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Is It a Choice?


 

It's one of the first questions people ask when they begin to think about homosexuality.  Do people choose to be gay, is it biological, or is there some other explanation?  Often, the way people answer this question determines their political and religious views on homosexuality.  It also seems to affect the way they relate to homosexuals in their daily lives.  Both liberal and conservative groups know this, so we've all been flooded with propaganda on both sides in recent years, some claiming that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle, and some claiming that it's a genetically determined part of a person's identity.

Right away, we must stop and determine what we mean when we talk about "homosexuality."  (Please read A Note about Terminology if you haven't already.)  After we've done that, we can proceed.

I would like to answer the questions "Is it a choice?" and "What causes homosexuality?", but first I want to address four myths that many people believe on this topic.
 

Myth #1:  Either homosexuality is a choice or else it is genetic.  There is no middle ground.

A lot of people make this assumption without even realizing it.  Many people debate the origins question back and forth as if there were only two possibilities: "born that way" and "chose to be that way."  But there are two major problems with this idea.

First of all, this myth ignores a third possibility -- that homosexual feelings may originate from factors in a child's development.  Some psychologists, for instance, believe that areas of the brain controlling sexual desire may be affected by hormone irregularities while the child is still in the womb.  Other psychologists believe that a homosexual orientation may result from failing to identify properly with other members of the same sex or with the parent of the same sex.  Almost all of these theories agree that a person's sexual orientation is set by an early age (about 3 or 4).  It is possible, then, that a person could be gay because of something that is neither genetic nor a choice.

Secondly, it is important to recognize that this is not an "either/or" issue; multiple factors may be involved.  Many psychologists now use the term "homosexualities" to mean that different situations and combinations of factors may all lead to the same conclusion (feelings of attraction towards the same sex) but in different ways.  Genetic factors, developmental factors, and personal choices may each play a part in a person's developing sexuality, and for some people, certain factors may have more weight than others.  Of course, this is only a theory and may not be true at all.  Still, it is worth considering.

Before leaving this point, I want to emphasize that these theories seek to explain why a person would feel attracted to members of the same sex.  A person's sexual acts are always within the realm of choice, except for cases of being raped or molested.
 

Myth #2:  A Christian who believes that homosexual behavior is sinful must logically believe that no one is born gay.

I hear this a lot: "I believe homosexuality is a sin, and I don't believe God would make anyone sin, so you can't have been born gay."  At first glance, this may seem perfectly reasonable.  But take a closer look at what this person is saying.

"I believe homosexuality is a sin," usually means, "I believe homosexual behavior is sinful."  The Church has traditionally held that homosexual behavior is wrong while homosexual attraction is a temptation.  (I'm not saying whether this position is right or wrong, but it is the traditional Christian position.)  Merely "being gay," then, would not be a sin unless the individual engages in some sort of sexual behavior.

Is it reasonable to assume that some people might be born with certain temptations and that other people would be born with different temptations?  It seems reasonable to me.  We have evidence to indicate that certain people may be born with a predisposition towards alcoholism or with a "shorter fuse" making them more likely to become violent when angry.  This does not make such people engage in these behaviors, nor does it excuse them from the sinfulness of their actions.  But a person with a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism (if it indeed exists) would have to fight harder to stay sober than a person without that predisposition.

We all have an inborn tendency to sin, according to Christian thought.  Ever since Adam and Eve, every human being is born with a sinful nature.  However, we each have free will, and we make the decisions to fight our temptations or to give in to them.  A heterosexual male has a biological drive to desire sexual relations with more than one woman; however, Christianity says that he must control that desire and remain faithful to his wife.  Similarly, it is possible that a homosexual male would have a biological drive to desire sexual relations with men, but if such behavior is sinful then he would have to control himself.
 

Myth #3:  If homosexuality is genetic, then gays deserve legal minority status.  Otherwise, they don't.

Unfortunately, a lot of the information we get on this subject is biased.  Political action groups know that this myth is widespread, so groups that oppose gay rights measures work hard to convince us that homosexuality is not genetically determined, and groups that support gay rights measures work hard to convince us that it is.

The thing is, political debates aren't very good at helping us find the truth.  We need to know what the evidence really says, not just what we want it to say.  Unfortunately, we're going to be flooded with misinformation and propaganda as long as we hold to this myth.

