New Poll Shows Americans Divided on Whether Homosexuality is a Choice

Kudos to Reason for this Beltway Bubble Alert noting a new Pew poll that shows Americans are evenly divided on whether or not you are “born gay and lesbian” or whether it is a choice:

report from Pew, released on Friday, shows that Americans as a whole are as likely to think that being gay or lesbian “is just the way some people choose to live” (42 percent) as they are to think that “people are born gay or lesbian” (41 percent). Admittedly, the percent agreeing with Lady Gaga that gay people were born that way has doubled over the last three decades—but it’s still nowhere near a majority.

The even divide among all Americans masks a noteworthy trend, however: The more educated a person, the less likely she is to think homosexuality is a choice. Individuals with postgraduate degrees are twice as likely to say gay people are born that way than to say it’s simply how they choose to live. Meanwhile, those with a high school diploma or less see homosexuality as a choice by a 13 percentage point margin.

Yet even among the most educated cohort, more than a quarter say being gay is a choice—and among the least educated cohort, more than a third say people are born gay. This indicates that the so-called widespread consensus on this issue is not as widespread as many are implying.

And whether they know it or not, this ongoing lack of consensus among the educated elite has reason behind it: the scientific evidence increasingly disfavors the idea that homosexuality is primarily genetic (since in the vast majority of cases of identical twins where one is gay, the other is not).  See, for example, this study.

Or better, see distinguished psychiatrist and scholar Professor Paul McHugh’s review of the scientific evidence on the subject:

Sexual orientation, unlike race or gender, is not determined solely or even primarily at birth—indeed, there is no convincing evidence that biology is decisive. On the contrary, some researchers have concluded that biological and genetic factors play little to no role in sexual orientation. E.g., Letitia Anne Peplau & Linda D. Garnets, A New Paradigm for Understanding Women’s Sexuality and Sexual Orientation, 56 J. Soc. Issues 329, 332 (2000) (“Although additional research will fill in gaps in our knowledge, there is no reason to expect that biological factors play anything other than a minor and probably indirect role in women’s sexual orientation.”). Rather, there is “substantial indirect evidence in support of a socialization model at the individual level.” Peter S. Bearman & Hannah Bruckner, Opposite-Sex Twins and Adolescent Same-Sex Attraction, 107 Am. J. Soc. 1179, 1180 (2002) (finding “no support for genetic influences on same-sex preference net of social structural constraints.”).

Studies of identical twins have confirmed that same-sex attraction is not solely determined by heredity or other biological factors. See id. at 1196-97 (finding concordance rates of 6.7% for identical twins); Niklas Langstrom et al., Genetic and Environmental Effects on Same-sex Sexual Behavior: A Population Study of Twins in Sweden, Arch. Sexual Behavior 77-78 (2010) (finding concordance rates of 18% for male identical twins and 22% for female identical twins); Kenneth S. Kendler et al., Sexual Orientation in a U.S. National Sample of Twin and Nontwin Sibling Pairs, 157 Am. J. Psychiatry 1843, 1845 (2000) (finding concordance rates of 31.6% for identical twins). Because there is not 100% concordance among identical twins, genetic factors are not the sole cause of sexual orientation. See Michael King & Elizabeth McDonald, Homosexuals Who Are Twins, 160 Brit. J. Psychiatry 407, 409 (1992) (concluding that “genetic factors are insufficient explanation of the development of sexual orientation” because “[t]he co-twins of men and women who identify themselves as homosexual appear to have a potential for a range of sexual expression”).

