Born this way?

Sunday 21 October, 9.30am until 10.15am, Frobisher Auditorium 2

When former Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon suggested in an interview that she had chosen to be a lesbian, it generated an outcry from many gay-rights campaigners. For many, the idea that being gay is not a choice is key to the fight for equal rights. Instances of homosexual behaviour in animals are used as evidence of the naturalness of being gay. Differences in brain structure between gays and straights are employed to further reinforce the idea that sexuality is innate. While evidence of a gay gene is highly contested, Mayor Boris Johnson’s decision to ban adverts for gay-conversion therapy on London buses seemed to confirm a mainstream view that it was unacceptable to treat sexuality as a lifestyle choice which could be altered.

Yet early gay-rights activists used to rail against the idea of homosexuality being a sickness in need of a cure, precisely on the basis that it was a choice made by rational adults in a free society.  In this view, radical campaigners’ claim that some are simply ‘born this way’ is an equally conservative argument, expressing a hostility towards experimentation and a narrow view of human relationships. Many have scoffed at Chris Birch’s claims in a BBC documentary I Woke Up Gay that a stroke turned him from engaged rugby player to flamboyant gay hairdresser, but Nixon’s self-proclaimed ‘choice’ to make a similar change provoked equal amounts of discomfort. An ever-growing list of possible sexualities seems to render the more popularly-understood category of ‘LGBT’ increasingly archaic, with debates over transgenderism and transsexuality often blurring the lines and confusing the mainstream discussion over what is natural and what is chosen.

So what happened to the idea of choice in sexuality? Can gay rights only be secure if homosexuality is proven to be innate? Is ‘Born This Way’ simply a modern spin on the old slogan ‘I Am What I Am’, or does it contradict the libertarian idea of self-creation? Can sexuality be found in the brain, or do we have to look beyond our heads for the answer?

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Dr Ceri Parsons
senior lecturer in psychology, Staffordshire University; research interests include gender identity and sexuality

Dr Qazi Rahman
lecturer in psychological sciences and director of Psychology Programmes, Queen Mary University; co-director, Centre for Mind in Society; co-author, Born Gay

Wes Streeting
head of education, Stonewall; former president, NUS

Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Produced by
Craig Fairnington associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer
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