A few years ago I was giving a seminar on issues around sexuality at New Wine summer conference. During the questions at the end of the seminar, someone near the back asked ‘Are people born gay?’ I was aware that this can be a loaded question, so I offered a very careful answer, highlighting what I knew of research but also pointing out that the answer to that question (in either direction) did not offer an immediate answer to questions of sexual ethics, and that for many people (on all sorts of issues) the question of ‘Am I born this way?’ is personal, loaded and sensitive. I thought I had done a reasonable job—until the end of the seminar when I woman pushed through the group waiting to talk to me and started shouting, waving her hands. ‘I brought a group of gay teenagers here from my church—and you have told them God hates them!’ I hadn’t done that at all—in fact, quite the opposite—but it confirmed to me that the question of causation is one that is felt strongly and personally within this debate.
So, at one level, it was not that surprising that there was quite a bit of coverage of a piece of research published in August 2019 in Science which showed that there was no single gene that determined sexual orientation, and that cultural, developmental and environmental factors were more significant. You can read the paper for yourself, and this is the abstract that comes with it:
Twin and family studies have shown that same-sex sexual behavior is partly genetically influenced, but previous searches for specific genes involved have been underpowered. We performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) on 477,522 individuals, revealing five loci significantly associated with same-sex sexual behavior. In aggregate, all tested genetic variants accounted for 8 to 25% of variation in same-sex sexual behavior, only partially overlapped between males and females, and do not allow meaningful prediction of an individual’s sexual behavior. Comparing these GWAS results with those for the proportion of same-sex to total number of sexual partners among nonheterosexuals suggests that there is no single continuum from opposite-sex to same-sex sexual behavior. Overall, our findings provide insights into the genetics underlying same-sex sexual behavior and underscore the complexity of sexuality.
(They had time to prepare this, since they first presented their research at a conference in October 2018.)
But there is one thing that is surprising in all this: that it is news at all. People on every side of this debate have been saying this for a long time! The fact that it is little known, and that this research could take anyone by surprise, tells us something about the nature of the debate.
My first serious reading on this issue was Thomas Schmidt’s Straight and Narrow: compassion and clarity in the homosexuality debate. It was first published in 1995, which is a long time ago in the history of the debate, but remains a good read (and I think a new edition might be on its way). In his chapter on the ‘Great Nature-Nurture Debate’, Schmidt offers a ‘multi-causal model’ in which he notes that a number of different factors contribute to the formation of our sexual identity. Not only genetics, but also (for men) birth order makes a difference. Younger male siblings are exposed to higher levels of in-utero testosterone (which affects the length of their ring finger) and makes it more likely that a younger son will not form a good relationship with his father, which will then have an impact on his psycho-sexual development.
Subsequent research on the phenomenon of same-sex relationships has confirmed this. A study in New Zealand in 2003 explored the stability of different kinds of sexual identity amongst young women and men.
There is a continuing debate about the importance of social versus biological factors in the expression of same-sex attraction. Investigation of prevalence, continuities, and changes over time among young adults growing up in a country with a relatively accepting climate to homosexuality is likely to illuminate this debate. Analyses were therefore undertaken of self-reported same-sex attraction at age 21 and 26, in a cohort of about 1000 people born in 1972/3 in one New Zealand city. Participants were also asked about same-sex behaviour and attitudes to same-sex relationships. By age 26, 10.7% of men and 24.5% of women reported being attracted to their own sex at some time. This dropped to 5.6% of men and 16.4% of women who reported some current same-sex attraction. Current attraction predominantly to their own sex or equally to both sexes (major attraction) was reported by 1.6% of men and 2.1% of women. Occasional same-sex attraction, but not major attraction, was more common among the most educated. Between age 21 and 26, slightly more men moved away from an exclusive heterosexual attraction (1.9% of all men) than moved towards it (1.0%), while for women, many more moved away (9.5%) than towards (1.3%) exclusive heterosexual attraction. These findings show that much same-sex attraction is not exclusive and is unstable in early adulthood, especially among women. The proportion of women reporting some same-sex attraction in New Zealand is high compared both to men, and to women in the UK and US. These observations, along with the variation with education, are consistent with a large role for the social environment in the acknowledgement of same-sex attraction. The smaller group with major same-sex attraction, which changed less over time, and did not differ by education, is consistent with a basic biological dimension to sexual attraction. Overall these findings argue against any single explanation for homosexual attraction.
Notice that this research is based on self-reported descriptions of orientation (rather than actual behaviours) and is inferring from the instability of identification something about causation. Put pictorially, the data on young women looks like this:
Research in Denmark in 2006 looked at the correlation between a range of factors, including age difference between parents, absence of the father, and being raised in an urban rather than rural environment with same-sex and other-sex marriage. The research aimed to avoid ideological factors by choosing a country where same-sex marriage had been accepted for a long time (thus removing any distortions arising from social stigma) and looked at biographical facts (marriage) rather than asking about self identification.
