Can society make people gay?

Over the years, a variety of explanations have been put forth for why a person would be gay. For much of the twentieth century, homosexuality was viewed as a psychiatric disorder. According to a recent article in Psychology Today, it wasn’t until 1987 that the American Psychological Association completely removed homosexuality from the DSM, a system of classification used to define mental disorders (Burton, 2015).

The medical and psychiatric professions in the US no longer view being gay as a disorder. But opponents of gay rights tend to favor explanations emphasizing family upbringing, friends or society in general. Scientists dispute these arguments.

Recently, J. Michael Bailey, PhD, led a group of researchers in conducting a painstaking review of social hypotheses. Dr. Bailey and his colleagues found little to merit further investigation, concluding:

“The limited evidence we have about the prevalence of non-heterosexuality across cultures and time suggests that homosexual orientation does not increase in frequency with social tolerance, although its expression (in behavior and in open identification) may do so.” Dr. Bailey and his colleagues also surveyed parenting studies. Here, too, they found that hypotheses regarding parental influence on sexual orientation held "little scientific promise.” (Bailey et al., 2016)

This does not mean that researchers are dismissing the idea that environment could play a role in shaping sexual orientation. However, scientists are focusing primarily on the prenatal environment, such as the role of hormonal differences on neurological development, and on the impact of both prenatal and postnatal environments on epigenetic markers—chemicals that affect how genes are expressed—in their efforts to understand the development of sexual orientation.

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Read the full Psychology Today article to learn about the history of the psychiatric profession’s view of homosexuality.

When Homosexuality Stopped Being a Mental Disorder


Bailey, J.M., Vasey, P.L., Diamond, L.M., Breedlove, S.M., Vilan, E. & Epprecht, M. (2016). Sexual orientation, controversy, and science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(2), 45-101.

Burton, N. (2015, September 18). When homosexuality stopped being a mental disorder. Psychology Today.

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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Want to dig deeper? Click on the link below to read the 2016 research article, “Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science,” produced by J. Michael Bailey, PhD, (2016) and other scientists working in the field. This lengthy but readable academic article is chock-full of information about recent and ongoing research into sexual orientation, including the debate over nature vs. nurture.

Sexual Orientation, Controversy, and Science

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