What determines the cause of homosexuality? Is it genetic, or environmental or a combination of both?

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Homosexuality is a sexual orientation. A homosexual person is romantically or sexually attracted to people of their own gender. Men who are romantically or sexually attracted to other men are called gay. Women who are romantically or sexually attracted to other women can be called gay as well, but are usually called lesbians. People who are romantically attracted to men and women are called bisexual. Together homosexual, bisexual, and transgender people make up the LGBT community, which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender. It is difficult to say how many people are homosexual. Homosexuality is known to exist in all cultures and countries.

What causes homosexuality?

    There are two main theories as to what causes homosexual attractions. One is that a homosexual orientation is essentially dictated by genetic and or biological factors-simply put, that people are ‘born gay’. The other theory is that homosexual attractions develop as primarily as a result of psychological and environmental influences and early experiences

Genetic or Biological factors

Genetic factors

     To date all theories regarding the existence a gay gene remain unsubstantiated. However, some researchers suggest that genetics may play an indirect role through the presence of certain temperamental traits that increase the likelihood that certain individuals will experience same-sex attractions or come to identify themselves as homosexuals.

Byne and Parsons explain: “For example, if a gene influenced some factor, such as temperament, in a manner that would increase the possibility of homosexual development in a particular environment, that gene could be called a gene for homosexuality with reduced penetrance.” However, the authors caution: “Such terminology, however, would minimize the overriding importance of the environment in such a scenario.”

Bem agrees that “biological factors influence sexual orientation only indirectly, by intervening earlier in the chain of events to determine a child’s temperaments and subsequent activity preferences..Correlation between a biological factor and sexual orientation is more plausibly attributed to its influence in early childhood than to a direct link with sexual orientation.”

Much of the confusion about what research has actually shown regarding a genetic influence on the development of homosexuality has to do with a misunderstanding of the difference between a trait that is “heritable” (that is, one that runs in families) and one that is “inherited” (that is, one which is directly determined by genes). The difference and the multiple pathways that could lead to homosexuality were acknowledged by Bailey and Pillard of the twin studies:

“Heritability is not informative regarding the development of sexual orientation( or, for that matter, of any trait). That is, given any heritability estimate, there are a variety of possible developmental mechanisms. For instance, there are a variety of possible developmental mechanisms. For instance, these data are consistent with heritable variation in prenatal brain development or in some aspect of physical appearance that, by way of differential parental treatment, leads to differences in sexual orientation.”

Biological theories of homosexuality

      Byne and Parsons conclude that the biologic theory remains unproven, and note that “the appeal of current biologic explanations for sexual orientation may derive more from dissatisfaction with the present status of psychological explanations than from a substantiating body of experimental data. Critical review shows the evidence favoring a biologic theory to be lacking. In an alternative model, temperamental and personality traits interact with the familial and social milieu as the individual’s sexuality emerges. Because such traits may be heritable or developmentally influenced by hormones, the model predicts an apparent nonzero heritability for homosexuality without requiring that either genes or hormones directly influence sexual orientation per se.”

Bem concurs that “a theoretical rationale for a direct path between the genotype and sexual orientation has not even been clearly articulated, let alone established.”

The Political Agenda Behind Promoting the “Gay Gene”

Revealingly, Byne and Parsons note: “Finally, political arguments have been offered in favor of biologic causation. It has been suggested that if sexual orientation is largely a biologic phenomenon, ‘society would do well to reexamine its expectations of those who cannot conform’; and, writing in the ‘Opinions and Editorials’ pages of the New York Times(December 17,1991:19), Bailey and Pillard stated: ‘If true, a biological explanation is good news for homosexuals and their advocates.’ However, political arguments have no impact on biological realities, including the extent of genetic or hormonal influences on the emergence of sexual orientation.”

How the media distort the issue

Bem refers to the role that the media plays in distorting the scientific evidence and misleadingly assuming that there exists a “gay gene”. “Like all well-bred scientists, biologically oriented researchers in the field of sexual orientation dutifully murmur the mandatory mantra that correlation is not caused. But the reductive temptation of biological causation is so seductive that the caveat cannot possibly compete with the discovery of another link between the anatomy of our brains and the anatomy of our lovers’ genitalia. Unfortunately, the caveat vanishes completely as word of the latest discovery moves from Science to Newsweek. The public can be forgiven for believing that research is but one government grant away from pinpointing the sexual preference gene.”

Do upbringing, Experience, and the Social Environment Contribute to the Development of Homosexuality?

