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Author Topic: Born that way? Perhaps not.
bump on a log
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The 'born that way' theory of homosexuality is actually nothing new. Watch 'Different from the Others', a German film from 1919, and you find the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld putting forward the same theory with great certainty.

The thing is, though, that while this is certainly not my area of specialism, I've read a lot of the research on the topic and it doesn't seem to add up. What the studies we have show is that there seems to be some degree of genetic and/or prenatal-hormone influence on the development of homosexuality, at least in males, but that this is far from being the whole story. The people who conducted the studies say as much themselves, but the media talk about a 'gay gene'. There is no 'gay gene'. Nobody ever found one. Some studies have pointed to a genetic component in homosexuality, but why on earth would that be a gene or group of genes directly controlling sexual orientation? Couldn't it be various genes which set basic personality factors, which in turn determine how a person reacts to various things in their early childhood environment, thus forming their more complex personality characteristics?

But the 'born that way' theory seems to have become gospel in some gay-rights circles. Apparently, if you disagree that homosexuals are born gay, then you're saying being gay is a choice. Obviously not; lots of things in our personalities are influenced by our early childhood experiences and that doesn't make them a choice. To take a crude example, if you were frightened by a clown when you were three and have a clown phobia afterwards, you didn't choose the phobia, it just happened to you.

Above all, though, whether or not you're born that way has no bearing on the moral argument. Some people are born with a tendency to violent behaviour. That doesn't mean it's OK for them to go round beating other people up. We may be sympathetic to their struggles to control themselves, but we can't allow them to give in to their tempers all the time. And then, perhaps some people are born with a tendency to like strawberries a whole lot. If they are, that's academically interesting, but has no moral import; eating strawberries is an OK thing to do under most circumstances, so it doesn't matter if you have an inborn tendency to want to eat them, or if you just happen to feel like eating them today.

Also, something being 'inborn', or 'natural' -- I'm thinking of the reaction to evolutionary psychologists' attempts to find an evolutionary place for homosexuality -- does not make it good or right or OK. Something not being inborn or natural or evolutionary advantageous does not make it un-OK. Humans have natural tendencies to violence, for instance.

The 'born that way' argument makes me uncomfortable because it seems like saying 'we can't help being like this, so please be nice to us'. It doesn't strike me as being a strong or dignified argument to make. I don't mean to offend anybody here, those are just my personal reactions.

I wish to goodness we could get over ourselves and accept that consensual sex is OK no matter if you were born hardwired to like it or just want to try it out.

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Heather
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I absolutely think a lot of what you're saying here is very sound.

But I'd add a few things.

For one, I think that for the most part, we've generally arrived at the conclusion that sexual orientation, like gender identity, is both nature and nurture. I know there are people, both those who are or are supportive of those of us who are LGBT, and those who very much are not, who strongly feel it either is 100% about how we're born or 100% not at all about that, but I'd say they're both very much in the minority.

At the same time, the world we live in is such, and certainly has been even more so before very recently, where it was very, very difficult for queer or gender-variant people to allow for any element of choice, because everytime they/we would, people who sought to keep us from rights, take those rights away, or harm us in other ways, would seize upon it and really use it against us. So, yes, I too wish we could live in a world where so long as relationships are healthy and sex is consensual, none of this mattered, but at the same time, I think it's important to not hold populations who are oppressed responsible for their oppression or how they -- without harm, and based on their lived experiences or information at a given time -- tried to stop that oppression. Know what I mean?

IOW, it's usually not queer people who aren't on board with what you're saying in that last sentence there, so I'd be cautious of how up-in-arms you get about the way some folks (and again, the information around this wasn't always the same as it is currently) have tried to create that environment for themselves when others wouldn't allow for it.

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bump on a log
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quote:
Originally posted by Heather:
...I'd say they're both very much in the minority.

