November 14, 2006

Do Beliefs About Choice Lead To Sexual Prejudice?

Posted at 3:34 pm (Pacific Time)

If we could convince Rev. Louis Sheldon that being gay isn’t a choice, would he stop attacking sexual minorities?

In an interview with The Jewish Week, the Christian Right leader recently acknowledged that he’d known about Rev. Ted Haggard’s homosexual behavior months before it was publicly disclosed:

” ‘Ted and I had a discussion,’ explained Sheldon, who said Haggard gave him a telltale signal [of his sexual attraction to men] then: ‘He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn’t. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that.’

Apart from raising questions about his complicity with Rev. Haggard’s ongoing deception, Rev. Sheldon’s comments illustrate a pattern that has been well-documented in the United States: In general, antigay heterosexuals assert that homosexuality is a choice. By contrast, unprejudiced heterosexuals are likely to believe that sexual orientation is inborn or otherwise not chosen.

What, if anything, does this pattern mean for efforts to eliminate sexual prejudice?

It’s often assumed that a cause-and-effect relationship is operating here — that heterosexuals will become less prejudiced if they can be convinced that being gay isn’t a choice.

In fact, most gay people in the US don’t experience their sexual orientation as a choice. In my own empirical studies, I’ve found that the vast majority of gay men and most lesbians report having little or no choice in this regard. (I’ll discuss these data further in a future posting.)

Yet, the notion of organizing anti-prejudice campaigns around a “we-didn’t-choose-to-be-gay” theme sparks philosophical and political debate. Such arguments are outside my purview as a social scientist. Based solely on empirical research, however, this plan is problematic for several reasons.

First, many heterosexuals’ beliefs in this realm aren’t internally consistent. If someone regards homosexuality as a choice, you’d expect them also to believe gay people can change their sexual orientation. Conversely, those who think it isn’t a choice should believe that people can’t change. But the data only partly conform to these patterns.

In a 1999 national telephone survey I conducted, more than 1200 heterosexual adults were asked whether they believed being homosexual is something people choose for themselves or something over which they have no control. A bit later in the survey, they were asked their opinion about what proportion of gay people can stop being homosexual if they want to do so. Half were asked these questions about gay men, the other half were asked about lesbians.

Overall, 47% said homosexuality is something men choose for themselves, and 57% expressed this belief about female homosexuality.

As expected, most respondents who said being gay is not a choice also believed that few (if any) gay people can stop being homosexual — roughly 72% expressed this opinion about gay men, and 76% about lesbians.

But it was a different story for those who said homosexuality is a choice. Only 50% of them believed most or all gay men can become straight, and only 43% expressed this opinion about lesbians. Many believed that fewer than half of homosexuals can change (27% said this about gay men, 34% about lesbians).

I’ve asked similar questions in subsequent surveys, with the same results: Many heterosexuals who believe being gay is a choice nevertheless say most gay people can’t choose to stop being homosexual. This contradictory pattern suggests that believing homosexuality is chosen might not be about facts or logic, at least for some people.

There’s another problem with the idea that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality isn’t chosen will reduce their sexual prejudice. Such a plan will only work if beliefs about choice are actually the basis for heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities. However, the data about choice beliefs and sexual prejudice are largely correlational, which means they don’t necessarily reveal a causal relationship. Even if one factor does cause the other, we can’t be certain which comes first — beliefs about choice or prejudice.

The chain might actually begin with prejudice. After all, conservative Christians base their attitudes on the argument that homosexuality is sinful. To be a sin, homosexuality has to be a choice. Otherwise their antigay hostility looks less like moral rectitude and more like bigotry. So perhaps many heterosexuals with antigay attitudes say homosexuality is chosen as a way of justifying their preexisting prejudice.

Research relevant to this hypothesis has been conducted by Dr. Peter Hegarty, a Stanford-trained social psychologist who is on the faculty at the University of Surrey in England.

Dr. Hegarty observed that beliefs about choice and the immutability of sexual orientation weren’t as closely linked with public attitudes toward sexual minorities in England as in the USA. In a series of studies, he found that beliefs about choice were strongly correlated with sexual prejudice among American students, but not among English students.

In further data analyses, he divided the participants into two groups: (1) those who perceived statements that homosexuality is unchosen and unchangeable to signify tolerant attitudes toward sexual minorities, and (2) those who didn’t perceive such a connection. He found that choice beliefs were correlated with prejudice only in the first group.

Dr. Hegarty interpreted his findings as indicating that heterosexuals may construct their beliefs about choice “to fit their sexual politics rather than the reverse.” Insofar as they understand beliefs about choice to express a particular political viewpoint (no choice = progay; choice = antigay), they use them for just that purpose. Some say homosexuality is chosen to express an antigay stance while others express a progay position by saying it’s not chosen.

Yet another possibility is that the choice-prejudice linkage might result from the causal influence of some third factor, such as heterosexuals’ personal contact with sexual minority people. In another survey I conducted in the early 1990s, I found that Whites (but, interestingly, not Blacks) harbored much less sexual prejudice and were much less likely to regard homosexuality as a choice if they personally knew one or more gay people. Presumably, those relationships reduced their prejudice and gave them an opportunity to learn their friend or relative’s ideas about the origins of her or his own sexual orientation.

In summary, we don’t yet know why beliefs about choice are correlated with sexual prejudice. One may cause the other, or perhaps both result from a third factor, such as personal contact with gay people. The data we have don’t support the notion that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality is inborn or otherwise not a choice will cause them to be less prejudiced. If anything, it appears that stating a particular belief about choice may be a way of justifying one’s preexisting antigay or progay attitudes.

This is essentially the position that Rev. Sheldon took when he dismissed Rev. Haggard’s private comments about the genetic roots of sexual orientation as something “they need to say.” What he didn’t note is that, just as much and perhaps more, he and his followers “need to say” that homosexuality is a choice.

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Dr. Hegarty’s article, ” ‘It’s Not a Choice, It’s the Way We’re Built’: Symbolic Beliefs About Sexual Orientation In the US and Britain,” was published in 2002 in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 12, pp. 153-166.

For further discussion of Revs. Sheldon and Haggard, see Timothy Kincaid’s posting on

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.