Can Straight People Change?

by Jim D. Maynard, MA, ABD

The Religious Right launched a major media assault on gay and lesbian civil rights with newspaper and TV ads arguing that homosexuality is a choice and that gays and lesbians can, and should, "change" (i.e., become heterosexual through reparative therapy or religious conversion). In response, liberal advocates for gay and lesbian civil rights argue that homosexuality, or sexual orientation in general, is not a choice and that gays and lesbians should have civil rights protections because they are born gay or lesbian and cannot change their sexual orientation. Both of these arguments are misleading and oversimplify scientific facts and research on sexual orientation.

As a sociologist, I am very leery of any theory of biological determinism to explain human behavior. The argument that human sexuality is biologically determined is contrary to social scientific research which suggests that sexuality is largely socially constructed. It ignores not only the sociological evidence against an innate unchangeable sexuality, but also the radical insight of Freud, that humans are not born "heterosexual" or "homosexual," that that the development of a an exclusive "heterosexuality" requires the repression of homosexual desire (and vis versa). Even Kinsey, the much misunderstood and misquoted sex researcher, rejected the concept of an innate sexual orientation, preferring to categorize people based on their sexual behaviors, and used a continuum from exclusive homosexual to exclusive heterosexuality to map human sexual behavior. Kinsey had to use this continuum because human sexual behavior did not fall into exclusive heterosexuality and homosexuality categories as the innate theory of sexual orientation suggested. Kinsey never argued that heterosexuals and homosexuals were two separate innate sexual orientations. Like Freud, he believed that all human beings were potentially bisexual.

As Foucault and other social researchers have demonstrated, there have not always been "homosexual" and "heterosexual" people; these labels were created by western European sexologists to control and limit sexuality to one of two types, with one being superior to the other. Foucault links the categorizing of "homosexuals" and other deviants to a broader structure of knowledge and power, a form of social control designed to separate the "normal" (heterosexual) from the "abnormal" (homosexual). Jonathan Katz looks at the other side of this question in his book The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995), which demonstrates that heterosexuality, like all human sexuality, derives not from immutable nature but from different historical, cultural methods of organizing the sexes and sexual desire. Heterosexuality, like homosexuality, is a social construction specific to certain cultures and historical circumstances.

Scientific research suggests that "sexual orientation" is a very complex phenomenon with many factors (biological, psychological and sociological) contributing to its development. No single factor can explain why people are homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual, and there may be different determinant factors for different people. As Kinsey demonstrated, sexual orientation is best viewed not as distinct categories, but as a continuum from exclusively heterosexual desires and behavior to exclusively homosexual desires and behaviors. Many people fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum in their desires or behavior, therefore, whether or not people can change their sexual orientation or sexual identity would depend upon where there were on that continuum. Kinsey's research revealed that while only about 8 percent of the male population in his sample engaged in exclusively homosexual behavior, almost half of the male population had some same-sex experiences or desires. More recent research confirms the basic finding that while only a small percentage of the population has exclusively homosexual experiences, or identifies as "gay" or "lesbian," many "straight" people have same-sex desires or experiences.

What about freedom of choice? Why do many in the mainstream gay movement argue that it is impossible to choose to be gay or lesbian? Many radical feminists argue that women can choose to be lesbian; that identifying as a lesbian is a social and political choice available to women to liberate themselves from patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality. The early radical gay liberationists argued that gay liberation requires the sexual liberation of everyone from the socially constructed hetero/homo dichotomy. They believed that everyone could be "gay." They rejected the scientific claim that homosexuality was a biological or psychological pathology or that same-sex desire was even "abnormal." The gay rights movement created a modern "gay" identity. There have not always been "gay" people, so it is erroneous to claim that people are "born" gay. Bisexuals are also left out of the "sexual orientation is not a choice" paradigm, since they can choose their sexual identity. If we base gay/lesbian rights on the argument that it is not a choice, then we exclude bisexuals and deny their right to choose.

Mainstream gay/lesbian organizations have embraced questionable biological explanations of homosexuality (from the "gay gene" to the size of the hypothalamus) as a political tool to support gay and lesbian civil rights. In doing so, they are accepting the implicit premise that political equality for lesbians and gay men depends on whether being gay or lesbian is a choice or is biologically innate, while ignoring the question of whether heterosexuality is innate and challenging the heterosexist assumption that heterosexuality is preferable to homosexuality, unless the later is innate and immutable. It also assumes that "scientific" opinion is free from cultural and political bias, which it is not. Science has never been and cannot be "value-neutral." Freud, Kinsey, the early sexual reformers, as well as the current scientific researchers pursuing the Holy Grail of the "gay gene", are all directed by their personal moral and political values and beliefs. By accepting these terms for the political debates over gay/lesbian rights, we become vulnerable to the "ex-gay" groups who argue that gays and lesbians can change. The purpose of the "ex-gay" ad campaign ( and the public focus on whether gays can change) is to undermine the central claim of the gay/lesbian rights movement that people are born gay or lesbian and that it is not a choice since no one can change their sexual orientation. The religious right is exploiting an opportunity handed to them by the misguided strategy of the liberal/mainstream gay movement.

While it is necessary to respond to the exaggerated claims of the "ex-gay" movement, it is not necessary to embrace their terms for the debate. We do not have to argue over whether or not "ex-gays" have really changed from gay to straight. Even if a few individuals are able to change their sexual orientation, or at least their sexual behavior and identity, it does not follow that everyone can or should change. We should focus the political debate on the freedom of people to be gay, lesbian or bisexual regardless of how or why they arrive at their sexual identity, not wasting time on the futile "nature vs. nurture" debate; it is a false and useless debate.

We need to develop a political strategy that does not assert that sexual orientation is innate and impossible to change. This argument is not supported by social or biological scientific evidence, and diverts attention away from the crucial political and moral questions of sexual justice to debates over the etiology of sexual orientation. We need to make a strong political argument for gay, lesbian and bisexual equal rights that is not based on questionable scientific research.

Our right to be gay or lesbian or bisexual is the right to be free from religious and government interference in our private lives, to make our choices about who we have sex with and who we want to have intimate relationships with (as long as they are consenting adults). Let's not let those opposed to sexual equality take away our right to choose. To be gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight involves making a series of choices. Those choices should be a right like any other basic human right, and not dependent upon scientific opinion about how and why a person arrives at their sexual identity. Let's defend the freedom to choose our sexual identity and quit hiding behind questionable scientific dogma.

Suggested reading:

Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1980)
Jonathan Katz, The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995)
Edward Stein, The Mismeasure of Desire (1999)
Vera Whisman, Queer by Choice (1996)
Vernon A. Rosario (Ed.), Science and Homosexualities (1997)
Morris B. Kaplan, Sexual Justice (1997)
Edward Stein, Forms of Desire (1990)

Jim Maynard, MA and ABD (Sociology) is co-chair of Memphis Lesbian & Gay Coalition for Justice. He can be contacted at