I hope so. Maybe younger people are less in the know about this stuff? Because I said pretty much what I said above to some acquaintances recently, only wording it much less strongly, and they said I was saying being gay was a choice and advocating self-repression and so on. My irritation over that is the reason for this post and for my pitching it quite strong in that last sentence.

quote:
Originally posted by Heather:
I think it's important to not hold populations who are oppressed responsible for their oppression or how they -- without harm, and based on their lived experiences or information at a given time -- tried to stop that oppression. Know what I mean?

Absolutely, yeah. I can understand how it could feel comforting to think that you have absolutely solid proof that being a way you might not want to be is Not Your Fault. I also get that there's a major political element to this: even if you feel it's not that simple, 'born that way' is a good sell, is likely to get people on your side.

I do get concerned though about things like teaching in schools that gay people are born that way. I mean, as misinformation goes it's a lot more benign than, say, Marriage is Right for Everybody, but it doesn't encourage a very flexible or easygoing view. Johann Hari, a centre-left English journalist, is gay and a strong advocate of gay rights, but the solution he advocates for homophobic bullying in schools is: "You have mandatory classes in which you explain everywhere in the world, throughout history, around 4-10 percent are attracted to the same sex." Elsewhere he describes this percentage as "a fixed and unchangeable reality". Well, but what about the very varied customs and taboos that have existed around sexuality, and their influence on behaviour? He's talking about preventing bullying that causes some kids to kill themselves, and a bit of oversimplification is not real important next to that, but it still makes me heave a sigh.

[ 04-20-2011, 04:55 PM: Message edited by: bump on a log ]

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Heather
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I think it's always so important not to assign a general option or idea as a universal or even as something common when it's voiced by an individual or a very small group.

So, so often people assume the ideas or opinions of their own small peer groups are more broadly representative when so often, they really aren't.

But if you get in this discussion again, you may be able to get a little further in it by making clear that you know and understand full well that people cannot choose their orientation, no matter what it is, though we can all choose who we have sex with, and even though, all by itself, sexuality through life tends to be at least somewhat fluid for most people. But that being unable to simply choose what feelings we have -- something we just can never do -- doesn't automatically mean those feelings must have developed in a certain way; whatever combination of nature and nurture it is doesn't dictate how changeable or elective orientation is.

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bump on a log
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Yes, I think you're right that that would be a good opening gambit, just to reassure people that I've not lost it...Next time I'll start out by saying that. Thanks for the advice.

What I said above about schools and 'born that way' links in to a general tendency to make things more palatable. Alan Turing, for example, is widely known to have probably committed suicide following chemical castration by oestrogen injections, which followed a conviction for gross indecency. The whole story, however, is less widely known: apparently Turing, at age 39, had a brief semi-casual sexual relationship with a 19-year-old. The young man broke into Turing's house with an accomplice, and the story of the relationship was revealed when Turing reported the break-in to police. I've seen this described -- was this also Johann Hari? -- as a "consensual, loving relationship with another man". Which, OK, I concede it may have been, relationships are complicated, but it's not the picture of married coeval gays with a white picket fence that many gay-rights organisations promote. I can certainly understand not telling a class of eleven-year-olds the whole possibly slightly murky story, same as you don't tell them about Byron and his half-sister, but there seems to be a conspiracy of silence about it in the papers, which are after all written for grown-ups. Whitewashing is not the best thing in the long run. That's a large part of the reason I'm uneasy about gay marriage. It feels a bit like co-option, like widening the template out a little, but still saying you have to fit it. But again, we are talking about basic rights here, like hospital visitation, so more nebulous and intellectual concerns have to take a back seat, I do understand that.

Anyway, as a good antidote to the Johann Hari quotes above, I've found this article: htp://thethirdestate.net/2009/07/lets-consign-the-gay-is-a-choice-debate-to-the-dustbin-of-irrelevance/ Lots of things here I agree with: "If, like me, you believe that people have an a priori right to deviate from those cultural and sexual mores, and that defending such rights is politically important, then ‘nature versus nurture’ really doesnt matter." "The Nazis thought gay people were born like that – it didn’t make them very tolerant though." "I saw a recent article on India and gay rights in The Graun [joke spelling of Guardian]. The writer couldn’t acknowledge the existence of a third sex, the hijra. It didn’t fit into the hetero/homosexual wo/man binary system which is so accepted in the modern world."

