Does Knowing Why Someone is Gay Influence Tolerance? Genetic, Environmental, Choice, and “Reparative” Explanations

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In the U.S., belief that sexual orientation is genetically based is tied to greater tolerance toward gay men and lesbians and a belief that they deserve rights equal to those of other citizens. This study explores whether evidence for a particular causal explanation of sexual orientation influences participants’ tolerance toward gay men and lesbians. Participants were 224 heterosexual college students provided with scientific evidence that sexual orientation is genetically caused, environmentally caused, or a choice, who then answered questionnaires assessing their attitudes toward science, their tolerance toward gay men and lesbians, their selection of the best explanation for sexual orientation, and their assessments of statements about an imagined gay man (which, together, comprised their level of support for a “reparative” explanation of gay male sexuality viewed as the result of trauma, poor father-son relations, and immorality). Participants who were male, black, religious, or believed that the environmental or choice explanation of sexual orientation was the best, were less tolerant and more supportive of the reparative explanation than, respectively, participants who were female, white, nonreligious, or believed that the genetic explanation was the best. By contrast, participants were less tolerant when they read that scientific findings support a genetic explanation than when they read that scientific findings support choice as an explanation. Participants’ level of support for the reparative explanation correlated positively with their level of intolerance, suggesting that increasing tolerance toward gay men and lesbians may be more dependent on diminishing support for tenets of the reparative explanation than in convincing heterosexuals that sexual desires are under genetic control, which may influence some heterosexuals who believe otherwise to feel more intolerant.