June 1, 2011
This article is a modified version of the original that appeared in the LGBTQ Policy Journal at the Harvard Kennedy School: 2011 Edition.
From Lady Gaga to the President of the United States, many voices in the past few months have affirmed that gay people are born gay. Just last month, a YouTube video of Minnesota politician Scott Simon asking his fellow state politicians "How many more people does God have to create before we ask ourselves whether or not God actually wants them around?" went completely viral.
This idea resonates with many in our community who have understood, at least internally, their own sexuality from a very young age.
And it's not simply an idea, it relates directly to the rights we are afforded as a community, as argued by Barack Obama. Activists claim that if sexuality were innate, if we were in fact born this way, that it would be increasingly difficult to justify the ongoing discrimination against the LGBT community.
However, the biological basis for sexuality is far from clearly understood. Critically, the legal rights of the LGBT community depend, in part, on how courts understand this concept, and how they evaluate the science behind it. So, while the dance beat pulses and the club kids sing, "Baby I was born this way!" we should also consider the important question: "Should it matter?"
Modern genetics is a powerful tool to help us understand the heritability of traits. Most complex behaviors, like sexuality, are incredibly complex and depend on more than one gene. However, heritability, the component of a behavior that is likely to be based on genetics and not experience, can be estimated by studying family relationships, and particularly by studying identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes. Twin studies have consistently shown that sexuality is somewhat heritable, that there is, in essence, a genetic component to how sexuality is experienced. Other work has shown differences in brain morphology and function between straight identified and gay identified individuals.
These studies, however, remain extremely controversial as they all suffer from small sample size and depend on some less-than-sure assumptions. There is also a growing movement of academics who resist any attempt to understand sexuality or gender identity through the biological lens, arguing that gender socialization begins from the second one leaves the womb and is wrapped in a blanket, either blue or pink. Even with the tremendous advancements in our genetic understanding and ability to image the brain in the last half-century, we still have few good scientific models for understanding complex human behavior. Scientifically, it may be a generation before we can conclusively answer whether one is born gay.
One could argue that scientific evidence should not matter when the experience of so many LGBT individuals speaks to the innate nature of human sexuality, at least for some. However, the argument over whether sexuality is innate is not only an academic exercise. The LGBT community is still actively discriminated against in this country. We cannot marry in most states, and in many we can be legally fired from our job if we come out. The laws that enshrine these discriminatory policies have often been challenged in court, and often have been upheld as legal. And the science of sexuality has played a large part in these decisions.
The government has a right to write laws that exclude certain groups from legal rights or activities if it is in the government's interest. This may sound paradoxical, but consider this example: The government can write a law that makes it illegal for blind people to drive.
While the rights of the blind are being restricted, it is clearly in the general interest to ensure that the blind don't get behind the wheel. If the government can convince the court that it is in the best interests to exclude the LGBT community from marriage rights, laws banning marriage can be upheld.
However, groups that have suffered historical discrimination are granted special protections under the law. Laws that discriminate based upon gender, for example, or race are held to a higher level of scrutiny and courts must find them unconstitutional unless it is shown that there is a compelling governmental interest. Because no federal legislation exists granting the LGBT community special protection under the law, sexuality must be considered immutable, or innate, for this status to be conferred. Therefore, the science of sexuality relates directly to the rights that we as a group are given.
Many courts, including the Supreme Court of New York, have used the fact that sexuality is a "behavior" and therefore not immutable to find that laws discriminating against the LGBT community are in fact legal.
Recently, however, Supreme Courts at the state level have begun to question this legal justification. In 2008, when laws banning same-sex marriage were challenged in California, the court specifically stated that "because a person's sexual orientation is so integral an aspect of one's identity, it is not appropriate to require a person to repudiate or change his or her sexual orientation in order to avoid discriminatory treatment." The Supreme Court of Iowa agreed, adding that "Courts need not definitively resolve the nature-versus-nurture debate currently raging over the origin of sexual orientation in order to decide plaintiffs' equal protection claims. The constitutional relevance of the immutability factor is not reserved to those instances in which the trait defining the burdened class is absolutely impossible to change." When California's Proposition 8 was challenged, a federal judge agreed with these state court decisions that immutability need not be biologically understood.
These courts have rejected precedent that upheld discriminatory policies, and in so doing they have shifted the importance of innateness altogether. It is unlikely that the scientific community can or will conclusively show sexuality to be innate in the near future. Even if a gay gene were identified, there is no guarantee that some within the medical community would not reclassify non-normative sexuality as a genetic disorder. Either way, we should not have to wait for genetic proof to be allowed our full rights under the law.
The next time we hear "Born This Way" blasting on the radio, or consider the idea that we are created gay at birth, we should remember that this argument is a double-edged sword. While it speaks directly to the experience of many in our community, while it is liberating to step away from the idea that one can "pray the gay away" or that being gay is a choice or a moral failure, the argument over whether sexuality is innate is actually helping maintain the oppression of the LGBT community. Let us not ask "were we born this way?" but rather "why should it matter at all?"
Joe Osmundson is a biophysicist who attends Rockefeller University in New York City.