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“Born This Way” or “Choice”?: Understanding the Development of Sexual Identity

By Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico

Kristen Stewart speaking at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California.
Kristen Stewart speaking at the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

As the social landscape of sexual identities evolves, younger people such as actress Kristen Stewart are viewing love without labels. Star of Olivier Assayas’s film Personal Shopper, which won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival last weekend, Stewart told Variety in an interview, “There’s acceptance that’s become really rampant and cool. You don’t have to immediately know how to define yourself.” As of March, she has been in a relationship with French actress and musician Soko, and does not feel rushed to define her sexuality. Her embrace of sexual fluidity challenges the notion that “homosexuals are born that way,” one of many myths addressed in “You Can Tell Just By Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People by Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini, and Michael Amico. In this passage, the authors discuss how restrictive this viewpoint can be for heterosexuals and the LGBT community, and how important it is to view sexuality as an ongoing process that forms the basis of character and personality. 


Attempts to explain what causes homosexuality have a long, and often ugly, history. Various medical theories that pathologized homosexuality have caused and justified outright violence against LGB people, most notably, the use of electroshock treatments as part of therapeutic attempts to cure homosexuality in the 1950s. As terrible as this history is, it does not mean that attempts to consider what causes homosexuality—or how it evolves—are necessarily bad or dangerous for LGB people.

The nineteenth-century invention of the homosexual and the heterosexual as distinct kinds of persons was followed almost immediately by various scientific attempts to explain why some women and men desire their own sex. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was an influential early thinker who argued that the male homosexual had the body of a man and the soul of a woman, and that the reverse was true for a lesbian. This scientific explanation seems naive and misguided to us today, but it was an important step in giving people a way to think about the origins of their sexual desires.

A growing body of contemporary scientific research suggests that sexual desire—both gay and straight—may be related to brain structure. The most widely publicized such study is Simon LeVay’s 1991 study of “the hypothalamus, which controls the release of sex hormones from the pituitary gland.” His study claimed the hypothalamus “in gay men differs from the hypothalamus in straight men. The third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH3) was found to be more than twice as large in heterosexual men as in homosexual men.” LeVay’s research garnered front-page coverage in the New York Times. The ensuing criticisms of LeVay’s study—many by other scientists—received far less attention.

Along with his survey sample being too small for an accurate study, his basic assumption that male/female brain differences are comparable to gay/straight differences—assumptions oddly similar to Ulrich’s—made little sense. Additionally, he never took into consideration the lived sexuality and experiences of his subjects.

Other brain research has been examining how “exposure to sex hormones in the womb during a critical period in brain development affects future sexual orientation.” These studies also suffer from a confused set of assumptions. Historian of science Rebecca Jordan-Young notes that, “Sexuality is notoriously hard to define. So when a headline proclaims, ‘Prenatal Environment May Dictate Sexual Orientation,’ just what is it, exactly, that it is said to have dictated? Is it whom someone desires? Whom one has sex with? What a person calls him or herself?” The rigid models and language used by these studies male/female and heterosexual/homosexual—cannot capture the multidimensional character of sexuality.

Genetic studies of sexual desire appear at first less problematic. Scientists have hypothesized that homosexuality runs in families. Studies done on twins seem to support this, finding that the identical twin of a lesbian has almost a 50 percent likelihood of being lesbian herself. A similar correlation—or concordance rate—was observed in cases of gay men with an identical twin brother. Concordance rates were lower, but still significant, in cases of fraternal twins and nontwin siblings. Identical twins share 100 percent of their genetic material, fraternal and nontwin siblings, approximately 50 percent. These differing rates are consistent with the idea that there is some genetic component to homosexuality.

Although these studies demonstrate that there may be a genetic basis to homosexuality, none of the studies has explained how this works. Genetic studies give us a picture of associations, but not the direct genetic mechanism by which genetic inheritance could “cause” homosexuality.

For much of the twentieth century, the most influential scientific theories concerning homosexuality came from psychiatry and psychology. These theories, importantly, introduced the idea that individuals play some role in the formation of their sexuality, even as they are always doing so in relation to others and to a larger culture.

Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, thought that homosexuality was a normal variation of human sexual desire. He also thought that all people experienced, at least unconsciously, desire for the same sex at some point in their lives. Nonetheless, he believed that sexual development should end in reproductive heterosexuality, and in some of his writings portrayed homosexuality as a detour from that end point, an arrested development. But he also consistently argued that the path to reproductive heterosexuality was so difficult for anyone that it could not happen without compromise. In order to achieve mature reproductive heterosexuality, individuals have to restrict—give up—the much wider range of ways their desires might be experienced and expressed. Desires are shaped by cultural norms but not fully determined or “caused” by them. This insight is one of the reasons why Freud spent much more of his work explaining how people become “heterosexual.”

One of the most influential proponents of the pathology theory was psychiatrist Irving Bieber, who argued, in 1962, that “heterosexuality is the biologic norm and . . . unless interfered with all individuals are heterosexual.” Bieber identified the “causes” of homosexuality as negligent parenting, or other dangerous environmental factors such as society’s glamorization of homosexuality. Another prominent psychiatrist, Fredric Wertham, argued in his 1954 Seduction of the Innocent that Batman and Robin were coded homosexual lovers and Wonder Woman was a man-hating lesbian. (Wertham also testified at a congressional hearing that comic books corrupted young people and led to juvenile delinquency.) While images of LGB people in the media do shape people’s imaginations of what is possible to express about themselves, they do not do so in this simplistic way.

New research, such as Evelyn Hooker’s important 1957 study showing that homosexuals were no more likely to suffer from psychopathologies than heterosexuals, changed the mind of medical professionals. Society’s views were also changing during this time. Most important, the gay liberation movement—and other activists speaking the truth about their own lives demanded change. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association reversed its decades-long stance and dropped its categorization of homosexuality per se as a disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Irving Bieber and other conservative psychiatrists fought against this change and, for the next decades, also spoke out against the gay rights movement. But it is now the overwhelming consensus of “the behavioral and social sciences and the health and mental health professions” that homosexuality is, to quote the American Psychological Association, “a normal and positive variation of human sexual orientation.”

So, if there is no proof that homosexuals are biologically born that way, or that they are made that way through unhealthy parenting or bad cultural influences, then maybe individual agency is the real question, and people do just choose to be gay or lesbian.

The question of “born that way” versus “choice” is much more complex than either the political debates or scientific studies generally admit. The problem is that to many people, the word “cause”—like “choice” and “born that way”—marks a kind of big bang theory of sexuality that explains everything about who we are and how our sexual desire works.

It is more useful to think about cause as the more expansive question of how a person comes to have a character, or a personality. Sexuality is not a containable part of yourself, or simply reducible to a sex act. Rather, it is an ongoing process formed by the interactions of our psyche, body, and environment. Both we, as individuals, and the world around us are implicated. Sexuality, like personality, is a product of a string of minute choices—wanted, forced, compromised—that we consciously and unconsciously make during our endless negotiations of the world into which we are born. We can never know the precise moment when a person becomes gay. Nor can we know exactly how or why it happens. The same can be said about when, how, or why a person becomes straight.

Every day we make decisions, both direct and indirect, that lead to consequences we may never intend—but which we may come to understand and experience as profoundly desirable. For example, a young woman who attends a women’s college may encounter a vibrant community of lesbian, bi, and queer women. Perhaps this opens up possibilities for her own desire she did not know she had—possibilities she might not have discovered, or admitted, had she chosen a co-ed school. Her choices affected the path of her desire and self-identification; but, so did the countless other turns she took from the moment she was born, turns that also inevitably involved her in the lives of others. (In this instance, these turns include getting into, and affording, a private college.)

To ask what causes homosexuality is to try to understand how we, as humans, learn to grapple with a world of ultimately unanswerable mysteries—including the mystery of our own desire. This mystery entangles us in other vital questions: how our feelings and relationships come to have the meanings they do. How community results from these actions. And how we come to survive and live productively within it all.


About the Authors 

Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ann Pellegrini is professor of performance studies and religious studies at New York University, where she also directs NYU's Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. She has written extensively about religion, sexuality, and US public life. Her publications include Performance Anxieties as well as the coauthored Love the Sin and “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People.

Michael Amico is a PhD candidate in American studies at Yale University, and is writing a history of the love between two men in the Civil War. He has written for LGBT youth publications, such as Young Gay America, and provided political analysis for the Boston Phoenix and other venues. He also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People.