Nature vs. Nurture: A Brief Look at the Science Behind Homosexuality

Author: Molly N. (Left-Leaning Contributor)

The question has been asked for decades: What, exactly, makes someone gay? The answer is still widely debated, and countless studies have set out to put the query to bed. Even so, there’s still plenty that we don’t know. It’s important to understand, too, that the reason a question is asked can affect the way the answer is sought out, and the conclusions drawn from the evidence found will undoubtedly be colored by internal biases, religious beliefs, and cultural norms. So, as we dive deep into the history of research on homosexuality, we must keep context and motivation in mind. 

Homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder by the APA until 1973, so it stands to reason that there was a motivation to “cure” what many medical professionals would have considered an illness. As behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis studies gained popularity, so, too, did the idea that homosexuality was something that was treatable. 

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, believed that we are all born bisexual, and that we simply develop a more permanent orientation later in life. While he did not necessarily consider homosexuality to be “normal,” he was against treating it as an illness and wrote in 1935 that it was nothing to be ashamed of. Even so, his idea that orientation is developed through identification with the same sex parent, and his view of hypnotism as an effective means of discouraging homosexuality, were used to argue that upbringing influences sexual orientation, which in turn was used as a justification for  conversion therapy by proponents.

The idea of one’s sexuality being a result of external influences, and the resulting attempts to eradicate any feelings that deviate from the heterosexual norm, are often intertwined throughout history. Psychoanalyst Sandor Rado challenged Freud’s position that curing homosexuality was a fool’s errand, believing that homosexuality stemmed from an unhealthy parental relationship that led to a poor view of heterosexuality. Claims such as these, which pointed towards external factors as the cause of homosexuality, were often used to justify various treatments (such as aversion therapy and conversion therapy, both of which are now considered by most of the scientific community to be, at the very least, ineffective, and at most, grossly unethical). Fortunately, harmful tactics like conversion therapy have slowly become less common as activists and researchers continue to sound the alarm about the negative effects of such practices, though conversion therapy is still legal in many states.

While LGBT+ rights movements have steadily grown in recent decades, an increasing number of studies relating to the innate, biological factors that determine sexual preference have accumulated in tandem. You might think that whether homosexuality is influenced by environmental or biological factors would matter little to those opposed to it, or to those seeking out a “treatment” for it, but there is research to suggest that those who believe sexual orientation is something we are born with are more likely to be tolerant towards gay and lesbian people than those who believe it is a choice.

There have been many studies concerning the relationship between biological makeup and sexual orientation, but the first real breakthrough didn’t occur until 1991, when a neuroscientist found that a region of the hypothalamus was smaller in gay men and women than in straight men. Two years later,  a study was published that indicates a biological link between DNA and sexual orientation. In 2011, a study found that manipulating hormones in rats during pregnancy produced offspring that exhibited homosexual behavior. To summarize numerous studies that have been done on various parts of the brain and body, the general consensus is that there are biological factors at play. It’s the extent to which biological factors play a role that is still not entirely known.

Just last year, a study of over half a million people found that genes account for between 8% and 25% of same-sex behavior. The study concluded that there is no “gay gene;” rather, sexuality is polygenic, and hundreds or even thousands of genes could contribute to this “trait” in the same way that many genes might contribute to your willingness to try new things. Still, this study can only tell us so much. It did not look at gender identity or even sexual orientation, but at sexual experiences. The sample used was also largely Caucasian. What the study does indicate is that sexual identity is complex. There is no one life experience or strand of DNA that makes you prefer men, women, or nonbinary people.

At the end of the day, your sexual orientation is something that no one can change or decide for you. As Benjamin Neale, a geneticist at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the study, said, “This is a natural and normal part of variation in our species, and that should support the position that we shouldn’t try and develop ‘gay cures.’ That’s not in anyone’s interest.” And regardless of whether or not homosexuality is influenced by internal factors, external factors, or a combination of the two, that should have little bearing on decisions regarding personal freedoms. After all, in this author’s humble opinion, gay rights are human rights.

Rebuttal from a Next Publius Editor (Right-Leaning Moderate):

I am a right-leaning moderate that affirms the LGBT+ community and believe that there is still much research to be done on this topic. Above, much of the research has concluded that there are a plethora of factors that play into the nature vs. nurture argument and most of the arguments that I’ve heard from my friends that are against the LGBT+ community use the same research and similar logic to suggest that because of the spectrum and fluidity that is commonly referenced in this topic, it is possible for individuals to choose not to be gay. While this article focuses on the science behind the debate, I have chosen to affirm the LGBT+ community because of religious reasons. While there is significant argument against the LGBT+ community, I believe that Jesus wants us to be loving and to not judge others. I believe that whether a person affirms or is against the LGBT+ community, it shouldn’t stop them from receiving the same rights (marriage, employment, healthcare, and etc.).  

This article has been factchecked and edited by the editorial team of Next Publius. We do our best to minimize cherry-picking of data, and we try to include multiple sides and opinions on any given topic. We recognize that it is often impossible to eliminate all biased language and data in their entirety from an article, especially when the research and discourse around certain topics are slanted in favor of a particular stance. We also recognize that authors and editors have their own fair share of biases. To combat this, we identify contributors’ affiliations and political leanings at the top of each article, and we provide other interpretations, opinions, and rebuttals beneath them. Read more about Next Publius’ mission here.