Some Clarifications on “No One is Born Gay”

I wrote this post a while back and had I known how many people would read it and how many excellent questions and comments I’d continue to receive, I would have addressed the subject more exhaustively.  And yet, the fact that I wrote with admittedly broad strokes about such a complex issue has prompted readers to produce an awesome archive of thoughtful, challenging, heartbreaking, and irritating responses from which we can all learn.  So that’s good news.

One particularly compelling question has come up repeatedly.  Several commenters have suggested that no one in an oppressively homophobic culture would ever engage in homosexual relationships unless they were born gay, because doing so means risking isolation, violence, and even death.  Some have testified about their personal experiences as gay men or lesbians who came out despite their homophobic context, and even despite their own wishes.  I want to take a bit of time here to dig deeper into this question.

The fact that people persist in having gay or lesbian desires and relationships, even when they are facing some horrific consequences, appears at first blush to be evidence that there must be something so powerful in their physiology that they have no other choice but to act on innate homosexual impulses.  And yet, there is another view to consider, which is that people have long risked death to fulfill desires that are rooted in the social. Girls and women have risked rape and death to attend school or to be out in public at night.  People have risked death, and have died, for the freedom to vote or express their religious beliefs.  While humans may be born with some kind of innate craving for knowledge and self-determination, we are not born with an innate craving for schools or voting, as these are historically specific social phenomena.

In the same sense, we cannot discount the possibility that in the presence of any given sexual desire—the desire to masturbate, the desire to have sex with someone of the same or opposite gender, the desire for oral sex or anal sex, etc.—the human impulse toward self-determination and sexual gratification is very powerful.  But this alone is not evidence that the particular sexual desire in question is in-born, just as religious beliefs are not in-born (no matter how deeply held or severely punished).

Then of course there is the question of how any sexual desire forms in the first place. Like many others, I have taken the position that “sexual orientations” are formed after we are born, sometimes in early childhood and sometimes later.  The possibilities for how this happens, like the possibilities that can lead people to any number of erotic tastes or distastes, are nearly endless.  Good experiences, bad experiences, unconscious experiences, willful defiance, and happy conformity are all potential parts of this story.  The fact that some people don’t have a coherent story about all of the social, cultural, and psychological factors that produced their particular complex of sexual feelings simply does not mean they were born with those feelings already intact.   To my mind, this is equivalent to assuming that George Bush’s transcendence to political power must mean that he was born with exceptional leadership skills or extraordinary personal ambition, when instead we’d do better to trace the multitude of experiences, privileges, connections, and collective influences that have produced George Bush and his life.

The fact that people (and especially women) experience and act on homosexual desire under especially homophobic and patriarchal conditions is to my mind, not a surprise.  In many cultures, acute homophobia goes hand in hand with great restrictions on women’s rights and freedoms, making heterosexual relationships—and the culture of heterosexuality more generally—both hierarchical and violent.  Show me a culture that makes life hell for queers and I will show you a culture that makes life hell for heterosexual women (and that forecloses men’s capacity for true identification and partnership with women).  While it is unpopular among gays and lesbians these days to suggest that some people might choose queerness because heterosexuality has so little to offer, I think this is precisely the experience of many women. Many women orient themselves away from heterosexuality because it has been far less satisfying than they anticipated.  This is NOT because women’s sexuality is inherently more fluid than men’s, but because heterosexual partnership, under sexism, offers women less than it offers men.

The fact that violent religious persecution has often failed to suppress people’s desire to practice their religious traditions—even though there is nothing hardwired about particular religious beliefs—is an amazing testament to the human capacity to become deeply attached to feelings, thoughts, and cravings that are learned and developed after we are born. The fact that homophobia cannot suppress people’s desire for homosexual encounters—even when those desires are not hardwiredis not something to deny, but something to embrace with, dare I say… pride.

