The Only Question That Matters: Do People Choose Their Sexual Orientation?
By Chandler Burr
Click here for a pdf.
raging debate about gay rights ultimately turns on one simple
question. And, bizarrely, the fact that answering this question
will put a definitive end to the national battle over gay rights is
almost completely unknown, not only in America in general, but among
gay people as well. At its core, the answer to this question is the
only one that matters, the one that determines the most appropriate
public policy course, and the one that will win the political struggle
over gay rights: Is homosexuality a lifestyle choice or is
homosexuality an inborn biological trait? Put another way, does
someone choose to be gay or are they just born that way? You may
be surprised to find out that we already know the answer to this
question. In fact, surprising as it may be, we've known the answer for
importance of this question to the debate about gay and lesbian rights
in America has been clear for years. Poll after poll has shown that if
sexual orientation is, in all human beings, an inborn trait like race,
eye color, or gender, an overwhelming majority of Americans accept
it—and support equal rights for gay people. In 1997, U.S. News &
World Report and Bozell Worldwide, a global marketing company that
specializes in gathering opinion data, did a nationwide poll on how
American attitudes change in the face of evidence that traits are
inborn. They surveyed several different traits including mental
illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and homosexuality. The results
were dramatic. 41% of those surveyed strongly favored funding for
alcohol and drug rehab. However, among those who then believed
alcoholism and drug addiction are biological 51% and 54% of them
respectively favored this funding, which is over 10% higher—and as we
are all aware now, on voting issues, a 10% change can determine most
elections. 54% of all those polled strongly favored funding for mental
illness research, while the figure was 63% among those who say it's
genetic. But these stats were nothing compared to homosexuality.
45% of Americans favored gay rights. Among voters who believe
homosexuality is a biological orientation, the figure was 70%.
political power of the choice vs. sexual orientation question has
actually grown: What was the single most contentious question in the
2004 Bush-Kerry debates? Bob Schieffer from CBS News asking both
candidates, "Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?" T to that
fact.he answer to this question has an amazingly high correlation to
support for gay and lesbian equality. Case in point, a November
2004 poll by Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates asked about support
for civil unions and gay marriage. 79% of people who think human beings
are born with a sexual orientation support civil unions or civil
marriage equality. Among those who believe being straight or gay is a
choice, support for civil unions or civil marriage for gay people is
only 22%. That's a difference of almost 60%. It's crystal clear
that an American voter's view of sexual orientation is close to a
foolproof predictor of the way he or she votes on gay rights.
All of which makes the debate astoundingly odd, given that we've known the answer to this question for years.
bit of Biology 101: For every human trait they study, clinicians and
biologists assemble what's called a "trait profile," the sum total of
all the data they have gathered clinically (clinical research basically
means research done through 1. questions and 2. empirical observation
to answer the questions) about a trait. Researchers gather groups of
subjects from different areas of the world, question them about their
trait, observe the trait in them, and record the data. The various
aspects of the trait are precisely described: gradations and variations
in eye color are assessed, eye color's correlation or lack thereof with
gender, geography, race, or age is noted, scientists observe the way
eye color is passed down through generations—all of which are clues as
to whether or not eye color is a biological trait. The data are
summarized in papers and charts and published in the scientific
literature. That, in sum, makes up the trait profile.
is the profile of a trait on which clinical research has been done for
decades. It is taken from the published scientific literature. The
trait should be rather obvious:
human trait is referred to by biologists as a "stable bimorphism"— it
shows up in all human populations as two orientations— expressed
2) The data clinicians
have gathered says that around 92% of the population has the majority
orientation, 8% has the minority orientation.
3) Evidence from art history suggests the incidence of the two different orientations has been constant for five millennia.
The trait has no external physical, bodily signs. That means you
can't tell a person's orientation by looking at them. And the minority
orientation appears in all races and ethnic groups.
Since the trait itself is internal and invisible, the only way to
identify an orientation is by observing the behavior or the reflex that
expresses it. However—and this is crucial—
–because the trait itself is not a "behavior" but an internal,
invisible orientation, those with the minority orientation can hide,
usually due to coercion or social pressure, by behaving as if they had
the majority orientation. Several decades ago, those with the minority
orientation were frequently forced to behave as if they had the
majority orientation— but internally the orientation remained the same
and as social pressures have lifted, people with the minority
orientation have been able to openly express it.
Clinical observation makes it clear that neither orientation of this
trait is a disease or mental illness. Neither is pathological in any
8) Neither orientation is chosen.
