The nation’s increasingly visible and influential gay community embraces the notion of sexual orientation as an innate, immutable characteristic, like left-handedness or eye color. But a major federal sex survey suggests a far more fluid, varied life experience for those who acknowledge same-sex attraction.
The results of this scientific research shouldn’t undermine the hard-won respect recently achieved by gay Americans, but they do suggest that choice and change play larger roles in sexual identity than commonly assumed. … While pop-culture frequently cites the figure of one in 10 (based on 60-year-old, widely discredited conclusions from pioneering sex researcher Alfred Kinsey) the new study finds only 1.4% of the population identifying with same-sex orientation.
Moreover, even among those who describe themselves as homosexual or bisexual (a grand total of 3.7% of the 18-44 age group), overwhelming majorities (81%) say they’ve experienced sex with partners of the opposite gender. Among those who call themselves heterosexual, on the other hand, only a tiny minority (6%) ever engaged in physical intimacy of any kind with a member of the same sex.”
Gay pride advocates applaud the courage of those who “come out,” discovering their true nature as homosexual after many years of heterosexual experience. But enlightened opinion denies a similar possibility of change in the other direction, deriding anyone who claims straight orientation after even the briefest interlude of homosexual behavior and insisting they are phony and self-deluding. By this logic, heterosexual orientation among those with past gay relationships is always the product of repression and denial, but homosexual commitment after a straight background is invariably natural and healthy.
In other words, for the minority who may have experimented with gay relationships at some juncture in their lives, well over 80% explicitly renounced homosexual (or even bisexual) self-identification by age of 35. For the clear majority of males (as well as women) who report gay encounters, homosexual activity appears to represent a passing phase, or even a fleeting episode, rather than an unshakable, genetically pre-determined orientation.
Brad Sears of the Williams Institute defended the accuracy of these numbers, suggesting gay leaders “let go” of previous, unrealistic estimates of homosexual orientation. He told the Associated Press that “with other populations of a similar size of 2% to 4%, we don’t question whether there are too many or too few.” For instance, no one suggests Jewish Americans should be treated with contempt or dismissed as irrelevant to the Christian majority because they number below 2% of the U.S. population. Nor would the news media shy away from reporting that in an age of religious conversion, choice plays a role in adding to and subtracting from the Jewish community.
Religious identity arises from birth, upbringing, instinct, even destiny, but the fact that it almost always includes some element of choice doesn’t entitle the believer to less respect. By the same token, it’s no sign of hostility or homophobia to point to recent data suggesting that life experience and personal decisions play roles alongside inborn inclination in the complex, sometimes inconclusive, emergence of the gay and lesbian identity.
As you can imagine, Medved’s piece wasn’t well-received by some of my friends when I posted it to Facebook. One friend was upset at how Medved seems to lend credence to the Christian ex-gay movement, which purports to ‘convert’ gay men away from their gay ‘lifestyle’. I agree that Medved was too dismissive of the genetic factors that contribute to homosexuality, and the evidence that so-called ‘conversion’ therapies are ineffective and often harmful.
But this criticism of Medved misses the thrust of his argument. Concerns about the size of the LGBT community and whether homosexuality is a choice are (or should be) irrelevant to the question of gay rights. My friend Mike Smith put it best:
I think the only way to actually achieve equality and “liberation” for gay individuals is to completely dispense with the “science” behind sexuality. The movement for equality should be rooted in a fundamental understanding that PEOPLE have dignity and do not deserve humiliation. Trying to prove the “science” behind sexuality is playing on the turf of conservatives: in other words, in order to deserve equal protection, your behavior must be the product of biology, not of choice. True liberation can only come about when sexuality is respected regardless of whether or not there exists scientific evidence of its biological origin; we should respect people because they are people, not because their sexuality has survived a scientific litmus test.
That’s why things like Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” do little to advance an intelligent consideration of gay rights. To be sure, pointing out that homosexuality is not a choice is important. I disagree with my friend that gay rights advocates have to totally “dispense with the ‘science’ of sexuality.” The ‘born that way’ argument does, I think, excuse oneself from moral culpability—that is, nobody is responsible for their own homosexuality or anybody else’s. But the argument also has its limits, namely: It says nothing about the morality of homosexuality itself.
The issue, though, is not whether homosexuality is innate and can be changed. There may conceivably be a time in the near future where technologies and treatments can change one’s sexual orientation. The salient question instead is whether we even should change it were that a possibility. We need to do a better job of articulating that homosexuality is not some handicap to be fixed or some ailment from which to be cured. So in this respect, I think Medved, the conservative ‘family values’ talk show host, is doing more for gay rights than Gaga. He is encouraging LGBT advocates to speak about dignity in moral—not exclusively scientific—language.