VISION & VALUES CONCISE: Answering Bob Schieffer’s Big Debate Question

Bob Schieffer was not the first person to ask the contentious question concerning the origins of homosexual feelings. Such questions are frequently asked by pollsters, researchers and people at the water cooler.  The thorny issue arising in a presidential debate, however, was surprising. And it was enlightening to learn how the two candidates think about one of today’s most lively social issues, even if they could have given a better answer.

The gay political group the Human Rights Campaign immediately supported Senator Kerry’s answer that seemed designed to say in effect, “Bob, come on, everybody knows being homosexual is not a choice!” The lobbying group waxed indignant about the President’s candid response of “I don’t know.” According to their news release, the President “…put politics ahead of the science that being gay is not a choice.”

What about that charge of putting politics before science? Did either of the candidates get the right answer? Although it was refreshing to hear the issue questioned, the truth is it is unlikely that anyone could do justice to the complexities involved in the time allowed. The professor in me immediately began to think of how I would answer the question. I soon realized that the nuances and problems of definition would have taken me into my closing statement.

The question: “Is homosexuality a choice?” seems simple enough but it is cunningly complicated. The two nouns in the query require further reflection. What do we mean by homosexuality? What do we mean by choice?

By homosexuality, are we referring to feelings of attraction to the same sex? Or are we referring to a person who has adopted a gay or lesbian personal identity? Or both? Some people experience same sex attractions to varying degrees but choose not to act on them or to identify themselves as homosexual. For them, the feelings of attraction may not seem like a choice but pursuing same sex relationships and/or adopting a homosexual identity would be a conscious choice.

Choice is also a word that requires clarification. This part of the question is usually code for a related question: “Can a person change his feelings or are they such an innate part of a homosexual’s make up that any choice concerning them is impossible?” For those who have experienced change in their sexual feelings from gay to straight, often known as ex-gays, the concept of choice is especially important. In my research, many ex-gays say they did not choose to initially experience attractions to their own gender but at some point in their lives, they made a conscious choice to pursue change in not only how they perceive themselves but in their affections and attractions.

Some very consciously pursue same sex relationships. In a 1997 article titled “Is sexual orientation a matter of choice?” Susan Rosenbluth found that 58% of women surveyed who were at the time in lesbian relationships chose to pursue a same sex relationship for a variety of reasons beyond sexual attraction. In other words, many women prefer women for partners and experience that preference as a choice they make.

So for some people homosexual feelings may not be a choice and for some cultivating these feelings to be in a preferred same sex relationship may be a choice. For many, cultivating a gay or lesbian identity is indeed a choice whereas for others it seems like a natural progression from awareness of same sex feelings.

Where Senator Kerry ran aground was in assuming that the feeling of choice is a reliable indicator of the source of feelings. He assumed, as do many in my profession and the Human Rights Campaign, that a perception of naturalness means that feelings are inborn, hard-wired or perhaps even God-given. Many human affections including food and activity preferences seem quite natural but are almost certainly acquired, albeit imperceptibly. While the inborn theory may seem reasonable at first look, the research into sexual attraction implicates many more factors beyond genetics and is actually quite suspect.

For instance, in 2002, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report concerning genes and behavior concluded: “There are numerous problems with genetic and other biological research into sexual orientation which mean that any reported findings must be viewed with caution.”

Now class, in reflecting over the answer to Bob Schieffer’s question, which of the candidates seemed to be viewing the issue with a more informed sense of caution?

But what should the candidates have said? Here’s an accurate response: “Bob, we know four things for certain. First, we know that genetic research has not found a gay gene even though same sex attractions feel quite natural for a small percentage of the population. Second, research has shown that many people do regard their homosexuality as a choice.  Third, research demonstrates that many people have made the choice to leave homosexuality. Finally, we all have a choice to live in accord with our deeply held personal values and religious beliefs no matter what research eventually tells us about sexual orientation.”