Genes and sexual orientation: Tale of two activists

Over at Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH), Pete LaBarbera alerted his readers that he was on WGN last night in connection with a story about “gay genes.” He noted in a mass email yesterday (did anyone see it?):

Americans For Truth will be featured tonight in a story on the cable super-station WGN-TV, based in Chicago, concerning the latest academic pursuit of the “gay gene.” It will air between 9:00 and 10:00 Central Time on WGN which reaches across the country. You can learn more about the (liberal biased) Northwestern U. “genetic homosexuality” study at www.gaybros.com. As you know, pro-homosexual advocates are seeking to prove that homosexuality is genetic — with the hope of then declaring the issue outside the bounds of moral debate.

While this is not a strong denouncement of the project, it appears that AFTAH believes the research led by Alan Sanders is biased from the start. LaBarbera is right that some activists would like to prove a genetic source of homosexuality (case in point below). However, what if there are genetic components to sexual orientation? Is there any way to discuss or research these factors without being considered “liberal” and/or “biased?” Isn’t a blanket dismissal of pre-natal factors just as biased?

On the other hand, as if to prove LaBarbera’s point, enter Wayne Besen’s new videos from Dean Hamer and Jack Drescher.  To Dean Hamer, Besen poses the question, “Is homosexuality inborn?” Hamer replies that “there is more and more evidence that sexual orientation has a strong biological component.” Hamer then points to two “population based studies of twins.” One is Kendler’s study in the US and the other is Bailey and Martin’s study in Australia. Hamer says these studies “have shown that genes are the single most important factor in whether a person is gay or straight or somewhere in between.” He said the studies have been replicated and are convincing. I will save for another post a detailed response to those statements, but for now I will say that I do not agree with Dr. Hamer’s characterizations. For instance, in the Australian study, the actual concordance of homosexuality among male identical twins was only 11%. Kenneth Kendler and colleagues in 2000 found a higher concordance (31.6% combining males and females), but did not designate genetics as being a determining factor. About his study of twins, Kenneth Kendler told the BBC,

By no means is sexual orientation genetically determined but clearly genes are playing some role by interacting with a range of environmental factors.

Dr. Drescher’s video provides a more nuanced and I think accurate reading of research. About those who say they know what causes sexual orientation, Dr. Drescher says, “The truth of the matter is, we don’t know, nobody knows, and anybody who says that they know is lying to you.” Drescher also presents a reasonable view of the role of sexual abuse saying that for individual people, such abuse could play a role but as a general rule, believing abuse to be at root is an unfounded stereotype.

Now, coming full circle back to the website LaBarbera noted in his email – gaybros.com, we find a nuanced and I believe accurate view that cuts between activists Besen and LaBarbera. Here are a couple of excerpts:

At the present time, there is no uniformly accepted theory of why some men and some women develop a sexual orientation that is more or less exclusively focused on members of their own sex.

and

Most contemporary researchers believe that sexual orientation – the general disposition of people toward homosexuality, bisexuality, or heterosexuality – is the result of both biological factors and psychological experiences. Most researchers do not believe that sexual orientation is the result of nature (biology, including genetics) alone or nurture (environment) alone. What researchers want to know is how specific factors in biology and psychology interact to guide sexual development. These researchers therefore look for biological and psychological differences between homosexual and heterosexual people, both men and women.

Then after listing the many studies which find biological factors correlated with sexual orientation (e.g., finger length ratio differences, brain differences, etc.), the website says this:

These studies are designed to show a correlation between a trait and sexual orientation. This is not the same as showing that a trait causes sexual orientation. What is not yet known is whether these traits and sexual orientation have a common origin in genetics or other biological influences on development, though these hypotheses are being pursued. In any case, these lines of research are suggestive rather than definitive. Among other factors, it is these and other uncertainties that prompt continued research.

These statements sound anything but biased to me. All concerned would do well to heed them. Working hard to spin what is known may play well to activists but saying homosexuality is or isn’t all “genetic” or “inborn” or “environmental” does not well represent what is known. We need to follow the research where it leads and hold our theories loosely.

Photographer focus of human rights complaint

The Washington Times reported Monday that a New Mexico photographer is defending herself against a human rights inquiry because she declined to take wedding pics for a lesbian nuptual. Should the photog, Elaine Huguenin, have to do the job?

