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Why Do People Believe Gender And Sexual Orientation Are Choices?

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Why Do People Believe Gender And Sexual Orientation Are Choices?

What factors determine gender and sexual orientation?

Hi Duana,

I know this kind of advice isn’t your usual forte, but I’m coming up pretty short and thought I’d give it a shot. From my earliest recollection, I can remember identifying as male. People today struggle with the idea that gender identity could possibly be something nature could get wrong, but, being that I’ve experienced this first hand, I’m prone to say that anything is possible.

I was born biologically female and from my earliest recollection, absolutely everything felt wrong. It’s difficult to imagine living a world as the wrong gender when your gender is something you’ve always inherently had, but try to. In our world, it influences absolutely everything, and the most troubling part is that the very essence of this mysterious problem still evades a great majority of our modern world today.

I don’t remember a time in my life where I woke up and made the decision, “I think I’d like to be male,” although that certainly would have made my life a lot easier. Choices are easy because, once made, they give us control to some degree.

My issue is I feel I never made a choice. I never woke up and decidedly said, “I’m going to be male,” I just was. I sometimes wish such a weighty matter like this could have indeed been a decision I made, because then I could decide out of it. I could be what I’ve always longed to be, normal, just like all the other men and women around me. I could blend in the way they do. I could pursue my dreams in peace and marry who I want to marry without dragging the entire family into a moral dilemma that, at its heart, is really biological.

From the time I was in the first grade my peers would joke and come up to me all throughout the day, every day, and ask me if I was a boy or a girl. I couldn’t go to the bathroom most days because the bathrooms were gender segregated and although I felt I should go to the boy’s restroom the teachers wouldn’t allow it and the girl’s wouldn’t allow me to go into the girl’s restroom. The lines to class were also gender segregated and I’d get pushed into the middle of those almost daily. Elementary school and life in general up until I was 18 years old and approved for hormone replacement therapy was a nightmare.

It hurts me that people have such a hard time understanding this. I feel that in my life I’ve had to try to explain myself over and over again and am so tired of doing it. Today, I’ve been on testosterone for over 4 years and the changes are very apparent.

I no longer have to explain myself to my peers or endure strange looks from anonymous people but I do still have a battle raging within me. I worry that I’m becoming invisible. I’ve lived such a great majority of my life longing to be “normal”, to be able to blend in and live a fairly normal life. Over the past four years, I can’t even begin to explain to you the peace and freedom I’ve gained from truly becoming accepted by those around me as the man I’ve always been. For the first time in my life I’ve begun to truly feel complete as a person.

However, there are still those few people who knew me before I transitioned and believe they have some insider’s perspective into my life, and it bothers me. I spoke with a fellow tonight that knew me prior to my transition. He tried to point out that he felt my decision to go through with hormone replacement therapy had been a moral decision that was wrong before God and that it was based on nurture rather than nature, that it was a psychological issue at best and that I should have sought counseling rather than medical treatment.

This is nothing I haven’t heard before. Still, it hurts me. Why do people seriously think I would willingly put myself in such a hard position? If they don’t think I did it willingly, why do they treat me as though I had a choice in the matter? I often find myself asking them when they “chose” to be male or female, and their answer is always frustrating to me because they say, “never” and I say, “there you go” yet, they don’t accept my answer. Surely, these people know and believe that there are people born without limbs, with extra fingers and toes, without eyesight, without hearing, without vital organs. Why then, is it such a stretch to believe that people might be born with the wrong set of genitalia? There are inter-sexed conditions, why don’t they mention those? Did the person with both sets of genitalia choose to be born thus? What about the woman with testes that don’t make testosterone? What gender is she, or, from a biological standpoint, he? It’s not fair to judge a whole group of people based on such a black and white ideal of humanity. Nothing, especially concerning the complexities and individualities of the human race, is so black and white. So why do they do it?

What do I need to do, as a person, to get through to these people? Can these people be gotten through to? I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m tired of living in a world that is so closed-minded and hurtful about issues that are such a central part of who I am. I wish I knew what I could do to change it, to influence people to see things like this in perspective. I want to make a difference.

Mike

 

Dear Mike, that, sir, is the most complete and poignant account of transgender identity I have ever read…”a moral dilemma that, at its heart, is really biological.” Exactly. I feel awful that you were harassed so continually, for so many years, including your most tender years. Oh, what that must do.

You have asked why people assume your gender orientation,but not theirs, is a choice.  Frankly, I don’t know of much research on gender orientation per se, but I think it’s probably very similar to why many persist in believing sexual orientation is a choice.  The answer is very simple, and very complex.

The simple answer is based in the way the brain is set up.  People want the world to make sense and to support their own sense of self; instead of beginning as blank slates ready to receive accurate information, we all begin with a belief, and we only look for evidence that confirms that belief.  This isn’t something that smarter or better-educated people are immune to; it’s core to human thinking.  To the extent our beliefs help us feel safe, we’re even more motivated to see the world through preconceived, self-favoring lenses.

So, if believing that gender orientation is a choice helps people feel secure about their own orientation—ie, “I’m the right way, and you’re choosing to offend me by being different”—then that’s probably the way they’re going to lean.