[ 04-20-2011, 05:32 PM: Message edited by: bump on a log ]

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Heather
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Wow: you've got a lot to say here, and it's all stuff where one could keep digging deeper and deeper in excellent ways.

I think these are some really important and nuanced thoughts and ideas. I'll be interested to see what other users have to add, and will pop back into the conversation at some point myself. [Smile]

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moonlight bouncing off water
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I think the fundamental thing that so many people miss (as bump on a log briefly mentioned) is that it doesn't matter whether being LGBTQ is innate or acquired. What really matters is that there are gay people (which I use as a general term intended to encompass all LGTBQs) and that we need to move past being some "other", from being something you see on TV or "that only really exists in the big cities" (yes, I've really heard this), we need to move away from being set apart because of our orientation or gender identity, and to simply BE.

As for the nature versus nurture argument, personally, I think being gay, along with a whole lot of other things, is a combination of the two. Because I know I didn't wake up one day and decide, I'm going to be bisexual from now on, but it's also never been something as consistent and static as the fact that my hair is curly. Sexuality is not binary, so why should this be?

It is argued that we as gay people need to cease being invisible and raise awareness that, to borrow a well known phrase, "we're here and we're queer", but I feel we need to do something quite different. Unless being gay becomes something "normal", unless all parents explain to their children that they might love men or women or both, that they might want to be a man if they are a woman or a woman if they are a man, or that they may not want either of those titles, unless the terms "gay", "straight", "bisexual", "trans-gender", "gender-queer", etc become obsolete, then I do not feel that equality will have been reached.

Inné v.s. acquis (nature v.s. nurture)? It doesn't even matter.

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coralee
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I think this is a very interesting discussion. I agree with a lot of what has been said. I also wanted to add that one's orientation and identity can change over their lifetime. I feel that often when people talk about a "gay gene", they don't take this into account. The argument that LGBTQ people are "born that way" seems to assume that they'll always identify the same way throughout their life. I think looking for "reasons" why someone is gay often works against finding equality and acceptance.
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Cian
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Personally I prefer leaving out the "nurture" part because people will instantly cling onto my "choice" or my parents' "bad parenting" regarding my sexuality. I find it obvious it can't be simply genetic, but I feel that in giving this kind of leeway I'm doing myself more harm than anything else with people being able to criticize and say I have chosen my sexuality (and should choose again since I obviously chose wrong.)

Just my two cents, the conversation here is very thought provoking but reaches a level of intelligence that I don't think I can match. [Smile]

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Yakri
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quote:
Originally posted by Heather:
I think it's always so important not to assign a general option or idea as a universal or even as something common when it's voiced by an individual or a very small group.

So, so often people assume the ideas or opinions of their own small peer groups are more broadly representative when so often, they really aren't.

But if you get in this discussion again, you may be able to get a little further in it by making clear that you know and understand full well that people cannot choose their orientation, no matter what it is, though we can all choose who we have sex with, and even though, all by itself, sexuality through life tends to be at least somewhat fluid for most people. But that being unable to simply choose what feelings we have -- something we just can never do -- doesn't automatically mean those feelings must have developed in a certain way; whatever combination of nature and nurture it is doesn't dictate how changeable or elective orientation is.

Well, there is a fairly large degree of choice in your feelings.

It just isn't drastic, concrete, or certain.


For example, you might meet someone, like them, chose to spend more time with them, find out you -really- like them, fall in love with them.


You don't get to go, "oh hey, I want to fall in love with. . . . That one! oooh this is great!" You do however, get to give yourself the opportunity for that possibility to potentially occur.


Plus, most of your choices aren't so clean cut, although at least a few are.


I think it would be healthy to give yourself the opportunity to explore your sexuality, whether that is in the direction of homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality. It isn't really a great idea to go into denial about your findings though, from my point if view.


Finally, on the science side, I'm covering this topic in college right now, and what I've found is that:

1) We know for certain that genetics(nature) have a fairly large impact on sexuality.

