Welcome to the series “Born this way? The role of the nature vs nurture debate in sexual identity formation and acceptance”!
The question of what ‘causes’ homosexuality has been preoccupying widely ranging scientific fields and scientists: from medicine and neuroscience to cultural and behavioral studies. Is sexual orientation a simple variable that is determined before birth, or is it influenced by environmental and surrounding factors over the course of someone’s life? In other words: do individuals who identify as LGBT choose to do so or were they born this way?
Many scientists have attempted to find answers to these questions, thereby positioning themselves in the nature vs. nurture debate regarding homosexuality. While doing so, many predominantly biological and social theories and explanations were born (some more viable than others) ranging from hormones in the uterus and mothers’ smoking habits during pregnancy to abuse and culturally determined gender stereotypes.
A factor related to this debate that has been taken into account to a much lesser extent, is the role that it plays within the process of sexual identity formation and acceptance. While struggling with their emerging sexual identity, many people ask the question: why is it that I am different from the majority? It is commonly understood amongst social scientists that a process of acceptation preludes a healthy sexual identity. Although this process can differ to a greater extent between individuals regarding, for example, duration and level of hardship, most individuals that struggle with their sexual orientation go through certain phases before coming to terms with it. So how does the question of ‘why’ fit into this process? What do people who identify as LGBT themselves think of this debate and what do they regard as the origins of their sexual orientation?
For instance, Pascale Müller regards sexual orientation as a latent disposition that is present in an individual all along. It depends, however, on the ability of ‘escaping’ cultural inclinations of gender norms and value systems whether or not a person will actually go on to identify as LGBT. On the other hand, other shapes of socialization such as peer groups can help this process, with language as an important tool to put feelings into words. Culture, therefore, can act as a inhibiting as well as an enabling factor to what has been biologically determined.
Cultural factors that influence the process of coming out as a gay person is also brought forward by Brittney Teasdale-Edelman while portraying her Asian queer friend Johnson Ngo. She describes how an informal talk amongst friends touches upon life questions regarding choices and non-choices. According to her friend, being born gay or not is not a black and white issue. Neither is identity itself, as it consists of past, present, and future – shades of gray rather than black and white.
Paul J. Edwards warns us for the dangers of these identity politics by reminding us on how race used to be placed in the middle of this debate. Science does not and should not hold all the answers and even if it did, the question would remain if society would be able to move beyond prejudice.
According to Amy Tannenbaum, neither nature of nurture are sufficient in ‘explaining’ sexual orientation and argues that reducing queerness to a debate of nature vs nurture (and therefore to the homo-hetero binary) does not do justice to the diversity of sexual identities. To her, it is OK if we do not all have the same answer to the question of what ‘causes’ queerness and encourages a debate that extends beyond nature and nurture.
Patrick Grzanka continues by also shifting the focus point from the nature-or-nurture question to the question of why this question is asked in the first place: why do people think that sexual orientation is a useful tool in grouping people and coming to understand identity?
Last but no least, Sara Aguirre takes it even a step further by questioning the existence of sex and gender altogether: what if the male/female dichotomy doesn’t extend beyond X/Y chromosomes? According to Sara Aguirre, culture is able to modify biology, thereby effectively erasing the nature/nurture debate. Instead, she calls for the analysis of the intersection between biology and culture and the social implications that this sexual division put forward: although the sexes arguably might not essentially exist, they definitely do so in political and experiential sense.