It’s important to understand the difference between biology and personal choice.
As the public grows a better understanding of genetics, a wider acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage could grow simultaneously, according to a new study at the University of Kansas.
Two professors in the KU Department of Political Science, Mark Joslyn and Don Haider-Markel, found that understanding genetics and biology shapes the way people see the sexual orientations of others — it’s seen as less of a personal choice when considering genetic causality.
“If people believe being gay or lesbian is a result of genetics, not choice or social circumstance, then they also tend to believe that homosexuality cannot be changed," said Joslyn in a media release. "This deterministic thinking, we found, makes the behavior of homosexuality less questionable, or morally troubling, in the minds of many respondents.”
The study, published in the journal Social Science Quarterly, is believed to be the first to investigate “immutability,” or the inability to change a behavior, within a large public sample. The researchers looked at a June 2014 national survey of over 1,000 American adults on their causal beliefs about the origins of sexual orientation.
They found that most of the respondents who attributed homosexuality to genetics believed that the behavior couldn’t be changed — thus making it independent of environmental influences and out of the individual’s control. According to the researchers, once people are primed to consider genetics as a cause of a trait, they’re more likely to view the trait differently.
"So, blame is not cast upon homosexuals,” Joslyn said. “Rather, attitudes toward the group change, and indeed we find that genetic attributions produce more favorable stereotypic judgments about homosexuals.”
Interestingly, the researchers were able to examine the attitudes towards homosexuality as they evolved over time by comparing the 2014 survey data to the Pew Research Center national survey data from 1993 to 2003.
Since 2003, reports of genetics as the cause of sexual orientation increased by nearly 12 percent, and a similarly increasing number of respondents reported to believe that sexual orientation cannot be changed, according to the study.
"These data move together and reflect a growing acceptance of homosexuality generally and gay marriage specifically," he said. “The genetic attribution was thus a key factor in challenging the status quo and helped produce the tremendous changes we see today regarding gay rights."
Joslyn says the majority of the public didn’t associate genetic attributions with support for gay rights groups several decades ago, but with the advances in understanding biology and changes in political context, people began to focus more on genetics as a cause of sexual orientation.
Therefore, a continued better understanding of biology and the role of genetics in causing a number of behaviors — not just homosexuality — could generate public support or opposition to various groups as they attempt to shape the debate around certain policies.
"Genetic research is undoubtedly advancing our understanding about what we know about ourselves," said Joslyn. "Yet it is equally clear that genetics play a significant role in shaping how we view each other.”