The complex answer is, we don’t really know why folks specifically think gender orientation is a choice.  I mean, why wouldn’t people just as readily leap to the conclusion that you were born with your orientation?  There are, after all, cultures where that’s true.  Some Native American tribes have considered that there’s a third gender—a blend of the masculine and the feminine—, for instance, and that this is not a choice but inborn.  The choice to think of orientation as a choice is, ironically, a choice.

Even the scientific community started by examining sexual orientation from an explain-the-“problem”-through-parenting perspective.  (Again, I know your question is a gender orientation query, not sexual orientation question, but I have to go with what I have.)  Specifically, a large study conducted in the 1970s or early 1980s examined whether the then-prevalent idea was true that overbearing mothering and absent or distant fathering caused boys to be gay.  Nope.  Contrary to expectations, that study showed that boys, regardless of orientation, were just as likely or unlikely to have that (or any other) kind of upbringing.  More recently, studies have examined whether gay parents who adopt children are more likely to produce a same-sex orientation in their kids.  Again: No.  Adopted children are equally likely to have any given orientation regardless of the adoptive parents’ orientations.  And by the way, if parenting can cause orientation, shouldn’t all the kids born to and raised by straight parents be…straight?

Then, scientists began examining whether there were biological determinants of orientation—and numerous lines of evidence gave a big green light.  For instance, manipulating a single gene in fruit flies causes same-sex sexual behavior for life.  Depriving or giving newborn rats testosterone (equivalent of hormonal changes in a third-trimester human fetus) changes their sexual behavior for life, too.  In human beings, a region of the hypothalamus is larger in men of one orientation than the other.  And the odds of a boy being gay increase by about a third with each male birth; literally, the more boys Mom has, the greater the chances the next boy will be gay, possibly because her body makes antibodies to proteins carried on each boy’s Y crhomosome.  (But apparently only if he’s right-handed.  Seriously.)

 

Upshot? Sexual orientation, and gender orientation, is a complex phenomenon caused by many things, some or even many of which scientists don’t know yet.  But the major point is this: Science has found precisely zero things that change a person’s orientation once they’re born.  Zero.  The brain appears to be set up when we are born for the orientation we will have, and I am guessing this extends equally to gender orientation.  Parenting, education, life experiences, therapies to alter a person’s orientation, etc. all make NO impact on a person’s orientation.  These things sometimes cause people to hide.  But not to change.  As I recently saw on Facebook: “I’ve already participated in gay-conversion-therapy. It’s called junior high school in Texas. If that didn’t beat the gay out of me, nothing will.”

 

Back to your questions: “What do I need to do, as a person, to get through to these people? Can these people be gotten through to?”

You’re already doing it; you wrote this amazing, honest letter.  Personal stories can be a catalyst to change others’ views.  But it’s not just what you need to do, it’s what everyone reading this needs to do: Continue spreading the word about the scientific evidence as well.  100% of science comes down on the side of forces beyond your control –genetics, hormones, the pre-birth environment.  O% comes down on the side of choice.  The #1 candidate to behave in a bigoted way towards you is someone who is ignorant of the facts, and who is thus afraid and threatened by those who differ.  There is a cure for ignorance: education.

So yes, we approach this issue, like all others, from a beliefs-first standpoint.  Yes, beliefs are tough to change.  But science shows that beliefs can change when there is enough evidence, enough of the time.  Your own observation probably shows that in just one generation, there has been an enormous shift in public perception towards orientation as a fact of life; just look at marriage equality laws spreading throughout much of the world and now increasingly in the US as well.

 

Ultimately, Lady Gaga was right: Baby, you were born this way.  You were.  You know it.  It’s time the rest of the world understood.  I join you in your struggle; I applaud your strength and the peace you’re finding now.  And I thank you for sharing your powerful letter.

Cheers,

Duana

Photo By:Jackie Green Becomes First Transgender To Enter Miss England Semi-Final; Will She Create History By Winning The Beauty Pageant? [PHOTOS] from mystockphoto.com

The author wishes to thank “Mike” for sharing his entire letter, word-for-word, with us today.  As with all other letters published here, his name has been changed prior to publication.  Unlike most other LoveScience letters, Mike’s was not edited; these are his words, exactly.

For those of you wishing to consult my sources, you can read Dr. Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain for explanations of basic human beliefs-first thinking; David G. Myers’ Social Psychology for information on thinking that preserves one’s sense of safety (just-world phenomenon; self-serving bias); and any introductory psychology textbook (I used Myers’ Exploring Psychology 9th Edition) for all of this information on the origins of sexual orientation.  I teach about this information every semester.  It is not controversial within the scientific community.  To the extent that it’s controversial outside of it, that is borne of lack of information.  Let’s move to change that.

It seems to take several generations for these beliefs to change and understanding to occur. In short, ignorant becoming educated. Keep fighting the fight Mike! It may seem very much uphill, and maybe it is, but you are making a difference with every step you take.

 

Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do, coming in January, 2015. She also contributes at Psychology Today and teaches psychology at Austin-area universities. Get a free chapter of Love Factually!

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