Getting the world to believe that people are born homosexual (attracted to the same-sex) — has been a central goal for gay rights activists and organisations.

The opposite of “I was born this way” is not “I chose this way.” In a 2016 article on sexual orientation published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers wrote that “whether sexual orientation is a choice” is a poor phrase for advancing our understanding of sexuality. We choose our actions, they wrote, not our feelings. Words like “choice,” “preference” and “lifestyle” are loaded because they’ve been used to oppress sexual minorities.

Across many different cultures, male and female nonheterosexuality in adulthood tends to be preceded by childhood gender nonconformity: “A pattern of behavior somewhat like that of the other sex. Childhood gender nonconformity is a matter of degree, and it can range from subtle to extreme. We refer to these as the “nonsocial” and “social” hypotheses, respectively. Both hypotheses require direct scientific support; neither can claim confirmation solely because support for the other is weak.”

Individuals’ political attitudes about sexual orientation tend to correlate with their views of the causes of sexual orientation. Those who hold positive attitudes (i.e., that there is nothing inherently wrong with nonheterosexuality or its open expression) have tended to believe that sexual orientation is due to nonsocial causes such as genetics. Those who hold negative attitudes (i.e., that nonheterosexuality is undesirable or immoral and that society should restrict its free expression) have tended to believe that homosexuality has social causes, such as early sexual experiences and cultural acceptance of nonheterosexuality.

What the science says about human sexuality

Not much, most of it is conjecture. The Alfred Kinsey report, conducted in America in the 1940s and ’50s is largely controversial — have you heard the statistic that 10% of men are gay? Some questioned his survey methods and say he made broad claims his research couldn’t support — there is general agreement that he kickstarted modern sex research. Ever heard of the scale for human sexuality? It measures sexuality on a continuum from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual.

Sexuality is a fundamental part of most people’s lives, but much of the science on it remains opaque.

It’s impossible to know if we’ll ever be able to map all the complexities of human sexuality we know exist, but van Anders said it’s “vital for people to understand how much work we have to do.”

“I think we need to ask ourselves, ‘Why do we want to know the science and biology of sexual orientation?’ What do we hope to get out of it?” van Anders said.

Meg-John Barker, an activist-academic in sex, gender and relationships and author of Queer: A Graphic History, said that people “often assume that something being biological makes it somehow more ‘real’ than something being social.” But there are plenty of social constructions with biological factors that people understand as being very real and feel very deeply. Like race. Or gender.

“Most aspects of human experiences are actually biopsychosocial: a long word which means that they involve our biology, our psychology, and the social world around us, with all of those things influencing each other in complex feedback loops, making it impossible to tease apart each element or the direction of any cause-effect relationships,” Barker said.

The “born this way” mantra of the gay rights movement is both simple and absolute, despite the science that shows human sexuality is complex and fluid. Transgender people, for example, do not believe their biology matches who they truly are. Bisexuals, some of whom identify their sexuality as fluid, make up the largest share of LGBT Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, even though they are a smaller part of the mainstream narrative.

The political rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual, men and women have dramatically improved in many Western countries during the past 50 years. In Australia, for example, the federal government called a plebiscite to vote on “marriages between same-sex couples”. This result would have been unthinkable in 1965, when homosexual behavior was illegal, homosexual inclinations were a source of shame, and most people believed homosexuality was a mental illness.

The trajectory of LGB rights has been quite different in many other parts of the world, however. Eleven countries—all in Africa, Asia and the Middle East—retain the death penalty as a possible sanction for homosexual acts1
(International Lesbian and Gay Association, 2015; Stewart, 2015).

It might be tempting to assume that much of the world is lagging behind but will ultimately follow the more accepting Western nations toward tolerance. That outcome is not assured, however. In some nations, tolerance
of homosexuality appears to be decreasing. For example, Uganda has been struggling with the issue of whether to Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science 47 increase penalties for criminal offenses related to homosexuality. Despite their different political trajectories, there are important similarities among almost all modern nations. All have histories of anti-homosexual prejudice.

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