What if this was a Catholic photographer who refused a Protestant wedding? Or what if it was a polyamorous wedding? What if it was a florist who did not send flowers? Or a caterer? Or what if it was a counselor who did not want to provide pre-marital counseling to a lesbian or gay couple? Or a counselor who did not believe in providing pre-marital counseling to a divorced couple?

Feel free to list other questions and answers. What should the New Mexico HRC decide?

Pew Forum releases major study of religion in the US

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a major study of religion in the US today. The LA Times has one news report summarizing the findings. Protestants are declining but overall 8 of 10 people say they are Christians. Lots of other findings at the Pew Forum website…

American Psychiatric Association to host symposium on religion, therapy and homosexuality

The American Psychiatric Association will host a symposium called “Homosexuality and Therapy: The Religious Dimension” at their annual meeting in Washington DC on May 5, 2008. I will be on the panel along with David Scasta, MD, Rev. Albert Mohler, Bishop Gene Robinson and moderator, John Peteet, MD. Dr. Scasta is past-president of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists (AGLP); Dr. Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a candidate for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bishop Robinson is the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal Church and Dr. Peteet is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard, Medical Director (Psychiatry), Adult Psychosocial Oncology Program, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Chair of the APA Committee on Religion, Spirituality & Psychiatry.

An extensive background article by David Scasta about the symposium can be found on page 10 in this month’s newsletter of the AGLP. An excerpt:

Could we ever get a group of scientists and clinicians on both sides of the religious divide to seek common ground while committed to honesty in the scientific research about homosexuality – no matter what the outcome? While I can plead that most gays are not dead by their mid 40s and that those conclusions come from a distorted, blatant attempt to discredit gays, Christian conservative groups will dismiss my ranting out-of-hand. However, when someone like Dr. Throckmorton makes the same conclusions, these groups reluctantly listen. By the same token, when Dr. Throckmorton states that an assertion in our film [Abomination] is not supported by the data, AGLP ignores him. But if someone from AGLP makes that assertion…I decided to talk with Dr. Throckmorton.

The symposium will be held between 2:00-5:00 pm in lecture halls 159 A & B in the Washington DC Convention Center and include the following components:

Practice Framework for Managing Sexual Identity Conflicts

Warren Throckmorton, PhD

The Psycho-Social Bases of Theologies that Compel Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation: The Psychiatric Ethical Response

David Scasta, MD

A Pastoral Approach for Gay & Lesbian People Troubled by Homosexuality

Bishop Gene Robinson

A Pastoral Approach for Gay & Lesbian People Troubled by Homosexuality

Rev. Richard Albert Mohler, Jr., PhD

Discussant, Dr. Peteet, Chair of the APA Committee on Religion, Spirituality & Psychiatry.

I want to thank David Scasta and John Peteet for taking the initiative in making this symposium a reality. I look forward to the meeting, the give and take and opportunity to bring the discussion of sexual identity issues to this forum.

I think ACA violated its policies so I complained

On Wednesday, I sent a letter of complaint to the American Counseling Association along with over 400 of my closest colleagues (getting close to 500 by now, in part thanks to the American Association of Christian Counselors). In brief, I believe the ACA violated Policy 301.7 when the ACA Ethics Committee said

There are treatments endorsed by the Association for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues in Counseling (see http://www.aglbic.org/resources/competencies.html), a division of the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association (see http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbc/guidelines.html) that have been successful in helping clients with their sexual orientation. These treatments are gay affirmative and help a client reconcile his/her same-sex attractions with religious beliefs.

Policy 301.7 states:

Policy 301.7

Policy and Role on Non-Consensus Social Issues of Conscience

Having respect for the individual’s values and integrity in no way restricts us as individuals from finding legitimate avenues to express and support our views to others, who decide and make policy around these issues.  To this end, it will be ACA Governing Council policy to encourage its members to find and use every legitimate means to examine, discuss, and share their views on such matters within the Association.  We also endorse the member’s right to support social, political, religious, and professional actions groups whose values and positions on such issues are congruent with their own.  Through such affiliations, every member has an opportunity to participate in shaping of government policies which guide public action.

