The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

“Homosexuality Is a Choice?” Antecedents of Beliefs About Sexual Orientation Etiology

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Jill Chonody, PhD, Lecturer, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia
Michael R. Woodford, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Phil Kavanagh, PhD, Lecturer, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

Sexual orientation etiology beliefs refer to those ideas about what “causes” people to be gay/lesbian. The primary explanations include: personal choice, biology, and the environment. Attribution theory indicates that when a socially undesirable trait is thought to be immutable—beyond the person’s control— individuals possessing that trait will be treated more positively (Weiner et al., 1989). Research indicates that homophobia and the belief that homosexuality is personal choice are positively associated (Barth & Overby, 2003). On the other hand, biological determinism is positively associated with supportive attitudes toward sexual minorities (Hegarty, 2002).

Despite the critical role of etiology beliefs in explaining homophobia, little is known about the nature of these beliefs. Demographic factors, including religion, and etiology beliefs have been investigated, but the role of social contact with sexual minorities and sex-specific homophobia have not been fully explored. This study identifies the antecedents of sexual orientation etiology beliefs.


Data were collected via paper-and-pencil surveys from students in social work classes at four geographically diverse universities (n = 851). Etiology beliefs were measured with three separate questions (choice, biology, environment), each utilizing a 6-point Likert scale. Students reported the number of gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB) friends and the number of GLB family members. The sex-specific subscales of the short-form of the Attitudes toward Lesbians and Gays Scale (ATL and ATG, respectively) assessed antigay/lesbian bias.  Demographics included age, sex, sexual orientation, and religiosity.


The sample was primarily single, heterosexual, and White. Independent multiple regression models were run for each etiology belief, controlling for demographics. The regression model for biology explained 35% of the variance, and age, ATL, and ATG were significant. All of the effect sizes were small. As age increased and attitudes reflected more acceptance, belief in biology increased. The regression model for choice explained 21% of the variance. Age, ATG, and GLB relatives were significant predictors; the effect size for the ATG was moderate, while the others were small. Younger participants and those with negative attitudes toward gay men endorsed choice. Interestingly, as the number of GLB relatives increased, belief in choice also increased. The regression model for environment explained 13% of the variance. The ATL, ATG, and the number of GLB relatives were significant; all of these effect sizes were also small. As homophobic attitudes increased and number of GLB relatives increased, belief in the environment increased.


This research adds to the literature by further delineating factors related to sexual orientation etiology beliefs. Most noteworthy, antigay bias underpins etiology as choice, whereas anti-lesbian bias is also influential in the other beliefs. While often influential in homophobia, social contact with GLB played a different role depending on the etiology belief. Future research should seek to further disentangle these associations and determine how etiology beliefs may influence practice with sexual minority clients. Education efforts aimed at creating greater tolerance and acceptance of sexual minorities may include critical dialogues about sexual orientation etiology beliefs and creating experiential activities that challenge stereotypes and myths regarding sexual minorities.