Birth of the concept of “born this way”

“Radiolab” talked to Joanna Wuest, assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, about the origin, rise and uncertain future of the belief that sexuality is innate.

The September 8 episode of the podcast “Radiolab” examined the dual questions of how a person’s sense of self develops and, with that, how a person’s sexuality emerges.

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 50% of Americans believe that sexuality is innate. One reason for this belief stems back to the 1950s, when the first national groups for gay men and women were founded.

According to Joanna Wuest, assistant professor of politics, and author of “Born this Way: Science, Citizenship, and Inequality in the American LGBTQ+ Movement,” these groups were formed when homosexuality was deemed a mental illness and was thought to be caused by the environment at home.

These early gay rights organizations worked with scientists, psychologists and psychiatrists to stop viewing homosexuality as a mental defect and to start viewing it as a trait that was innate and natural, she said.

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association ceased classifying homosexuality as a mental defect. In the ’70s, gay rights litigators were bringing scientists into the courtroom to fight for civil rights of gay people, saying that sexuality was innate and couldn’t be shifted by environment.

“These expert witnesses were brought in to say things like, ‘This high school teacher couldn’t change the identities of these students because whatever is causing those identities, those ideas are already going to be set in stone within the first few years of a child’s life,’” Wuest said.

In the 1980s, research shifted from looking at environmental factors to looking at the biological origins of homosexuality.

“Perhaps something happened in utero. And so the idea is, like, if you are a male fetus, you are being kind of bathed with estrogen in utero, and that’s going to influence your brain development, which is then going to feminize you and make you into a gay man,” Wuest said, characterizing the research of that time. “And as you can hear [from that], there’s a lot of assumptions about what it means to be a gay man. It’s estrogen, which is a female hormone, allegedly, which is going to give you feminine qualities that are baked into your brain structures.”

Listen to the episode:

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