Thoughts about Homosexuality: Part 1, Is Being Gay a Choice?

This week my university announced that SoulForce, an LGBT advocacy group, will be visiting our campus in April. SoulForce visited our campus in 2006 so this will be their second time through.

I'm dreading their visit.

Not for the reasons you might think. I'm dreading the visit because in 2006 I was swamped with questions--from professors and students--about the psychology of homosexuality. Many of the debates surrounding Christianity and homosexuality swirl around biological and psychological issues. Thus, as psychologist, I was frequently asked to offer an authoritative opinion on homosexuality. Was it genetic? Was it a choice? Is it a sexual dysfunction? Can therapy "convert" a homosexual orientation to a heterosexual orientation? And so on.

In one sense, asking me these questions seems natural. I am, after all, a psychologist. But psychology is a huge, sprawling discipline. And expertise in a given field generally means specialization. Having a PhD means knowing a lot about very little. You'd be startled how hesitant most academics are to comment about topics within their own discipline! Pauline scholars don't like commenting about the nuances of Genesis 1-3. And I am hesitant in commenting about homosexuality and same-sex attraction. I'm just not an expert in human sexuality.

But I am a psychologist, which means I probably know more about this subject than most. So the questions come.

Given all the questions I'm about to face again, I thought I'd devote a post or two to how I approach some of the most frequent questions I get.

Let's start with the question I encounter the most: Is homosexuality a choice? Or is it genetic?

Here's my first response: It doesn't really matter. People seem to think a lot is at stake in this debate. The assumption is if a "gay gene" is found then...what? Homosexuality is sanctioned by God? It doesn't matter if homosexuality is genetic or a "choice." Lots of things we prohibit are natural. And many of the things we should do, morally speaking, are decidedly unnatural. Do you think there is a gene for turning the other cheek?

In short, worries about the "naturalness" of homosexuality are examples of what are called the naturalistic and moralistic fallacies. You can't get an ought from an is and just because something is natural doesn't make it normative.

In short, however the genetics of same-sex attraction work out, we are still left with the normative question: Natural or not, is homosexuality permissible (provided it is in a monogamous, committed, loving relationship)?

With that issue out of the way, what is my opinion on if being gay is a "choice"?

Rhetorically, here is how that question is playing out in the culture wars. On the one side, the gay community is committed to the view that homosexuality isn't a choice. It's a given, a concrete aspect of personhood. Thus, the standard narrative from the gay community is something like "I didn't choose to be gay. I discovered I was gay." The argument is that there is an unconscious aspect of personhood that you discover or trip over. Unhappiness and dysfunction is caused, in this narrative, by being untrue to this aspect of the self, swimming against the tide of innate personhood. Heterosexuality, for the gay person, would be denying or pushing against the grain of the innate, unchangeable gay self.

I suspect that this is why there is a great deal of attention being given to the "gay gene" research. Even if "naturalness" doesn't imply "normative" the discovering of a "gay gene" would help, scientifically speaking, support the gay narrative that being gay is an intrinsic aspect of selfhood. A given. Being gay isn't "a choice." You just don't wake up one day and decide to be gay.

There are aspects of this position that I like and don't like. On the liking side I agree that no one "chooses" to be gay. Sexuality and personality just don't operate like that. So I side with the gay community on this score. You don't "choose" to be gay.

However, I'd like to push back upon the notion that aspects of selfhood are permanent and unchangeable. Such a claim starts running up against Sartre's notion of acting in bad faith, foreclosing upon you freedom. And, interestingly, many in the gay community agree with me. That is, queer studies would suggest that sexuality and gender are social constructions, fictive narratives that encode power dynamics. If so, then there really is nothing innate or biological to being gay. Being gay, according to the deconstructionists, really is a choice. So the two dominant gay narratives tend to function at cross-purposes. On the one hand, "gay" and "straight" are just narratives with no real referent in physical reality. It's all just a language game. So we are free to revisit and change those narratives. But on the other hand, being gay is an innate and given biological fact. It's not a narrative. It's who I am. It's a fact.

Social construction aside, I worry a bit about claims regarding the "givenness" of sexuality. Or any aspect of personhood for that matter. I think anyone, gay or straight, would push back when they heard a person say things like "I can't help myself. I can't change. This is just the way I am." And yet, I think we have to admit that sexuality is deep. It's not like chewing your fingernails. A bad habit that can be changed with some behavioral interventions. Sexuality is intimately entangled with identity and personality. And, as a general rule, the deeper things go (psychologically speaking) the harder they are to change. Have you ever tried being a better person? Hard, isn't it?

