On Wednesday, 2016 Republican presidential prospect Dr. Ben Carson told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo that being gay was “absolutely” a choice. He cited “people who go into prison straight and when they come out, they’re gay.”
Beyond the surprise gut-punch of rhetorically lumping me in with prison inmates, Dr. Carson’s words angered me because they muddied the waters of an already murky scientific and cultural debate.
In a limited sense, Dr. Carson does have a point. Insisting all homosexual behavior comes from innate desires oversimplifies humans’ complex tapestry of emotions and sexualities. But that’s why Carson can’t generalize in reverse that sexual orientation is completely choosable.
As a neurosurgeon, he should appreciate the dangers of making blanket statements about science we still don’t understand well. Major studies on sexuality’s causes so far point to a complex interplay of several interacting genes and environmental factors such as prenatal hormone exposure.
In other words, the deeper you dig, the grayer the picture gets, discrediting Carson’s claim further.
The example of people in prison doesn’t help Carson’s case either. This case is part of a widely-studied sociological phenomenon of straight-identified men engaging in homosexual behavior out of situational convenience; not because they’ve chosen to identify as gay. There’s a huge difference between these people and others who feel an unalterable attraction to the same sex.
If Carson was right, and being gay were “absolutely” a choice, then Alan Turing, the British computer science pioneer who broke the Enigma Code, shortened World War II by 2-4 years, and saved 14-21 million lives in the process, would never have put himself at risk of chemical castration. We wouldn’t hear about so many high-profile “success stories” from the ex-gay conversion therapy movement coming out of the closet… again. And the over 13,600 service-members unnecessarily discharged from our military under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” would never have put their careers in danger by choosing to be gay.