Signs of one's orientation are detectable very early in children,
often, researchers have established, by age two or three. And one's
orientation probably has been defined at the latest by age two, and
quite possibly before birth.
indicated that the trait was biological, not social, in origin, so the
clinicians systematically asked more questions. And these started
revealing the genetic plans that lay underneath the trait:
Adoption studies show that the orientation of adopted children is
unrelated to the orientation of their parents, demonstrating that the
trait is not created by upbringing or society.
Twin studies show that pairs of identical twins, with their identical
genes, have a higher-than-average chance of sharing the same
orientation compared to pairs of randomly selected individuals; the
average rate of this trait in any given population— it's called the
"background rate"—is just under 8%, while the twin rate is just above
12%, more than 50% higher.
trait's incidence of the minority orientation is strikingly higher in
the male population— about 27% higher—than it is in the female
population. Many genetic diseases, for reasons we now understand pretty
well, are higher in men than women.
Like the trait called eye color, the familial studies conducted by
scientists show that the minority orientation clearly "runs in
families," handed down from parent to child.
This pattern shows a "maternal effect," a classic telltale of a genetic
trait. The minority orientation, when it is expressed in men, appears
to be passed down through the mother.
Put all this data together, and you've created the trait profile. The trait just described is, of course, handedness.
is the majority orientation, left-handedness, the minority. It's
handedness for which lefties are 27% more numerous in men than women,
the background rate of left-handedness is 12% as opposed to 8%, and
left-handedness is an un-chosen, immutable, internal, instinctive
orientation; you can force left-handed people to write with their right
hands as was regularly done up through the 1950s in Catholic schools
where left-handedness was believed to be evil and a moral failing, but
that's just behavior masking the true orientation.
turns out that the trait profile for human handedness is astonishingly
similar to a profile clinicians and geneticists have assembled of
another human trait—sexual orientation. Heterosexuality, the majority
orientation, accounts for roughly 95 percent of us, while
homosexuality, the minority orientation, accounts for roughly 5
percent. (The "10 percent gay" figure has always been merely a
statistical concoction of some overly-aggressive gay activists.)
Clinical research clearly shows that homosexuality is heritable, like
left-handedness. Neither trait correlates with any environmental
factors. All the twin studies indicate biology. (Just to make it clear:
Everyone agrees that being right- or left-handed is a biological trait,
but probably there are some genes creating handedness and some
non-genetic biological factors like hormones and neural structure.
Which is why with many identical twins, one twin is right-handed and
the other left-handed. The same for sexual orientation in identical
twins. But—surprise—with sexual orientation, both twins share the trait
homosexuality more often than they do left-handedness—yet no one would
claim this is evidence that left-handedness is a "chosen alternative
lifestyle" because left-handedness isn't seen as a moral issue—any
more. It used to be. Then society changed.) The sexual orientation,
like the handedness, of adopted children bears no relationship to that
of adoptive parents (a powerful control demonstrating that environment
is not a factor in creating sexual orientation). And both show a
"maternal effect" pointing towards the X chromosome.
| || || |
The Gay Gene: Two Trait Profiles--Human Handedness & Human Sexual Orientation
Human Sexual Orientation
Stable bimodalism, behaviorally expressed
Stable bimodalism, behaviorally expressed
Majority and Minority orientations
Majority orientation: 92%
Minority orientation: 8%
Majority and Minority orientations
Majority orientation: 95%
Minority orientation: 5%
of orientations according to sex:
Male : Female ratio for minority orientations
1.3 : 1 Minority orientation
30% higher in men than women
2 :1 Minority orientation
100% higher in men than women
Does minority orientation co-relate
a.) with race?
b. ) geography?
c.) culture? 
d.) Mental or physical pathology? 
Age of first behavioral appearance of trait:
Around age 2
Around age 2
Is either orientation chosen?
Is either orientation pathological?
Can external expression be altered?
Can int Can Interior orientation be altered clinically?
Does trait run in families?
Pattern of familiality:
"Maternal effect" implies X-chromosome linkage.
"Maternal effect" implies X-chromosome linkage. 
to none. Handedness of adopted (i.e. non-biological) children shows no
relationship to that of adoptive parents, indicating a genetic
to none. Sexual orientation of adopted (i.e. non-biological) children
shows no relationship to that of adoptive parents, indicating a genetic
Do siblings of those with minority orientation have increased rates of minority orientation?
Yes. Elevated rate of left-handedness in families with other left-handed children.
