For decades activists have worked tirelessly to spread the message that sexual orientation is not a choice—a fight that Lady Gaga took to pulsing heights in 2011 with her hit anthem "Born This Way." And over time, the message has begun to take hold. While in 1985 only about 20% of Americans believed that people are born gay, that figure more than doubled to around 47% in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center.
But what if teaching that gay people are "born that way" isn't the most effective way to erase homophobia? A new study reveals that even those who believe sexual orientation is not a choice can be homophobic—just as those who know race is not a choice can be racist. Do activists, community leaders, and even parents need to tweak their message?
For the study, published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, researchers from the University of Tennessee and University of Missouri-Colombia recruited 645 college students to answer questions about their beliefs involving sexual orientation. Respondents were presented with statements such as “It is impossible to truly change one’s sexual orientation,” then asked to rate each statement's validity on a scale of one to five, with one being "strongly disagree" and five being "strongly agree." Others statements included:
- "Sexual orientation is a category with distinct boundaries: A person is either gay/lesbian or heterosexual."
- "People who share the same sexual orientation pursue common goals."
- "It’s useful to group people according to their sexual orientation."
Based on their answers, participants were given scores in the four categories below. The higher the score in a category, the more the person endorsed that particular belief:
- Discreteness: Sexual orientation groups are clear and have and non-overlapping boundaries. Thus being gay makes you completely different than being bi or being straight.
- Homogeneity: Believing that members of a certain sexual orientation are all similar to one another.
- Naturalness: Belief that someone did not choose their sexual orientation, but rather they are born that way.
- Informativeness: By knowing someone's sexual orientation (SO) you can glean other information about them. In other words, their identity is tied to their SO.
The researchers discovered that many participants scored very high on the naturalness scale—meaning they endorsed the idea that being gay is not a choice. However, many simultaneously scored high in the other categories, which measured "homonegative" beliefs.
So what does this reveal? People may be fine saying, "sure, they're born that way"—but they may also hold beliefs that suggest that being gay makes someone fundamentally different as a human, and thus opens the door for prejudice and discrimination.
"We found that most of respondents believe that sexual minorities are 'born that way,' and that sexual orientation is not changeable," Patrick Grzanka, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee and the study's co-author, told me over e-mail. However, he continued, "We found that people who are high in all four of these beliefs were more likely to be straight, and that people high in all four of these beliefs were more likely to be homophobic."
In other words, homophobia is not always revealed by a person's belief in naturalness, but in an endorsement of other beliefs as well.
If you think this sounds nuanced, you're right—but it's also vital information. In order for the LGBT community to gain equal rights across the board, we must find a way to combat homophobia at it's source: how people think.
"The promotion of 'born this way' ideology is not likely to substantially reduce homophobia," Grzanka argues. "We need to target these other beliefs, which are largely absent in conversations about the nature and origin of sexual orientation."
Suzanna Walters, the director of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University and the author of the book The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions are Sabotaging Gay Equality, agrees—and believes our culture is at a tipping point, in which the "born this way" argument may even start to do more harm than good.
"Historically, biological arguments for identity are largely used in the service of quite heinous political movements like slavery, the Holocaust, and the history of racism," she told me.
So it's no shock that people who believe sexual orientation is biological may also harbor homophobic beliefs, she continued, because, on some level, they believe being gay is abnormal.
The "born this way" argument is problematic "because it presumes that there is something wrong there," she said. "No one is looking for the straight gene. Why are straight people the way they are? We look for causes for things we already think are problems."
Grzanka, the author of the study, made a point to clarify that the purpose of his research is not to determine why sexual orientation varies. "We are NOT interested in what makes people gay," he told me, but rather in "better understanding what people believe sexual orientation is, and the implications of those beliefs for social attitudes."
As Walters points out, "the idea that we can isolate some thing called sexuality and test it is a crazy way of thinking about sexuality. I mean, are we looking at sexual identity? Desire? Sexuality? Sexual acts?" she asked, adding, "How many acts constitute an identity?"
Her suggestion for the path forward is simple: "I think the answer is—however you experience your sexuality, you experience it, but it shouldn't be a part of the public discourse on civil rights."
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.