Oct. 31 2012 12:00 AM

Chosen, learned, inborn, genetic or what?


J. Michael Bailey, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, is the eighth speaker in MSU’s semester-long series, “Whom You Love: the biology of sexual orientation,” which aims to demonstrate that homosexuality is a natural occurrence in humans. His speech is called “Is Sexual Orientation Chosen, Learned, Inborn, Genetic or What?” He has studied sexual orientation for more than 25 years and is the author of the controversial book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen.” Bailey began his career studying mathematics. 

There doesn’t seem to be much of an overlap between mathematics and psychology. Why did you decide to make the leap? 

I didn´t like the non-social — and ethereally non-applicable — aspect of math. But being good with statistics has served me well.

It seems like controversy seems to follow you. Do you think it´s a side effect of your subject matter or a matter of your methodology?

Both. People can be crazy when it comes to sex. They can have biases that are not rationally defensible, but adhere to them to the degree that they can´t listen to any other view. But I can´t stop from exploring the validity of sacred beliefs and opinions. If they aren´t worth having, I´ll say so. This sometimes makes me unpopular. But also, I believe that the truth isn´t as harmful as some people believe it is sometimes.

What has been the general theme of your sexual orientation studies? 

Perhaps my best-known research is on sexual orientation in identical and fraternal twins, and what that can tell us about the genetics of sexual orientation. I have conducted several twin studies of sexual orientation, and they have generally yielded some evidence that genes matter, but they have also provided unmistakable evidence that environment matters. The question is: "What are the environmental factors that make someone attracted to men or to women?" It is important to realize that there is more than the social environment. I´ll argue that even though male sexual orientation is largely environmental, it still appears to be inborn. 

What ground will your lecture cover?

My lecture will cover the different ways of thinking about causation, especially innate causation, and I will address what I think the best evidence suggests regarding what causes some people to be straight and others gay or lesbian or bisexual.

What inspired you to pursue this field of research?

I was lucky enough to take a human sexuality course in graduate school and was fascinated by the research on sexual orientation. I have loved working with gay and lesbian people. I´m not afraid of controversy, for better or worse.

What do you think this lecture series could do for the social views of homosexuality?

I actually think that people are too quick to draw social/ethical conclusions from scientific data. I don´t think that clear-cut legitimate ethical conclusions follow from the kinds of evidence I will present. It´s okay to be gay regardless of what causes homosexuality and heterosexuality.

For more information on this series, go to whomyoulove.com.

J. Michael Bailey
“Is Sexual Orientation Chosen, Learned, Inborn, Genetic or What?”
4 p.m.
Wells Hall room 115B
MSU Campus