Is Gallup Asking the Wrong Questions About Sexual Orientation?

Americans’ beliefs on the origin of sexual orientation have less and less to do with attitudes toward the LGBTQ community.

A supporter of same-sex marriage holds American and gay pride flags in San Francisco
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
May 29, 2014, 9:45 a.m.

Even as the num­ber of Amer­ic­ans who sup­port same-sex mar­riage reaches an all-time high, the ra­tio of Amer­ic­ans who be­lieve that sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion is in­nate to those who be­lieve it is en­vir­on­ment­ally de­term­ined has re­mained re­l­at­ively un­changed since the year 2000.

Gal­lup Poll con­duc­ted earli­er this month showed that 37 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans be­lieve that be­ing gay or les­bi­an is “due to factors such as up­bring­ing and en­vir­on­ment”; 42 per­cent think that people are born with their sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion.

There is no con­sensus on the is­sue in today’s sci­entif­ic com­munity. “Many think that nature and nur­ture both play com­plex roles,” the Amer­ic­an Psy­cho­lo­gic­al As­so­ci­ation writes. “Most people ex­per­i­ence little or no sense of choice about their sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion.”

There is evid­ence of phys­ic­al dif­fer­ences between ho­mo­sexu­al and het­ero­sexu­al brains: A re­search pro­ject at the Ka­rol­in­ska In­sti­tute in Stock­holm found that “the brains of gay men and wo­men in some as­pects are sim­il­ar to the brains of those of the op­pos­ite sex.” But those dif­fer­ences prob­ably did not arise from en­vir­on­ment­al or ge­net­ic cir­cum­stances alone. An­oth­er study from the same in­sti­tute ex­amined dif­fer­ences between identic­al and fraternal twins in Sweden. It found that both ge­net­ic ef­fects and the non-shared en­vir­on­ment — that is, en­vir­on­ment­al dif­fer­ences in each twin’s up­bring­ing — had mod­er­ate ef­fects on de­term­in­ing sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion.

But per­haps the ques­tion of nature versus nur­ture is not the ques­tion we — or Gal­lup — should be ask­ing. “It’s not worthy of de­bate, ne­ces­sar­ily,” said El­len Kahn, dir­ect­or of the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign’s Chil­dren, Youth & Fam­il­ies Pro­gram. “What your be­liefs are is less rel­ev­ant be­cause we’re fa­mil­i­ar, more and more, with gay and les­bi­an people. Why doesn’t mat­ter as much.” This view is borne out by the data: Even as be­liefs on the ori­gins of sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion re­main the same, ac­cept­ance is steeply in­creas­ing every year.

The more per­ni­cious ques­tion, Kahn said, has to do with mal­le­ab­il­ity of sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion. “We have to con­tin­ue to point to volumes of sci­entif­ic evid­ence that you can­not change your sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion; the only thing you can do is choose to ac­know­ledge it and share it.” A com­pre­hens­ive 2009 APA re­view of journ­al lit­er­at­ure on sexu­al-ori­ent­a­tion change ef­forts found that at­tempts to al­ter a per­son’s ori­ent­a­tion are “un­likely to be suc­cess­ful and in­volve some risk of harm.”

Per­haps, then, we should stop con­sid­er­ing the nature-versus-nur­ture ques­tion al­to­geth­er. Jam­ie Tab­ber­er wrote in The In­de­pend­ent earli­er this year, “For me, a res­ol­u­tion will come when people stop ask­ing about it — be­cause ac­cept­ance shouldn’t de­pend on the an­swer.”

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