Other studies have found strong correlations between sexual orientation and external factors,such as family setting, environment, and social conditions, which are difficult—if not impossible—to explain under exclusively biological theories. Professors at Columbia University reported, for instance, that “[a]mong male [opposite-sex] twins, the proportion reporting a same-sex romantic attraction is twice as high among those without older brothers(18.7%) than among those with older brothers (8.8%).” Bearman & Bruckner, supra, at 1196-97. Researchers in Australia discovered “a major cohort effect in same-gender sexual behavior” and noted that this had “implications for purely biological theories of sexual orientation, because there must be historical changes in environmental factors that account for such an effect.” A.F. Jorm et al., Cohort Difference in Sexual Orientation: Results from a Large Age-Stratified Population Sample, 49 Gerontology 392, 393 (2003). The Chicago Sex Survey found that men were twice as likely, and women nine times as likely, to identify as gay or bisexual if they had completed college. Laumann et al., supra, at 305. Researchers in New Zealand noted a correlation between sexual orientation and certain social conditions: “The overall higher rate of same-sex attraction and contact for women in New Zealand in relation to other comparable countries, almost certainly represents a recent increase in prevalence. As such it argues strongly against a purely genetic explanation and suggests the environment can have a significant influence. It might be related to social changes which have happened with particular intensity and rapidity in this country.” Nigel Dickson et al., Same Sex Attraction in a Birth Cohort: Prevalence and Persistence in Early Adulthood, 56 Soc. Sci. & Med. 1607, 1613 (2003).

Studies like these have led scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is influenced by a variety of factors beyond genetics or biology alone. See, e.g., G.M. Herek, Homosexuality, in 4 Encyclopedia Psychol. 149, 150 (A.E. Kazdin ed., 2000) (political or aesthetic values); J.H. Gagnon, The Explicit and Implicit Use of the Scripting Perspective in Sex Research, 1 Ann. Rev. Sex Research, at 1-43 (1990) (visible gay and lesbian communities); M.V. Lee Badgett, Sexual Orientation Discrimination: An International Perspective 23 (2007) (socioeconomic outcomes); Linda D. Garnets & Letitia Anne Peplau, A New Look at Women’s Sexuality & Sexual Orientation, CSW Update, Dec. 2006, at 5 (2006) (sexual orientation is shaped by “cultural beliefs about gender and sexuality, by kinship systems, by economic opportunities, by social status and power, by attitudes about women’s roles, by whether or not sexual identities are recognized in a given culture, and by attitudes of acceptance versus rejection toward sexual minorities.”).

In brief, available evidence casts serious doubt on the simplistic, popular notion that sexual orientation is biologically determined. There is simply no firm evidence, only unproven theories, to support that conclusion.   As the American Psychiatric Association’s latest statement on the issue summarizes: “Currently there is a renewed interest in searching for biological etiologies for homosexuality. However, to date there are no replicated scientific studies supporting any specific biological etiology for homosexuality.” See Am. Psychiatric Ass’n,  LGBT- Sexual Orientation, (last visited Dec. 5, 2013) (emphasis added); see also Peplau et al., Development of Sexual Orientation, supra, at 81 (“To recap, more than 50 years of research has failed to demonstrate that biological factors are a major influence in the development of women’s sexual orientation. . . . Contrary to popular belief, scientists have not convincingly demonstrated that biology determines women’s sexual orientation.”). And some research suggests that biology does not even play an important role in determining sexual orientation. See Bearman & Bruckner, supra, at 1180. Therefore, “the assertion that homosexuality is genetic is so reductionistic that it must be dismissed out of hand as a general principle of psychology.” Richard C. Friedman & Jennifer I. Downey, Sexual Orientation and Psychoanalysis: Sexual Science and Clinical Practice 39 (2002).

Note that there are genetic influences on most complex human social choices, including political ideology. We aren’t angels; we have minds in bodies that affect the way we perceive the world and choose to act in it.

In my own perfect world, presidential candidates would not be weighing in on essentially scientific questions like the origins of homosexuality. The place to rest our case for equal treatment of traditional believers is that actions are choices, choices which in a free society must be subject to moral reflections, not policed as if they were skin color, something over which the individual has no control.

The place to rest our case for marriage is in the reality that our whole society depends on bringing together male and female to make new life and connect those babies to their mom and dad. We simply do not have the same interest in regulating gay unions as if they were marriages.

Because they are not.

Maggie Gallagher is the editor of