Thus, while I am uncomfortable with claims such as "This is just the way I am" I'm also aware that sexuality is one of those things that are extraordinarily difficult to change. To change these deep identity structures you'd need a highly motivated and committed person (or client). And even then success wouldn't be guaranteed. Change, particularly deep change, is very hard. Very hard. Again, ever try being a better person? Hard, isn't it?

Which means we need to reject the notion that being gay is a "choice." The narrative here is that if sexuality is highly volitional (i.e., a matter of choice) then those "choosing" the gay lifestyle are morally culpable. Gay people could change, they just don't want to. Thus, they are bad (willfully disobedient people).

In all of this we see different psychological models being tossed about. On the one hand there is the view that human identity is fixed and given. That, obviously, is false. On the other hand is the view that the human identity is a matter of choice and volition. That, just as obviously, is also false.

In short, I don't like the question "Is being gay a choice?" It's a really bad question. It sets up a false dichotomy. Worse, the two outcomes of that dichotomy bear little relationship to reality.

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23 thoughts on “Thoughts about Homosexuality: Part 1, Is Being Gay a Choice?”

  1. Dr. Beck, if you don't stop being so reasonable and insightful I'm going to start taking your word as Gospel:) In all seriousness, this was a very good post and I'm looking forward to hearing the rest of your thoughts.

  2. JD,
    Thanks. I realized after I posted I didn't make it clear that, having focused on the word "choice" in this post, I am going to discuss the genetic issue in the next post.

  3. I guess one of the issues you raise is 'how do I find out who I am?' And secondly, 'can someone else tell me? My answers are 'get serious' to the first and to the second, 'no'. It seems natural for a man to take a wife - in the story of Ruth Mahlon and Chilion took foreign wives to themselves. It may have been natural but it sounds pretty rough. They were barren. Did they ever find out who they were apart from being foreigners in Moab? I don't know. Sex may be both deep and natural, but it sure gets messed up easily.

  4. Can an introvert learn to become energized by interaction at loud parties?

    How is one supposed to "push back" against the plain fact that one becomes sexually aroused by attractive members of one sex or the other?

  5. from my point of view i have more issues that i can shake a stick at depending on who you then just why would i care what anyone thinks if my behavior works.i would tell anyone to go pound sand and to work on their own behavior...

    i mean crap rich,if the dead aren't raised let's party,what am i stupid, i grew up in Newport beach ca. i can do that,albeit a fading memory..
    Now then there are plenty of great looking women out there that look good and feel good and are very nice people. and i make enough money to buy one may for two nights a week. week nights, nothing wrong with that. and if i get caught in ca. no is really a choice.
    and in the eyes of a lot of people i am the one with the issues and boy oh boy their opinion just might be right IF THE DEAD ARE NOT RAISED...


  6. Thanks for an excellent post! To what extent do you see this discussion playing out in your local community of faith? I've noticed that for many, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" works well.


  7. Oustanding post, Rich. I agree 100 percent.

    Scott, DADT works well in conservative churches because it allows those who want to stay in the dark to do it but forces those who need to be honest to be secretive and deceptive ... and unhealthy behaviors follow. I don't think that the church should ever be in the place of advocating dishonesty or secrecy (II Cor. 4:2). I suppose that sometimes that's the "deal we've made".

  8. Richard, thanks for taking the time to post about the issue of same sex attraction. I think that often times when people ask the question about choice and being gay, they are really wondering what their own appropriate reaction to the gay person should be, and many who desire to understand the gay person. I have learned SO much through helping with on the issue of same sex attraction. I have made some judgemental mistakes in my past with those close to me that have this struggle, I have also done better with others when I actively listened to the Lord's guiding in being a friend. We have done an injustice to Christ and His children by making this sin the greatest of all and speaking to or about those who struggle with it in a way that is never justified or shown by example in scripture. Christ clearly says He came for all. I am grateful that Soulforce is coming back to the area because it forces us to have discussions and bring awareness, and it gives us a place to share Christ's love out of the comfortable bubble that some of us live in. I pray that I will always follow the example of Christ and reach out to the sinners, and there is a safe place for them in my life and on my pew at church. In all things may God's glory shine bright.

  9. Thanks Richard, for giving us some good information to consider. I didn't get to have you as a prof at ACU, being too old(!), but learned a great deal on this same subject from Ray Whiteside, a great former prof in the ACU Psych Dept. He is also still around in Abilene. Thanks again, Neal Coates

  10. Dr Beck,
    Thank you for this post. As I read it I couldn't get away from my recent reading of Andrew Marin's "Love is an Orientation: Elevating the Conversation with the Gay Community" (IVP, 2009). Marin is straight, lives with his wife in Boys Town, the predominately GLBT neighborhood of Chicago. This is a must read for anyone -- straight or gay.