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19 Responses to Some Clarifications on “No One is Born Gay”

  1. Lewis Gannett says:

    The question that emerges from this discussion isn’t whether or not people are “born” with sexual preferences, but whether or not sexual preferences are a choice. What a load of confusion the whole debate has been! If it could be proven that people are in fact “born” with sexual preferences, we’d have no debate: there would be no question of choice. But, of course, we do NOT have scientific proof that people are born with sexual preferences. It’s thus possible, in fact very likely, that influences after birth help to form sexuality. But does that mean there’s a CHOICE in the matter? Everything revolves around the seemingly simple question of “choice”! In the end, it’s not been helpful to load the debate with a bias in favor of the idea that, if you’re not born with it, you somehow choose it. Those who seek to advance this idea would do well to offer evidence. That has not happened here.

    • ejaneward says:

      i agree with you! and i so wish that the LGBT movement was having this discussion at the level you describe (or asking the question: to what extent are our sexualities constrained or not, and by what social and cultural forces?). but given that so many people are running around with “born this way” t-shirts and staking their claims for sexual and gender justice on biology, and given that many people expressed outrage at the title of my original post, it seems that the question–at least for many–is STILL whether or not we are “born” with sexual preferences. 😦

      • Fred says:

        Honestly, I’ve had remarkably similar beliefs ultimately to your popular post for a long while now, which, mind you, is plenty difficult if you are a bisexual (or gay) man in the LGBT community, but that’s neither here nor there; however, you better believe I was taken aback by your title.

        If I understood your statement correctly, you’re purporting that sexuality has not been proven to be rooted into genetics; I will agree, but to claim that no one is born gay is just completely flawed logically on a fundamental level. Proving one argument untrue does not make its direct counterpart true. For example: when I say every color is blue and you prove me wrong, it does not inherently mean that no color is blue. So, I agree with you in that sexuality is not necessarily determined at birth because there is no proof, but I simply can not agree with the notion that there is significant proof that sexuality is NOT rooted into genetics. We just don’t know.

        But perhaps you were using the title to draw attention to the article as a typical journalistic tactic; I would not hold that against you because that’s totally reasonable. Afterall, you wouldn’t have my comment here if I wasn’t outraged by that title that you may or may not actually believe.

        And I have no intent to slather this reply with bleeding animosity. I am just putting my two cents in and will gladly walk away after this.

  2. Chris says:

    Out of curiosity, where do trans people stand in this narrative?

    • annajcook says:

      Chris,

      I won’t speak for the OP here, but it seems to me that trans folks will fit into the narrative, in terms of their sexuality, just as a cis person (such as myself) fits in…I’m bisexual/fluid, there are trans people who are bisexual/fluid. I’m in a lesbian relationship; there are trans women in lesbian relationships.

      Vis a vis gender expression and experience, it seems one could chart a similar understanding of our bodily selves interacting with the social-cultural world and developing a sense of gender identity over time — similar to how people develop a sense of their sexual selves over time. I agree with Julia Serano on this point, that both gender and sexuality are complex phenomena that cannot be reduced to the binary of “nature vs. nurture” but rather are experienced biologically and socially in dialogue.

      In other words “transgender” and “lesbian,” “cisgender” and “straight” are cultural categories we have developed to describe groupings of human experiences, each of which are unique. One hundred years for now, we may have a wholly different schema for describing sex and gender variation … that doesn’t mean that individual subjective experience will have changed much, but we’ll have a different culture interacting within and around those individual feelings. Being shaped by and shaping them, in dialogue.

  3. Cat says:

    How do you account for the experience of sexually fluid people who are in straight marriages then fall in love with the same sex, come out as gay, then say they are repulsed by the opposite sex and above all, that this shift in their sexuality was not a choice?

    This appears to be the experience I read all the time by late blooming lesbians. It’s intriguing how it’s claimed this repulsion for the opposite sex is not on some level a choice and is why bisexuals sometimes get a bad rap for not being repulsed by sex with men even while in same sex relationships.

