Yasmin Nair

Is Homosexuality Genetic or Chosen? Does That Matter?

Filed By Yasmin Nair | November 15, 2008 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Blacks and gays, gay identity, origins of homosexuality, Prop. 8

In the swirl of Prop 8 madness, and the rush to blame the black community for its defeat, comes William Saletan's myopic piece for Slate, about "Blacks, Gays, and Immutability."

Saletan uncritically rehashes the idea that blacks voted for Prop 8 because they're homophobic. I'm troubled by the patronising tone in Saletan's piece, which condescendingly argues that African-Americans just aren't there yet when it comes to understanding the genetics of sexuality. "From prenatal hormones to genetics to birth order, scientists have been sifting data to nail down homosexuality's biological origins. As they advance, it will become easier and easier to persuade African-Americans that being gay is a lot like being black."

Alex and others have tackled the racialised overtones of the furore by white gays who blame African Americans for Prop 8, so I won't rehash their work. I'm primarily interested in the nature vs. nurture issue that Saletan raises in his piece, one that comes up a lot in gay organising.

Why does the question of whether we're born gay or not matter so much to Saletan/us? Well, because, according to Pew: "Belief that homosexuality is immutable [is] associated with positive opinions about gays and lesbians even more strongly than education, personal acquaintance with a homosexual, or general ideological beliefs." In other words, people are more likely to accept gays if they think their sexuality is genetic and not a choice. In other words, if it ever turns out that we flagrantly, and without a care for decency and decorum, choose our sexuality...we're dead meat.

But, really, why the bloody hell does it MATTER whether someone chooses to be gay or not?

Let's take a hypothetical situation. You're two gay men who've lived together for over twenty years, raised a son, and own a house. One day, you both decide that you're really straight. Maybe it's just that something stirred inside both of you, or maybe you just chose to try something new. What will our community do to you?

The Gay Union will send in stormtroopers to get rid of anything - elegant drapery, spectacular floral arrangements, Baccarat crystal, eighteenth-century sconces, the elegant and never dowdy heirloom needlepoint pillows - that might serve as evidence of your shameful lie. As for your kid -- the one you thought was the classic son of gay men, with his delicate shyness; deeply ironic humour; louche elegance; and the ability to spot a fake Luis Vuitton bag from a block away? Inauthentic. Merely the son of two straight men who happened to stumble into good taste. Your gay union card, the grey metallic one, with an embossed pink triangle? Shredded.

In effect, your gayness will be foreclosed. You will be stripped of your designer duds and banished from your turn-of-the-century fixer-upper that you fixed up so well, wearing nothing but the cheap cotton shirts and no-name mall jeans worn by ordinary men. No more Verbena-scented triple-milled French soap for you. No, no, no. Yardley's Lavender soap, found at your local Walgreens for $1.49, is the closest you'll ever get to that experience.

Let's stop asking whether we're born gay or not. Because there are real consequences to placing so much of our self-worth and our politics on other people's decisions to think more or less of us based on how our sexuality is determined. We keep asking questions about whether or not we're born gay, and allowing ourselves to be defined by them, without asking: So what if someone chooses to be gay? Do they get fewer rights if they choose? Are they less deserving of our collective protection? What the hell does "gay" mean, anyway, in a world where a lot of us, including supposedly "straight" people, define ourselves in ways that defy "normal" categories?

The idea of justifying our existence based on scientific evidence of our gay genes only reiterates a pathological model of gayness and, let's face it, a revulsion towards queer sex. After all, when someone says, "I'll tolerate you/give you your rights because I know you can't help being who you are," what they're really saying is, "Ugh, I hate that you put your cock where it doesn't belong and/or your lips where none should go, but that's okay - you're just a genetic freak. But if you actually chose to do all that, I'd be justified in stripping you of your rights." How is this progress?

Scientific knowledge is crucial to our understanding of how the world works. Consider the example of Sarah Palin: That's your brain without scientific knowledge. But scientific knowledge, especially when it's related to issues like sexuality and race, is itself hardly always an objective, um, science.

When Salenti writes triumphantly at the end of his essay that "being gay is a lot like being black," he conveniently forgets that blackness has never been an immutable category, especially in the United States, embedded as it is in an intermingled history of slavery and the rights to land ownership, among other things. Race can be both a category we seek as an identifier of authenticity, for historical and cultural reasons, and a category imposed from the outside.

