Friday, January 27, 2012

Sexual Preference: Nature, Nurture Or Both?

Same person, different bodies?
To be or not to be... gay.

That is the question. And according to one of my friends, one whose opinion I not only value but usually agree with, it's a question whose answer -- along with everything that we are, beyond the physical -- is determined solely by our environment. In other words, just as the language(s) with which we are raised determines the one(s) we end up speaking, the environment in which we grow up determines the gender we end up wanting to sleep with.

It was a scintillating debate, during which the beer I was sipping affected the clarity of my dissenting opinion, but I couldn't believe the hardline stance my friend was taking, unwilling to accept any exceptions, much less an alternative point of view.

So the environment in which we are raised determines everything about us then?

"Everything."

I wonder what it was, then, that caused that strange, unexpected stirring that I acknowledged for the first time in the fourth grade. Why do some people first feel it on the playground, while for others, it sneaks up on them in their 20s and later? I don't have any solid answers, but I do believe that this might be where our environment plays a role -- it can factor into when we first notice an attraction to the same sex. Everyone is different, but for reasons that only include the environment in which we are brought up.

Consider this: From birth, two babies spend their first two years in the same room, receiving identical care and nurturing. At the end of two years, would they have the same personalities? Would they cry at the same times, and for the same reasons? Crawl, walk and talk at the same time? React to others in the same way? Have the same capacity for learning? The same inclination to excel, or fail, in academics? The same mood swings?

Of course not. We are all born with unique temperaments. But if what my friend says is correct, there is no such thing as temperament. Everything we are on the inside, not physiologically speaking, is decided after birth.

As huge of an influence as our environment does have on us, the way we process its stimuli and react to it is largely built-in. That's why, for no apparent reason, some kids find clowns terrifying, while others are amused by them. Why some girls are tomboys and others are hyper-feminine. Why some boys like sports and others prefer books. Why some people tend to be doom-and-gloomy while for others, the cup is usually half full. Children who are raised in the same home end up having common characteristics, and wildly divergent ones, too. We say it's our nature to be certain things. Our mothers, who were there from the beginning, would attest to that.

The argument for environment determining everything about our personalities simplifies what we are by suggesting that we are born blank slates. That's not only erroneous; it's dangerous, too. If we are where we live, then out goes the argument that people are born gay, straight, or as Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon suggested last year in The Advocate, bisexual. Or perhaps we are all born as one and "turn" into the others? Does that mean we can "turn" back, too, that the young lady who tried to pick me up last month at DJ Station actually had a chance with me?

Nixon recently made the controversial statement that she chose to be gay. While I won't even pretend to know what goes on inside of the mind of the woman who played my favorite SATC character, I interpret her comment not as being a declaration that our sexuality is something we choose. If it were, I think most of us (not me, but certainly most of my exes) would choose to desire the opposite sex because that would make life so much easier.

I think she was referring to what we do with our sexual preference, which is undoubtedly a choice. That said, I suspect she might be likely to take my friend's side of the nature vs. nurture debate in regards to sexuality. She said that she had never been attracted to a woman before she met her girlfriend. She also described her girlfriend as "a short man with boobs," which I think says a lot about her sexual preference. (I wonder if director Oren Moverman took this into consideration when he cast Nixon and Anne Heche as sisters in Rampart.)

For Nixon, being "gay" seems less about who she is than who she decided to be. Perhaps she'd simply had enough of men and was open to trying something new (without relinquishing her attraction to that which is masculine), which would have nothing to do with who she was born to be. But to suggest that for most gay people it is not who they are, at the core of their very identity, would be to do them a huge disservice while giving homophobes a lot of ammunition.

If you think of being gay, or even straight, as being not about our desires but strictly about the lives we lead, whom we sleep with, then it is inarguably a choice. But I prefer not to get too bogged down in politics, or semantics, or putting a label on myself and others. I'm gay. You are whatever you want me to call you. But there's no hiding from sexual preference. It follows you everywhere, regardless of whom you actually sleep with, or how old you are when you acknowledge it, or act on it.

In a nutshell, sexual preference, is not something we choose, nor is it something that is determined by the environment in which we are raised. That is not to deny the influence of environment on who we are. I think it has its place. I just don't buy that it has the final say, the only say, or any say at all in which gender we are attracted to.

We'll never be sure what, exactly, makes us what we are, until we discover a way to track a baby's thoughts from birth to the point where they can start expressing what they're thinking. Until we reach that scientific breakthrough, though, I think it's pretty safe to say that we don't spend those first weeks, during which we mostly eat, sleep and cry, as the same person, only in different bodies.

As for the idea that our environment makes us gay, or straight, peddling such a notion is tantamount to saying that since gay people learn to be attracted to people of the same sex, they can unlearn it, too. It's not like people haven't been trying to do just that for centuries -- via therapy, via religion, via Scientology -- and failing miserably.
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