     In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. That decision did not come as a result of new research. Ronald Bayer, the author of the most exhaustive treatment of the 1973 decision, has described what actually happened:

“A furious egalitarianism that challenged every instance of authority had compelled psychiatric experts to negotiate the pathological status of homosexuality with homosexuals themselves. The resulting truth as dictated by reason, but was instead an action demanded by the ideological temper of the times.”

      Prior to 1973, an extensive literature existed on the role of upbringing and experience in the development of homosexuality. Yet one of the unfortunate effects of the APA decision was to largely stifle further research on the psychological origins of homosexuality.

Early childhood developmental factors

    The causes of same-sex attraction are many and varied. Prior to 1973, many researchers focused on the early childhood years:

A 1969 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology concluded: “We found a remarkable number of conditions and circumstances that may result in homosexuality. What happens after the child is born is complicated by many factors; there are not only inner biological and emotional factors, parental and familial surroundings, social and cultural circumstances; but the various pressures and expectations shift as the child grows and hardens as he establishes his ways into his eventual adult character structure.”

Similarly, Psychiatrists Byne and Parsons, writing in Archives of General Psychiatry, state that “it seems reasonable to suggest that the stage for the future sexual orientation may be set by experiences during early development, perhaps the first 4 years of life.”

The authors conclude: “The inadequacies of present psychological explanations do not justify turning to biology by default- especially when, at present, the biologic alternatives seem to have no greater explanatory value. In fact, the current trend may be to underrate the explanatory power of extant psychosocial models.”

Back in 1968 Ralph R. Greenson, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA, offered the following developmental theory, which focuses on the need of boys to dis-identify from their mother: The male child, in order to attain a healthy sense of maleness, must identify instead with the father. It is the difficulties inherent in this additional step of development, from which girls are exempt, which are responsible for certain special problems in the man’s gender identity, his sense of belonging to the male sex.

Parental influence

    Another focus of researchers has been how the personality traits of the parents may contribute to same-sex attraction, Theories about how a child’s relationship with his or her parent can affect homosexual feelings can be traced in the psychiatric literature going back nearly a century :

According to the Archives of Sexual Behaviour, “Feud (1916) described the mothers of homosexuals as excessively loving and their fathers as retiring or absent. Stekel(1930) noted strong, dominant mothers and weak fathers. In 1936, Terman and Miles found the mothers of homosexuals to be especially demonstrative, affectionate, and emotional, while the fathers were typically unsympathetic, autocratic, or frequently away from home.”

Similarly, the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic noted the following from a review of the literature back in 1963: “Bender and Paster in a study of 19 actively homosexual children, found either a grossly deficient or very negative relationship with the same-sex parent, coupled with an overly intimate attachment to the opposite-sex parent.”

“And, in a recent publication by West, a number of contemporary investigators are cited who independently have reached the same conclusion concerning the mother-son factor in male homosexuality. His findings clearly show that male homosexuals are much more likely to come from a family constellation involving an over intense mother and unsatisfactory father relationship.”

Summary of findings regarding the developmental causes of homosexuality

   Daniel G. Brown put it well forty years ago- but his ringing call to action has gone unheeded for the past thirty years:

    In summary, then, it would seem that the family pattern involving a combination of a dominating, overly intimate mother plus a detached, hostile or weak father is beyond doubt related to the development of male homosexuality. Beginning with the penetrating clinical insights of Freud 50 years ago, the systematic investigation by Terman and Miles some 30 years ago, the independent findings of a number of clinical and research workers, and the recent noteworthy  contributions of West and Bieber, there is now strong evidence and considerable agreement as to family dynamics in the development of male homosexuality. It is surprising there has not been greater recognition of this relationship among the various disciplines that are concerned with children. A problem that arises in this connection is how to inform and educate teachers and parents relative to the decisive influence of the family in determining the course and outcome of the child’s psychosexual development.

Child sexual abuse and the development of Homosexuality

    A study in the journal of sex & Marital Therapy the past sexual experiences, sexual thoughts, and fantasies regarding the sexual contacts of 35 adult men who were sexually abused during their childhoods. The study found that among men, a history of homosexual child abuse was linked both to an adult homosexual orientation and to sexual attraction to children:

“According to existing literature, gender identity confusion and gender preference are often cited as being affected by childhood sexual abuse. In this study, 46 percent of the abused men, as opposed to 12 percent of the non-abused men, defined their sexual orientation as either bisexual or homosexual. Therefore, these findings further validate previous research regarding the sexual orientation of children who have been sexually abused.”

The study concludes: Given these findings, it appears that being sexually abused as a child may affect the propensity of adult men to fantasize about young men.

