Gay by birth or choice?

There is a new twist to the “born this way” debate. In the past, the logic has been that if a gay person is determined by their genes, then it is illogical to suggest that they can be “cured” by treatment or religion. However, since there is the recognition that no research has yet proven that gayness is biologically determined, therefore, a new rationale may be needed.

Brandon Ambrosino, who wrote a 2013 article in the Atlantic entitled, Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University, has recently written that he was not born this way; he chose to be gay. He claims that the aversion to the word choice in the LGBT community stems from the belief that if we can’t prove our gayness is biologically determined, then we won’t have any grounds to demand equality. In America, we have the freedom to be a well as to “choose” to be. I see no reason to believe that the only sexualities worth protecting are the ones over which no one has control. After all, isn’t trans-activisim fueled by the belief that the government has the responsibility to protect all of us regardless of our sexual choices? And aren’t protections for bisexuals based upon the same presupposition of sexual autonomy?…

One of the reasons I think our activism is so insistent on sexual rigidity is because, in our push to make gay rights the new black rights, we’ve conflated the two issues. The result is that we’ve decided that skin color is the same thing as sexual behavior. I don’t think this is true. When we conflate race and sexuality, we overlook how fluid we are learning our sexualities truly are. To say it rather crassly: I’ve convinced a few men to try out my sexuality, but I never managed to get them to try on my skin color. In other words, one’s sexuality isn’t as biologically determined as race. Many people do feel as if their sexuality is something they were born with, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. But as I and other queer persons will readily confirm, there are other factors informing our sexualities than our genetic codes. Part of what it means to be human is to be adaptable and elastic, to try on new identities, to try new experiences, to play with the paradigm, to bend the norm to its snapping point and see if it cracks under the pressure of its own linguistic limitations. The re-inventiveness of our human condition is one of our greatest traits, and it is worth protecting both legally and philosophically.

Then he utters a challenge. I understand that the genetic argument for homosexuality is a direct response to the tired “You weren’t born that way” rhetoric of religious people. But in my opinion, we could strip that religious argument of much of its power if we responded like this: “Maybe I wasn’t born this way. Now tell me why you think it matters.” I imagine many religious people haven’t really though through the implications of their own rhetoric.

Why does it matter?

First, it acknowledges what many have been saying for years; that there is far more to same sex attraction than one’s genetic code and that it is inaccurate to place it on the same level as race. To concede on this point is nearly tantamount to an atheist admitting there might be a God, but then saying that it really doesn’t matter since he has the right to believe whatever he wants. But it does matter.

Second, Ambrosino’s effort to place something as important as sexual identity and behavior at the level of choice opens up a whole discussion of morality and values, especially for the Christian who is trying to slog their way through the issue of same sex attraction. We are not as flexible and adaptable as Ambrosino has suggested. The snapping point is not due to linguistic limitations, but to the agony of the heart searching for an identity. It also means that what defines me as a person is not so much determined by how I we feel about myself, but by what I choose to believe and how I choose to act. I may be tempted to act out on any number of desires tumbling around in the dryer of my past and present, yet my life will be defined by what I believe and how I choose to act on that belief. It really does matter.

Third, Ambrosino’s argument about choice and government protections propels us to think through the bigger issue of freedom and liberty. As John Milton warned in his Sonnet XII, “License they mean when they cry liberty!” When we take our Founding Fathers and Mothers desire for freedom without their core beliefs and habits of the heart, we expose America’s Achilles’ heel and the fact that the worst enemy of freedom is often freedom. Os Guinness has said that since there is such a crisis in cultural authority (faith and values in America), “the center no longer holds; the core has lost its compelling power; the moral and social ecology of the nation has been contaminated; the different spheres of society are undermining each other; and the escalation of extremes is underway.”

So, yes, it does matter.

4 thoughts on “Gay by birth or choice?

  1. Rich Winnick

    Hi Dave, I’ve been under the impression that there IS research on the assertion that homosexuality was a characteristic determined either at birth or at a very early age. Where would the claim come from otherwise?


  2. Jessica Handy

    Dave, thank you for engaging directly with a person within the LGBT community rather than a straw man argument or oversimplification of the LGBT stance (to the extent there is a unified stance).

    I do find it interesting that you close by addressing our nation’s history and identity rather than the Kingdom of God. It’s essential, of course, to respond in the political context in which we live, and that requires reference to the Constitution and, some would agree, the intent of those who created the Constitution. As a thirty-something, however, I stand in the midst of a profound generational gap. I hear those older than me constantly refer to the Founding Fathers, making an honest effort to evaluate morality in the light of political/national authority. You all grew up in the wake of World War 2 pledging allegiance to the flag and valuing the vote and your political voice. Even Vietnam, for all the political rebellion it inspired, still essentially involved opposing views around politics and national identity. Sadly, those of my age seem very silent. And those younger than me almost never seem to refer to the political/national realm of authority at all. Political figures, including the Founding Fathers and even our current leaders, melt into the background hum of iLife: “#not interested. omg did u c skylar’s new video?” Although they can be very socially active, the impetus for it no longer comes from or is guided by any kind of national allegiance, political purpose, or corporate identity.

    For the church, this is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we can no longer appeal to these things as a motivation for morality unless we first convince a new generation they’re valuable – not valuable abstractly, but valuable concretely enough to give up their personal comfort for. I have a hard time imagining a future in which that happens. On the other hand, this is a powerful moment to claim the higher allegiance of the Kingdom of God. In practice, there is already no other authority among them (us) than the self. I believe we are seeing the devolution of a nation to a collection of people bound together by their pursuit of comfort and pleasure. But there is One whose powerful intervention can create an identity, beliefs, and choices rooted in love and truth even when it seems to go against our own comfort and pleasure – and it’s not the government.

    1. Jessica, Thank you for your response. Since I was writing in response to a gay man who does not claim (any longer) to be a Christian, I did not bring in the concept of the Kingdom of God since it would not be something we would have in common. However, being free citizens in a free country is the commonality we share. I brought up the foundation of our nation not because I’m an old guy but because of the very real danger of our cultural demise based upon a faulty idea of freedom. Whether we are young or old it is a huge issue which affects us whether we want the freedom to practice our religion, marry anyone we want, or not be quarantined just because we were exposed to Ebola.

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