Must Sexual Orientation Be Biological?

Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame 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 come to her defense.

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

Some of 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, yet…

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).

Yet there are unsolved questions. So why hitch your wagon to a moving target, Bruni wonders?

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 as our genes take on information from the environment. And experience influences gene expression. Are there cultural effects? Or might there be 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 seem to have no preference at all, says Northwestern University psychologist, John Michael Bailey.

The data so far is confusing.

Biology is no sure-fire shield against bigotry

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 desire, homosexuality could be seen as “their test,” as 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? Regardless of cause? Maybe we shouldn’t worry so much 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)

A rerun, I’m on vacation.

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 July 8, 2016, in LGBTQ+, psychology, relationships, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. I believe that everyone should be freely allowed to announce who they are without undue scrutiny or criticism as long as they are not harming anyone; in this respect, Cynthia Nixon would not be doing any wrong. However, unfortunately, due to the opinions and perspectives of the bigots of this world, her words are easily misconstrued to hurt the LGBT+ community in implying that their behavior may be changed. For the longest time I’ve thought that if I could choose to be straight, I would—simply as a matter of convenience. Having had my first romantic encounter since then, however, has made me realize that there is no changing me from being attracted to men. It is a bit of an unfortunate business, I’ve found, liking men (as I was discussing with a fellow gay acquaintance the other day in mutual disillusionment). They are generally vulgar and unsophisticated even across sexual orientations (and I claim no exception) and toxicity exists in every community. Besides, I am so much more comfortable with women since I have been surrounded by them my whole life, although that argument could be claimed by straight men and their subsequent friend groups as well.

    Personally, though, I’ve also never been a particularly “flamboyant” gay and I am still coming to terms with the sensation of wearing that on my sleeve. On one hand, I very much enjoy playing “straight,” so to speak, not with the intention of tricking others, but with the giddy sensation that comes from stealth. Yet alternatively, nearly every fellow gay I encounter is surprised by my orientation, and sometimes I feel like it would be vindicating to literally wear a rainbow cape everywhere. Anyhow, these sensations of passing as “straight” or “gay” distract from the real notion of choosing orientation rather than it being derived from genetics.

    Scientifically, I’d like to trust that it is a genetic trait since that is the most logical explanation. However, I cannot deny that certain elements of toxic masculinity on the Kindergarten playground did plant a lifelong trust of women in me that would subsequently deem men a mysterious and therefore desirable element later in my life, although that is likely more of a hollow anecdotal theory rather than a true explanation for my homosexuality. If it is genetic, though, I truly fear that technology such as CRISPR will allow future generations to eradicate the “condition” and render us historical anomalies despite increased LGBT+ support in the present. If we can get rid of “debilitating” disorders such as dwarfism (which many consider a valuable community as well), then what’s stopping us from getting rid of “inconvenient conditions” such as homosexuality?

    • Some people seem to be more sexually fluid than others. Plenty of gay men and women have tried desperately to change and cannot because it is biologically-based. Others seem to be somewhere more in the middle. Also biologically-based.

  2. This is a very interesting post, dear Georgia…. Interestingly enough… I have always thought that `Miranda´could be gay, same way that `Scully´ from X files might be lesbian… I am using their fantasy names to make it easier…
    As to the matter of discussion here, I agree with you when you state that there are many sources and that they don´t seem to directly point towards the same direction.
    the Oedipus complex by Freud teaches us that homosexuality has to do with an unresolved attraction shifted toward the mother- gay men- or father-lesbian women-
    According to Freud, subconsciously, all boy desires his mother and hates his father. And according to Jung the Electra Complex entails the amorous, emotional attachment of the girl to the father figure. This should be resolved by the adolescence years… and when it does not it might possibly trigger both neuroses and homosexuality.
    Nowadays, this sort of explanation seem at all lights reductionist… I understand that there might be a biological element, but think that something as personal and subjective as sexual preference is could not merely have a biological basis… I guess the society and define models of normality and then try to validate them through a legitimating discourse … often derogatory… and sometimes a choice is just a choice.
    Sending all my bets wishes. Aquileana 🙂

    • Sigmund Freud used mythology to help him come up with many of his theories. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. He, himself, finally admitted he didn’t understand women’s psychology — although hey had to use the Oedipus/ Electra myth as he built his theory.

      He also thought that women felt inferior because they had a tiny little clitoris whereas men had a big penis — this occurring during the Oedipal face, Ages 3-5. But we know for sure That this is incorrect. For one thing, We have found that children between the ages of three and five Think that everyone has the same genitals that they do. Also, the earliest human for gender equal.