The bulletin of the Menninger clinic mentions “seduction” among a list of other possible childhood experiences that could contribute to same-sex attraction: “There are a number of factors that occur in childhood which appears to be related to the development of homosexuality in adults. Such conditions as prolonged segregation of the sexes; specific, intensely exciting, and gratifying homosexuals; threatening and painful experiences in connection with sex play or relationships with the opposite sex; these and related factors in childhood and adolescence are correlated with the occurrence of homosexuality in adulthood.”

Cultural factors in the development of Homosexuality

     If homosexuality were a result of biological or genetic factors, one might expect that it would be fairly evenly distributed both geographically and sociologically among all types of people. However, the research into Americans’ sexual behavior and self-identification by sexual orientation indicate that this is not the case. Two factors, in particular, stand out as having a strong correlation with a greater likelihood of engaging in homosexual acts or self-identifying as homosexual: urbanization and education.


     Homosexuals tend to be concentrated in urban areas:

The National Health and Social Life Survey found that homosexuals and lesbians are not evenly distributed across the country. Rather, more than 9% of the men in the nation’s twelve largest cities identify themselves as gay. But just 3 to 4% of men living in the suburbs of these cities or in most of the larger cities of the nation say they are gay, and about 1% of men in rural areas identify themselves as gay. Lesbians, too, cluster in cities, but the tendency is not so pronounced as for gay men.

The social organization of Sexuality gives additional details on the “striking” relationship between the level of urbanization of the current residence of respondents and the various measures of same-gender sexuality. Men living in the central cities of the twelve largest metropolitan areas report rates of same-gender sexuality of between 9.2 and 16.7 percent (..referring to identity and desire, respectively), and the rates generally decline monotonically with a decline in urbanization.


   As with urbanization, high levels of education are directly correlated with higher levels of homosexual behavior and self-identification.

A study in the journal science found, “Men with four or more years of college are estimated to have a higher proportion” with same-gender sexual experience, “particularly compared to those with no college education.”

Another study of men, published in Family Planning Perspectives, found that education was “positively associated with having had a same-gender sexual experience within the last ten years.”

The comprehensive National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS) reached the same conclusion: “Our study shows that twice as many college-educated men identify themselves as homosexuals as men with high school educations.”

However, the authors of Sex in America reported, For women, the trend is even more striking. Women with college educations are eight times more likely to identify themselves as lesbians as are women with a high school education.

The Role of Personal Choice in Becoming Homosexual

     Debates over homosexuality are often presented in terms of a false dichotomy- either a person is “born gay”, or a person “chooses to be gay.” The truth lies between these two extremes. For the most part, people do not choose what sexual feelings or attractions they experience. Each of us does, however, choose the sexual behaviors in which we engage:

Writing with reference to lesbians, Bem notes that “some women who would otherwise be predicted by the EBE model to have a heterosexual orientation might choose for social or political reasons to center their lives on other women. This could lead them to avoid seeking out men for sexual or romantic relationships, to develop affection and erotic ties to other women, and to self-identify as lesbians or bisexuals.”

Writing in Archives of General Psychiatry Byne and Parsons note the role that “choice” plays in the development of one’s “sexual orientation”: “Conspicuously absent from most theorizing on the origins of sexual orientation is an active role of the individual in constructing his or her identity. The authors explain: This is not meant to imply that one consciously decides one’s sexual orientation. Instead, sexual orientation is assumed to be shaped and reshaped by a cascade of choices made in the context of changing circumstances in ones’ enormous social and cultural pressures.”


Work cited

Bem, “Exotic Becomes Erotic: A Developmental Theory of Sexual Orientation,” 331.

John O. G. Billy, Koray Tanfer, William R. Grady and Daniel H. Klepinger, “The Sexual Behavior of Men in the United States,” Family Planning Perspectives 25, no. 2 (March/April 1993): 59.

Marvin Siegelman, “Parental Background of Male Homosexuals and Heterosexuals,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, 3 (1974): 3-4.

Robert T. Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata, Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1994), 177–79.

Robert E. Fay, Charles F. Turner, Albert D. Klassen, John H. Gagnon, “Prevalence and Patterns of Same-Gender Sexual Contact among Men,” Science 243, Issue 4889 (20 January 1989): 342.

Ralph R. Greenson, “Dis-Identifying from Mother: It’s Special Importance for the Boy,” Interna­tional Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49 (1968): 370.

Ralph H. Gundlach, “Childhood Parental Relationships and the Establishment of Gender Roles of Homosexuals,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 33 (April 1969): 137.

Wardell B. Pomeroy, Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research (New York: Harper &                              Row, 1972), 76.

August 21, 2023

Science Sociology

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