Let me be clear: I'm not asking that we "embrace the diversity of all our LGBTQ brethren." I'd like us to be much more clear than that. Our protections under the law ought to come about because everyone else deserves them as well, not because we've had to justify ourselves as the purest and most authentic of the lot. And not because we want to obtain "a place at the table" of the privileged few.

I know that someone is bound to jump up and say, "Aha, yes, that's why we deserve the rights of marriage!" So let me be clear, again: Let's stop asking, "Why can't we get married to get those special rights and benefits that straights get?" Instead, let's ask, "Why should marriage be the sole guarantor of rights and benefits?"

And when straights and gays ask, "Is homosexuality genetic or a chosen lifestyle?" our answer should be clear: "It doesn't matter." That question, of course, puts a different burden on us. We actually have to start thinking about what does matter to society at large, not just to ourselves.

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good lord, yasmin, I agree.

it really doesn't matter. if we don't discriminate on peoples religion- which is clearly a choice- why should we discriminate on choice of partner?

for some, there is no choice. for some, there is . we are a bell curve of sexuality.

when we have to defend by saying, we had no choice! it makes it seem like... it's bad. we have to be this way.

I say, celebrate. we are who we are and it's wonderful. choice for some, not for others. all is okay.

Hey, Sara,

Thanks. Yeah, I'm not sure why we keep bothering with this debate. Science, in my view, should be about dinosaurs and the law of gravity (I believe in both, but not that the former roamed the earth with men, as Palin seems to think) and such, and not about whether someone's genetic framework makes them or less deserving of rights.

Just when you think you've seen it all... Sara agrees with Yasmin. Footage at 11. :)

I couldn't disagree more. It matters. It matters a great deal. On one level it matters because it matters to the outside world. On a different level it matters because quite a few gay folks organize the reality of their gayness around the idea that it is not a choice.

I have friends who have undertaken multiple suicide attempts and electro-shock therapy because they couldn't rid themselves of the gayness. I'd say ask my friend ____ if it matters, but I can't because he is dead. I'd say ask my other friend, but I can't do that either as he put the barrel of a loaded sidearm in his mouth on Christmas morning.

Asking me if it is a choice, is a legitimate question. Asking if it matters is simply cruel.

And as for the cute little story about the Gay Union, if a gay white male had made up a similar story about any other group he would have been rightly called out for it.


You've quite misconstrued my piece. I'm simply saying that it *shouldn't* matter, precisely because it makes some of us feel enormous guilt/self-revulsion/repulsion. At issue for me is not whether or not it seems to matter to individuals, but what we lose or gain by making this question an organising principle.

As for the bit about Gay Unions, go ahead and substitute any community you like. But you'd have to agree that the model population within our community is in fact that of upper class gay men. I'm not sure why *you* imply that these are *white* men. I never stated their race, so it's interesting that you should have automatically decided that they're white. And, by the way, you can read a lot of my own tastes in that piece. I have a fondness for French, scented, triple-milled soap.

It's satire, Greg, of the sort that the most mundane gay-centered shows engage in these days. I'm not going to go into a long digression defining satire here.

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | November 15, 2008 9:11 PM

Reformed: You're discussing the needs of people suffering from dangerously acute cases of ego-dystonic homosexuality, which is not the subject of this piece, although positing the notion that being gay is not a pitiable malexistence might well do them some good. I'm terribly sorry for your loss and have come close to losing a few dear ones to that condition myself, so I really do understand. But, instead of trying to hamstring this apple with your orange, concentrate on what can be learned from those tragedies -- particularly the warning signs -- and let the other discussion help raise the general awareness so there might be fewer who suffer and die in the future.

Reformed Ascetic | November 15, 2008 10:17 PM


I believe I understand what you are saying. I too have observed that for a surprising, at least to me, number of LGT people it has been both empowering and freeing to be able to point to biological causation. [I left the B out because no meaningful amount of research has been done on bisexuals as bisexuals.] I personally believe it can be empowering to better understand how we ourselves function.

And to be honest, when I hear straight or gay people in mixed public arenas taking pro-gay stances based largely on saying that "gay" is just genetics, I never correct them. Largely because they are almost always quite emotional, and I don't want them to feel attacked.

There is good scientific evidence that not only do genetics play a role, but that in some unknown manner some people are genetically programmed towards homosexuality. There is even better evidence that however people's sexual or gender orientation develops that for most people it happens very, very early in life long before a person is capable of formulating, making or understanding choices in the matter. [Before people freak out, this is not in support of the "bad" parenting, or homosexual exposure, or sexual abuse theories. There is no legitimate scientific research supporting those theories and a lot disputing them.]

