Saturday, November 29, 2008

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom, Part I

I used to have a good friend who, among his other traits, was gay. My standards for fellowship were, and still are, fairly low: If you make me laugh, I’ll hang out with you. And Sean definitely had a sense of humor … most of the “fag” jokes I ever knew were ones he’d told me.

Which is not to say that he wasn’t capable of taking his sexual identity seriously. From him I first heard the word “Catholic” used to describe someone who pretends acceptance of homosexuality. When I asked him, quietly and non-threateningly, if he’d ever considered chastity as an alternative, he gave me what I take to be the rationale behind much dysfunctional sexuality: “I can’t live without love.”


(I often wish I’d said what I thought at the time: “If you think that sex is the same as love, you’re more na├»ve than you suppose me to be.” However, the context wasn’t right for that kind of remark, which could have been taken as gratuitously nasty.)


It was also from Sean that I first heard some of the bizarre reasoning which gay people use among themselves. According to him, the transition between heterosexuality and homosexuality is a one-way street: You can give up straight relationships for gay sex, but you can never give up gay sex for straight … at least, not permanently.


Although I’ve never had any formal training as a psychiatrist, and was never on secure ground to challenge this piece of “slippery slope” reasoning, I still didn’t quite accept it as gospel. Put simply, I couldn’t then or now understand how a straight person could have homosexual tendencies but a gay person could not have heterosexual tendencies. It’s as if a dimmer switch could be set to less than full brightness but couldn’t go any further without shutting the lights off.

Sean and I moved off into our separate worlds eventually; although we worked at the same hotel reservation center later on, we never had opportunities to socialize again. But the “slippery slope” argument came back to me when, during the broadcast of ABC’s The History of Rock ‘n Roll, I watched David Bowie proclaim that during his “Ziggy Stardust” days, “I was a closet heterosexual.”


Bingo. The gay sex served a psychological need; as the need diminished, so did the attraction of gay sex. Bowie himself claimed that his bisexuality was more “a product of the times” than his own feelings. (This was a year after he married supermodel Iman, who is still his wife after sixteen years.) But then, neither Bowie nor Anne Heche had a track record of strictly preferring their own sex; Heche had relationships with several male entertainers, including Lindsay Buckingham and Steve Martin, prior to her notorious fling with Ellen DeGeneres. Still, it seemed to put a dent in Sean’s claim (reinforced by other gay people) that bisexuality was merely a pit stop on the way to being gay full-time.


Two celebrity reversions hardly add up to a mature refutation of the current conventional wisdom on homosexuality. But it doesn’t follow that there are no grounds for challenging the conventional wisdom. Indeed, liberal forces in several nominally Christian countries seek to blur the distinction between tolerance of gay sex as not socially destabilizing and acceptance of homosexuality as a psychologically and morally healthy identity using the conventional wisdom as their grounds for change.


The problem with challenging the conventional wisdom—in any scientific field—is one born not of ideology but of limited research funding. Very simply put, it makes no sense to waste what research dollars you have on attempts to resurrect the flat-earth theory. This need to conserve resources practically dictates that any theory which goes unchallenged long enough, regardless of its flaws, will be treated as “round-earth knowledge” unless and until someone comes up with a dramatic result that knocks the pins out from under it. If that theory ends up supporting some social movement, enough scientists will eventually be emotionally vested in supporting the theory that any proposal to seek alternate explanations will be written off a priori as a waste of time and resources.


One current theory among reparative therapists is that the gay theory of male childhood dynamics has the story backwards. That is, boys aren’t bullied by their fathers or other children because they’re gay but because they display awkwardness or lack of talent at traditionally male activities. (Does anybody remember the old football game I knew as “kill the man” … but was often called “smear the queer”?) If they then start playing traditionally girls’ games, they become more definitively rejected as “sissy”. Eventually, the labels become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the boys identify more with girls than with other boys and begin regarding males subconsciously as “the other sex”.


Oddly enough, sexual abuse by males appears as a factor in both male and female homosexuality. With boys, it seems to be a case of rationalizing any arousal they feel as part of the violation; from what I’ve read of homosexual pedophiles, they tend to try to stimulate their victims as part of the illusion that they’re simply initiating the young into an act of pure love. With girls, however, the illusion of romance in the male is mostly absent, replaced by violent rage that’s often fueled by alcohol. Lesbianism in these girls is a reaction of generalized hatred for men, as well as contempt for “feminine” weakness, struggling to reconcile itself with a need for a sexual outlet that validates her own femaleness.


Of course, such theories directly conflict with the current stances of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. Catholic writer Mary Meehan explains:


Until recent decades, psychiatrists called homosexuality a “pathology” or “neurosis” and generally viewed it as a developmental disorder. Some efforts to cure the condition must be consigned to the sorry history of unethical medical experimentation: brain surgery, aversion therapy by electro-shock, and ham-handed schemes to push homosexual males into sexual intercourse with women, sometimes including marriage. “Gay rights” activists in the late 1960s brought to public attention some of these horror stories about psychiatric mistreatment. With noisy demonstrations and quiet lobbying, these activists pushed hard for the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. It obliged, and the American Psychological Association followed suit. Not content with those victories, some activists now agitate against therapy sought by homosexuals who want to change their sexual tendency. So humane professionals trying to help such people work in a climate of hostility that has even inhibited research and publication.

Of course, if you’re consciously withholding funds for thorough research into a possible alternative explanation for homosexuality because it rocks the boat, it’s hypocritical to claim, as both APAs have, that the theories behind reparative therapy are unsupported by rigorous scientific research. But then, scientists are no less capable than anybody else of ignoring evidence that doesn’t suit their perception of the “good society”. And social scientists are more likely than physical scientists to ignore or deride work that comes from someone who unabashedly proclaims to be not only Christian but Catholic into the bargain.


You see, part of the scientific community’s self-deception is that Science has always been hindered by religious beliefs, particularly those of the Catholic Church, and that it has always sought the truth by the light of logic and evidence. The truth is that the earliest scientists were alchemists seeking to convert lead into gold—a position to which modern scientists aren’t far from returning—and that scientific history is full of missteps, mishegoss and by-guess-and-by-golly discoveries; only in the last century and a half has it obtained anything approaching consistency of method. Even now, there are certain trends of thought in the physical sciences which indicate that science is being subverted not only by politics but also by market forces.


By contrast, one of the earliest champions of the empirical study of Nature was St. Thomas Aquinas, who convinced centuries of scholars that investigating the mechanics of the universe was a proper and fitting use of Man’s reason. And popes and bishops have spent plenty of money on scientists and research institutions over the centuries, intervening only when (as in Galileo’s case) the scientists have gone beyond the evidence to pronounce on matters of faith. Indeed, Nicolas Copernicus and Gregory Mendeleev were not only Catholics but men of the cloth; Louis Pasteur was a regular communicant, as was Marie Curie, and Stephen Hawking is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (along with Aage Niels Bohr, the son of the groundbreaking physicist).


So maybe the gay-rights agenda isn’t necessarily founded on solid science. Maybe, perhaps, it’s based on wishful thinking and an outdated theory of sexuality at odds with mounting evidence. Perhaps it’s a case of the liberal tail wagging the scientific dog. I will need another post to consider this.