Nature? Nurture? It Doesn’t Matter

First published August 12, 2004, in Between the Lines

One of the most persistent debates surrounding homosexuality regards whether gays are “born that way” or whether homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle.”

The debate is ill-formed from the start, in that it conflates two separate questions:

1. How did you become what you are? (By genetics? Early environment? Willful choice? Some combination of the above?),


2. Can you change what you are?

The answers to these two questions vary independently. My dark hair color is genetically determined, but I can change it (though I’d make a rather frightful blonde). The fact that my native language is English is environmentally determined, but I can’t change it. (I can learn a new language, of course, but at this stage it would never have the character of my native language.)

The fact that I put the last sentence in parentheses is a matter of willful choice, and, like most matters of willful choice, it can be changed (although my editors had better leave it alone if they know what’s good for them). Still, some choices are not so easily undone. Having chosen never to practice piano as a child, it would be possible, but rather challenging, for me to become proficient at piano now.

Of course, sexual orientation is not like piano-playing. I never turned down “straight lessons” as a child. (“No, Mommy, I wanna play with my Easy-Bake oven instead!”) I never chose to “become gay,” and I’m not even sure how one would go about doing so. We do not choose our romantic feelings — indeed, we often find them thrust upon us at surprising and inopportune times. We discover them; we do not invent them.

So we must be born this way, right?

Wrong. For several reasons. No one is born with romantic feelings, much less engaging in sexual conduct. That comes later. Whether it comes as a result of genetics, or early environment, or watching too many episodes of Wonder Woman is a separate question that can’t be settled by simple introspection.

Moreover, the fact that feelings are strong doesn’t mean that they’re genetically determined. They might be, but they might not. Sexual orientation’s involuntariness, which is largely beyond dispute, is separate from its origin, which is still controversial, even among sympathetic scientists.

But here’s the good news: It doesn’t matter whether we’re born this way.

A lot of gay-rights advocates seem to think otherwise. They worry that if we’re not “born this way,” then homosexuality would be “unnatural” in some morally significant sense.

Nonsense. Again: the fact that I speak English rather than French is learned behavior, but it does not follow that my doing so is unnatural or in need of reparative therapy.

But wouldn’t a genetic basis for homosexuality prove that God made us this way? No, it wouldn’t — at least not in any helpful sense. Put aside the difficulties about establishing God’s existence or discerning divine intentions. The fact is that there are plenty of genetically influenced traits that are nevertheless undesirable. Alcoholism may have a genetic basis, but it doesn’t follow that alcoholics ought to drink excessively. Some people may have a genetic predisposition to violence, but they have no more right to attack their neighbors than anyone else. Persons with such tendencies cannot say “God made me this way” as an excuse for acting on their dispositions.

“Whoa!” you might object. “Are you saying that homosexuality is a disorder like alcoholism?” Not at all. The difference between alcoholism and homosexuality is that alcoholism has inherently bad effects whereas homosexuality does not. But this distinction just reinforces my point: we do not determine whether a trait is good by looking at where it came from (genetics, environment, or something else). We determine whether it is good by looking at its effects.

Nor does it matter whether sexual orientation can be changed. For even if it could (which is doubtful in most cases), it doesn’t follow that it should. Much like my hair color.

Remember: bad arguments in favor of a good cause are still bad arguments — and in the long run not very good for the cause. This is not to say that we shouldn’t frequently remind people that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, is a deep, important, and relatively fixed feature of human personality. It’s just that those facts can only get us so far.
In a 1964 speech to the New York Mattachine Society, an early gay rights group, activist Frank Kameny announced:

“We are interested in obtaining rights for our respective minorities as Negroes, as Jews, and as Homosexuals. Why we are Negroes, Jews, or Homosexuals is totally irrelevant, and whether we can be changed to Whites, Christians or heterosexuals is equally irrelevant.”

Kameny (who is still going strong at 79) was absolutely right. Too bad people still haven’t gotten the message.