This post is courtesy of my daughter, Jordan Wade, who is teaching and finishing her masters degree this spring in American Studies at the University of Kansas. I asked her to add her expertise to this discussion, in order to take our thoughts in a slightly different direction. She knows I am a Willie Nelson fan, so the title she selected is perfect. I hope this helps challenge your way of thinking as much as it did mine.
I currently teach a course called Introduction to American Studies at the University of Kansas. In this class, we ask the hard questions about race, class, gender, and sexuality in the context of the United States. This means that during the semester I get to spend a lot of time talking about sexuality, what it is, where it comes from, how it exists, and the fact that we all have it.
Whenever I engage with my students about the variations in sexuality, they always want to know: Are people born gay or do they choose to be gay?
This question seems to be a pertinent question both in the media and in religious conversations. And, of course, I give them a teacher’s answer, which really isn’t an answer at all…“What if that isn’t the best question to ask? And why do you care?”
Generally this results in some grumbling and the acknowledgement that yet again they will have to actually think about the topic at hand.
Since people generally like to have their questions answered, I do promise to give you some information about whether people are born gay or choose to be gay by the end of this post. But first, let’s follow the teacher-logic for a second: what are we really asking when we inquire about the “nature” of someone’s sexuality?
First we are asking, “can you change?” Because if it is biological you can’t change the ways in which you are different from me, but if it is your choice then you can change to be more like me (AKA “normal”… like any of us really know what that means).
Biologizing sexuality is used by liberal religious groups as well as by Lady Gaga (college student reference) to encourage inclusion and acceptance of others. In liberal religious conversations it is often said that people are born gay, they can’t help it and therefore they should be loved like everyone else.
My question here is why can you only love someone who can’t help it? Why can’t you love someone who chooses to do something differently? Isn’t that what Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and other spiritual leaders were all about?
Biological determinism also brings up the danger of what I like to call the X-Men factor. Have you seen the movie or read the comics? The X-Men are genetic mutants (biologically different) and so the best scientists in the world are trying to change them so that they are no longer different. We’ve seen this happen historically with eugenics, using science and technology against people is not unheard of. A future in which tests are run on LGBTQ people to change them or alter their genes and hormones is not that far-fetched.
But what if sexuality is not genetic? This brings us to the latter part of the question, is it a choice?
Conservative religious groups often condemn the idea that sexuality is a choice, but the concept of choice is upheld by believers in sexual agency and fluidity. The anti-choice rhetoric is used to suggest that people can be healed, changed, or returned to a heterosexual “lifestyle.” Many people within the LGBTQ community find this belief offensive as it questions their agency and identities.
Think about the choices all people make when dating. There are some people you like and some people you don’t like. All of us make choices about how to express our sexuality, not just LGBTQ people.
The second question we are asking here is whether or not gayness is natural. Well, what does natural really mean?
The word natural has been used to justify power imbalances throughout history. Whiteness was natural. Maleness was natural. Aryan was natural. The reality is that what we think of as natural often changes over time. History has not always been the same, nor will it always be. Thus, we should be wary of legalizing based on one, contemporary definition or what counts as “normal.”
Finally, we can look at this question by turning it on its head. Were you born heterosexual or did you choose to be heterosexual? If you have never thought about this question, it is because you have never had to do so. It is because no one has ever asked you: where does your identity and your ability to love come from?
Usually by this point in class we have come up with new, stronger, more relevant questions to ask people in LGBTQ communities. For example, are you happy? Can you get healthcare? Do you have friends and family who love you? Do people treat you differently? Do you have equal rights? What music do you like? Did you catch the Panthers game?
Asking whether someone was born gay or whether they chose to be gay may make it convenient and simple to understand another person’s life, but that doesn’t mean it is the question that really matters. For one thing, you will always get different answers.
Some people say that they have always known they were gay while others say that they chose to be gay for a variety of different reasons. Not everything fits into one or two categories like we want it to and sometimes the categories don’t even make sense.
It is up to members of LGBTQ communities and their allies to demonstrate the complexities of humanity. To insist that, rather than limiting people, we celebrate their differences and empower everyone’s relationship choices.
For it is only through embracing difference that we can truly learn about ourselves.
Now a few quick facts on inborn sexuality vs. chosen sexuality.
The Biology Argument:
Sexuality might be genetic:
While one study in the UK in the late 1990’s suggested that there might be a homosexual gene, it was later disproven. Turns out the research was falsified and enacted unethically according to legal research standards. No homosexual or heterosexual gene has ever been found or linked to adult sexuality.
Sexuality might by hormonal:
The theory that fetal hormones are influential in sex trait development are also influential in determining sexual orientation. Though research is ongoing in this area and several small studies have shown a correlation (not causation) between in utero hormones and sexual orientation, no conclusive data suggests that this theory is in fact true. Additionally no research has been conducted on hormones that create heterosexual orientations. Until these theories can be proven for heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual people, none of them are considered relevant or conclusive.
The Choice Argument:
The idea here is that people choose their sexual preferences. The shift in language between sexual preference (90’s) and sexual orientation (2000’s) occurred as certain groups attempted to biologize sexuality.
This argument is contested both in LGBTQ communities and by the larger public. While many people argue that they do choose who to be with and who to love, the argument is often harmful politically when viewed by an oppositional public.
Despite this, many people still claim choice with regard to their sexual partners. Research on this topic suggests that sexuality exists along a spectrum and that it is in fact fluid. All people will be attracted to different things at different times. Perhaps a person is attracted to masculinity, but that manifests as being attracted to men at times and to masculine women at other times.
Again, you can think about this debate with regards to your own sexuality. How has it changed since high school? Are there times when you have had deep emotional relationships with members of the same sex? Intimacy and attraction exists in many different forms and how humans choose to be intimate also can change.
The Environment Argument:
This is a third thread that is asked about less in contemporary conversations but was extremely popular in the 80’s and 90’s. This theory argued that one’s family life, childhood etc. could turn a person gay. Often people assumed that a lesbian’s father was abusive or that a gay man hated his mother. These comments are insulting not only to LGBTQ people but also to their families and loved ones.