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Published: 30 October 2013

LGB: Born this way?

New research finds evidence that the 'born this way' theory of sexuality may not be the preserve of pro-equality attitudes.

Over the last few decades, the general trend in Western societies toward greater acceptance and equality for LGB (lesbian, gay and bisexual) groups has gone hand-in-hand with increased adherence to the biological theory of sexuality (which supposes that people are born with a propensity for sexual attraction to a particular gender). The biological theory is now endorsed by most LGB people and those with kindly attitudes towards them.

These two trends have fuelled the belief that biological theory is inherently 'pro-gay'. After all, as Lady Gaga's millions of fans would no doubt agree, it is even more difficult to justify condemning people for their sexuality if they are born this way than it would be if their homosexuality were a conscious choice.

But what if the biological theory of sexuality does not belong exclusively to the unprejudiced viewpoint? Recent research - undertaken by Professor Juan Falomir from the University of Geneva in collaboration with Dr Peter Hegarty (Head of the University of Surrey School of Psychology) - suggests that this could be the case.

What if the biological theory of sexuality does not belong exclusively to the unprejudiced viewpoint?

The research, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, carried out four separate studies in Switzerland to examine whether heterosexual men with a tendency to feel threatened by homosexuality would react against evidence of increasing public support for LGB equality by increasing their endorsement of the biological theory of sexuality.

This painstaking four-stage approach was necessary to identify men who would be most likely to be threatened without asking the men about threat directly. The results showed that heterosexual men with negative attitudes towards LGB people were more likely to endorse the biological theory of sexuality when presented with evidence suggesting overwhelming public support for equality than were similar men presented with evidence of clear public opposition.

Once this had been achieved, it was possible to test whether adherence to the biological theory was more prevalent when the distinctions between straight and LGB groups were artificially 'turned up' (by emphasising multicultural-based theories of difference) or down (by emphasising equality and similarity). Greater endorsement of the biological theory was only observed when the volume was turned down, suggesting that some heterosexual men endorse the theory to emphasise their distinct differences from gay men.

" This is the first experimental evidence of a broadly anti-gay motive leading to greater belief in the biological theory.”

Dr Peter Hegarty

These results suggest that people will maintain their belief in differences between themselves and others of whom they strongly disapprove even when a basis for that perceived distinction is threatened by equality, and that they may base their belief on the idea of basic, biological, genetic difference.

Dr Hegarty, whose teaching on Surrey's undergraduate BSc Psychology programme examines this intriguing area, commented: “Most people think the biological theory of sexuality is a broadly pro-gay theory, because it refutes the theory that people ‘choose to be gay’. This is the first experimental evidence of a broadly anti-gay motive leading to greater belief in the biological theory.”

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