that whatever the root reason behind it, we are attracted to who we are attracted to – people come in all different shapes sizes genders colors and personalities – some I am initially attracted to and may pursue to see if they have the personality I look for, others dont – if you are a girl and guys don’t give you that attraction, or if you are a guy and girls don’t spark your interest, so frigging what?
    I’ve always asked how homosexual relationships would bring about the demise of marriage or as some people claim our society and no one has ever been able to answer that. Ever.
    Great post, and I think it captures the perfect mindset to have

  16. J. M. says

    Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve thought this for a long time. I love science, and I think that the question of what determines sexual orientation is a fascinating question. However, I do not think it should determine whether or not same-sex marriage is allowed. As you pointed out, people think that discrimination against people of a certain skin color and people of a certain religion are both considered wrong. Even if, hypothetically, sexual orientation is caused by environment or is a choice, that does not mean it’s wrong. Thanks again for writing this.

  17. Bertha Vazquez says

    From a biology teacher: The “nature versus nurture” argument has long been buried. It still lingers in society just like the ridiculous “penis envy” still gets thrown around but scientists do not argue in those terms anymore. Picture yourself baking bread. The ingredients that you add will surely change the taste of your bread. However, the temperature at which you bake it will also affect the taste. The ingredients symbolize “nature” and the oven and temperature symbolize “nurture”. Nobody would argue that one is more important than the other or that one does not count. homosexuality, like other traits, can be compared to this analogy. And remember, your dad can have blue eyes and you can have brown eyes so heredity is not that simple. As I science teacher, I always wonder at how people can accept science easily when it comes to blood transfusions, heart transplants, and telescopes, but will reject science if it interferes with their belief system. We have plenty of documented evidence of homosexuality in 100s of animal species. We aso know that some people experiment sexually because it is readily available. So? Where’s the problem?

  18. TikiHead says

    Greta,
    I do not see how the genetic theory leaves bisexuals ‘out in the cold.’ A bisexual disposition could have a genetic component as well. Think of it as an added ability you have that other more single-gender focused people lack! ;)
    (This is all what-if, I am not claiming it’s so)

  19. Arthur says

    Another factor ignored so often when these theories do come up is differences between male and female sexuality.
    there is VERY little research being (or has been) done on female sexuality. a great deal more on male sexuality.
    You can find huge collections of information on male arousal, sexual expression, preferences etc etc. very little on women. let alone lesbian/bisexual women. For a long time lesbianism and bisexuality has been ignored or down right claimed it didn’t exist!
    what little we DO have is pretty interesting. for example that female sexuality is more ‘plastic’ then male sexuality. it can and does shift over time far more then male sexuality. that alone should raise some eyebrows.
    some of the current theories on homosexuality in males don’t translate at all to female sexuality (such as intrauterine ‘feminizing’ of males due to the mothers immune response). even if we get a strong handle on all of male sexuality, all of male bisexuality, all of homosexual male sexuality….we still have half the discoveries left to go!

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