Michael C. LaSala Ph.D., LCSW

Gay and Lesbian Well-Being

Sexual Orientation: Is It Unchangeable?

Are we all really "born this way?"

Posted May 17, 2011

Lately, I have been doing a lot of speaking at various PFLAG meetings (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to share the research findings from my book: Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Parents Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child (www.comingoutcominghome.com). As a result of these meetings, as well as my own research, I have found that one of the things that helps parents come to terms with their children's sexual orientation is the idea that being gay or lesbian is innate. This is how they're born and that's that!. I am happy this idea comforts parents, but is it true?

Well.....hmmm....ummm...perhaps, or maybe not.


There is good reason to believe that for many women, feelings of sexual attraction are less fixed and more flexible than originally thought. Sex researchers have examined the factors related to women and men's sexual arousal and have found that women of all sexual orientations were more likely than heterosexual and gay men to become sexually stimulated in response to erotic images of both women and men, in heterosexual and homosexual coitus. In comparison, men became sexually aroused only by depictions that that corresponded with their sexual orientations. Furthermore, Lisa Diamond, a researcher from the University of Utah followed a sample of one hundred lesbians over a period of ten years to determine whether there were any changes in their sexual feelings over time. She found that women who identified as lesbians could find themselves periodically attracted to and sexually active with men, then women, then men again. Some women could be having relationships with members of both sexes at the same time. In fact, only one third of the women who initially identified as lesbians at the start of the research project reported exclusive sexual attractions and behavior toward women over the course of the study. So this research could explain how Anne Heche, after being in a relationship with Ellen DeGeneres, could then go on to to marry a man. Or that we are ready to believe that the sexy Samantha character in Sex in the City could take a break from men and engage in a complicated steamy affair with a lesbian played by Sonia Braga (OK, who wouldn't?)

There is evidence that male sexual attractions and behaviors can also be fluid. First of all, men in other cultures, including non-Western societies and those of ancient Greece, have been known to participate in a transitory period of ritualistic homosexuality at some point during their lives. For example, not too long ago, the Sambia, an indigenous tribe in New Guinea believed a boy could not reach manhood unless he fellated an older man and ingested his semen. Secondly, in my own research, I found it was possible for the self-identified gay youth to have experienced sexual attractions to women before they identified as gay. Thirdly, I invite readers to go to Craigslist.org and take a look at the personal ads, for "men seeking men" and count how many are written by self-identified "straight" or "str8" men looking for sex with other men. Finally, some progressive adolescents and young adults with same-sex attractions do not label themselves or identify as gay because they refuse to center their identities on their current sexual feelings and behavior--which they expect will change depending on who their partners are.

So, what does this all mean? Is sexual orientation fluid and/or changeable? Or are some gay and lesbian people really closeted bisexuals? A long time ago, Kinsey told us that bisexuality is much more prevalent than we think. However, we live in a society in which many people (including self-identifying gays and lesbians) don't quite believe in bisexuality. Maybe Anne Heche and some of the respondents in my study are being pressured to "pick one sex, dammit, and stick with it!" Is that what's happening?

Does it really matter?

If we truly believe that it is acceptable to have sexual and romantic relationships with the same sex, then it shouldn't matter whether or not sexual orientation is changeable. If it is really OK, we should be as accepting of a person who has a relationship with a man and then a woman as we would of someone who usually eats vanilla ice cream and then decides to start eating pistachio. So what? Sex between two consenting adults, like eating ice cream, should be about pleasure, personal preferences, or expressions of love and affection, not about social rules and definitions. However, in order to support the people in our lives who are struggling with their sexual orientations, we must reluctantly leave Utopia and remember that we live in a world that puts limits on people's sexual inclinations and punishes those who don't follow the rules. People of all sexual orientations (even those who don't claim one) need to find ways to live in a world that stigmatizes same-sex attractions and relationships, and those of us called upon to support and assist these people need to understand this if we are to be helpful.

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