Since the advent of the gay rights movement, gay and lesbian people have been bombarded by a myth: that their non-heterosexual sexual orientation is nothing more than a "choice" that they made. This myth promotes the notion that sexual minority people are either disordered or sexual deviants. It is propped up by rhetoric from arch-conservative politicians and religious leaders who use it to oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians. However, it flies in the face of scientific truth (and logic).
The myth that sexual orientation is a choice has been promulgated by right-wing Republicans and social Christian groups for years. This includes GOP candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Santorum has referred to homosexuality as a "behavioral thing" that goes against "Biblical truth." Gingrich also views sexual orientation as a choice, saying that gays and lesbians should choose to be "celibate" if they can't be heterosexual. In their defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, House Republicans allege that homosexuality is not "an immutable characteristic; it is behavioral."
The right-wing Christian group "Focus on the Family" claims that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation, claiming that Biblical teaching holds homosexuality to be a violation of "God's intentional design for gender and sexuality." The Church of Latter Day Saints contends that while homosexuality or bisexuality may not be a conscious choice, it may be "treatable." The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states that "homosexual inclinations" are "disordered."
The choice myth also fuels a pseudo-scientific practice known as "reparative therapy," which seeks to change a person's sexual orientation via methods such as prayer, medical treatments and counseling. Exodus International, a "reparative therapy" Christian ministry, promotes these efforts around the United States and the world. This group promotes the notion of "ex-gays," gays and lesbians who they claim changed their sexual orientation.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has thoroughly condemned these efforts as without any scientific support. The APA states that such practices are at the very least ineffective and futile, and can often cause harmful psychological distress for the victim.
Former leaders of the "ex-gay" movement have admitted that "reparative therapy" does not work. Some have apologized for their hateful and dishonest rhetoric and actions. They also acknowledged that none of their "clients" ever actually changed their sexual orientation. Alan Chambers, one of the leaders of Exodus, admitted that Exodus International was a fraudulent institution.
What do actual psychological and medical organizations say about homosexuality? According to the American Psychological Association, homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexuality that does not indicate any disorder. The association goes on to say that sexual orientation is a romantic, emotional, and physical attraction to members of the same, opposite, or both sexes. The American Psychiatric Association opposes any "reparative therapy" because it has no record of efficacy, and is based on the incorrect premise that homosexuality is a disorder.
What does scientific research say about sexual orientation? Brain image scans have yielded distinct, observable differences between the brains of heterosexuals and the brains of their gay and lesbian peers. Positron Emission Topography scans have indicated that the symmetry between brain lobes of gay men resembles those of heterosexual women. Researchers have also found that the amygdala (area of brain responsible for emotional learning) of gay men and straight women are similar, while the amygdala of straight men and lesbians are similar. According to Dr. Qazi Rahman, a professor of cognitive biology at Queen Mary University of London, these differences can only be formed during the fetal period, which indicates "if you are gay - you are born gay."
Another interesting distinction that has been observed is in finger digit ratio. The ratio between the index and ring finger has been linked to differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals. Lesbians and gay men tend to have observable differences in this ratio from their heterosexual counterparts. Digit length and ratio is determined in the womb by prenatal hormones. This evidence points to differences in prenatal hormone environments between gays, bisexuals and lesbians, and their heterosexual peers. Basically, there is nothing that can be done after a child is born that can alter these outcomes.
In fact, scientists have noted several inalterable physical differences between gays and lesbians and straights that cannot be explained by calling homosexuality a "choice." These include direction of one's hair whorl, pheromone preference, hypothalamic volume, and even penis size.
There is also something to be said for using logic when it comes to answering the question, "Do gays and lesbians choose their sexual orientation?" What would motivate such a choice? Is it exciting to be able to be legally fired for one's sexual orientation in 29 states? Is it cool to risk alienation and rejection from one's family and friends? How about the condemnation of many major religions? How about being bullied in school? When one applies logic and critical thinking, the answer to that question is a very easy and obvious "No."
So why, in the face of overwhelming evidence (and logic), do conservatives continue to spread the falsehood that sexual orientation is a choice? That is easy; it is for the same reason many of them compare homosexuality and bisexuality to negative behaviors like bestiality, incest and alcoholism - it helps them justify their opposition to basic civil rights and dignity for sexual minorities. It is much harder to blatantly discriminate if the characteristic in question is immutable, such as race or gender.
Photo: A couple exchanges civil union vows in Chicago, June 2, 2011, the first day that same-sex civil unions became legal in Illinois. PW photo.