  11. Richard,

    This is a very interesting post! You note that the question of sexuality itself is very complex, let alone same sex attraction, all of which makes the choice question simply unworkable!

    I look forward to seeing what happens next. Enjoy the Soul Force visit by the way!

    whats nice about your recent article of fore ground and background is the illusion of the choice we have from the concept of faith only...another traditional belief that has shaped culture as instrumental and non instrumental shaped the church...
    the bottom line is to me are we all going to hell in a hand bag or not.i think this culture for the most part has created a convenient god as did almost every culture in history.
    i was always taught that "depart from me you workers of iniquity i never knew you".

    meant without authority....
    better to say screw it than to pervert it.
    no one will take the saying work out your own salvation with fear and trembling until the lord says hay ya had a choice,,,,by...

    blessings to you richard
    richard constant

  13. One of the questions I always raise when I hear someone claim a behavior as being "natural" is to ask whether it is so because of our created nature or because of our fallen nature. I started raising this issue when I heard Christians defending military/political violence against enemies as being natural...something I find absurd if by claiming such behavior as natural they mean this is how God created the world (and us) to be. Of course, such a distinction between the created and fallen order assumes the prior as good and the later as being a reality God is redeeming us from but it makes no claim as to how easy it is to overcome (transformation) the fallen order.

    Grace and peace,


  14. Thanks for this thoughtful and restrained post. You might appreciate this recent article at the blog The Nervous Breakdown, which distinguishes between same-sex desire and gay identity:

  15. A friend in our Yahoo group shared this with us. A wonderful article. I couldn't agree more. :)

  16. I think the subtext of "Is being gay of choice?" is "Is it ok to be gay?" This is an irrelevant question. When people ask me to put my personhood and sexuality up for discussion, I simply refuse. I don't feel the need to be armed with studies or science or religious texts. My sexuality simply is.

    An awesome alternative question: how can we work for the full political and religious equality of those who are gay and lesbian?

  17. Dr. Beck,

    I'm a longtime reader and greatly enjoy your blog. As a young gay Christian man myself, I would like to briefly offer my perspective on why I think the question "Is being gay a choice?" is salvageable from its naturalistic fallacies, etc.

    You bring up an excellent point that the important question is "Is homosexuality normative?" rather than "Is homosexuality a choice?"

    However, shouldn't the 'innateness' of something be taken into account when determining normative ethics? You mention that changing sexual orientation is in most cases extremely difficult - shouldn't this extreme difficulty make us think twice about promoting a normativity that excludes LGBT individuals? As in, is it really fair to ask for the impossible from an individual?

    It might be objected that we ask people to do difficult things all the time for the sake of normative morals - e.g. love others, don't murder, don't steal, etc. It might also be said the God will help people do the impossible, etc.

    Regardless, unfair and unrealistic demands on people should still affect our normative moral stances.

    Thus why, although strictly speaking normative moral questions are still the center of any debate, I think that the question "Is Being Gay a Choice?" is still an important consideration in the answer to the moral question.

  18. Anonymous,
    I think that is right. I think people often deploy the naturalistic fallacy woodenly and inflexibly, as if the "is" never leaks back into the "ought." Often it does.

    As a member of the gay community my hope is that you can see what I'm trying to do. I'm starting on the Christian side of the debate and trying to move that conversation to a more realistic starting place. My hope is that if Christians start the conversation from this more realistic location (rather than starting with things like "being gay is a choice") a more fruitful examination of the issues you bring up can be had.

  19. I'm a friend of Todd Bouldin's and stumbled across this blog through his, but I thought I would tell you how incredibly insightful and well-articulated your points surrounding this issue are. Well done.

  20. Hey, Richard! Thanks for your interesting & well-thought-out article. I look forward to reading Part 2. My husband & brother & I have been discussing this issue lately.

    We took Greek together eons ago at ACU - & your wife & I hung out some when y'all were in Nashville. Good to find your blog!

  21. Dr. Beck,

    Thank you.

    I do indeed greatly appreciate what you're doing in this series and must confess that Part 3 caught me completely off-guard in a good way!

    - Chris ('anonymous')

  22. Very nice post. However, in the future I would like the aspect of religion excluded from the discussion as it itself is too controversial to be used to support or compare to a matter Of depth such as this one.

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