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Sexual Orientation and Choice

So goes the usual argument:

  • A: Homosexuality is wrong because it’s unnatural.
  • B: Not true! Homosexuality has been observed in many animal species!


  • A: Homosexuality is a choice, and homosexuals can choose to go back to being normal.
  • B: Not true! If it were that easy, then nobody would choose to be gay, if it meant they’d have to deal with people like you all the time. Alleged therapies for making people heterosexual are all based on scientifically dubious claims, and the ones that have been specifically studied have been shown to be ineffective.

In both cases, B is correct… yet I think that B is responding to the wrong part of A’s claim.

In the first example — the one regarding whether it is “natural” — A’s claim includes the implication that things that are unnatural are wrong. (Most likely, they don’t actually include that as an axiom in their general moral reasoning (it would rule out almost everything that most humans in industrial/technological societies do on a daily basis), but they are nevertheless happy to imply it when it allows them to argue against something they dislike for some other reason.) So B attempts to rebut A by pointing out the obvious factual error — homosexuality has indeed been observed in nature. But if homosexual behaviour had never been observed among other animal species, would homosexuality among humans therefore be wrong? Of course it wouldn’t, in the same way that it’s not wrong for us to drive cars or cook food just because that’s not the sort of thing that happens in nature. Responding to “Homosexuality is unnatural!” with “No it isn’t!” is still arguing on their terms, still implicitly accepting an inaccurate frame for the debate. The right answer is “Actually, it really isn’t, but even if it were, that wouldn’t matter, because most people don’t actually judge human actions on the basis of whether they’re natural or not, and I’m pretty sure you don’t either, now what’s your real objection?”

A similar line of thinking applies when people claim that sexual orientation is a choice. I understand the temptation to respond simply by refuting that claim — it’s so obviously wrong, as though they had said “Being black is a choice, so why can’t black people just become white like normal people instead of expecting society to change to accommodate them?”, that the immediate instinct is to refute the ridiculous factual claim (being black is a choice? What?) while failing to notice and reject the implication that it would be a bad thing if it were a choice. You know what? If being gay were a choice, it would still be fine, because just as individuals’ harmless sexual predispositions are none of society’s business, neither are individuals’ harmless sexual choices. Failing to point that out, and arguing on their terms as though being gay would be bad if it were a choice but it’s okay because it’s involuntary, sounds like you’re saying “It’s not a curable disease, it’s an incurable disease!” — like it’s some unfortunate affliction that an enlightened society will tolerate and accommodate, rather than something to be accepted, something that’s really honestly okay no matter what causes it. If the questions of whether it’s “natural” and whether it can be a choice seem relevant to LGBT-related policy debates and moral debates in the first place, then we’re doing it wrong.

For similar reasons, I don’t think LGBT rights advocates are helping their cause when they claim that people are born with their sexual orientations and gender identities. That may yet turn out to be true, but I don’t think enough is known about either one’s causal structure for us to be able to justifiably make such claims, and more importantly, that really shouldn’t be relevant either. (And allowing the debate to be framed as though it is relevant will result in ideological pressure to make scientific findings come out a certain way.) That framing carries the unfortunate implication that if it turns out that, say, sexual orientation is caused by a chaotic mixture of environmental and social factors, with little or no genetic influence, then non-heterosexual orientations will somehow be less morally acceptable than they would be if they were genetically determined. Why should that be the case?

Addendum: Here’s another situation where we should want this principle to apply: Are children of gay couples more likely to be gay? Again, regardless of the correct answer to that question, if we find ourselves asserting that the answer is no and therefore it’s okay to let gay couples raise children, then we are doing it wrong. Doing it right is emphasizing the central point that being something other than heterosexual is actually okay and it’s therefore not a bad thing if something causes there to be more such people. Besides, it’ll only be once that point is well-established that we’ll be able to investigate that perfectly good (and morally-irrelevant) empirical question without undue ideological influence. [A previous version of this paragraph also talked about transgender parents, using the same argument. I’ve taken that out because Bran pointed out, correctly I think, that this particular argument doesn’t apply the same way to transgender parents as it does to gay parents.]

(Crossposted from my personal blog, Things I Think About.)

Written by Likes to Ramble


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