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We Still Don't Know What Causes Heterosexuality

Heterosexuality seems to be a widespread human condition, and yet science hasn’t found its cause. Maybe that’s due to an absence of available funding for the research or just plain lack of interest.

    There have been studies to determine the origins of homosexuality, usually in males, but they’ve all been small and, frankly, inconclusive. Nevertheless, we’re still in the dark about why there are people who are attracted romantically and sexually to a different gender than the one with which they identify as if they have problems loving the very gender they themselves embody.

    Probably this lack of scientific curiosity has to do with the fact that the majority of people – mostly heterosexuals, but not always – consider unadulterated heterosexuality to be the norm with anything else a deviation. And much medical and psychological science studies abnormalities rather than what’s just assumed.

    Consider the host of studies in the last two centuries of others considered deviations from norms – women, African Americans, Jews, left-handed people, etc. Freud, for example, talked about penis envy as if there were some inherent problem in humans born without one, and the measurements of brain sizes were geared to determine something about deviants from an often white and Protestant standard.

    So, we’ve been left to social scientific observation, psychological analysis, and anecdotal evidence represented in the inability to answer the question: “When did you decide to be heterosexual?” What seems clear then, and therefore has been embraced for over half-a-century by the mainstream scientific community, is that heterosexuality is not a choice.

    It’s apparently something that’s established very early in a human being’s lifecycle. It’s likely that it has to do with physical genetics, bodily chemistry, or prenatal factors.

    Now, there still exist those right-wingers, including some deviants from the norms of professional scientific associations, who want to believe that it’s a choice. Or they at least want to blame heterosexuality on how children are parented and use a variety of debunked developmental theories to try to do that.

   They like to picture heterosexuality as not just the norm for all human experience, but as actually inherently healthier than any other orientations. To do so, of course, they have to paint heterosexuality in rosier terms than, let’s say, bisexuality, homosexuality, asexuality, or even uncertain-sexuality.

    And they do that by targeting whatever the orientation of the non-heterosexuals is for any psychological or social problems some individuals have. If a man molests boys, it’s blamed on homosexuality, but if he molests girls it just can’t, can’t have anything at all to do with sexual orientation.

    That type of inconsistency represents heterosexual privilege, though I prefer to call it straight privilege because it has more to do with enforcing the straight role onto people than what one’s sexual orientation really is. And racism, sexism, able-bodiedism, and classism, have followed the same formula – the dominant group is never questioned, nor are dominant group identity or membership blamed.

   And believing that heterosexuality is a choice makes security with one’s sexual orientation precarious. Instead of settled contentment in being heterosexual, they feel as if they could be talked out of it, or seduced by the glamours of sexualities on the other side of the fence where the grass looks much greener.

    That insecurity in someone’s own heterosexuality translates into varieties of psychological projection while they shake in their boots, fearing that something might turn them to non-heterosexuality. They can’t relax as if their own sexual orientation is settled, God-given, or comfortable.

    And so they rant about LGBT people, talk about how LGBT people must actively recruit others, fear that LGBT people might come on to them, and hate any attempts to picture LGBT people as healthy, respectable, attractive, and in any way human. They can almost tolerate LGBT people, but don’t want them to show pride, success, committed relationships, or anything enviable in the straight world’s terms.

    To argue with them about whether or not sexual orientation is a choice or not only focuses minds on questions that are actually irrelevant when it comes to human rights. That being a person of color isn’t a choice has not ended racism yet.

    In the past some people have been won over to equality by the argument that LGBT people can’t help that they deviate from the norm. They’d be straight if they could be, poor things.

    Moving beyond such argument to the point that it doesn’t matter whether sexual orientation is a choice or not, ends our own participation in the demeaning of LGBT people. It also questions the idea that being straight has any inherent health or value to it.

    It allows lesbians and gay men the freedom to contemplate what is good about being gay. And it allows those who identify as bisexual the freedom to love whom they find companionable and attractive.

    We don’t know what the percentage of people who are non-heterosexual are – 10% sounds like the best demographic estimate. But if sexual orientation falls on a bell curve like many human characteristics, that would put most people in an ambiguous middle zone.

    The possibility that most fall in that middle might be too much for many to contemplate. It might require a whole redefinition of oneself in the midst of current prejudices and rampant homophobia.
    But moving beyond the debate over cause goes further. It questions whether people really would choose to be heterosexual if they actually had a free choice in the matter.

   Since they don’t in most cultures, even those where being LGBT is legally accepted, we have no idea what the choice would be if it could be made without any stigma. And that idea in itself is sure to make many uncomfortable.

    Heterosexuality is going to have to come out of its closet, then. Right now it’s hidden behind being straight-acting, straight-thinking, straight-feeling, and straight privilege.

    But it can’t define itself by what it is not. Being heterosexual is one human option. But being a healthy heterosexual person means living comfortably affirming all human options.

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Robert N. Minor, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas, is author of When Religion Is an Addiction; Scared Straight; and Gay & Healthy in a Sick Society. Contact him at www.FairnessProject.org.

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