Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines

On Sunday, AOL news — perhaps not the best source of science reporting on this beautiful green earth — reported on a study supposedly showing that gay parents are more likely to have gay kids. Unfortunately, some of the responses I’ve seen from the LGBT community have focused, less on whether the science in question is sound (it seems likely that it’s not), but on whether the conclusions of this study are likely to hurt our cause. So it seemed like a good time to revive this piece from the archives, on the dangers of criticizing science simply because it reaches conclusions we don’t like.

When 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.)

Not 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.)

Then 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.)

And 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.

I 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.

It’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.

And 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?

Unless 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.

But 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.

If 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.”

If 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.

“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 the original post 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.

Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines

14 thoughts on “Born or Learned? Sexuality, Science, and Party Lines

  1. 1

    You lean on the “we shouldn’t presuppose the conclusions before we have solid evidence” point in this piece—and why not, it’s a good and important point—but I think at least as important is the “it doesn’t matter whether GLBTs are ‘born that way’ or ‘a matter of choice’ or whatever.” Legally and morally it’s freaking irrelevant whether homosexuality (and bisexuality, transgenderism, you name-it) are genetically hard-wired or just a matter of which side of the bed you got up on this morning. Regardless of cause, sexual orientation and gender identity are legitimate and central aspects of individuals’ identity, and there is no basis for anyone—whether a government or a supposed moral authority—to discriminate against a person, or declare her morally blameworthy, on the basis of those aspects of her identity.

  2. 3

    As usual, I find that I agree with pretty much everything you say, and you express it beautifully!
    It occurs to me that it is possible (intuitively, I’d say it’s probable) that gay children of gay parents are statistically more likely to come out than are gay children of straight parents. Hm. Muddying the waters further!

  3. 4

    I’m hetero, married, male. I’ve lots of gay friends and family. I resent any attempts to disadvantage them or any other people based on orientation.
    When I encounter anti-gay people (and I take the time to try to reason with them), I ask them: “Did you look at women and men when you were a teenager and then decide who you were attracted to?” I know I didn’t! Who you are attracted to is as much a part of you as your hair color, height, shoe size, or anything else.
    I challenge them to think (seriously) about feeling obligated (or forced) to partner with the sex to which they are not attracted. That’s what they are expecting from gay people. It’s ridiculous.
    And another thing, how can some other person’s marriage, be they gay, straight, bright pink or green, possible affect your marriage? The anti-gay-marriage thing has nothing to do with protecting marriage. It is all about retaining legal coverage to disadvantage gays, period. It’s wrong and it’s against the constitution (as many courts are now finding, I’m pleased to say.)
    Does it really matter the mechanisms that induce gay sexual orientation? It’s there, it’s real, and it’s not a choice. History shows that gays have always been around, in about the same proportions forever. The only thing different now is that they are expecting (of course!) to be treated as full citizens.
    We’re getting there. I wish it were faster; but we are making slow, painful progress. I am an optimist on this.
    I actually worry about science discovering the “real” causes of gay orientation: Because people will then want to actively prevent them.
    Gay orientation for some is part of what humanity is. Let’s recognize and honor this (not tolerate it.)

  4. 5

    I’m amazed that you made it through that whole piece without discussing the nature vs. nurture debate over gender and sexual identity. There has been much less stigma and politics over that research for a lot longer, and we’re still miles away from an answer. I suspect both issues will remain political for a long time before the science offers any meaningful pronouncement on the matter.

  5. 6

    I love this topic. I am a straight/married/white/male so I know a thing or two about discrimination (I’m kidding, I understand my privilege).
    I think the whole topic is looked at as being far too black/white. There is an enormous gray area of sexuality that most (if not all) people occupy. We are not simply gay or straight. Some are more gay than others, some are more straight than others, most of us are somewhere in between. Also, each of us has a sexual identity that was formed by 1000 different factors.
    Were you molested as a child? Were you raised catholic? Mormon? Did you play sports? Did dad drink? Did mom? How old were you when you hit puberty? How old were you when you first kissed? fooled around? had sex? How many partners have you had? Do you look at porn?
    Any and all of those things (and countless others) can influence the sexual identity that you develop for yourself.
    Now ask yourself, how much have your experiences influenced your sexual identity? How much of it was natural and inherent to your body/mind? How much of it are you denying yourself?
    I think that being straight or gay is like the weather; its impossible to predict and we are incapable of influencing it.
    Also like the weather, we need to just deal with it and move on with our lives.

  6. Myk

    The possibilities aren’t restricted to “genetic”, “learned” and a combination of those two. Environmental causes include the chemical environment in the womb during development. A trait can be entirely environmental and the person still be “born that way”. As an extreme example, consider the effects thalidomide had on babies.