2) We know for certain that environment(nurture) has a fairly large impact on sexuality.

3) We have no reasonable idea of why homosexuality exists.

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Heather
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quote:
3) We have no reasonable idea of why homosexuality exists.
Do we have one for why heterosexuality or bisexuality exist?

In the case you were going to say because of reproduction, I don't think that's actually sound as a rationale because a) not all heterosexual people do or can reproduce and b) plenty of bisexual and homosexual people do and can. As well, having sexual feelings for someone isn't something we can easily presume to be the same -- especially since for most people, most of the time they are engaging in various kinds of sex, including penis-in-vagina intercourse, sex isn't about that anyway, but about pleasure -- as the desire to reproduce with them.

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Kachina
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quote:
3) We have no reasonable idea of why homosexuality exists.
Why WOULDN'T it exist? As far as I can tell humans have lots of social interactions and this is just another one. Having genitals that feel good when touched, having our brain release chemicals that feel good when we are interacting, when we love, etc, seems like reason enough that we would do these things. It's pretty natural for humans, and all other animals, do do things that feel good and avoid things that hurt. Seems pretty self-explanatory to me.

[ 04-21-2011, 04:53 PM: Message edited by: KatWA ]

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bump on a log
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quote:
Originally posted by Cian:
Personally I prefer leaving out the "nurture" part because people will instantly cling onto my "choice" or my parents' "bad parenting" regarding my sexuality. I find it obvious it can't be simply genetic, but I feel that in giving this kind of leeway I'm doing myself more harm than anything else with people being able to criticize and say I have chosen my sexuality (and should choose again since I obviously chose wrong.)

Yeah, I didn't really address that. "A choice" becomes "...and therefore mutable" very quickly, and you have to be careful not to alarm and/or annoy parents by suggesting it's All Their Fault their kid is queer. They're more likely to put up resistance to the whole idea if they're told that, as well. A lot of parent-blaming, chiefly mother-blaming, used to go on when Freudianism ruled -- like Bettelheim and co.'s 'refrigerator mother' theory of autism, which these days really DOES look genetic. (But I still think you should all read Bettelheim's The Informed Heart.) Then, there's the notion that gay role models can 'turn kids gay'. If you don't promote the born-that-way theory then things get pretty murky pretty quick.

One thing nobody has mentioned so far is the way friendship is seen through gay glasses, as it were. Romantic friendship was all the go pre-Freud. Afterwards, not so much; people were aware of the possible homosexual undercurrents this could have. Later, during the gay-rights movement, people wanted to reclaim the gay past; if you read Stephen Coote's Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, first published in 1983, you find him imputing a gay meaning to almost any expression of love between two people of the same sex. Go to a Middle Eastern country where homosexuality is so taboo as to be officially unthinkable and you see male friends walking hand-in-hand. Here, where homosexuality is much more accepted, you'd never see that. Straight guys must never be thought of as gay. This, of course, is a subtler form of homophobia, and I really think it puts a stranglehold on people's relationships and we all lose, not least because marriage and/or bf/gf relationships have to carry so much emotional weight as people's, especially men's, primary relationships that they often break under the strain.

[ 04-22-2011, 02:12 PM: Message edited by: bump on a log ]

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Jill2000Plus
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quote:
Originally posted by bump on a log:
One thing nobody has mentioned so far is the way friendship is seen through gay glasses, as it were. Romantic friendship was all the go pre-Freud. Afterwards, not so much; people were aware of the possible homosexual undercurrents this could have. Later, during the gay-rights movement, people wanted to reclaim the gay past; if you read Stephen Coote's Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, first published in 1983, you find him imputing a gay meaning to almost any expression of love between two people of the same sex. Go to a Middle Eastern country where homosexuality is so taboo as to be officially unthinkable and you see male friends walking hand-in-hand. Here, where homosexuality is much more accepted, you'd never see that. Straight guys must never be thought of as gay. This, of course, is a subtler form of homophobia, and I really think it puts a stranglehold on people's relationships and we all lose, not least because marriage and/or bf/gf relationships have to carry so much emotional weight as people's, especially men's, primary relationships that they often break under the strain.

