By Dr Emmanuel Phiri
Before answering this question, let us talk a little bit about why this is such an important question. Firstly, the question is important because a lot of us hold strong feelings about the subject of homosexuality. These feelings can either be negative or positive. Negative in the sense of perhaps having feelings of disgust towards those that identify as such. Positive in the sense of having feelings of sympathy, or perhaps indifference, towards those that identify as homosexual. These feelings are so strong that they tend to make most of us shoot from the hip whenever issues of homosexuality come up. This is especially the case on those of us who hold negative feelings on the subject. It is thus unsurprising that some of us would comment on this topic even before reading or hearing through what anyone has to say about it. This largely speaks to our nature as human beings…that we do not usually approach issues with a Tabula Rasa (a mind devoid of preconceptions), but as people with minds that are loaded with preconceptions. The forgoing also holds true when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. It is the case that most of us approach this topic heavily loaded with preconceptions emanating from various sources including religion, culture, and hearsay, among other things. It is thus expected that these preconceptions make us look at this topic in those lenses. Let us pause here to introspect for a moment. What are my preconceptions, if any, with regards to homosexuality? What is the basis for these preconceptions?
Anyone familiar with scientific or social research will tell you that a good researcher is one who, when conducting research, deliberately puts aside their various preconceptions, and does not allow these to taint their research findings. Just think about it for a moment. What would be the point of conducting research if one already has a predetermined conviction about the results of that particular research even before conducting it? This is why researchers are admonished to conduct research with an “open mind” and let the results speak for themselves. Of course, we know that in reality this isn’t always the case especially when it comes to social and political research. We have for instance seen politicians sponsor political polls where poll results are decided in advance of conducting any actual polls. Of course, the aim here is to try and crookedly gain political mileage by misleading potential voters that a particular candidate is more likely to win an election, when in actual fact they are not.
Back to the issue of preconceptions, researchers are admonished to be aware of these, and not to let these preconceptions taint research results. The idea here is to let the research itself determine the results, and not for our preconceptions to determine these. Similarly, even though it is such a difficult thing to do, I invite us to look at the question of whether homosexuality is a choice with an open mind, and to let research results speak for themselves.
The second reason why the question of whether homosexuality is a choice is such an important question is because of the legal and moral implications which the answers to the forgoing question may have. Let us look at some of the legal and moral implications that we would have if it were the case that homosexuality was a choice. Firstly, it would obviously imply that homosexuals are the way they are as a matter of choice. Because they have a choice on the matter, they can therefore be held both legally and morally culpable for their choice. They would be held legally responsible for the reason that they deliberately choose to do that which is illegal (homosexuality) when they can choose that which is not (heterosexuality). Just to buttress this point, we can give an example of a thief. Typical exemplars of thieving are such that a thief has a choice whether to steal something or not to steal. If he/she goes ahead to steal, then we hold him/her legally and morally accountable. The underlying reasoning for doing so is that the thief has chosen to do that which the laws and society in general shun-upon, when he could have chosen not to do so.
The second implication is that if homosexuality is a choice, then it would be easy to provide what is referred to as Transformative Therapy and Conversion Therapy among others, to those who identify as homosexual. This hinges on the idea that if someone makes a “life-choice” on something, they can easily be helped through therapy to let go of that “life-choice” in favour of another.
At this point let us say something about what the possible implications would be if it were the case that homosexuality was determined by birth. Firstly, this would turn on its head our current understanding of legal and moral culpability with regards to homosexuality. Just how would you criminalise a condition upon which persons have no control over, bearing in mind that legal and moral culpability assumes “choice” on the part of the subject? Imagine if people could be criminalised and morally blamed for being born black. Most people would agree that doing so would be a great injustice for the reason that people do not choose the circumstances of their birth, which includes skin colour. Another implication related to the forgoing is that most people would be sympathetic towards persons that identify as homosexual, and it is easy to see why this would be the case. How can one blame someone for having an orientation for which they did not choose? Here, even the harshest of homosexuality critics would definitely soften, if not change their minds, on how they perceive homosexuality, if it is indeed the case that homosexuals are born that way.
Having looked at some of the implications of whether or not homosexuality is a choice, let us now turn to briefly look at what scientific research tells us with regards to whether homosexuality is a choice, or indeed, whether homosexuals are born that way. As a way of reminding us of the question at hand: is homosexuality a choice or are homosexuals born that way? Luckily for us, we are not left to our own devices in answering this question. Respectable scientists the world over have spent a lifetime trying to scientifically figure out answers to the forgoing question. Let me say at this point that most of us will find the answer to this question disappointing. This is so for the reason that the answer is not as clear-cut as one might expect. Given the important implications the answer to this question has, one can imagine the typical Zambian reaction here, which would most likely go like … iwe (you) tell us…tell us… tell us iwe…is homosexuality a choice, or are homosexuals born that way? Tell us…we want to know…yes, we want to know.
Well, the honest answer to the forgoing question is that at the moment we do not know with absolute certainty of any particular factor that causes homosexuality. What we know for sure is that homosexuality, just like heterosexuality is not a choice. However, scientists cannot at the moment point to one singular factor that solely determines sexual orientation. Most credible scientific data points to a complex combination of biological and environmental factors as responsible for shaping our sexual orientations. Let me mention at this point that this is a position taken by respectable scientific communities including the Royal College of Psychiatrists, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, and the Australian Medical Association, among others. For instance, the Royal College of Psychiatrists had this to say in 2007: ‘’Despite almost a century of psychological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation. It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment. Sexual orientation is therefore not a choice…’’
What is clear from the forgoing is that sexual orientation is not a choice. In other words, research shows that it is not the case that people choose to either be homosexual or heterosexual. What is not clear is whether sexual orientation is determined by any single factor. At the moment, most reliable scientific data points to a complex combination of biological and environmental factors as being responsible for shaping sexual orientation. So, to answer our question, is homosexuality a choice, or are homosexuals born that way? The answer here is two-fold: firstly, it is clear that homosexuality is not a choice, secondly it is likely that homosexuals are born that way, though it is not clear as to what specifically causes this. These answers also apply to other orientations including heterosexuality.
In closing, in as much as religion is extremely important to most of us, we have deliberately avoided talking about religion when answering the forgoing question primarily for two reasons. Firstly, religion signifies a particular conception of the “good life” to which the majority, albeit not everyone, subscribes to. Secondly, we are not experts on religion and it would be unfair to try and bring in a religious angle here.
The author holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Applied Ethics. He is a researcher and expert on issues of sexual orientation. He is currently serving as researcher and lecturer at the University of Zambia. Send comment to: [email protected], +260 972 296414.