Culture

'Born This Way'? The Answer Shouldn't Affect Gay Rights

Now 17 percent of young people identify as bisexual or gay. Are some making a choice?

The campaign for equality needs a more solid foundation than I was born this way.

Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

Back when homosexuality was still listed in psychiatry manuals as a mental disorder, Karen Hooker decided to study the mental differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals. She recruited both straight and gay people, and gave them a series of psychological tests, which showed no differences between the two groups. Based on her research, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and announced that homosexuality was not a mental illness.

It was an enormous victory for gay rights, and has fundamentally changed the way we talk about sexual orientation. Early libertarian arguments emphasized the right of sexual minorities to choose: “What business is it of society’s what people do in their bedrooms, as long as there’s consent?” In 2003, that privacy argument persuaded the Supreme Court to protect “homosexual persons,” saying: “The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”

In recent years, however, gay rights has come to be seen in parallel with the movement for racial equality: Gay people should be protected not because they have a right to privacy, but because their sexual orientation is an inborn trait like race.

This view has been strengthened by studies that showed that identical twins were much more likely to both be gay than fraternal twins, indicating a genetic component to homosexuality. (There may also be an environmental influence in the womb, which would be no more amenable to intervention than genetics are.) Regardless of the exact source of sexual orientation, there’s good evidence that in many cases, it is indeed fixed -- so it’s unreasonable to think a straight person could choose to become gay, or vice versa. 

That view probably helped advance the cause of marriage equality. The privacy grounds used in 2003 did not create any obligation for the government to reify same-sex relationships. But if gay people are “born this way” -- if they are genetically incapable of sexual attraction to a member of the opposite sex -- then they have a stronger claim for equality, not just privacy.

This debate seemed to be over, with “nature” having won a decisive victory over “nurture.” So what to make of this tweet by Patrick Egan, a political scientist at NYU? The attached graph shows that in a recent large national survey, about 5 percent of 18-year-olds identified themselves as lesbian or gay, and another 12 percent identified as bisexual. This seems to show, as Egan notes, “both life-cycle and cohort effects.”

The “life-cycle effect” is just another way of saying that people think differently about themselves when they’re 18 than they do when they’re 98. Among my left-wing circles when I was that age, I knew more than one person who identified as bisexual, but changed that label after very little experimentation. Not every girl has the Katy Perry experience.

So those figures of 5 percent and 12 percent seem likely to fall as today’s 18-year-olds get to know themselves better, and are shaped by culture and experience. (Even though there could be movement in both directions; I also knew people who insisted for years that they were straight and seemed genuinely surprised to realize later on that this was not true.)

A “cohort effect” would be more lasting. Today’s 18-year-olds have come of age in an era less repressive of homosexuality than previous generations did. If this affects the likelihood of individuals to identify as gay or bi, there’s no reason to think they would suddenly, at age 45, start to think and act like their forebears who grew up more repressed.

There’s also no reason to assume this cohort effect has peaked; marriage equality became law of the land just two years ago, and gays still face discrimination, violence and other adversity. Imagine the percentage of future 18-year-olds who will one day identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual if they grew up with no fear and shame over homosexuality. The closet would truly be history, and good riddance.

It’s easy to assume that the change in how we think about sexuality has led more people to be honest and open in identifying as bisexual or gay. But do the numbers really just represent willingness to talk? Or has the destigmatization of homosexuality resulted in a lot more people becoming interested in same-sex partners? Are some of the folks in the 5 percent and the 12 percent individuals who in a previous decade would have spent their whole lives on the straight and narrow path?

If that’s happening, it should prompt yet another re-evaluation of how we think about sexuality -- but it should in no way alter the progress being made toward gay rights.

Perhaps within that 17 percent group of gay and bisexual 18-year-olds there are some folks who were “born this way”; the persistence of homosexuality in the face of intense stigma clearly indicates that there are. But even if there are people who are really, really straight, and people who are really, really gay, there’s every reason to think there may also be people in between who, depending on the environmental context, would be happy to partner with members of the same sex, but won’t bother if they’d be stigmatized for doing so. The high incidence of homosexual behaviors in certain times and places -- ancient Greece, Victorian boarding schools -- certainly suggests that things are a little more flexible than simple essentialism would suggest.

If that’s right, then some people really will be choosing to be gay. 1  That fact shouldn’t shake our nation’s commitment to gay rights -- but it might if they are built on a foundation of immutability, rather than freedom of choice. It should not be a dangerous idea to think of sexuality as fluid, as including -- for some people, in some circumstances -- an element of choice.

In the culture wars over gay rights, one side has indeed won a few battles by arguing that they are simply defending their essential selves. But this strategic ground will prove hard to hold if it turns out that some people are indeed choosing among a variety of possible selves, none of which is absolute and essential.

Ultimately, our national culture war will probably be less bloody -- and more fruitful -- if we go back to the grounds on which such battles always should have been fought: the great liberal ideal of a society in which everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, and also entitled to determine for themselves what will make for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. If "be" is even the right verb! At least for these people, homosexual identity, like gender, could be thought of as something that they do, rather than something that they are.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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