While I'm aware that this affects men more than women, I often worry that someone will think that because I'm bisexual and I love my sister a lot I must be sexually/romantically attracted to her. She's certainly just as important to me as my boyfriend is, but of course that doesn't mean I'm in love with her or fancy her, but I suspect that not everyone realises that. And of course there's a lot of presenting of "hot sisters havving teh faux lesbian sex before they eventually involve your penis, WHICH THEY NEED" in porn.

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Heather
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Jill: not quite sure why that's something you're concerned with, given that that's something people could assume about siblings of any gender mix and orientation. And since man/woman pairings are more common in pornography than any other, and plenty of hetero porn in history has contained suggestions/fictions of incest, that seems just as prevalent and likely as what you're worried about, and I don't think it's earnestly something anyone needs to be worried about.

Don't mean to dictate what you should feel about anything, just always want to say something when someone is voicing they are afraid of something that seems very unlikely or not sound, since it sucks to be afraid of things.

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Cameron Joel
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I find that I'm very hesitant to look for a cause of (any kind of) queerness. If a cause can be found--whether it is biological, sociological, psychological, or otherwise--then there is something to change to eradicate a person's queerness. I'm not too optimistic about society, and I worry that if a cause of queerness is discovered, people will either try to manipulate it to "cure" us or use its existence to justify classification of queerness as a disorder. If you can point to a gene: gene therapy, or prenatal DNA testing. If you can point to an altered hormone wash in the womb: regulate pregnancy more carefully. And so on.

The real problem, in my opinion, is prejudice/fear, and those are the things we should be combatting. The question society should be asking is not "why are people queer?" It doesn't matter why we're queer. We are queer, and this is not going to change. Several much more productive and positive questions (things we can affect): "why do some people think being queer is a problem?" "how can we help those people see that queerness is perfectly okay?" "what can we do to minimize the obsracles queer people face?"

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mizchastain
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I'm a biology student, and I'd like to say here that effectively NOTHING is caused by only genes or only environment. The genotype interacts with the environment, which affects the expression of genes in many ways. It's also pretty rare to have a complex feature entirely determined by a single gene; most of them require the interactions of many genes.

Interesting factoid; according to one of my textbooks, gay men are likely to have a lot of cousins. They didn't find out whether the two things were connected, but it's an odd thought.

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bump on a log
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quote:
Originally posted by mizchastain:
Interesting factoid; according to one of my textbooks, gay men are likely to have a lot of cousins. They didn't find out whether the two things were connected, but it's an odd thought.

Haven't people used something like that to try to come up with an evolutionary-psychology explanation of homosexuality? Something like, if a man's gay, it will impair his reproductive capacity, but the 'gay gene' could survive if as well as turning men gay it conferred reproductive benefits on female members of their families? That kind of irritates me as well -- I mean it's very interesting and all but the popular notion at the moment seems to be that if you can find an evolutionary justification for something, that makes it acceptable. Well, you can find an evolutionary justification for murder in certain circumstances.

A couple other random remarks: There are plenty of other dimensions of sexual attraction. Say a guy likes guys, but in particular guys with red hair. What made him prefer red hair? I have always found brown hair and blue eyes particularly attractive and a few years ago I recalled that a childhood friend of mine, the first person I ever thought of as beautiful, had brown hair and blue eyes. I guess that was what set the preference, without my realising. I don't actually know that my thinking him beautiful when I was six or nine wasn't the expression of an already-fixed preference for brown hair and blue eyes, but where'd I have got that preference from? Surely not my genes or my prenatal hormonal environment.

Another thing is that the studies that have been done about genetic and hormonal causes for homosexuality have been about male homosexuality. Lesbianism doesn't seem to be explainable in the same way, at least so far. Female sexuality seems often to be a bit more flexible than male sexuality, or so I've read. There may well be an evo-psych explanation of that one. Wonder what it could be?

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