Yes. Elevated rate of homosexuality in families with other homosexual children.
Are monozygotic (identical) twins more likely to share minority orientation?
MZ concordance for minority orientation  (vs. background rate):
(vs. 8%, so MZ rate is 1.5 times higher)
(vs. 5%, so MZ rate is 5 times higher)
- Genes Are Irrelevant to Choice-
another thing most people don't understand: We don't need to discover
the genes to know that you don't "choose" your sexual orientation any
more than we need to find eye-color genes to know you don't "choose"
your eye color. We're closing in on the genes that make us heterosexual
or homosexual. Geneticists, using the clinician's research, have begun
to look for the underlying biological determinants of heterosexuality,
bisexuality, and homosexuality. In ten, twenty, or thirty years,
we'll probably have figured it out. We've got the basics already. In
early 2005 in the highly-respected biomedical journal Human Genetics,
the team of Dr. Brian Mustanski of the University of Illinois at
Chicago identified three chromosomal regions linked to sexual
orientation in men: 7q36, 8p12, and 10q26. Which is very interesting on
a biological level—and it's interesting on a political level in that
with only a little more research we may be able to start testing
fetuses in utero for their sexual orientation—but it's completely
irrelevant to the questions of choice, pathology, distribution in
populations, etc. No one questions that blue eyes occur more frequently
in Caucasians than in Asians, but we don't know this by finding the
genes for eye color; we know it by clinical observation of the
distribution of eye color in people all over the world. No one
questions that about 7.8% of all human beings are left-handed, but we
don't get that information from genes—in fact, as of yet, we have no
idea where the genes for handedness are—we get it, again, from clinical
observation. The Catholic
Church's position is the empirically correct position—the Catholic
Church holds that homosexual orientation is an "innate instinct," not a
choice or a "lifestyle," and the Church didn't need genes to come to
that conclusion; it used empirical observation. We
don't need to find the genes for sexual orientation to know that people
don't "choose" to be heterosexual any more than we need to find genes
for handedness to know that people don't "choose" to be right-handed.
Among scientists, this is as obvious as the sky being blue.
-What This All Means-
is odd to move from this data, which has been accepted by scientists as
an unremarkable given for years now, to the highly emotional reactions
of those whose preconceptions are contradicted by the facts. The
emotional pain is as strong as the conceptual upheaval, and the
conceptual upheaval is total: The clinical data demand a change in the
most basic terms in which the debate is carried out. The most basic,
and yet for lots of people the most difficult, fact to understand about
sexual orientation is ridiculously simple: Behavior is not sexual
orientation. When you understand that the human trait left-handedness
is pretty much identical to homosexuality, you understand that a
closeted gay man who, hiding from the world, marries a woman and
secretly has sex with men isn't "bisexual"; he's homosexual and
closeted and living in a society that pressures him into lying to this
woman, to his co-workers, and to his family to camouflage his true
nature. He's engaging in heterosexual behavior in order to fool the
outside, but he's not heterosexual in any way.
isn't sexual orientation, and the difference between behavior and
orientation is as obvious as lying: When you tell a lie, you know
perfectly well what the truth is inside; if you felt you were able to
tell the truth you'd behave differently and say different things. The
scientific facts show how many people are incapable of even the most
basic discussion of homosexuality. They refer to it as a "sexual
preference" or a "lifestyle," though both these terms are as
nonsensical as saying that a person has a "handedness preference" or
that someone is leading the "left-handed lifestyle." If you can't
comprehend the difference between a "lifestyle" and a sexual
orientation, you'll never come out with the correct solution to the
question of gay rights. And those people who can't comprehend sexual
orientation, who think sexual orientation is somehow weirdly "chosen,"
who are terrified of the empirical, clinical fact that homosexuals and
left-handed people simply have biological givens, the impact of this
research is, unfortunately, terrifying. It renders ideologues on both
sides of the political aisle apoplectic and irrational. The socially
conservative far Right is so terrified of gay rights that it clings
desperately to a demonstrable falsehood. The ideological Left is so
deeply attached to the false Marxist dogma that biology can determine
nothing about the character, thinking, and instincts of human beings
(to the Left, we are all created entirely by social forces, which is
why certain social programs are crucial) that it argues, as
anti-scientifically as the Right, that the gay gene cannot exist. And
it then argues that research into the gay gene shouldn't be done
because it might be used to biologically eliminate gay people—which
exactly contradicts its first contention that there is no gay gene.
for those who are not fanatic Right or Left, for those able to consider
facts over fear, facts are never scary. They simply are. And they are
accepted and dealt with calmly. Years ago, an English politician, faced
with new information, changed his position on an important policy. When
an opponent rose to criticize him, he looked at him and said, "When the
facts change, I change my opinion. What do you do?"
this world, there are many who cling to mistaken ideas and old notions
that comfort them, bring order to the chaos of life, and reassure them,
and when these ideas are proven wrong, these people flounder
helplessly. Science has never been easy. In 1859, an English naturalist
named Charles Darwin published a book called The Origin of the Species.