Others however have a sexual orientation that does not pull them to one side or the other.

And still others describe themselves as making or being able to make choices in the matter.

I don't believe that Yasmin is trying to invalidate those that feel they have no choice. Those who's best understanding tells them they were born into their sexual orientation.

I read her essay as trying to say that: 1. the language we use can be more inclusive without negating anyone's experience, and 2. that long term it may well be a better strategy to take the harder road and simply say we all have a right to choose as we wish however that "choice" is made.

We are all working together here. I don't believe anyone wants to be cruel.

And if I may, please allow me to say that I am sorry for your losses.

Thanks for the kind words R.A.

When I maintain that sexual orientation is not a choice I don't foreclose the idea that some men have sex with each other for the thrill or novelty or what-ever of it.

The difference is when it comes to an organizing principle. Then when I say it is not a choice I maintain that because my sexual orientation is an intrinsic part of my being, others don't get to make value judgments about it.

Reformed Ascetic | November 15, 2008 7:24 PM

And when straights and gays ask, "Is homosexuality genetic or a chosen lifestyle?" our answer should be clear: "It doesn't matter."


Thank you very much. This is one of my personal problems with current public strategy. I take heat for my position from both straight and queer people. Freedom of expression is freedom of expression. Either I am free to choose who I want to share my life with, either as friends or lovers, or I am not. Either I am free to pursue happiness as I see fit, or I am not.

I don’t feel comfortable being a torch-bearer for the genetic/biological argument. I fear that some who do are calculatedly betting that once tolerance is gained it won’t matter how.

You hit the nail on the head. The argument is the argument of pathology. Forgive me for I know not/can’t help what I do. It doesn’t just miss the point. It potentially continues the argument until such time as those people who may carry biological/physiological queer identifiers can be identified and treated. Or disposed of in utero.

The genetic argument also does nothing to support bisexuals (or other less sexually polarized people) as they are capable of “straight” relationships.

The only thing I would add to saying, “it doesn’t matter” is “my reasons are none of your business.”

I believe very much in the value of science. I believe very much in the value of research into sex, gender, sexual orientation, and gender orientation. I follow the research quite closely. I will try no to go into great detail as to the history of the research into sexual orientation here, although it’s very hard for me not to, but I will say that while we all know there is a lot of disinformation floating around straight communities regarding “gay” science there is also a lot of misunderstandings in the queer community. By the time research hits the popular press all the scientific information has been diluted almost into illegibility.

I do however think it is worth pointing that this strategy is largely supported by psychological research that showed that people who read an essay discussing the genetic/biological nature of homosexual behavior rated LGBT people more positively than those who didn’t. But the research was not investigating what would be the most convincing political argument. It was examining if gay positive information affected people’s perceptions.

"The idea of justifying our existence based on scientific evidence of our gay genes only reiterates a pathological model of gayness and, let's face it, a revulsion towards queer sex."

Right on, Yasmin. I too have long been of the opinion that the question of genetics should not matter when it comes to sexuality. It really seems like a dangerous path to tread, especially since the community hinges so so much on the search for the "gay gene." (What if there isn't one--then what?)

Unfortunately, the trouble comes when looking at how "outsiders" assimilate the acceptance of homosexuality and they hinge so much upon genetics even more than we do.

It's difficult to reconcile.

Reformed Ascetic | November 15, 2008 10:53 PM


It bothers me that the science in this area has become so politicized. On both sides.

I think it's a weaker argument to argue genetics than personal freedom. I think that too few people truly understand the science involved for it to be as effective as it could be. And as we have all seen in stop smoking campaigns, I question how effective a scientific argument can truly be. Yet, the genetics argument has become so personal to so many people, gay and straight, that I hesitate to risk offending them.

There is real and significant scientific evidence that genetics play a role in homosexuality. But there are a couple of problems with a simplistic understanding of this.

Not all gay people can be identified as having a "gay" marker and not all people who can be identified with a marker are gay. All those headlines about gay genes and trans genes reflect markers found in small (statistically significant and scientifically interesting but proportionally small) parts of the population.

Genetic codes are more complicated than there or not there. There are large numbers of ways that gene expression gets influenced even when they are there.

As prominent a role as genes have in determining things like height, environmental factors and personal choices also play a role. Access to sufficient nutrition is a well-understand environmental player in determining height. More purely personal choices like exercise and stretching can also influence growth.