The truth?  Genetics have nothing at all to do with determining whether a group of people needs to be protected from discrimination in employment, housing, etc.  Eye color is genetic, for example, but there are no laws against discriminating based on eye color.  On the other hand, there are laws against discriminating based on religious affiliation, which is a choice.

How should we decide what groups get legal protection?  I believe there are two questions we need to ask ourselves in making this decision:

    1) Is this group of people likely to experience widespread discrimination (being denied jobs or housing solely based on the one characteristic that sets this group apart)?

    2) Is this discrimination unreasonable?

People with blue eyes do not get legal protection because there is no widespread discrimination against people with blue eyes.  There is widespread job discrimination against drug addicts, but they are not protected under the law because that discrimination is reasonable (drug addiction is likely to affect one's job performance.)  Discrimination against African-Americans is both widespread and unreasonable, so we offer legal protection based on race.  It has nothing to do with whether the characteristic is genetic or can be changed.
 

Myth #4:  The origin or "cause" of homosexuality has been proven.

This is a myth, pure and simple.  Although studies have turned up evidence that certain factors might play a role, nothing at this point has been even remotely conclusive.  In fact, every major theory to date has at least some pretty substantial evidence against it.  At this point, the most we can say is that we simply don't know.  We don't know what causes heterosexual attraction or homosexual attraction, and it's not likely that we'll have an answer to the question any time soon.

Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying here.  Some people interpret "there isn't any conclusive evidence" to mean "biology has nothing to do with it; it's all development or choice."  That is not true at all.  In fact, the evidence weighs very heavily in favor of a biological component, but it doesn't look like biology can explain it alone.  The evidence for non-biological theories (such as the theories put forth by Moberly and Nicolosi and promoted by conservative groups like Focus on the Family) is no better than that for the biological theories.  The best evidence indicates that there is a combination of biological and environmental factors working to shape a person's sexuality in the formative years, but at this point we just don't know how it works.
 

So...back to the original question.  Is it a choice?  Can a person choose whether he or she is going to be attracted to men or to women?

I can tell you from experience.  No, it isn't a choice.

This doesn't contradict the Bible (see myth 2) and it doesn't have any political implications (see myth 3).  It's just an accurate statement of my experience.  (If you haven't read about my experience, do that now and you'll see what I mean.)  It is also the experience of many other gay people all over the world.

In fact, as long as we are talking about attractions and not behaviors, it shouldn't surprise us at all to learn that gay people do not choose to be physically attracted to members of their own sex.  After all, who among us can turn his/her physical attractions off or on at will?

When a heterosexual man gets married, he has to work hard to keep from lusting after women other than his wife.  It would be nice if he could get married and then flip some mental switch that would suddenly make other women unattractive to him.  Unfortunately, that is not the case, and he will have to battle his own feelings for the rest of his life.  On the other hand, he does not have to battle a desire to lust after men, because he simply does not find other men attractive...the very idea may be somewhat gross to him.

The reverse is true for a homosexual man.  He might not want to be gay, but there isn't any magic switch to turn off his attraction to other men (just as there isn't a switch to turn off the other man's attraction to women).  It will be a daily struggle for him, just as it is for the heterosexual man.  But the homosexual man does not have a daily struggle to keep from lusting after women, because he simply does not find them attractive.

In fact, some people have been so desperate to "turn off" their attraction to the same sex and to "turn on" an attraction to the opposite sex that they have done some pretty desperate things.  In the 50s and 60s, many gay men and women volunteered to undergo hormone therapy, shock treatments, injections with nausea-producing drugs ("aversion therapy"), and other painful or uncomfortable treatments in order to become straight.  None of them were successful.

Sadly, many teens commit suicide after trying unsuccessfully to become attracted to the opposite sex rather than the same sex.  They feel alone in the world, and don't know how to handle the pressure.  We need to stop this from happening.  If you find out that someone you love is gay, let them know that you know they didn't choose to feel that way.  Tell them that you love them; it's important for them to hear that.  And if you or someone you know is gay and is having trouble dealing with it, find a support group or at least get in touch with me and I can help make sure you find someone to talk to.  Being gay is only one part of a person's life, and you'd be surprised to learn how many different ways there are to deal with it.

 


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