Being gay: Upbringing or born that way?

As rapid and wide-spread advances are being made in gay rights, including same-sex marriage, Americans remain divided over whether homosexuality is present before birth or acquired.

John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal/AP
Sun Prairie, Wis., residents David Tyer and Wesley Radtke exchange rings as Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Lanford presides over a marriage ceremony on the steps of the City County Building in Madison, Wis. Friday. Earlier in the day, a federal judge struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriages.

The gay rights movement has advanced with head-spinning speed in recent years.

“Hate crimes” now include attacks on individuals because of their sexual orientation. Government and employment benefits now are extended to same-sex couples. The US military has scrapped its “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly-gay service members.

A string of federal judges – most recently in Wisconsin this week – have ruled state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now have what advocates call “freedom to marry.” Gay judges, lawmakers, and other public figures are serving openly.

US public opinion about gays has changed drastically in recent decades on the issues of marriage equality and LGBT acceptance as a whole, possibly related to the fact that three in four Americans say they have a friend, relative, or coworker who has told them that he or she is gay,” Gallup reported recently.

Public support for same-sex marriage has reached an all-time high of 55 percent – more significantly, nearly 80 percent among young adults. Approval of gay or lesbian relations jumped 19 percent between 2001 and 2013 (from 40 percent to 59 percent, again according to Gallup).

Still, Americans are about evenly divided on whether homosexuality is something a portion of the population is born with or, instead, it is a characteristic resulting from upbringing and environment – present before birth or acquired.

Back in 1978, a majority of Americans (56 percent) believed it to be upbringing and environment; just 13 percent thought gay men and lesbians were “born that way.”

Since then, belief here moved steadily toward “born that way,” now accepted by a plurality of the public (42-37 percent).  The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its manual of mental disorders in 1973, no doubt accelerating the trend.

Still, that 42 percent is less than the 47 percent Gallup tallied in 2012, so public opinion seems to have leveled out.

“Though being gay as the result of genetics or other factors before birth has become a considerably more mainstream belief and is now mentioned by a plurality of Americans, it is still one held by slightly less than half of the U.S. population,” reports Gallup. “This disagreement seems likely to continue as long as the scientific community remains agnostic about the question.”

Meanwhile, the political and legal debate over sexual orientation and gay rights continues.

In Fort Worth this weekend, the Texas Republican Party was to consider a proposed plank to its platform that would "recognize the legitimacy and efficacy of counseling, which offers reparative therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle." In other words, supporting the controversial notion that homosexuality is an abnormal condition that can be “cured,” something the American Psychiatric Association rejected more than 40 years ago.

At this point, there are 71 lawsuits in 31 states regarding the “freedom to marry.” Six such cases involving same-sex marriage have reached the federal appellate level, and it may only be a matter of time before the US Supreme Court addresses the issue again. (The high court already has invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act.)

In North Dakota, the last remaining state without a court challenge, seven couples have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the ban on same-sex marriage, reports the AP. It challenges both North Dakota's constitutional ban on gay marriage and its refusal to recognize marriages of same-sex couples who legally wed in other states.

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