Personally, I tend to keep coming back to the twin studies involving sexual orientation because the idea is so simple and yet so powerful. These studied identical twins (that is having exactly the same genetic code) separated at birth. There are some issues with these studies (for instance the difficulty of finding such people leads to small sample sizes), but they appear to suggest that genetics do play a role in sexual orientation. The twins shared homosexuality as a trait at much higher rates than even non-identical siblings. However, loosely half the sample had opposing sexual orientations. So something other than genetics appear to be involved as well.

Thanks, Prince, and others,

Yes, I agree - we need to seriously question the whole "gay gene" debate!

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | November 15, 2008 9:42 PM

I'm already on record agreeing with you on this one:
and taking it just a bit further, perversely radical creature that I am. (I also have been known to say that I'm pro-abortion as opposed to pro-choice, if only because people keep trying to tell me that nobody is pro-abortion even though they have yet to meet my sister-in-law, the best reason for being pro-abortion ever. Not that I'm going all early-twentieth century eugenics or anything -- I'm not into force in the matter but, I mean, some people just should not choose to reproduce!)

And, as long as we're on the subject of terms and questions of choice, I'd like to compliment you on your choice of phrasing, "Why should marriage be the sole guarantor of rights and benefits?", that does not ignore that couples do have some issues that need legal solutions that are provided in civil marriage that single people do not while simultaneously recognizing that things like access to health insurance should not depend on whether one can cope with someone else's annoying habits enough to keep a relationship going or not -- that these are not mutually exclusive pursuits. It is possible to both fight for equal access to civil marriage and other issues of socio-economic concern of our community at the same time.

The diagnosis of ego-dystonic homosexuality makes about as much sense as ego-dystonic "failure to look like a fashion model". The mechanism is shame and depression, the cause is societal pressure on persons vulnerable because of age or temperament or unmet psychological need for security. The DSM ought to can that diagnosis.

Reformed Ascetic | November 15, 2008 11:09 PM

Ego-dystonic homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1987. Under a "catch-all" category of sexual disorder not otherwise specified they retain is retained "persistent and marked distress about one's sexual orientation."

The WHO has a category for egodystonic sexual orientation.

The language in both cases is orientation neutral, and the object is, or should be, to help the client/patient to achieve an end to their distress. "Curing" their orientation is not (supposed to be) the goal.

Rick Elliott | November 16, 2008 2:50 AM

A year or so ago I attended a lecture from the University of Texas, Medical Branch in Houston. The presentation made it clear that being homosexual is determined between the sixth and twelfth week of gestation. As I understood what was being said, what determined homosexualness relates to a fetus' ability to absorb testosterone the mother created. If the male fetus did not absorb it correctly in amount, he would be homosexual. If a female fetus absorbed too much, she would become a homosexual.
The presenter was high up in the medical school research division. The conclusion came using data that had been taken for 30+ years. The speaker claimed a 98% degree of accuracy of results.
Another thing I learned from classes on sexuality is that there are more determining factors that mammalia and genitalia. Arm shape is one: the male arm tends to be straight;, while the female usually has an arc starting at the elbow. Hip development is another--wideness of the hip is a female trait while narrowing of the hip is a male trait.finger lengths are also a determination--it's the relationship of the index finger and the ring finger. In males the index finger tends to be shorter, while the female is of approximately the same length. Leg shape is also an indicator--female legs tends to touch while their ankles couldn't touch at the same time. For men this is a much grayer area.
What makes the determiners even more difficult is that each sex may have one or more characteristics of the other. For example I have the female elbow bend, a tendency of having fatter breasts (as a teen-ager my doctor did some of the early work of liposuction, removing most of the fatty tissue that had become an embarrassment to me. I also have knees that won't let me touch them and my ankles at the same time. Yet I do have male genitalia and and straight hips. Observing I've seen many women with the narrower shape like men along with more of a barrel chest and heavier breast tissue. I'm also noticed a gay male with the slight broadening of the hips. This leads me to again wonder if sexuality is a continuum and not a black and while demarcation.
I am a liberal arts sort without much scientific background at all--so I would appreciate any comments on what I've written to help me understand the issue better.

Reformed Ascetic | November 16, 2008 7:49 PM

You’ve raised at least two lengthy discussions. Within my limited power, I will try to address some of your points.

