While some people are under the impression that sexual orientation is an innate, fixed, and biological trait of human beings — that, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, we are “born that way” — there is insufficient scientific evidence to support that claim. In fact, the concept of sexual orientation itself is highly ambiguous; it can refer to a set of behaviors, to feelings of attraction, or to a sense of identity. Epidemiological studies show a rather modest association between genetic factors and sexual attractions or behaviors, but do not provide significant evidence pointing to particular genes. There is also evidence for other hypothesized biological causes of homosexual behaviors, attractions, or identity — such as the influence of hormones on prenatal development — but that evidence, too, is limited. Studies of the brains of homosexuals and heterosexuals have found some differences, but have not demonstrated that these differences are inborn rather than the result of environmental factors that influenced both psychological and neurobiological traits. One environmental factor that appears to be correlated with non-heterosexuality is childhood sexual abuse victimization, which may also contribute to the higher rates of poor mental health outcomes among non-heterosexual subpopulations, compared to the general population. Overall, the evidence suggests some measure of fluidity in patterns of sexual attraction and behavior — contrary to the “born that way” notion that oversimplifies the vast complexity of human sexuality.
The popular discussion of sexual orientation is characterized by two conflicting ideas about why some individuals are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. While some claim that sexual orientation is a choice, others say that sexual orientation is a fixed feature of one’s nature, that one is “born that way.” We hope to show here that, though sexual orientation is not a choice, neither is there scientific evidence for the view that sexual orientation is a fixed and innate biological property.
A prominent recent example of a person describing sexual orientation as a choice is Cynthia Nixon, a star of the popular television series Sex and the City, who in a January 2012 New York Times interview explained, “For me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me,” and commented that she was “very annoyed” about the issue of whether or not gay people are born that way. “Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate?” Similarly, Brandon Ambrosino wrote in The New Republic in 2014 that “It’s time for the LGBT community to stop fearing the word ‘choice,’ and to reclaim the dignity of sexual autonomy.”
By contrast, proponents of the “born that way” hypothesis — expressed for instance in Lady Gaga’s 2011 song “Born This Way” — posit that there is a causal biological basis for sexual orientation and often try to bolster their claims with scientific findings. Citing three scientific studies and an article from Science magazine, Mark Joseph Stern, writing for Slate in 2014, claims that “homosexuality, at least in men, is clearly, undoubtedly, inarguably an inborn trait.” However, as neuroscientist Simon LeVay, whose work in 1991 showed brain differences in homosexual men compared to heterosexual men, explained some years after his study, “It’s important to stress what I didn’t find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn’t show that gay men are ‘born that way,’ the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work. Nor did I locate a gay center in the brain.”http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/part-one-sexual-orientation-sexuality-and-gender