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Is Sexuality a Choice?

No. Also, the question doesn’t make a lot of sense, but when the president of Uganda asks, psychologists answer.

By Nathan Collins


President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. (Photo: Carl Court/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

For reasons unclear to anyone who has been paying attention, a rather large chunk of the population still thinks that people choose to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and that, if they just saw the light, they could repent or something and become straight. A new report debunks that notion (again), and—perhaps more importantly—takes on some of the twisted logic underlying the political debates over human sexuality.

The study began like few others, with a question from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In late 2013, the Ugandan Parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, a draconian law aimed at curtailing gay and lesbian relationships, which one Ugandan politician called “a bad habit.” At the time, Museveni hesitated to sign the bill into law because he wasn’t sure whether some people were born homosexual—in fact, he asked the United States for help in finding an answer. But Museveni didn’t exactly wait around for one. He signed the bill in late February 2014. (It was subsequently overturned, and a new law is now under consideration.)

The shame and fear that the non-heterosexual population of Uganda would feel could cost the country.

Still, researchers led by Northwestern University Professor of Psychology Michael Bailey wanted to give Museveni an answer and, they write in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, “to consider the relevance of scientific findings to political debates about homosexuality.”

On the first question, Bailey and his colleagues’ answer is this: It’s not as clear-cut as we might like, but the influence of social factors is weak at best. “No causal theory of sexual orientation has yet gained widespread support. The most scientifically plausible causal hypotheses are difficult to test. However, there is considerably more evidence supporting nonsocial causes of sexual orientation than social causes,” the team writes, citing examples including twin studies, DNA analysis, and a handful of truly unfortunate cases involving boys with severe birth defects who were raised as girls. Meanwhile, there is no evidence to support old claims that people become gay through recruitment, poor relationships with their parents, or other purely social factors, the researchers write.

But the more important question is whether the origins of homosexuality are even that important from the point of view of public policy. In particular, the team points out, people who think homosexuality is a social evil will probably try to discourage it, while those who think there are no negative consequences of homosexuality will support gay rights. The right question to ask, the researchers argue, is what the consequences of homosexuality are.

So what are those consequences? More to the point, what would the Ugandan law accomplish? It’s quite unlikely to change the proportion of men and women who feel same-sex attraction, the authors write, but the shame and fear that the non-heterosexual population of Uganda would feel could cost the country. A World Bank study, for example, suggested homophobia cost India between $2 billion and $30 billion in 2012 through lost productivity, lost wages, and other economic forces.

“For these reasons, we urge governments to reconsider the wisdom of legislation that criminalizes homosexual behavior,” Bailey and his colleagues write.