At the end of November, 2008, I wrote a three-part ramble on some questions surrounding the origins of same-sex attraction (SSA) called “Challenging the Conventional Wisdom”. Although I’ve left it posted, and occasionally refer back to it, it’s not the clearest, most concise effort I’ve ever made. As such, I don’t ever refer to it in posts on other blogs.
However, one paragraph definitely bears repeating:
If homosexuality is not an innate orientation, present at conception, we must still realize that—for the most part—it’s also not … a matter of conscious choice, born of a desire to be different. Rather, if—as the reparative therapists inform us—homosexuality is one of many symptoms of certain childhood traumas, then it is a seeking-out of reconnection with the world of the gender that they were pushed out of. To indulge ourselves in a language that treats them as inferior or intentionally evil is to exacerbate the trauma and separation.Over at CatholicHerald.co.uk, Stuart Reid has posted an interesting response to a cri de coeur from a Catholic traditionalist who is a chaste homosexual. It begins with a link to a discussion on Father Z’s blog What Does the Prayer Really Say which bears on the question of the “born that way” argument. (Yes, I have a couple of comments there.) But he really brings up the discussion as a prelude:
My own view is that most homosexuals are born that way. I believe it instinctively. I also believe it because many gay people say it is the case, and I see no reason for disbelieving them. I do not, however, believe that being born that way makes gay sex right. Nor do homosexuals necessarily believe that. Last March I received a letter from a homosexual traditionalist who did not believe it. But he did not like the attitude of some Catholics to gays, and rebuked me for having written in my Charterhouse column that homosexuals formed a “rich and privileged minority”.
“… I can’t for the life of me understand why you think that some homosexuals are ‘a rich and privileged minority’. Often the opposite is true. I, for example, am not rich. I live a rather empty and lonely life, never fully able to be who I am, for, yes, I encounter prejudice often (especially at church). I will never have the privilege of fathering children, or of having a loving relationship ….
“Many ‘gays’ such as myself go to church and try to lead a good (and chaste) life. I try to live by the precepts of the Church I love.
“It is quite hurtful when our priests talk of the ‘evil of homosexuality’ in the same breath as abortion, prostitution, etc, as if there are no ‘gays’ in the congregation at all! As I am sure you are aware, finding oneself homosexual is not a choice, whereas these other situations are avoidable ….”
The question of whether homosexuality is truly a choice bears discussion because a lot of gay activism predicates itself on the firmly-held conviction that homosexuality is “natural”, that gay people are in fact “born that way”. If SSA is “hard-wired” into the human personality, then a cure is impossible and even undesirable. Gary Greenberg, a practicing psychotherapist, writes in MotherJones.com, “All the major psychotherapy guilds have barred their members from researching or practicing reparative therapy on the grounds that it is inherently unethical to treat something that is not a disease, that it contributes to oppression by pathologizing [sic] homosexuality, and that it is dangerous to patients whose self-esteem can only suffer when they try to change something about themselves that they can’t (and shouldn’t have to) change” [emphasis mine].
Here we must make a very necessary distinction between a predisposition and what Dr. A. Dean Byrd calls “the essentialist argument that homosexuality is biologically determined, and is therefore not amenable to change”. To speak of a predisposition is to speak of a degree to which the dice are loaded in a particular direction: a predisposition makes a particular behavior more probable but not inevitable. To sustain the essentialist argument, one must be able to show a biological trigger so heavily connected to SSA that to find one without the other would be astonishing.
Unfortunately for gay-rights activists and their supporters in the mental health professions, the evidence for such a trigger hasn’t yet been found. As Dr. Greenberg (rather grudgingly) admits, “While scientists have found intriguing biological differences between gay and straight people, the evidence so far stops well short of proving that we are born with a sexual orientation that we will have for life. Even more important, some research shows that sexual orientation is more fluid than we have come to think, that people … can and do move across customary sexual orientation boundaries, that there are ex-straights as well as ex-gays” [again, emphasis mine]. And Dr. Byrd maintains, “Even the gay-activist researchers themselves who studies have been used by the media to trumpet the message that homosexuality is biologically determined do not support the ‘born that way’ myth.” He cites as an example Dean Hamer, the author of the controversial “gay gene” study, who declared, “We knew that genes were only part of the answer. We assumed the environment also played a role in sexual orientation, as it does in most, if not all behaviors ....” Without such a trigger, the argument that SSA is natural and thus neither needs nor admits of a cure is severely weakened.
As Reid says, many if not most homosexuals claim they were born with the orientation, and that they never knew a time when they weren’t attracted to people of the same sex. Nevertheless, without impugning the sincerity and integrity of these people, I distrust this claim. Memory is a very flexible thing, vulnerable to modification and repression as demanded by one’s psychological needs; it’s far too easy to retroject one’s adult perspective and motivations into childhood events, and to “forget” or discount countervailing experiences. Moreover, since most people aren’t born clinical psychiatrists, many can’t see influential connections between their social or familial lives and their behavioral choices.
Psychologist Dr. Julie Harren offers this model:
• Genes + Brain Wiring + Prenatal Hormonal Environment = Temperament
• Parents + Peers + Experiences = Environment
• Temperament + Environment = Homosexual Orientation
Because of the complexity of the model, it’s easy to overstate the degree to which free will plays a role in the development of SSA. Certainly, it’s not the conscious and deliberate intent of most parents and peers to make the individual gay … often, it’s the exact opposite. Nor can we discount the marked influence of adult predators, who reproduce their kind in a manner analogous to vampires. I think it’s fair to say that most people who suffer SSA end up in that state mostly by accident.
Nonetheless, that SSA is a sexual dysfunction ought not to be debatable, let alone deniable. Homosexuality is only “natural” in the sense that it arises without conscious intervention, and only to the degree that it does arise without conscious intent. Denial that SSA is a disorder requires the implicit, unrealistic belief that sexual urges have no biological role to play, that they represent an inexplicable itch one must occasionally scratch but which have no more purpose than does the appendix.[*] A more mature, objective consideration tells us that SSA, at the very least, acts against the person’s ability to pass on his/her genes by directing sexual urges towards non-reproductive unions, making it a survival-negative trait. Moreover, the high correlative connection between SSA, abusive/self-destructive behaviors and emotional disorders points to SSA as a symptom of deeper psychological issues that require attention and treatment.
Doctor Greenberg holds it unethical to treat something that’s not a disease; well and good. It’s also unethical to ignore evidence that points to a behavior as physically, socially and emotionally unhealthy; if it’s unhealthy, then it’s a valid mental health issue which manipulative references to “oppression” merely obfuscates. If further evidence also shows that the behavior isn’t cemented into the psyche, that it can in fact change with or without treatment, then it’s unethical to discourage treatment and punish or ostracize therapists who offer it.
Reid ends his piece with the mournful observation, “… [W]hat my friend says is sobering. Life is infinitely sad. Good and bad alike, we mourn and weep in this vale of tears. But self-denying homosexuals—homosexuals who try to live by the Church’s teaching—often have a lot more to mourn and weep about than the rest of us.” The cruel irony is that, for many, the tears would not have been necessary had not the major mental-health guilds abandoned treatment efforts, removed homosexuality from their lists of disorders, and uncritically adopted the “born that way” myth.
[*]In fact, while most scientists consider the appendix a vestigial organ, evolutionary baggage whose original purpose is lost, recent research suggests it may play a secondary role in maintaining beneficial bacteria.