Is Sexual Preference Immutable?

When Rick Santorum recently appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show, the host spent quite a bit of time during the interview trying to pin down Santorum on the question of whether sexual preference is an immutable characteristic.

Maddow: Can I ask you if you believe people choose to be gay?

Santorum: Ya know, I’ve sort of never answered that question. But I suspect there’s all sorts of reasons why people end up the way they are, and I’ll sort of leave it at that.

Maddow: But it matters in terms of whether or not—I mean, legally, in terms of the types of things that we’re describing here, in terms of whether or not the Congress should challenge the Supreme Court on these issues. I mean, if it’s an immutable characteristic. You don’t know if it’s an immutable?

Santorum: I don’t know. [Later in the interview] There are people who are alive today who identified themselves as gay and lesbian and who no longer are. That’s true. I do know—I’ve met people in that case. So, I guess maybe in that case, may be they did.

So is sexual preference, whether heterosexual or homosexual, theoretically immutable, or is it subject to change?

To determine this, we might start with the American Psychological Association, whose stated position, according to their website, is that “homosexuality is an immutable characteristic.”  In support of their position, the APA submitted amicus briefs to the Supreme Court for the recent Obergefell case as well as the 1995 Romer case. In Justice Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion, he accepts the immutability of sexual preference and references the APA’s amicus brief. But in neither of the amicus briefs does the APA actually claim immutability. The Romer brief reports that sexual orientation is “resistant to change,” while the Obergefell brief says “highly resistant to change.” The Romer brief states: “The research and clinical experience of amici’s members indicates that, once established, sexual orientation is resistant to change. Although there are some reports of therapy leading to changed sexual orientation, there is little evidence that treatment actually changes sexual attractions, as opposed to reducing or eliminating same-sex sexual behavior.” (emphasis in original)

In the Obergefell brief, the APA includes survey data on how much choice homosexual persons feel that they have. The brief says, “In a U.S. national probability (i.e., ‘representative’) sample of 662 self-identified lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults, only 5 percent of gay men and 16 percent of lesbians reported feeling they had ‘a fair amount’ or ‘a great deal’ of choice about their sexual orientation.”

The APA briefs, far from ending the discussion of mutablity, prompt a whole host of further questions. First, if sexual preference is immutable, as the APA claims on their website, why does their amicus brief say “highly resistant to change” rather than immutable? Why does the word “immutable” not appear in their brief?

Second, how do we know in any individual case exactly when a “resistant to change” sexual orientation is established? Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest of the Arlington Diocese who has worked with the Courage organization, wrote several years ago about the movement in high schools to label young kids as one thing or another, perhaps at a time when they are merely confused about what they are and how they feel. Fr. Scalia writes, “And once the label is assigned, it is awfully hard to remove. It lasts past high school and leaves the adolescent at the mercy of our culture’s extremes.”

Third, what about the 5 percent to 16 percent of self-identified homosexuals who think they are able to make a choice about their preference. Are they right or are they wrong?

Fourth, even if we could determine for an individual person exactly when their sexual orientation is established, how would we know what that sexual orientation is? The problem here is that sexual preference does not appear to be binary. There seem to be people who are bisexual (or perhaps like to use the term pansexual or polysexual).

Perhaps you’ve heard of all the different gender options on Facebook. I’d like to report how many gender options there are, but apparently no one actually knows. On February 12, 2014, ABC News reported that Facebook was offering 58 gender options. On the same day, Slate reported that Facebook was offering 56 gender options.  Two days later, DailyBeast reported on Facebook’s 51 gender options. In June of 2014, the Telegraph in the UK reported on Facebook’s 71 gender options.

Gender and sexual preference are not exactly the same thing, but they have something to do with each other; after all, the combination of gender and sexual preference determine whether someone is heterosexual or homosexual or something else.

