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Understanding the science behind being gay

Republican presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty speaks on NBC’s Meet the Press on July 10.

Associated Press

Republican presidential candidate and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty speaks on NBC’s Meet the Press on July 10.

An interview with a Republican presidential candidate took an unusual turn recently when NBC's David Gregory asked former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty about his views on what makes people gay.

For years, homosexuality and its origins have been a hot-button issue in the culture wars, but two factors brought the topic into the news again, prompting Gregory, the host of Meet the Press, to discuss it in a July 10 interview.

One was controversy over a pledge in Iowa that GOP candidates were asked to sign that affirmed their opposition to gay marriage. The other was comments by Pawlenty acknowledging that he liked the music of Lady Gaga — including her song Born This Way, which invokes the idea that homosexuality is innate, rather than a choice.

At PolitiFact, we decided to analyze two statements by Pawlenty made about the subject during that interview. One is that "there's no scientific conclusion that (being gay is) genetic." The other is whether scientists are "in dispute" about whether being gay is a choice.

In the first question, Pawlenty's word choice — "genetic" — was pivotal. The way he phrased it, he was pretty close to accurate. But if he'd said instead that "there's no scientific conclusion that (being gay) is biological," he would have been incorrect.

If a trait is "genetic," it means that it comes from the genes encoded in your DNA. Furthermore, arguing that something is genetic suggests that there's a single, or at least a well-defined, genetic source — what has sometimes been called a "gay gene."

By contrast, if a trait is "biological" in origin, it means that it can stem from any number of factors, such as hormone levels or how a fetus develops in the uterus.

Scientists we contacted said that being gay does appear to have a genetic component, but it's likely only one of many factors.

"Pawlenty is surely right that a genetic explanation has not been proven, and indeed genetics is likely a modest influence on sexual orientation," said Michael Bailey, a Northwestern University psychologist who has studied the issue.

But if being gay is not primarily determined by genes, it doesn't mean that its origin isn't biological.

Bailey and others find some of the most convincing evidence of the inherent nature of sexual orientation in long-term studies of the rare cases in which hormonally normal boys are reared as girls due to either surgical accidents or certain medical conditions that have left them less obviously male. He said there have been six published cases of hormonally normal males reassigned early as females, and invariably, their sexual desires, when they eventually emerged, were geared toward females. That's consistent with their prenatal gender, not with their rearing as girls.

The lesson of these studies, scientists say, is that sexual orientation — one's attractions and impulses — runs deep and is resistant to social and environmental factors.

Scientists freely acknowledge that the precise pathways for imparting sexual orientation are not yet understood. However, just because scientists don't know the specific mechanisms that cause sexual orientation doesn't mean that they aren't confident that they are biological in nature.

So scientists believe that being gay is not predominantly genetic, but that it is biological. We rated this statement by Pawlenty Mostly True.

As for the second statement — that scientists are "in dispute" about whether being gay is a choice — we'll start out by noting the difference between sexual orientation and sexual behavior.

Scientists don't doubt that it's possible for someone who's gay to choose, through sheer willpower, to ignore their impulses and abstain from homosexual activity. Both gay and straight people have been going celibate by choice since time immemorial. But scientists add that for such people, sexual impulses don't go away.

So, scientists argue, even if sexual behavior is a choice, sexual orientation is not.

Both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association, the two leading organizations for their professions, reject the idea that the driving factor in determining one's sexual orientation is personal choice. And officials say there's been little if any division within their members on this question.

We even found that a document published by the socially conservative Family Research Council, titled "The Top Ten Myths About Homosexuality," acknowledges that "homosexual attractions are clearly not a 'choice' in the vast majority of cases" — a view that mirrors a statement we received from the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights group.

So when Pawlenty said that scientists are "in dispute" about whether being gay is a choice or not, we found no evidence for that position. We rated his comment False.

A final caveat: What we've been discussing here applies primarily to gay men. There is actually no solid scientific consensus about the causes of female homosexuality, because the research has been much less extensive.

We struggled with the question of how we should factor in what one might call the lesbian exception. Neither Pawlenty nor Gregory specifically referred to either gay men or gay women in their comments. Ultimately, we concluded that the science of what causes women to be gay was too unformed to draw any solid conclusions, so we set it aside as a factor in our ratings.

'Meet the Press' transcript

Gregory: Let me ask you about social policy. You've notably said that you're a big fan of Lady Gaga, and even the song Born This Way. There's a lot of debate about a gay marriage pledge in Iowa. And related to that, I wonder, do you agree with some of those who are behind that, that being gay is a choice?

Pawlenty: Well, I have two teenage daughters who listen to Lady Gaga, so I'm subjected to it. And it has some good qualities to it. But as to, as to gay marriage, I'm in support of traditional marriage as between a man and a woman. I have not supported the issues of allowing gay couples to have the same benefits ... as traditional couples. And so this is an issue in Iowa and across the whole country. But I've stood in favor of traditional marriage and traditional relationships in that regard.

Gregory: Is being gay a choice?

Pawlenty: Well, the science in that regard is in dispute. I mean, the

scientists work on that and try to figure out if it's behavioral …

Gregory: Right.

Pawlenty: … or if it's partly genetic.

Gregory: What do you think?

Pawlenty: Well, I defer to the scientists in that regard.

Gregory: So you, you think it's not a choice.

Pawlenty: Well, there is no …

Gregory: That you are, as Lady Gaga says, you're born that way.

Pawlenty: There's no scientific conclusion that it's genetic. We don't know that. So we don't know to what extent, you know, it's behavioral, and that's something that's been debated by scientists for a long time. But as I understand the science, there's no current conclusion that it's genetic.

The statement "There's no scientific conclusion that (being gay) is genetic." Tim Pawlenty, July 10th, 2011

The ruling Scientists say genetics may play a role

in determining sexual orientation, but the current evidence suggests that it's not the dominant factor and may ultimately be shown to play just a modest role.

We rate this claim Mostly True.

The statement Says scientists are "in dispute"

over whether being gay is a choice. Tim Pawlenty,

July 10th, 2011

The ruling We found no evidence to support

Pawlenty's position. We rate this claim False.

Understanding the science behind being gay 07/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 23, 2011 4:30am]
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