Choice, Biology, and the Causes of Homosexuality: Towards a New Theory of Queer Identity

NOTE TO STUDENTS: The paper below is an informal commentary, which I wrote for a graduate class in teaching writing that I took in 1994.

Written by Amy Goodloe
Copyright © 1994, 2012. All Rights Reserved
do not reproduce without permission

Originally published on

You don’t have to listen to the Religious Right for too long before you realize that one of their chief obsessions has nothing to do with religion. Go to almost any gathering of Religious Right folk and, no matter what the intended topic of conversation, you are sure to hear about the evils of The Homosexual Lifestyle. According to the Right, homosexuals are immoral, perverse, and sinful, causing harm to themselves, to others, and to society as a whole. Because they have chosen to live this “unnatural” lifestyle, so the argument goes, they do not deserve any kind of “special” protection under the law, and in fact should be openly discriminated against and otherwise made to suffer as long as they continue on this chosen path.

Although this is clearly not the majority opinion in the United States, it is unfortunately the opinion frequently backed by the wealthy and powerful, and so its faulty assumptions remain unchallenged. But over the past two decades, gays and lesbians have begun to make their voices heard and their power felt on the political level, so that both groups are now pitted against each other in a battle over the meaning of liberty. At the heart of this battle is the question: what makes a person homosexual, is it a choice or is one born that way? Because the Religious Right’s argument (1) depends so heavily on homosexuality being a wrong choice, and one that should therefore not be protected under the law, lesbian and gay rights activist have counter argued that homosexuality is a function of biology, that we do not choose to be gay but rather are “chosen,” as the joke goes. If sexuality is innate, the way race and sex are innate, then homosexuals should be afforded the same kinds of protection against discrimination that women and racial minorities have, at least in theory. But so far this argument has been hard to “prove,” because of the nature of biological and genetic testing, and thus the battle continues, with the Religious Right and gay rights activists going head to head on anti- gay ballot initiatives across the country.

Despite their limited progress on a national scale, lesbian and gay rights activists have done much to influence the ideology of “political correctness” in this country, so that among those who consider themselves progressive and enlightened it is now correct to say “sexual orientation” rather than “sexual preference.” The argument against choice is persuasive, and may in fact have the power to change minds in certain parts of the country due to its logic, but I don’t believe it is strong enough to have a national impact, or that it necessarily should. In recent years, a new theory has emerged among lesbians and gays which suggests that the main impediment to lesbian and gay rights is the persistent division of the debate over the causes of homosexuality along only two lines, biology or choice, but so far this theory has not gained much popularity. The proponents of this more radical theory of queer identity provide a critique of the positions of both the Religious Right and mainstream lesbian and gay rights activists, not only by pointing to the flaws in each argument, but also by suggesting that the issue of gay rights shouldn’t revolve around the cause of homosexuality at all.

The radical critique of the Religious Right begins by challenging the Right’s assumption that its own very narrow and rigid morality should be forced onto all citizens of this country, and that its limited definition of “normal” should be made to apply to everyone. Clearly it is contrary to the purposes of this country that any one group, and especially a religious group, should have the power to define what is normal and how normal people behave, but we have evidence of the Religious Right’s previous successes in the sexism and racism which continue to plague our culture. But this is where, surprisingly enough, the radical critique of the Right ends, because this is a theory which supports the idea that homosexuality may in fact be a choice, at least in part.

Regardless of how one defines the origins of one’s own sexuality, it remains true that one has a choice about whether or not to act on that sexuality. While most lesbians and gays disagree with the Religious Right’s characterization of homosexuality as a “lifestyle,” they tend to agree that there is a subculture associated with lesbians and gays, which includes involvement with such things as gay publications, gay political activism, gay shops and merchandise, gay clubs and events, and so on. But this subculture is huge and diverse, and it intersects with a number of other subcultures which do not have anything to do with sexuality, such as the politically active or the new age spiritualists or the conservative traditionalists. In fact, within the lesbian and gay subculture you might find a number of different lifestyles, but these are typically based on activities and beliefs that a group has in common, and the only thing queer people have in common with each other on the whole is the fact of being queer, of loving members of the same sex rather than the opposite sex. This makes the concept of the homosexual lifestyle sound almost as ridiculous as the heterosexual lifestyle, as though one’s sexual identity alone were sufficient to shape one’s way of life.