Given roughly six-dozen gender possibilities, people may be reasonably confused about what their own gender is, and what their sexual preference is. The APA states in its Obergefell brief that sexual orientation is a continuum from entirely heterosexual on the one end to entirely homosexual on the other. How does a particular person know with certainty where they fall on this continuum? Someone could believe herself to be homosexual, and then find out she is bisexual.

For example, the actress Anne Heche was famously in a homosexual relationship with Ellen DeGeneres for three years. Then she was married to a man from 2001 to 2009, and now she is involved with another man, though not married. In an interview with Barbara Walters in 2001 she said,   “You fall in love with a person, not a sex.” So where on the continuum is the sexual orientation of Anne Heche? I don’t know. And she probably doesn’t know either. But if we had to choose one word to describe Anne Heche, “mutable” would be a good choice.

We might say that since Anne Heche has been with some men and some women, she’s bisexual, so she doesn’t count. It might be said that bisexuals can change, but those who are truly homosexual or heterosexual cannot change. But how can we tell who is bisexual and who is really, truly homosexual or heterosexual? This could only be known retroactively, after the end of their life. Only then, if they were never attracted to someone of a different sex, could we definitively say what they were.

But this turns the immutability argument into a tautology. “We know that his sexual preference could never change because it never changed.” But if you say that, you could posit immutability about any characteristic that lasted until death. For example, is belonging to the Catholic Church a choice or an immutable characteristic? We might say that it’s mutable because some people leave the Church. But we could also posit that those people were never really Catholic to begin with. We could say that for those who are really Catholic their Faith will never change. And we know this is true because some people keep their faith until their death. But, in both the case of sexual preference and Faith, this only describes what did happen not what could have happened.

Which leads us to some final questions for the APA. Is the essence of sexual preference internal feelings or external acts? If you are attracted to some people of the same sex, but never act on that, are you a homosexual? Are you a homosexual merely by the act of self-identification, or by something else? And conversely, what if you are generally attracted to the opposite sex, but have had a few same-sex encounters? What exactly does that make you? In past times, sexuality was thought to be something you do, not something you are. How do we know that the modern idea that you are your sexual preference is not merely some type of cultural bias? Even the APA’s “resistant to change” statement can only apply to people in modern cultures who have been studied, not to all cultures in all times.

But here’s the real rub. The immutability, or lack thereof, of sexual preference is legally irrelevant. In the Obergefell case, Justice Kennedy lays out a number of arguments for why states must recognize gay marriages. Kennedy accepts immutability (whatever it means) in his opinion, but his arguments in no way hinge on it. His arguments hinge on dignity and self-described identity, not immutability. As Anne Heche wisely says, “You fall in love with a person, not a sex.” Whether same sex couples could theoretically have chosen some other relationship than they did makes no difference to the fact of the specific relationship that they did choose. And it is those specific relationships that Kennedy argues the state must validate.

According to APA data, approximately 5 percent of homosexual men say they have made a choice about their sexual preference. If James Obergefell had been one of those 5 percent, would that have changed Justice Kennedy’s philosophical musings about marriage? As Brandon Ambrosino—who maintains that his homosexuality is a choice—wrote last year in The New Republic, “I see no reason to believe that the only sexualities worth protecting are the ones over which one has no control.” There’s no reason to believe Justice Kennedy would have cared either.

So, some people (like Anne Heche and Brandon Ambrosino) seem to be able to choose a sexual preference, and perhaps there are other people who can’t, but there’s no real way of knowing for any particular person what choices are possible and what choices are not possible. We can only know the choices they do make, not the choices they could have made. And if we want to stand with the APA on the science, the most we can say generally about sexual preference is that it is “highly resistant to change.”

On the other hand, who really knows?

So when Rick Santorum said “I don’t know,” he gave a very reasonable answer.

Kevin Clark

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Kevin Clark is a graduate of Christendom College and is currently editor of Seton Magazine. His writings have also appeared in Reflections, The Teaching Home, Hereditas, The Annals of Ste. Anne de Beaupre, and Catholic Men’s Quarterly. His fictional works include Will of God; Numbers Up; and Could You Not Watch? and other stories.

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