People forget that both Right and Left erupted in screams. The
Conservatives assaulted Darwinism for threatening their creationist
view of the human species. And Darwinism equally threatened the
bizarre, Leftist, Rousseau view of human nature that propounded a
utopian, perfectible mankind. Leftists feared and despised a Darwinist
human nature that determined human instincts to selfishness, sexual
desire, greed, violence, intelligence, social hierarchy, and gender.
And now discover, sexual orientation. The majority orientation,
heterosexuality. And the minority orientation, homosexuality. Both
running in families, both un-chosen, non-pathological, and immutable.
Just like left-handedness.
is not new, and we struggle to help those whose beliefs are proven
wrong and, then, suffer from this. In Chapter 21 of his 1871 The
Descent of Man, Darwin wrote to the Right and to the Left: "Many of the
views [I] have advanced [here] are highly speculative, and some no
doubt will prove erroneous; but I have in every case given the reasons
which have led me to one view rather than another.... Man is [not] the
work of a separate act of [divine] creation.... [When the facts are
considered], we thus learn that man is descended from a hairy
quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in
its habits.... The main conclusion arrived at in this work... will, I
regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons.... But we are
not here concerned with hopes and fears, only with the truth as far as
our reason allows us to discover it."
About the Author:
Chandler Burr is a journalist who contributes regularly to The New York
Times and has written for The Atlantic and The New Yorker. He is author
of two books, 'A Separate Creation: The Search for the
Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation' and 'The Emperor of Scent: A
Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses.' He
lives in New York City. His website is website www.chandlerburr.com
From: A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation
I.C. McManus, "The Inheritance of Left-Handedness," Biological
Asymmetry and Handedness, Ciba Foundation Symposium 162. (Chichester)
John Wiley & Sons: 1991, 251-267; J. Michael Bailey and Richard
Pillard, "A Genetic Study of Male Sexual Orientation," Archives of
General Psychiatry 48 (December 1991): 1089-1096; Dean Hamer et al., "A
Linkage Between DNA Markers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual
Orientation," Science 261 (July 16, 1993): 321-327
Both traits show a very small number of humans are ambi-oriented.
Handedness shows almost none for both men and women—McManus: "Measures
of handedness usually show a bimodal distribution with few subjects
appearing truly ambidextrous." Sexual orientation, likewise, shows
almost none for men but a still small though significant number for
2 However, may highly influence expression.
There is currently fierce debate over the existence of a correlation
between left-handedness and certain pathologies, most notably
schizophrenia. Some researchers assert that handedness, thought to
reflect one aspect of brain lateralization, may be a result of a
cause--in some manner a concomitant--of schizophrenia's etiology or
pathophysiology. A study done by Charles Boklage ("Schizophrenia, brain
asymmetry development, and twinning," Biol. Psychiatry 12, 19-35, 1997)
powerfully developed the hypothesis, and Nancy Segal ("Origins and
implications of handedness and relative birth weight for IQ in
monozygotic pairs," Neuropsychology 27, 549-561, 1989) also supports
some form of correlation. On the other hand, Luchins et al. (1980) and
Lewis et al. (1989), in their respective replication attempts of
Boklage's work, found little support, and Gottesman et al. ("Handedness
in twins with schizophrenia: was Boklage correct?" Schizophrenia
Research 9, 83-85, 1993) conclude that there does not appear to be an
association between handedness and schizophrenia. (See Gottesman for a
more complete bibliography.) The point, however, is the distinct
difference between the trait profile of handedness and that of sexual
orientation: while there is clinical debate in scientific and research
circles over whether handedness correlates in some way with
psychobiological abnormalities, no such debate exists regarding sexual
orientation, and neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality are
implicated in any mental or physical pathology.
4 A subset of gay men show the maternal effect. It does not appear in women.
5 "Segregation" is a genetic term of art meaning the way the trait shows up in individuals down through generations.
6 Indicates that genetics play a significantly greater role in sexual orientation than in handedness.