There has been much debate about what causes homosexuality. People often wonder if there’s a gay gene or if homosexuality is caused by environmental factors, such as upbringing, child molestation, an absent mother, or an affectionate father. Others are curious if it’s something we’re born with, like an inherited trait similar to skin or hair color.
Although there have been few studies on the cause of homosexuality, the debate seems to be divided, with scientists in one corner and religious fundamentalists in another.
What Sexual Orientation Is
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sexual orientation as such:
“Sexual orientation is an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual, or affectional attraction that a person feels toward another person. Sexual orientation falls along a continuum. In other words, someone does not have to be exclusively homosexual or heterosexual but can feel varying degrees of attraction for both genders. Sexual orientation develops across a person’s lifetime—different people realize at different points in their lives that they are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, or bisexual.”
The APA goes on to say that sexual behavior is not the same as sexual orientation. Certainly, gay individuals can engage in heterosexual sex. In fact, many do before they come out. One needs to look no further than the prison population to see evidence of homosexual behavior in otherwise heterosexual individuals (not including incidents of prison rape).
Plus, in the 1950s, Alfred Kinsey determined that most individuals are not exclusively homosexual or heterosexual. Rather, most fall somewhere in between the two.
Why It Matters
People are curious whether homosexuality is a choice or if it’s something one is born with. However, many would argue that gay people should be afforded the same rights as heterosexuals (whether being gay is a choice or not).
If homosexuality is caused by genetic or inborn traits, gay and lesbian people would be unable to change their sexual orientation, even if they wanted to. If homosexuality is caused by environmental factors, however, then gays and lesbians could change and become straight with therapy.
If Being Gay Is a Choice
If you ask most gay people, they will tell you that being gay is not something they chose to be. It makes sense, as one has to wonder why anyone would choose to be something that could cause them to be scorned by society, rejected by their families, denied rights, and subjected to possible violent hate crimes. That is not to say that all of being gay or lesbian is negative. In fact, most lesbians say they’ve never been happier or more fulfilled once they come out.
Some lesbians say that being gay is a choice—especially those who were once married or came out later in life. Others are angered to hear someone say such a thing. Sheryl Swoopes, a retired American basketball player, received some scorn from the gay and lesbian community when she said she thought being gay was her choice in an interview on Gay.com:
“I think there are a lot of people—gays and lesbians—who believe you are born that way. I think there are also a lot of people who believe it’s a choice. And, for me, I believe it was a choice. I was at a point in my life where I had gone through a divorce and was not in a relationship, and the choice I made happened to be that I fell in love with another woman.”
Many gays and lesbians would argue that being gay is not a choice, but whether to act on it is. We don’t choose our sexual orientation, but we do choose whether or not to come out of the closet. Most scientific organizations also believe that homosexuality is not a choice and that biology plays some role. The National Mental Health Association says that most researchers believe sexual orientation is complex, and that biology plays an important role. In other words, many people are either born with their sexual orientation or establish it at an early age.
What Twins Tell Us About Homosexuality
Scientists have studied twins to try and learn if being gay is biologically determined. Studies of identical and fraternal twins suggest that there is a genetic influence on sexual orientation. If being gay were strictly genetic, then in identical twins, there would be a 100 percent concordance rate for sexual orientation.
However, one study in 1995 found a 52 percent correlation for male identical twins and a 22 percent for male fraternal twins. A study on females came up with similar results. If one identical twin was a lesbian, in 48 percent of cases, the other twin was also a lesbian. For fraternal twins, the concordance was 16 percent, according to British-American neuroscientist Simon LeVay.
These studies show that people with the same genetic makeup (identical twins) are more likely to share sexual orientation than those with different genetic makeup (fraternaltwins). Genetics alone cannot cause sexual orientation, but they do play a part.
Additionally, scientists have not been able to conclude that there is any gene or combination of genes that will make someone gay. Genetics is very complex and scientists continue to study both human and animal chromosomes for linkage to sexual orientation.
The Gay Brain Study
A widely publicized study in 1991 found that a certain part of the hypothalamus was smaller in gay men than in heterosexual men. This study was widely touted at the time as “proof” that one’s sexual orientation is biological and not chosen. However, it’s not known whether these differences in the brain are present at birth, or if they occur over a lifetime.
Despite social science and biological research, it’s still not known what causes someone to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight. Scientists and social scientists will no doubt continue to study the causes of homosexuality in both animals and humans. No matter what they find, the LGBTQ+ community and their supporters will continue the fight for fair and equal treatment.