I have some familiarity with the med school in Houston. I have no idea which professor, researcher or visiting speaker you heard, but I can definitively say that anyone who suggested (or suggests now) that the causes of homosexuality (or heterosexuality) are understood is either mistaken or being misleading at best. Although there have been some really interesting studies, I think the majority of researchers would agree with characterizing research into sexual orientation as near the beginning rather than at the end. No one has any form of “gaydar” that works with anything approaching or resembling 98% accuracy. If it existed some people would be using it and others would be protesting.

Theories about testosterone related causation essentially started with a researcher studying rats (mice?). He found that some males in the litter would receive less testosterone during gestation (essentially due to the mechanics of carrying a litter in these animals), and that those males exhibited behaviors he defined as homosexual (such as being passive). This process simply doesn’t occur in humans, even when carrying twins. However this study was publicly lauded as proving the causation of homosexuality, even though all it addressed was male rats. Much research followed involving humans and testosterone. Nothing came of it. Testosterone levels in the womb, as children or as adults cannot be shown to cause (or reliably follow) sexual orientation. This myth persists in large part because testosterone has come to be associated with masculinity and many assume that the hormones of masculinity must naturally be lacking in some way in homosexual men. It’s simply not true and if it had been all discussion of the subject would have already ended.

Women also produce testosterone and other androgens. They just do so at lower levels. Certain levels of externally applied estrogens have been shown to have health benefits for men. Etc. The sexes are not fully separated by their hormones, much less the sexual orientations.

I have had some opportunities to try to sex human bones. It is not anywhere near as easy as people make it sound. The hips are often spoken of for a couple of reasons. Most people accept that women’s hips are different because they can see a difference in the people around them. The differences you see however are not because of the hipbones. They are due to differences in the way women tend to deposit fat in their bodies versus the way men tend to deposit fat in their bodies (differences in fat deposition are affected by hormones). When actually looking at the bones: the hips are one of the easiest, if not the easiest, places to find sex related differences. However these differences are relatively minor even compared to the rest of the same hip structure. Even when looking at the hips of adults the sexes can easily be confused. There are other, even more subtle, differences found in human structures but some of these may well be confounded with other factors, like nutrition or exercise. As you suggested most of these differences lie on a scale with female labeled on one end and male labeled on the other. Even if these labels are held to be reasonable, the vast majority of people lie somewhere in the middle.

Gynecomastia,or pseudogynecomastia, (the appearance of breasts on men) is common among adults and even more common among males in the years of puberty. Many things play a factor from puberty to weight to aging to marijuana use [this is debated] to side effects of certain disorders, among still others. Those super-macho weight lifting steroid abusers also face the side effect of developing gynecomastia.

Sex clearly occurs across a spectrum in humans. For instance, by random chance I have known three separate mothers who revealed to me her daughter was just discovered to be carrying a y-chromosome when reaching puberty. One way to describe this is that these daughters were chromosomally (genetically) male while appearing to everyone, including their pediatricians, to be “normally” female. I recently read a published work arguing that there were at least 7 ways to biologically class individuals into either male or female. As examples these were things like external sex organs, internal sex organs, and chromosomes (genes). The trouble is that they often disagree.

Another often quoted factoid is that all fetuses start as females.

As our understanding of human physiology has increased even death has become difficult to clearly define. It’s no accident we now talk about distinctions like brain death.

Whether it’s sex or sexuality, I generally just leave it at people are what they choose to tell me they are.

I realize that this is meant as satire, but I have to admit that you lost me by painting queers as wealthy and materialistic. For example:

In effect, your gayness will be foreclosed. You will be stripped of your designer duds and banished from your turn-of-the-century fixer-upper that you fixed up so well, wearing nothing but the cheap cotton shirts and no-name mall jeans worn by ordinary men. No more Verbena-scented triple-milled French soap for you. No, no, no. Yardley's Lavender soap, found at your local Walgreens for $1.49, is the closest you'll ever get to that experience.

I have no designer duds. Mall jeans? Who can afford to buy jeans at the mall? My jeans have a name on them - Target. And Yardley's works just fine, but so does generic Softsoap.

I guess what I'm saying is that I'm hopeful then that it's not a choice. I want my share of the wealth that apparently comes to those who subscribe to the "genetics" theory.

Well, Is the issue of some chromosomes not being de-activated during fetal development the probable cause of homosexuality and not a genetic trait?
Since there is still no valid proof that being gay is not a choice, what I am to believe?
Are there any recent links that have more info on the gay issue regarding more substantial research other than just theories?