Must Sexual Orientation be Biological?

Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame recently announced that she chose to be gay. And she caught hell.

I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.

Some critics insist she is a biologically-based bisexual.

Others have come to her defense. Gay New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, insists, “She’s entitled to her own truth and manner of expressing it.”

His readers defend her, too:

I am L.A.M or lesbian after marriage. It does not matter that I was “born” this way or not. I just know that I am intensely in love with my wife of almost ten years… I feel like my sexuality has been fluid my whole life. Being identified as bisexual does not feel like the correct label nor does lesbian.

There may be a continuum with some feeling more straight or more gay, but not everyone understands their experience that way.

Evidence suggests that our orientation is biologically-based, as with fruit flies’ master sex gene. Among humans, genetic males who are raised as females almost always prefer females. Males with gay uncles are more likely to be gay. Men with lots of older brothers are also more likely to be gay (this may be tied to womb chemistry).

But there are unsolved questions. So why hitch your wagon to a moving target, Bruni asks.

When a man is gay, his adoptive brother is gay only 11% of the time. His twin brother is gay 22% of the time. But 52% of identical twin brothers are both gay. A follow-up study found only 20% to be gay. What about the remainder? Perhaps the environment has effects at the epigenetic level. Or are there social effects? Or is there other biological evidence we have not yet seen?

Also, the hypothalamus of straight men becomes active when sniffing an estrogen derivative, and the hypothalamus of gay men and straight women become active when sniffing a testosterone derivative. But lesbians’ brains do not consistently activate only in response to estrogen.

In fact, women seem to be more “fluid.” Straight men are strongly aroused by women and gay men are strongly aroused by men, but lesbians have relatively weaker arousal for females, and straight women have no preference at all, says Northwestern University psychologist, John Michael Bailey.

Biology is not a sure-fire shield against bigotry, anyway. As Bruni points out, some Christians might want to bio-engineer heterosexuality. And since Christianity is often about resisting desires, homosexuality could be seen as “their test,” as I’ve heard some put it. The logic goes like this: “We hetero’s must control our lust for anyone but our spouse. Gays must control their lust for ANYONE.” The lack of fairness doesn’t seem to matter.

But shouldn’t consenting adults be able to love who they love? Maybe we shouldn’t worry about the bigots.

When it comes to morality I ask, “Who is harmed?” and not “What’s traditionally been renounced?”

Homophobia hurts. Being gay doesn’t.

How do you act in the world? How much do you love?

Seasons of Love

Five hundred twenty-five thousand
Six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In truths that she learned,
Or in times that he cried.
In bridges he burned,
Or the way that she died.
Measure, measure your life in love.

Excerpted lyrics from the musical, Rent (see the video)

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
Gay Marriage Protects Marriage
Gay Marriage Helps Families
Christians for Gay Rights

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 3, 2012, in feminism, LGBTQ+, psychology, relationships, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. What an interesting discussion…I certainly believe that everyone should be free to identify as they see fit, but of course our manners of identifying ourselves affect others. One one hand, C Nixon’s announcement is just her being fair about her feelings and her existence. Just because there aren’t a lot of studies about fluid sexuality and just because the bisexual community hasn’t made a clear decision on whether fluidity should be considered under the bi umbrella, does not mean she should be invalidated. Queer women shouldn’t be picked on for being their particular flavor of queer.

    …On the other hand! This could be a case of biphobia, where C Nixon doesn’t feel comfortable identifying with a more “alternative” sexuality but really is a member of that party. In that case she has alienated and invalidated many bisexual people. It is very important that queer people of all orientations have public representation and role models, and if C Nixon is bisexual then she has stayed in the bi closet, continuing to represent bisexuality as shameful or imaginary.

    But in the end I really don’t think anyone should pass moral judgment on her. As a celebrity, she says about herself may be up for political debate, but the words she uses to describe herself are a personal and private decision none of us have any business in.

    We don’t know if sexuality is biological or not. And frankly I don’t think it’s important, because no matter what it’s cause, no one deserves to be treated differently for it.

  2. For a long time I always subscribed to the thought that there was a gene that made you gay, and while now I still believe that as true, that doesn’t mean that is the only truth. I remembered hearing about the Cynthia Nixon comment in the news after she said it, and I thought, good for her. She is in a position where she can share her story, and maybe that will help someone else who needed to hear it. Why shouldn’t you be able to choose who or what makes you happy? My cousin was “on the fence” for a while as to whether he was gay or straight. But I think most of that had to do with the pressure he was receiving from his church groups he was a part of. That always made me sad, that he couldn’t be who he was, because someone else didn’t agree with it.

  3. There is no ‘right way’ to be gay. Some people choose, some do not and feel they are born gay. I think spending all this time trying to discover how a person is born gay or what makes a person become gay is a waste of time. It shouldn’t mater and I feel that if scientist were able to find a “gay gene” it still wouldn’t mater (or we could have an XMEN type scenario where people would be trying to find a ‘cure’). My family has told me being gay may not a choice in some cases, but it is still a sin punishable by an eternity in hell. You are weak if you ‘give in’ to homosexual desires because being gay is just a test of God and to pass you must be alone or force yourself to be straight. My mom just thinks being gay is despicable no matter what.
    Because of this, I think this research on homosexuality (on whether it’s biological or not) is pointless. It won’t convince people like my father or mother to accept homosexuality as a natural part of nature. I usually don’t like to waste time wondering if I have a genetic code that deems me gay. I don’t need science to tell me who I am and the reason behind it. It should just be and I shouldn’t have to explain why or how because society doesn’t understand or feels there MUST be a reason as to why.

  4. Every person is entitled to be happy in his/her relationship. Some people find this happiness in being with opposite sex; some people find it in being with the same sex. I personally think other people sex orientation is not my concern. If “straight” people have the right to have relationship with anyone they like, why do the people who are labeled “lesbian” or “gay” cannot have the same right?
    Simply concluding that “homosexuality” is the product of inherent biology just because of some similar traits that researchers have found between the members of a family does not mean that people born “homosexual.” Other factors such as family, culture, religion and most importantly personal experiences should be considered when it comes to sexual orientation. Regardless, I believe that sexual orientation is just a concept like race that have been created by the people in power to cause discrimination and inequality in society.

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