    • Becky the whistleblowing feminist insider says:

      Funny how in this cosy little world in which hatred of the right group is not just tolerated but promoted – the misandry is pouring down the street – your hatred of men is evident – and so passionate that you cant tell when or where it started – meaning that you hold men in such contempt (though on this hater website – as long as the target is heteros hate is endorsed) that you cant be still enough, or stop carpet licking – to work out if your hate is rational or merely media suggestion. Either way – you are therefore either very nasty or very suggestible – but like I said – you, like most, never stop to think about it – because PC mind-job already told you that you are the eternal victim and can do no wrong – you didnt loose any time eyeing little girls

      • Becky the whistleblowing feminist insider says:

        I was so offended by your blinding hate that I forgot to say that in my primary research, I tried every way to get normal women to admit their hatred and contempt of men – but as per deceptive, guilty people behaviour – they never admit it in words – they only act in that way that makes it clear – all the more powerful and proves the denial.
        I find it not surprising but concerning that here, in this closet of hate – a den of misandry – in which, as the author – if we repeat the lies and myths that all men are violent rapists in every article and comment – then no amount of hate speech against men is ever morally wrong – as you are all restating the myth of the eternal victim status. Probably the same thing happened in the 30s in Germany.
        Am amazed at the inversion in admission – from the “outside world” of total denial – to the sudden unashamed open hatred! All that I predicted word for word in hypothesis proven here.

      • ejaneward says:

        “carpet licking”!! i haven’t heard that kind of metaphor for decades! thanks for that fun blast from the past. i’m thinking we need to bring that phrase back. i remember knowing some dykes in college who dressed as muff divers and carpet munchers for halloween one year. so fun!

  4. Jeremy Novoa says:

    Hey ejaneward I have a personal issue I’d like to ask your opinion on relating to this topic. On October 3rd of this year my fiance of 3 years left me to pursue a homosexual lifestyle even though we have a 1 year old and have made love multiple times (the last time being only 2 days before she left). Do you feel that in this case her homosexuality was choice driven? I was aware that in highschool she had identified herself as bi-sexual but after 3 years of being truly and deeply intimate I feel that this new found homosexual identity she has given herself is just a phase to experiment with her own desires. She has made radical life decisions like this multiple times within the past year: disconnecting with dear childhood friends with no remorse, converting from a vegetarian diet to a normal diet, and most recently this lesbianism. I am personally heart broken and confused as to how a woman who I truly and deeply loved for the past 3 years and who loved me back (or at least it truly felt like she did) could suddenly make such a drastic change especially after having a child. I know she wasn’t afraid of being known as bisexual or lesbian because all of her friends and family supported her. Your thoughts?

  5. Pingback: No One is Born Gay (or Straight): Here Are 5 Reasons Why | Social (In)Queery

  6. Do we need such a categorical statement as “no one is born gay?” Perhaps some of us are. Perhaps life experiences open some of us up to possibilities beyond the expected.Perhaps some of us are born with more fluidity than others. Perhaps, for some of us, it is a choice. One size rarely fits all.

  7. I have read both your articles with much interest. I haven’t read all the comments, but one question I still have is; ‘are some animals, particularly mammals like us, (dogs, horses, walruses), innately gay in the sense of never choosing to perform sex with the opposite gender? Included in the question;- not merely frustrated sometimes and consequently perform sexual acts on the same sex…or even on one’s leg in the case of my dog…but gay in the sense of ‘no matter what available female dog is in heat nearby, I am a gay male dog and I’m just not interested’ gay. I don’t know if it matters whether the dog has been ‘fixed’ or not. Nevertheless, I believe I would have further support for your position on this topic, if the answer to my question is ‘no’, but still open to wonder if the answer is ‘yes’.

    We may believe that many sexual desires are just plain wrong – morally, physically, politically – such as rape, pedophilia, zoophilia – sexual aggression where consent of both parties is not possible. But what about that poor individual who is ‘born pedophile or rapist’ (if congenital sexual orientations exist)?

  8. Pingback: You May Well Be Born Gay (Or Straight) But Not Everyone Is | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

  9. riddlej says:

    Ok, honesty check: I’m a right wing evangelical, which means I’m a couple shades away from being a Nazi… but I love your original post. I am so refreshed by your honesty and alternative perspective. You talked about cultural construction of sexuality and gender in a way that seems to fit what I observe and feel in my daily confrontations with the subject. I have always thought that both were cultural constructed, and fluid, and interpreted differently by different cultures. And while I push for “traditional” sexual and gender roles for theological reasons, I still respect and love those choose differently. I think you’re right that science will always choose to justify the biases of the status quo, and I am not for perverting the truth to please one group or another. Thanks.

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