Sexual orientation ‘choice’ is irrelevant

Whether sexual orientation is a choice should not be a factor in whether you support same-sex marriage.

by James Castle

We’ve already heard just about every argument against gay rights. The one that concludes that gay people don’t deserve rights because being gay is a choice, however, is a tale as old as time.

At a press conference Feb. 27 regarding the upcoming gay marriage bill hearing, state Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, explained that “there is no gay gene.” Just in case you aren’t following the legislator’s logic on this one, it goes something like this: Because there is no genetic link to having an attraction to the same sex, “homosexuality” must be a choice or the result of environmental factors, and behavioral or environmental corrections must be made rather than government intervention to protect individual rights.

We see this attribution argument everywhere — with gay people, overweight people, alcoholics, etc. If we can attribute choice or environment to a particular phenomenon, then we can blame the individual. Conversely, if we can attribute biological origins to a particular phenomenon, then we can protect that individual from persecution and discrimination. Sometimes, however, a biological attribution is used to take away rights. For example, the old argument that blacks shouldn’t marry whites because blacks are intellectually inferior or women cannot work certain jobs because they are “naturally” emotional and lack the rational thinking skills that men possess.

But Gruenhagen isn’t making as radical assertions as one might think. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, a major political research center relied on by political scientists and other researchers, 42 percent of Americans believe “homosexuality” is the result of upbringing or the environment, as opposed to 40 percent of Americans who believe it’s something with which a person is born. This has remained pretty steady since 2001 when the numbers were 40 and 39, respectively.

Some researchers have linked these beliefs to support for same-sex marriage. They find that, if one believes homosexuality to be the result of environmental factors, they can predict non-support for same-sex marriage, whereas, if a person believes homosexuality to be the result of biological factors, they can predict support for same-sex marriage. The implication is that if homosexuality can be changed, we should change it rather than support it.

One odd aspect of asking whether homosexuality is a choice is that we ask about “homosexuality,” rather than sexual orientation. Homosexuality is something “other,” and therefore, a thing to be researched. Do those Americans who believe homosexuality to be a choice also believe heterosexuality to be a choice? Probably not, as not many people question the “naturalness” of male-female attraction. In any case, Gruenhagen’s statement is wrong for several reasons.

First, it isn’t entirely true that there definitely is no “gay gene.” A study quoting the representative reveals that genetics may cause hormonal effects that possibly trigger a change in sexual orientation. Moreover, there are other biological links to sexual orientation besides genetics. For example, birth order, handedness, brain structure and hormones have also linked biology to sexual orientation, or rather, “homosexuality.”

Second, just because something isn’t biological doesn’t make it a choice. Sexual orientation might be the result of larger social forces that shape our sexual fantasies, urges and desires, or it could be a combination of biology and the environment, biology and psychological forces. In fact, the latter view is the view held by many experts in human sexuality, including psychologists, doctors of public health and biologists. Human beings are complex creatures, and the idea that our sexualities can be linked to one single, isolated event doesn’t make much sense to a lot of people who study it.

Third, in the end, it doesn’t matter whether sexual orientation is biological or even whether it can be changed. The fact of the matter is that some people are attracted to the same sex, and more importantly, are capable of forming deep, long-term, affectionate and loving relationships with a person of the same sex. Those relationships should be equally recognized.

Some might point to the way the law treats those with “immutable characteristics,” such as race, sex and national origin. Perhaps we should care whether being gay is a choice because that affects how the law treats sexual minorities as a legal class. I would nonetheless contend that whether sexual orientation can change does not matter in this context. Although different in many ways, sexual orientation is much like religious identity. Religion, because it is expressed in the federal Constitution as opposed to the other protected categories that are implied, is given the highest level of legal protection. Like religious identity, sexual orientation should be treated as a protected class because it is so deeply intertwined with one’s sense of self that the law should not reasonably expect one to change his/her sexual orientation.

Frankly, Gruenhagen’s point, regardless if it’s true, is completely irrelevant in the discussion of same-sex marriage in Minnesota; it has no place in any debate over civil rights.