Is homosexuality a choice?

25 January 2008

Choose life. Choose freedom. Choose Kylie. Choose her little sequinned dresses. Choose being the odd one out. Choose… homophobia. Choose homosexuality? Would you choose it? Social attitudes towards being gay or bi have varied throughout human history – but whether it has been all the rage or raged against, it has been an undeniable facet of human existance. Of course “it” is fairly variable – conditions and attitudes have changed with the ages, with more or less the only certainty being that somewhere, someone, several ‘someones’ in fact, have been departing from the “Insert Tab A into Slot B” model of human sexuality. But how many ‘someones’? A recent Radio 1 survey of nearly 30’000 16-24 year olds had 6% of men identifying as gay, 3% bi. For women the corresponding figures were 2% and 6% – which fits remarkably well with Alfred Kinsey’s much quoted (and disputed) figure of 10%. And history abounds with shirt lifters from Socrates to So Graham Norton, in various social guises. The Socratic sexual ideal was a form of patronage, a complex arrangement – custodial, tutorial, in its way caring. Such a relationship is not astoundingly dissimilar in fact from the function posited by some biologists for the behaviours of a number of animal species; the problem lies in trying to translate the behaviour of several tonnes of African elephant to the society of the Athenian republic. I’m not trying to cast the average pachyderm as a philosopher with a wiggly snout, but the relationship structures aren’t a million miles apart, and homosexuality is not purely a human matter. As of 1999, the book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity listed 478 species that have been documented to have engaged in homosexual activity. The term “homosexual activity” is one to be used with care; while the acts are themselves not disputed, the interpretation often is – it has been posited that such, ah, interactions are in fact dominance displays or greetings(!). That’s the problem when talking about whether being gay/bi/fabulous is a choice: the distinction between “being” gay and “doing” gay. The Dean of St. Albans, Jeffrey John, is an out gay man and yet claims a celibate lifestyle. Now, the latter is unquestionably his choice, but I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument for the former. Likewise it doesn’t follow that the performance of a homosexual act necessitates homosexuality; however, about 8% of rams have been found to engage in exclusively homosexual acts, whether a female is present or not; and in the geneticist’s bread-and-butter, the Fruit Fly Drosophila melanogaster, males possessing a particular genetic makeup have been shown to again attempt to mate exclusively with other males. The genetic component that is observed here potentially has remarkable ethical ramifications, and could certainly go some way to disproving the idea of a choice; however, there have to date been no conclusive studies into the biological basis of human sexual orientation – indeed the whole area is of continued and vigorous debate. It’s quite possible that the situation is sufficiently complex that we’ll never be able to untangle the nature and nurture – but being gay a choice? Well, it’s up to you to choose what you believe. All I can say is that no-one I know ever got given a sign-up sheet when they became one of Oscar Wilde’s Storm troopers.