Children who experience parental divorce are less likely to marry heterosexually than those growing up in intact families; however, little is known about other childhood factors affecting marital choices. We studied childhood correlates of first marriages (heterosexual since 1970, homosexual since 1989) in a national cohort of 2 million 18–49 year-old Danes. In multivariate analyses, persons born in the capital area were significantly less likely to marry heterosexually, but more likely to marry homosexually, than their rural-born peers. Heterosexual marriage was significantly linked to having young parents, small age differences between parents, stable parental relationships, large sibships, and late birth order. For men, homosexual marriage was associated with having older mothers, divorced parents, absent fathers, and being the youngest child. For women, maternal death during adolescence and being the only or youngest child or the only girl in the family increased the likelihood of homosexual marriage. Our study provides population-based, prospective evidence that childhood family experiences are important determinants of heterosexual and homosexual marriage decisions in adulthood.
Given this evidence, it is perhaps not surprising that gay campaigners outside the church have been very happy to accept the conclusions. Lisa Diamond is a researcher who also campaigns for gay rights, and she is quite clear that the notion that gay people ‘are born that way’ is not supported by the evidence, nor does it provide the basis for advocacy. You can watch her present her research in 2013 here:
At the end of the piece, she talks about the way that her research has been used to campaign against gay rights, which she disagrees with. But she also comments:
We can make claims for civil rights protection that don’t rely on the immutability and distinctiveness and uniqueness of these [gay, queer, bi-] groups…I feel like, as a community, the queers have got to stop saying ‘Please help us. We were born this way and we can’t change’. (43 minutes)
Diamond’s own long research article (written with others) confirms the relatively small contribution made by genetic factors.
In conclusion, the evidence [from twin studies] supporting a genetic influence on sexual orientation is consistent, although sampling biases remain a concern even for the best available studies. Our best estimate of the magnitude of genetic effects is moderate—certainly not overwhelming…
Based on the evidence from twin studies, we believe that we can already provide a qualified answer to the question “Is sexual orientation genetic?” That answer is: “Probably somewhat genetic, but not mostly so.” On the one hand, that answer is not surprising, given the evo- lutionary pressure against genes that diminish repro- duction, as genes for homosexuality likely do, especially in males (Vasey, Parker, & VanderLaan, 2014). On the other hand, we expect many people will find the con- clusion surprising, mainly because they have miscon- strued the meanings of “genetic” and “environmental.” There can be little doubt that sexual orientation is environmentally influenced. (p 76)
Within the UK, gay campaigners have long acknowledged this. In 2008, Peter Tatchell set out a multi-causal explanation of the formation of orientation along similar lines to Schmidt, though under the controversial title ‘Homosexuality: it isn’t natural‘:
There is a major problem with gay gene theory, and with all theories that posit the biological programming of sexual orientation. If heterosexuality and homosexuality are, indeed, genetically predetermined (and therefore mutually exclusive and unchangeable), how do we explain bisexuality or people who, suddenly in mid-life, switch from heterosexuality to homosexuality (or vice versa)? We can’t.
The reality is that queer and straight desires are far more ambiguous, blurred and overlapping than any theory of genetic causality can allow…
Many studies suggest social factors are also important influences in the formation of sexual orientation. These include the relationship between a child and its parents, formative childhood experiences, family expectations, cultural mores and peer pressure.
By about the age of five or six, a combination of biological and social influences seem to lay the basis of an individual’s sexual orientation. Because our sexuality is fixed at such an early age, many lesbians and gay men feel they have been homosexual all their lives and therefore mistakenly conclude that it must be genetic and that they were born queer.
Tatchell also explains the appeal of ‘born gay’ or ‘gay gene’ theories within the cultural debate:
They also see the gay gene explanation as a useful defence against the arguments of the religious right, which dismisses same-sex relationships as a lifestyle choice. But no one sits down one day and chooses to be gay (or straight). Sexual orientation is not a choice like choosing which biscuits to buy in a supermarket. We don’t have free will concerning the determination of our sexual orientation. Our only free will is whether we accept or repress our true inner sexual and emotional desires.
More recently, in January 2019, Matthew Parris noted the same thing—with the same dangers:
In what passes for the gay ‘community’, there’s something of a taboo about admitting, even to ourselves, that quite a few of us (not me) could, with a little coaxing and self-discipline, be ‘straight’. Straight men are equally reluctant to admit the converse. There exist strong reasons for this taboo among gays: first, ‘we can’t help it’ was absolutely central to our early pitch for equality, and we needed to believe it. Secondly, if sexuality really is modifiable for some, how long before someone suggests cognitive behavioural therapy minus (or even plus) the Hallelujahs?
This consistent, well-founded, and widely agreed understanding will need to inform the Church of England’s current debates on sexuality.
It is no surprise that it continues to be controversial; if parenting plays a role in sexual development, am I as a parent ‘to blame’ for the way my children have turned out? That is the painful question that all parents face on a whole range of issues.
And when thinking about my own sexuality and decisions, believing that something is genetic and that ‘God made me this way’ is more comforting that facing the complex reality of environment, nurture, culture and decisions that have shaped the way I am.
But above all, as Schmidt set out nearly 25 years ago, we need both compassion and clarity in our thinking and discussion on this issue.
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