      Sexual orientation may not be entirely biological, given research on twins. And women’s sexual fluidity. Most researchers today believe that our sexual orientation is due to a mix of biology, culture and social experience. But it can feel biological and immovable to the person who holds it.

      Many gay Christian men feel guilty and go through all sorts of tortures to try to change and it doesn’t work. Regardless of how they became gay, they don’t have flexibility to willfully change.

      Similarly, the breast fetish isn’t biologically-based. But it sure feels like it is to most Western men. And they can’t simply willfully choose not to experience it.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  3. Jean Claunde

    By the way since most women seems to be more or less bisexual nowadays why is LGBT still considered to be a minority group?

    • Even though women outnumber men they can be classified as minorities. It has to do with how much power you hold. If you hold the minority of power, you’re considered a minority.

      And it’s not necessarily widely believed that most women are bisexual. At the least because it depends on how you define bisexual. A lot of women who have had attractions to, and relationships with, both men and women feel uncomfortable calling themselves bisexual if they have a notable preference for one sex. They may prefer to call themselves fluid or unlabeled or “lesbian — who sometimes likes men,” For instance

  4. Jean Claunde

    If males’ sexuality is rigid then why entire socities in ancient greece and rome were admiring the male body. Regardless if they had same sex relationships or not, all men were viewing the male body to be the epitome of beauty.
    Even if they were heterosexual in sexual behavior still they found the male body to be more beautiful.
    But noone takes that in consideration. They all take for granted the recent oversexualization of the female body by the media

    • The research is still new. My own guess is that culture plays a role even for men, but that for biological reasons men could be less susceptible to culture. Why don’t gay men respond to boobs so much? Could be because men’s sex drive is Constant and high so that their most natural biological preference is constantly reinforced.

      That said, I have heard women say that gay men sometimes grab their boobs — and say it’s okay because they aren’t attracted to women — but it seems like the cultural fetish is having have some effect here, Or why bother? — BTW: Women don’t like it.

      • If men were less susceptible to culture then there is no way to explain why in ancient times there were so many statues of male bodies

      • The statues of male bodies surely reflect a love of the male body. But they weren’t necessarily erotic.

        That said I could be convinced that men’s sexuality has some flexibility. Even if it is less flexible than women’s.

      • That can be explained the same way that women are less polygamous than men.
        A man having a harem of women would result many offsprings. But a woman having a harem of men wouldn’t help much in reproduction.
        That’s why women have more fluid sexuality and are more monogamous whereas men have less fluid sexuality and are less monogamous

      • That’s one theory.

        Another theory looks at evidence that in some cultures many men have sex with the same woman — and let the best sperm win! Explaining why women can multiply orgasm without a refractory period. Next!

  5. She has spoken her mind, why making a fuss! People are becoming more intolerant and judgemental with every passing day… ! And, it’s rightly said, homophobia hurts, being gay doesn’t…

  6. Ideas around what sexuality is seem to differ in different cultures. Some have no words for homosexuality. My daughter introduced me to the term GRSM (gender, romantic, sexual minorities). They make more sense to me because they incorporate the way cultures can vary. I have been married to my husband for ages. All that time I have been sexually attracted to certain people and it seems to have nothing to do with gender. Gender to me is terribly confusing. The concept makes no sense. We have our clitoriphalluses that vary in shape and size. Sometimes our brains do not go with our sex organs, sometimes they do. The whole human biological thing is incredibly varied and calling us only two genders makes no sense.

  7. I have a feeling that sexuality is a lot more fluid than what we think, especially for women. As the masculine and feminine come into balance, I think these strict ideas of either/or will just vanish.

    • Interesting you say that since homophobia seems to be tied to ideas of male dominance. If men “act like” women by having sex like women, Or behaving stereotypically female (as the stereotype of gay men goes) then the distinction between the genders blurs, and that’s threatening to male dominance. Plus who would be the male head in those relationships? No male head in lesbian relationships. And in gay relationships if you have a male head then the other male is submissive — which is just wrong if you believe in male dominance. So it’s all very threatening to male-dominant types.

      • It is…and women don’t think like that, so aren’t threatened by it (as much). I think it’s all very interesting, the way human sexuality is unfurling and evolving, but others feel threatened by the change of something they thought would stay the same forever.

      • And really, equality is pretty good. It even helps men.

        When men’s rights activists write in complaining about how women or feminism cause them problems, I show them that the root problem of their complaint is actually patriarchy (sexism).

