The Myth of the Lifestyle Choice: Research Indicates a Need For Change in Gay Rights Debate

While it may be a drastic oversimplification, for millions of Americans the issue of homosexuality boils down to the basic question: is homosexuality a lifestyle choice or an innate, uncontrollable trait? People who tend to hold the latter view also tend to have more positive views towards homosexuality. These opinions have enormous social and political implications for millions of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans. Studies have concluded that between five and seven percent of American men had sexual contact with other men during adulthood and other studies place this percentage even higher. Therefore, the debate over homosexuality is more than an intellectual exercise; the lives of many real people depend on the majority opinion.

Opponents of gay rights, be it in the realm of marriage, adoption, or hate crime protection, reject the notion that the government must step in to the debate and defend a specific lifestyle choice. On “The Daily Show,” Mike Huckabee said, “There is a big difference between a person being Black and a person practicing a lifestyle.” Like many conservatives, he rejects the civil rights claim of the gay rights movement. Similarly A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality places a high emphasis on stereotyped environmental factors that lead to homosexuality and discusses how parents can control exposure to these influences. Ultimately, he believes homosexuality results from a rejection by same-sex peers. While not all adversaries of gay rights share these opinions, they do represent the opinions of a significant bloc of voting Americans. Unfortunately, these views are clearly ignorant of the abundance of evidence suggesting both a biological basis for homosexuality and a complex relationship of environmental factors that do not act in easily controllable or stereotypical ways. Therefore, an honest review of the research on the origins of homosexuality may be an important step toward changing the debate on gay rights.

Stereotypically, the acknowledgement that environment plays a role in sexual orientation leads to the erroneous conclusion that homosexuality is contagious. Stereotyped views of environmental influences would have you believe that the more accepting of homosexuality society becomes, the more homosexuals there will be. Following this line of reasoning, the most supportive environment for homosexual children would probably be homosexual parents—thus many opponents of homosexuality also oppose gay adoption rights. However, a 1996 study found that homosexual parents are just as likely to have gay children as heterosexual parents. It may be true, however, that acceptance of homosexuality will lead to more homosexuals becoming open in their homosexuality, but I have not yet heard a convincing argument to maintain the current environment that I deem to be full of lies and hypocrisy. We do not need a society full of people like Larry Craig and Ted Haggard.

Other stereotyped views of environmental factors are that gay brothers might cause homosexuality in siblings. Conversely, a 2000 study concluded that the large majority of gay men with brothers knew about their own homosexual feelings before they learned about their brothers’ homosexual feelings, suggesting that discovery of the brothers’ homosexuality is not an important cause of male homosexuality. Other hypotheses that passive fathers or paternal rejection can cause homosexuality have not been supported by empirical evidence. The gay rights opposition hypothesis of same-sex peer rejection has also not received causational support, since often peer rejection occurs as a result of homosexuality and not the other way around. Therefore, it seems clear from the research that there is a strong biological component in the development of homosexuality in addition to a complex environmental component that, for the most part, acts passively on a developing child.

Of course many worry, or hope, that a biological component may prove that homosexuality is a disease that can be treated. This argument is clearly erroneous. If it were correct, every behavior would qualify as diseased because all differences in behavior are caused by brain differences. The fact that the research on homosexuality overwhelmingly proves that sexual orientation is not purely a lifestyle choice means that there needs to be a serious reevaluation of the gay rights debate. Many strategists on the religious right may knowingly exploit false information to advance their cause, and strategists on the left ignore the power of research and education, instead calling opponents homophobes and other epithets.

Naturally, religious opposition to homosexuality may still be seen as a viable reason. Even if homosexuality were out of one’s control, these opponents would argue that it is a behavior that can still be repressed. Nevertheless, I believe this is a more cynical view than what many opponents of gay rights would knowingly support if they understood the full nature of homosexuality. Other opponents may still argue that the government doesn’t need to defend behavior choices, only defending entirely biological traits like sex and race that an individual cannot control. But as Jon Stewart points out, “religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality,” and we protect and support religion extensively.

Others try to make the case that homosexuality is unhealthy and will cause unhappiness. Therefore, as with regulations on unhealthy food and smoking, the government should take steps to prevent, or at least not support, homosexuality. A 1995 study found that victimization did directly have a negative effect on the mental health of homosexuals but self-acceptance and a supportive family could help mediate these effects. This conclusion, ironically, puts the blame on the hands of society rather than the behavior of the homosexual individual. Additionally, multiple studies show that gay parents are just as good as heterosexual parents at raising well-adjusted children. These studies reached the conclusion that homosexual conduct harms only those who take offense at it, and that offense is taken on irrational and often inhumane grounds. Therefore, unlike pedophilia, which may also have a biological component, homosexuality is not an unhealthy activity that can harm others.

Regardless of the reason for opposing homosexuality and gay rights, one thing needs to be made clear: the debate needs to shift away from the lifestyle choice argument. Homosexuality is clearly not a choice, a point supported extensively by research. This is not a new discovery, yet many social conservatives talk about the “choice to be gay” as if it is a legitimate argument. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said, “One of the things I think the next president has to do is to stop fanning people’s fears.” In the same vein, I believe it is time to finally have an honest debate on homosexuality, free of misleading and deceit.

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