What Causes Homosexuality? Who Cares?

03/09/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

"[A lot] of people who go into prison go into prison straight -- and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question."

Obviously, Dr. Ben Carson, who recently announced he is considering a run for the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nomination, did, indeed, consider this question between the relationship of prison incarceration and homosexuality long before his recent on-air interview with CNN's Chris Cuomo. Carson asserted that homosexuality is a choice, and therefore, people can resist attractions toward people of one's own sex.

In his response on CNN, we witnessed Carson's complete misunderstanding between situational behavior and sexual identity. One may or may not have romantic, emotional and sexual desires for members of the same sex going into or coming out of prison, but in single-sex institutions such as prisons and religious orders, same-sex partners are one's only option.

Basically, Carson is attempting to pull us back into the oh-so-tired nature versus nurture debate on causation of homosexuality. Researchers have conducted numerous scientific studies, some still currently underway, to "discover" the true genesis of same-sex attractions. Researchers have spent literally millions of dollars in their attempts to unlock the answer to the perennial question: "What causes homosexuality?" though we virtually never ask the question: "What causes heterosexuality?" (I actually would rather researchers investigate the question: "What causes heterosexism?" for then we might discover a cure for this disorder.)

Without getting myself mired in the nature versus nurture debate, for the jury is still out (no pun intended) on this question, let us presume for the sake of argument that sexuality is a choice. If this is the case, people should be accorded their rights and protections from discrimination as are those who choose their religious (or non-religious) affiliations and expressions. Religion is, in fact, a choice as emphasized in a Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life (2011) study, which found that approximately 50 percent of U.S.-Americans change religious affiliation at least once during their lives. The First Amendment guarantees constitutional protections on the basis of religious affiliation and expression.

On the other side of the coin, if sexuality is genetically predetermined, people should be accorded rights and protections from discrimination, as are other minorities legally protected.

To remain viable in a national election, political candidates must craft a diversity of thought and a diversity of policies to give people something to vote for, something to embrace, something that makes peoples' lives better, rather than rehashing the policies of the past. They must let go of their nostalgia for the policies of "the good ol' days" of Ronald Reagan (which were not, in fact, good at all) and enter the current political era.

The late Dr. Derrick Bell of New York University Law School forwarded the theory of "interest convergence," meaning that white people will support racial justice only when they understand and see that there is something in it for them, when there is a "convergence" between the interests of white people and racial justice. Bell asserted that the Supreme Court ended the longstanding policy in 1954 of "separate but equal" in Brown v. Board of Education because it presented to the world, and in particular, to the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war, a United States that supported civil and human rights.

So, what interests do the Republican Party specifically, and everyone more generally, have in at least toning down, if not working to dismantle, the heterosexism that saturates many segments of the GOP and larger society?

I define "heterosexism" as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on heterosexuals. It includes the institutionalization of a heterosexual norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be heterosexual thereby privileging heterosexuals and heterosexuality, and excluding the needs, concerns, cultures and life experiences of people who do not define as heterosexual or gender normative. In truth, heterosexism is pervasive throughout the society, and each of us, irrespective of sexual or gender identity and expression, stands at risk of its harmful effects.

Though it cannot be denied that oppression serves the interests of dominant group members, eventually it will backfire and the chain of oppression will take hold of them. Therefore, I have come to understand that within the numerous forms of oppression, members of target (sometimes called "minoritized") groups are oppressed, while on many levels, members of the dominant or agent groups are hurt. Although the effects of oppression differ qualitatively for specific target and agent groups, in the end everyone loses.

First, heterosexist conditioning compromises the integrity of people by pressuring them to treat others badly, which are actions contrary to their basic humanity. It inhibits one's ability to form close, intimate relationships with members of one's own sex, generally restricts communication with a significant portion of the population, and, more specifically, limits family relationships.

Heterosexism locks all people into rigid gender-based roles, which inhibit creativity and self-expression. It often is used to stigmatize, silence and, on occasion, target people who are perceived or defined by others as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but who are, in actuality, heterosexual.

In addition, heterosexism is one cause of premature sexual involvement, which increases the chances of teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Young people, of all sexual identities, are often pressured to become heterosexually active to prove to themselves and others that they are "normal."

Societal heterosexism prevents some LGBT people from developing an authentic self-identity, and adds to the pressure to marry someone of another sex, which in turn places undue stress and oftentimes trauma on themselves as well as their spouses and children.

Heterosexism, combined with sexphobia or erotophobia (fear and revulsion of sex) results in the elimination of discussions of the lives and sexuality of LGBT people as part of school-based sex education programs, keeping vital information from all students. Such a lack of information can kill people in the age of HIV/AIDS. And heterosexism (along with racism, sexism, classism, sexphobia) inhibited, at least initially, a unified and effective governmental and societal response the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

With all the truly important issues facing the world, heterosexism diverts energy and attention from more constructive endeavors. It also prevents heterosexuals from accepting the benefits and gifts offered by LGBT people, including theoretical insights, social and spiritual visions and options, contributions in the arts and culture, to religion, to education, to family life, indeed, to all facets of society. Ultimately, it inhibits appreciation of other types of diversity, making it unsafe for everyone because each person has unique traits not considered mainstream or dominant. Therefore, we are all diminished when any one of us is demeaned.

The meaning is quite clear: When any group of people is targeted for oppression, it is ultimately everyone's concern. We all, therefore, have a self-interest in actively working to dismantle all the many forms of oppression, including heterosexism.

The GOP seems to have begun to understand its "interest," at least somewhat, by modifying its rhetoric on issues of sexual identity. Ben Carson has since apologized for his remarks and stated that he will not be addressing gay rights issues for the remainder of his presidential campaign. In addition, the California Republican Party, in a state with only 28 percent of the electorate identifying as Republican, voted officially to recognize the Log Cabin Republicans, a move the California GOP resisted for the past 38 years when this group for politically conservation gay, lesbian, and bisexual people was formed.

In the final analysis, we must get out of the nature versus nurture trap, and place discussions firmly in the realm of issues of human rights and human dignity, and not questions of science. Coretta Scott King emphasized this point during her 2000 keynote address at the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce (since changed to National LGBTQ Taskforce) Creating Change Conference:

I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.