Nevertheless, lesbian and gay people do make a choice about whether or not to identify with and participate in the gay subculture, but this is a choice that the Religious Right believes should not be protected under law, because they have defined it as an immoral choice. The radical queer critique of this position is quick to point out, however, that religion is also a choice, and there is undeniably a religious, or specifically Christian, subculture in this country which many choose to participate in. Under the present laws, those who make such a choice are protected against discrimination, so that those who participate in the Christian subculture cannot be denied housing or employment on that basis, while those who participate in the gay subculture can be. The Right, of course, argues that this discrepancy is based on the inherent worth of these two subcultures, claiming that homosexuality harms individuals, families, and society, but the radical critique counters this claim by pointing out that the potential for harm exists within all subcultures, and that the Christian subculture is certainly guilty of its share of psychological abuse and cultural suffocation. Unfortunately, however, it is the Religious Right that currently has the power and money necessary to force its opinions into law.

This newly developing radical theory of queer identity also critiques the position of those mainstream lesbian and gay rights activists who claim that homosexuality is a biological trait, primarily because this position does nothing to further the cause of sexual liberty, or the freedom of all people to express and explore the range of sexual identities. For lesbians and gays to be truly free in this society, so the argument goes, all people must be free from the bonds of compulsory heterosexuality, so that all sexuality becomes an individual choice rather than a cultural mandate. The impulse to claim biology as the source for homosexuality may, in fact, stem from the psychological need to justify one’s choice to a world that is hostile to those who dare to differ from its norms.

The argument for biology as the source for homosexuality also suffers from a rather obvious but potentially catastrophic consequence: if scientists are ever able to locate a “gay gene,” we can be sure that the Religious Right will use such evidence to promote the wholesale abortion of fetuses carrying this gene, even though this will mean a dramatic reversal of the Right’s position on abortion. Already there is massive disagreement in the scientific community over whether it would ever be possible to “map” homosexuality as a genetic trait, with those who recognize the marketable potential of such knowledge crying the most loudly for its discovery. And again, focusing our energies and attention towards such an unlikely possibility only continues to remove us from the real issue of sexual freedom, which is the goal of radical queer theory regardless of whether or not individual homosexuals feel they had a choice in the matter.

A final critique offered by what I have been calling a radical theory of queer identity is that neither choice nor biology provides an adequate explanation for those people whose sexual identities shift throughout their lifetimes, so that taken on the whole they could be said to be multi-sexual. Clearly choice may play a role in such behavior, but in the face of tremendous social pressure to be exclusively heterosexual, it would also seem that biology is partly responsible for providing such people with the necessary motivation to seek out same-sex relationships. This also seems to be true for those myriads of people who identified or were identified by others as homosexual long before the gay rights movements of the past few decades, when simply choosing to be gay could often be suicidal. For the most part, then, we can conclude that both biology and personal choice are potent forces in the process of developing one’s sexual identity, and it is the task of this newly developing radical theory to not only promote an understanding of the complex and interrelated nature of sexuality, but also to point to the political and personal advantages of advocating sexual liberty for all, so that no one continues to suffer at the hands of the restrictive ideology of the Religious Right. Only when the gay subculture and then the culture at large realizes that such a theory would benefit all of society, however, will it ever gain the power and popularity needed to achieve its goals.


(1) I am referring specifically to the Religious Right here and elsewhere, rather than to conservatism on the whole, because of this group’s particular power to shape the dominant ideology by perpetuating fear and ignorance , and because it is the most visible, vocal, and influential of conservative groups.

(2) To the clueless critic: the “radical theory” of queer identity is that it shouldn’t matter why a person identifies as LGB, as we deserve fair treatment under the law regardless.

© 1994, 2012 Amy Goodloe. All Rights Reserved.