      • You do good work Georgia.

  8. I’m trying to figure out how who you want to sleep with or don’t want to sleep with is any of my business.

    I got nothing.

    If you’re happy, yay!

  9. Sexual inclination may be both biologically-based and cultural-conditioned. The lesbian / homosexual urge is reportedly very strong in many people during adolescence, and equally overcome by many under disciplining of culture. Those who do not feel so disciplined go ahead to give free vent to their preferences. Probably the world needs to evolve further to accommodate this fact and co-exist with people of all inclinations. Like many things else, this may also be slow in falling in place. But come it eventually will.

    • The research so far looks like our sexuality, of any sort, is a mix of biology and culture and social experience. Since it’s so complicated it would probably be impossible to have a so-called “cure” as some have proposed, if it were biological.

      I’m curious about different perspectives, though, and what people think about them.

      My own perspective is that it doesn’t matter. Our job is to love, regardless.

  10. Yes gays have a big difficulty. If it’s biological, then it’s conceivable that with more scientific research a “cure” might perhaps be found. And if it’s a choice, then one might be talked out of it and “cured”. And if there is one thing the politically correct establishment of the gay community would never countenance is even the sniff of an implication that perhaps, maybe, a cure might arise.

    • But if it is natural and people tried to “cure” it, wouldn’t that be going against God’s creation? I mean with a typical illness the person feels miserable and wants to get better. But with gays and lesbians the only reason they would feel miserable would be due to hateful societal prejudice. And hateful prejudice doesn’t actually seem very religious. Jesus and great prophets from other religions preached love above all else. Jesus called love the greatest commandment.

      Think how people feel as a whole when everyone loves versus when some hate and make others miserable – and make themselves miserable in the process. You can’t be joyful when you are constantly hating on others.

  11. happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime

    I don’t understand why people can’t love who they want without being judged

    • Yeah, what difference does it make? And what difference does it make to the people who make such a big deal about it?

      I have some religious relatives who believe homosexuality goes against God and believe that homosexuality is a test for them. If straight people do what feels natural to them – Have sex with people they are attracted to – that is actually good so long as you are married. But they believe that gays should not get married. So their test is to go there entire lives without expressing love or desire. Even though, in a double standard, it’s perfectly fine for them to do that.

      They are Christians and Jesus proclaimed the greatest commandment to be love. So the viewpoint I just described is not very loving. I believe that if there is a test it is for the rest of us to get beyond our prejudices and love. As Jesus said, “even as ye have done unto the least of these ye have done it unto me.” And to these folks who are so hate-filled, LGBTQ folks are the “least of these.”

      • happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime

        I don’t get it. Why do people even care. It has no influence on their lives. People can be as religious as they want but keep it to yourself and leave everybody else alone. I don’t understand either how they can believe in such a negative interpretation of the bible

      • There are different reasons why people care. One of those reasons is based on prejudice. People who dislike gays don’t want it to be biological because then it would be God. People who are tired of being harassed due to their orientation often want it to be biological because then religious people would stop Bugging them since it would be from God.

        Yet some religious people believe it is from God and still think it’s a big test. Or that they could be “cured.” So it still doesn’t necessarily help the cause of the gay community.

        The other major group that cares are scientists – social and biological – because they are always asking questions and trying to understand the human experience. As a social scientist that is why I care.

        But as someone who believes love is the greatest value, I don’t think it matters either way — bio or not. I believe that we should all work to overcome prejudice, and turn to love.

      • happyfreeconfusedlonelyatthesametime

        Well it’s fine to be curious and wanting to know. The bad thing is the judging.

  12. True, especially for women it seems. But yeah I can understand why people weren’t fond of her being open and saying she chooses her sexuality even if that’s how she feels and could be true for some women. The reason is because it proves bigots right and why they feel being gay is wrong, and people are at fault, because they are “choosing to be gay” instead of choosing to be straight right? When you are born and can’t choose, there’s a defense and reason for this. Her announcing this kind of gives bigots ammo like “aha!”, thought so.

    • Yeah, when you are only OK with that sexual orientation if it is biological it probably could provide some ammunition. Although some people might then want to do some genetic tinkering. But then they would be going against God, I would think.

      I’ve written before about evidence for the biological basis of our sexual orientation. And it’s possible that she is simply biologically able to go either way whereas other people are not.

      I personally don’t think it matters. But I am curious to put different perspectives out to provide food for thought and see what people think.

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