  7. 8

    I think Thegoodman nailed it with his comment. It occurred to me several years ago that the reason why so many homophobes are so certain that “homosexuality” is a choice is that, for them, in a very real sense, it often was. They were probably bisexual and were attracted to both certain men and certain women, and they “chose” not to pursue the same-sex attractions. They always appear very annoyed with gay and bi people, as if what these latter are doing is somehow not fair. They seem obsessed with the road not taken. I think that the duality of gay/straight or the trinity of gay/bi/straight is a categorical convenience, and ought not to be reified.

  8. 9

    Myk already said exactly what I came here to say. One can certainly be “born that way” without having anything to do with genetic inheritance. Our development is much more complicated than that, and many, many things can influence how we turn out at birth beyond simply our dna.

  9. 10

    the reason why so many homophobes are so certain that “homosexuality” is a choice is that, for them, in a very real sense, it often was. They were probably bisexual and were attracted to both certain men and certain women, and they “chose” not to pursue the same-sex attractions.

    Well, that’s clearly true of a few: hello Barney Frank, Ted Haggard, et. al. But honestly, I think they’re the exception, not the rule. The bigots believe homosexuality is a choice because, frankly, that idea supports their pre-conceived notions and agenda. In other words, they’re doing the exact same thing Great warns about “us” doing.
    I’m certainly not defending bigots! But having (unfortunately) known a lot of homophobes in my time, the notion that all/most of them are really gay/bi-in-denial just seems idiotic IMO. Humans have never been short on reasons to hate “others;” it’s not like prejudice against blacks comes from whites who are somehow in denial of their own blackness! The idea that people are resistant to questioning long-held beliefs certainly shouldn’t be a new one to anyone who reads Greta’s blog.

  10. 11

    Is it possible, that maybe, there is no actual difference in the rates, just that children of gay parents are more comfortable coming out, therefore skewing the numbers?

  11. 12

    Greg Marshall has a great point too.
    Assuming the Kinsey Scale is accurate; we can also assume that all 0’s are straight and all 6’s are gay; anyone else (a large majority of the population) have the choice of being gay or straight and are capable of being influenced into being gay or straight.
    Most children want to be like their parents, the children of gay parents shouldn’t be denied this dream just because their parents don’t fit into the conservative model of a family.

  12. 13

    Here here! It’s disheartening to hear people talk about this issue as if it was a matter of ideology. The question of what causes variation in sexual orientation is very interesting to me, and the political stuff gets in the way.
    I am a little annoyed about this new paper though. It’s not out yet, so… it’s not like there’s much to be said about it. Schumm is a fan of Cameron, which is not really a good sign, but he hasn’t been unabashedly anti-gay. The AOL news makes Schumm sound pretty self-aggrandizing as well. (I’m the one guy who cares about the answer, among all these biased liberals/progressives who suck!) It’s annoying to me, because I actually think it’s quite plausible that upbringing influences sexuality (at least for some people; I find it dubious that any particular method of upbringing would produce anything like a 100% straight or 100% gay population). But someone who makes A Cause out of proving that may not make a very level-headed case and will be prone to exaggeration and sloppiness. Schumm sounds like a crank.
    There’s all kinds of confusion in these debates overall. Some problems involve equating biological, genetic, heritable, and prenatal factors. Then there is the confusion between environmental, post-natal, cultural, upbringing-related, and “choice” factors. And the confusion between factors that causally influence or affect orientation, and those that might “determine” it.
    It’s perfectly possible that sexual orientation could be influenced by all kinds of environmental factors, and yet this understanding would never invoke “choice” or lead to any kind of effective prevention or “correction” for homosexuality.
    (Of course, my best guess based on the studies I’ve seen is that most gay people are in a certain sense “born that way”, but my point is that even if I was wrong, there would still be tons of different possibilities for how the whole thing works.)

  13. Tim

    I only recently started reading your blog. I am also white, straight, married (although i kinda have a problem with the saying white.. aren’t we all people)
    The science as far as i can read (and i am actually a scientist, but not in this area) is statistically sound. Ignoring all the nurture vs nature arguments and if children copy their parents behaviour, there is one point that isn’t raised.
    Gay parents are sort of by necessity ON AVERAGE more tolerant than straight parents. Just because within the straight sample there will always be families that raise their kids on the principle that being gay is a choice and a wrong choice. These couples simply do not exist in the gay parents sample.
    Does this make the question unsound? No, but as in almost all science, answers are never black and white, Yes or No.
    The answer to “Do Gay parents cause their kids to be more gay” cannot be answered by “Yes” or “No”, but “Yes, because XXX” or “No, unless XXX” or something.
    The answer (eliminating nature vs nurture arguments) is likely Yes simply because gay couples are more tolerant and will thus almost never raise a person who will deny to himself that he is gay. Chances that a straight christian couple raising someone is a convinced straight but who might be/become gay when raised in different circumstances are non-zero.

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