What makes someone gay and can people change orientation?

In 2010, I submitted a summary of sexual orientation research to Uganda’s Independent. They published it in their Uganda Talks section. In light of the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill and recent discussions on this blog, I am reprinting it here. There isn’t much that I would change about it three years later but I will comment at the end of the post.

At Uganda Talks we welcome guest blogs from our readers. Today, Professor Warren Throckmorton writes about the anti-homosexuality bill:
Defending the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Hon. David Bahati told the BBC, “It’s [homosexuality] not an inborn orientation, it’s a behaviour learnt – and it can be unlearnt.” Is this true?
Hon. Bahati’s assertion is not consistent with current research on sexuality. While much is being learned about sexuality, the reasons why sexual attractions take the direction they do for any given person are not well known. There are many theories but no clear answers. I think this is a surprising fact for many people.
At the outset, we must be clear about what we mean when we discuss homosexuality. For instance, homosexuality and pedophilia are not the same. As with straight adults, adult homosexuals prefer other adults. In addition, we also need to make a distinction between attractions and behavior. What draws our attention and attraction is almost certainly not chosen. Behavior, on the other hand, is much more subject to reflection and choice. People may have various kinds of physical desires but for reasons of conscience decide not to act on them. In the case of homosexuality, some believe adult intimacy with someone of the same gender is right or morally neutral. In any case, as everyone knows, it is difficult to avoid acting on sexual desires, even when one’s religious views forbid such behavior.
Having strong religious views is not reason to overlook research and mislead citizens about the nature of homosexuality and sexual orientation in general. The Anti-Homosexuality Bill states in the opening section:
This legislation further recognizes the fact that same sex attraction is not an innate and immutable characteristic.
However, we do not know this to be the case. Most researchers around the world agree that there is no consensus about the causes of any given person’s sexual orientation. While it seems unlikely that there is one biological or genetic cause for all homosexuals, there are data which suggest that genetic and hormonal factors during pre-natal development have some impact on our desires, in different ways for different people.
On the other hand, there is very little evidence for the role of parenting on the direction of one’s sexual attractions. A common theory is that homosexuals are not well bonded with the parent of the same-sex and that heterosexuals have strong bonds with their same-sex parents. However, think about this: Many straight people have absent or hostile same-sex parents and turn out to be completely heterosexual. Many gays have had wonderful, loving relationships with both parents and yet begin to experience same-sex attractions in their early teens or before. The research on the subject does not lend strong support for parenting factors as primary causes for sexual orientation.
Another commonly held view is that sexual abuse or recruitment makes people gay. This cannot be true for most homosexuals since most homosexuals have not had these experiences. Some same-sex attracted people recall such experiences but so too do many heterosexuals. A recent study in the United States found that some who were sexually abused had a somewhat greater likelihood of trying homosexual behavior but that there was no relationship statistically between sexual abuse and exclusive homosexual orientation. Some people might experiment, but most often they seek heterosexual partners without coercion or therapy. I need to point out however, that the majority of people who were sexually abused did not later try homosexual behavior nor were they likely to become homosexual.
Thus, the matter of cause is a scientific mystery. However, we do know that once established sexual orientation seems to be quite durable. Several studies have found brain differences between homosexual and heterosexual people. Even Christian oriented programs designed to change sexual orientation have not been very successful. A recent study of participants in an Exodus International (the largest Christian ministry aimed toward homosexuality) found a small group of people who expressed change. Just over 20% of subjects remaining in the study reported some degree of movement from being attracted to the same sex toward developing attractions to the opposite sex, but most did not. Even among those who said they developed heterosexual attractions, most continued to struggle with homosexual desire.
Furthermore, in a study I conducted recently, only 3 out of 107 primarily same-sex attracted heterosexually married males described lifetime shifts from homosexual to heterosexual attractions. It does not seem scientifically reasonable to mandate state coerced therapy when the success among those who freely choose counseling or ministry assistance is so low. All groups who conduct such counseling stress that an absence of coercion and mandate is necessary for any benefit.
Regarding the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, all concerned, including Uganda’s homosexual advocates, agree that law should protect children. However, the bill seeks to legislate an end to homosexuality based on the faulty premises that homosexuality is about recruitment and that it is learned and easily unlearned. Research provides no support for these notions. In light of this, President Museveni’s call to slow down and discuss the issues with those who oppose the bill seems especially wise.
Warren Throckmorton, PhD is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, United States. His specialty is counseling responses with sexual identity concerns and can be reached via his website at www.wthrockmorton.com
N.B. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Independent Publications Ltd.

I can add that my study eventually included over 260 participants with no increase in number of people who claim extreme change. It just doesn’t happen very often. I wish I would have emphasized more the brain differences which have been reported.  Whatever causal factors turn out to important, it is well established that sexual attractions are not chosen.
From my point of view, there is no compelling state interest in criminalizing homosexual behavior. The Ugandan lawmakers claim that gays recruit children, but have never provided evidence to that effect. Furthermore, all gay groups in Uganda vocally support the laws which already criminalize what is termed “defilement” of children.
See also:
Sexual identity: Our bodies tell us who we are.
SPLC Myth #4: Homosexuals don’t live nearly as long as heterosexuals
NARTH article asking why homosexuality isn’t a disorder
Mental Health Status and Homosexuality