Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Is homosexuality a choice?

This was something I wrote on a friend's site two years ago, during the 2004 presidential campaign. I reprint it simply because it is pretty much my comprehensive take on probably the biggest of questions on Topic H. David initially quoted moderater Bob Schieffer's question to the two presidential candidates.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Mr. President, let's get back to economic issues, but let's shift to some other questions here. Both of you are opposed to gay marriage. But to understand how you have come to that conclusion, I want to ask you a more basic question. Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?
Here's how I would have answered the question:
"Mr. Schieffer, it depends what you mean by homosexuality. In any event, I don't think it's a closed question. If you mean homosexuality as a disposition or temptation, it almost certainly is unchosen. I note, though that this leaves open the question of whether it is genetic-biological trait, like eye color, or an acquired personality trait, like generosity or irascibility or alcoholism or saintliness. But if you mean homosexuality as behavior, then it certainly is chosen, on account of ... well ... all behavior is chosen. I note, though that this leaves open the question of the degree to which one's will or freedom can be clouded by previous habit."
I should note that the evidence for a strong version of the genetic-biological theory (homosexuality as eye color) is actually very skimpy -- not even the twin studies show the almost-100 percent correlation they would have to if homosexuality were purely genetic (and the brain studies -- please). The correlations are high enough, though, to support the acquired personality trait theory -- we're disposed a certain way, but environment and choice determine what we do with those dispositions. Again, the analogy with alcoholism is fairly precise -- scientists have located genes, but they merely raise the correlation rates. You won't become an alcoholic, no matter what your genes, if you live your whole life in Provo or Mecca. You'll become an alcoholic, no matter what your genes, if you drink enough.

I think this debate over choice gets clouded by, among other things, the connotations of the word "choice" -- it implies a fully-conscious act of decision-making at a given moment with all the options before one, with the pros and cons weighed, etc. "Choosy moms choose Jif." Clearly, nobody IN THAT SENSE chooses to be gay.

But that isn't the only sense of "choice," which is why, when I outlined my answer above, I used the word "acquire," which is less ... positivistic and deliberate. You can acquire something you didn't choose or (and this is the key point) are never conscious of having made a choice about. This is most clearly true in the case of one's personality traits, whatever they might be and indifferent to whether they are good or bad traits to have. In a phrase, you become what you do and you do what you become, in a never-ending dialectic. I didn't choose my homosexual dispositions, any more than I chose to be a scholastic pedant. I remember both dispositions from a very early age, prior to both formal education and anything that could be called sexual agency. I could have either confirmed or been confirmed in those dispositions; steered away or been steered away from them. They could have been either nurtured or neglected. (For example, I could have been born Amish, and so ended my schooling in 8th grade.) And the accidents of my environment, including a somewhat Catholic schooling, meant I never had to fully "come out" to myself until I had my first serious love-crush, which was at about 24.

As for the testimony of self-identified gay people, it's not that I believe they're lying. It's a combination of immersion in cultural propaganda (the society constantly TELLS everybody this) and the will to believe the strong-genetic explanation, since it soothes the conscience by seeming to end moral debate about homosexuality (it also short-circuits claims of changeability, which is both of its attraction and why I think it risible). But there's also two other things, neither blameworthy -- (1) the human tendency to describe one's life story in the terms of a teleological narrative ("this is how it was meant to be"); and (2) the existential fact that neither they nor any gay person they know remembers "choosing" to be gay, in the sense above.


Marc said...

Bravo, bravo. This is the most succinct and most accurate answer to the question I've seen.

Your description of the choice involved--which is actually a series of choices made over, usually I suppose, a number of years--points out one reason, I think, why conservative, 'traditional' Catholics of a certain mindset have issues (when they do) with understanding: one cannot make a mental list of the items in that 'series of choices' and go to the confessional and be done with it; 'it' doesn't work like that.

CourageMan said...


But could you elaborate on what you mean by this:

Your description of the choice[s] involved ... points out one reason, I think, why conservative, 'traditional' Catholics of a certain mindset have issues (when they do) with understanding

I don't want to respond to it, because what the words "issues" and "understanding" refer to in this context is unclear.

That said, I certainly agree that some traditionalist Catholic types have too much of an "Ick, Ugh" reaction that mistakes a visceral repugnance for a thought or an argument.

But what I thought I thought I was saying was solidly in the mainstream of Thomas and Aristotle's thought on habits.

Marc said...

Sorry for the lack of clarity.

"Issues" is what you more properly describe as 'visceral repugnance mistaken for argument'; "understanding" i.e. understanding that a person with a homosexual orientation doesn't 'deal' with that by confessing and it being done with.

(Apart from one or two excellent confessors, I don't think my acquaintance do much thinking in terms of the Aristotelian/Thom. habits, ha: there are the people who to one degree or another have 'the world' mixed into their thinking ('we want to embrace you as you are!') and do or don't deal (one suspects) with the 'ick' factor or, on the other hand, those who have 'sex as recreation' in the air they breathe.)

Anonymous said...

I am gay well i believe i will be back i did not make the choise it sort of happened but it might have occord during the past for example, my mum died and i did'nt really get to spend much time with my dad and in school i was'nt allways the popuilar kid so that could have had something to do with it, i am 15 know and i have kissed girls buy never a boy but as much as i dont want to be gay i cant help but think i was ment to be gay, but i want to have a wife and children but i dont want them to find out that the dad was gay or even bi i know there nothing wrong with that but its just hard i really put myself in a bad possition and i am scared to show who i really am because i just dont yet know