To truly celebrate our diversity, we must be united in our respect for the differences in our membership.  To this end, the role of the Association in such matters is to support the rights of members to hold contrary points of views, to provide forums for developing understanding and consensus building, and to maintain equal status and respect for all members and groups within the organization. Following this philosophy, the Governing Council considers it inappropriate for this body to officially take sides on issues which transcend professional identity and membership affiliation, and which substantially divide our membership, at least until such time that there can be a visible consensus produced among the membership.

Approved: 7/15/90

Now read this full Ethics Committee opinion and see if you think 301.7 is violated. I suspect my readers will break along ideological lines but, in my mind, this is just one of several issues where ACA has taken positions in absence of consensus.

The Alliance Defense Fund is also supporting my view of the situation with this letter. President Brian Canfield contacted me to say that the issue will be brought before the ACA Governing Council at the March meeting. Just to be clear, I am not taking issue with the responsibility of the ACA to identify questionable treatments but I am disturbed by their assertion that one religious view should be preferred over another by counselors.

The ADF just put out a press release on this matter.

NOTE TO READERS REFERRED FROM OTHER BLOGS: The insinuation that this complaint has any relevance to the Winnepeg “counselor” who used “holding therapy” to initiate sexual assault is false. In fact, I wish the ACA would explicitly prohibit holding therapy and have written frequently on that subject here. However, the ACA should not favor one religious resolution over another on matters where research consensus does not exist. We asked the ACA back in July for some discussion and clarification on this and we had no official response. I will have more to say about that in a future post. However, to suggest that what my complaint asks for is freedom to do “holding therapy” is absolutely false and misleading and should be corrected.

New blog format: What about it?

Weboverlord Paul and I are experimenting with new formats and here is one I want to test out for a spell. The colors are not much different but I think I like the two column format. We are considering a science digest in a blog format where various writers could post science news of relevance to sexuality and mental health issues.

I welcome comments…

Christianity Today on “The Transgender Moment”

Christianity Today has an article (The Transgender Moment) and sidebar (Walking a Fine Line) (apparently these are in the print and online editions) quoting me and many others regarding transgender issues. Some have contacted me to ask if I was quoted correctly, feeling perhaps that my comments were inconsistent with my views expressed elsewhere. Here are my comments from “The Transgender Moment:”

Whether mentioned in Scripture or not, the transgender movement clashes with traditional Christian theology that teaches the only God-given expression of human sexuality is between a man and woman who are married.

“Transgender impulses are strong, but they don’t match up with the Christian sexual ethic,” says Warren Throckmorton, associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. “Desires must be brought into alignment with biblical teachings, but it will be inconvenient and distressful.”

Throckmorton, past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association, says he has advised transgendered people who are in absolute agony over their state. Typically, such individuals are desperately in search of hope and acceptance, he says. It may be uncomfortable to tell transgendered individuals that their desires don’t align with the Bible, Throckmorton says, but pastors must do so. “Even if science does determine differentiation in the brain at birth,” Throckmorton says, “even if there are prenatal influences, we can’t set aside teachings of the Bible because of research findings.”

While I don’t remember saying these exact things, I think the biggest problem in order to understand my views on this topic is the absence of the context for these remarks. I do remember saying in my interview with John Kennedy that each situation was different and that each person experiencing gender conflict should consult with medical specialists, psychological professionals, and clergy. Some people may come to the conclusion that the Scriptures are silent on what they should do about their feelings. However, for those who do come to the conclusion that various options are not permitted by Christian teaching, the conflict can be agonizing. For those people, bringing desires into alignment with the teaching they believe to be correct is difficult but these individuals may come to see it as their calling to live out. In this article, I am speaking as if this context has already been set. 

In practice, I believe mental health professionals should take the same perspective regarding transgender issues as I have advised with sexual orientation in the sexual identity framework – the client sets the value direction. Pastors, however, are more likely and indeed are called upon to interpret doctrine and the relevance of doctrine for action. I do not think research findings supporting an innate source of gender identity conflict is likely to sway pastoral advice much, in the same way that finding an innate source of homosexual attractions is unlikely to change traditional views.

Perhaps the quote that I feel the most troubled by is this one: “Transgender impulses are strong, but they don’t match up with the Christian sexual ethic.” I don’t remember saying it that way but if I did, I would certainly say it differently now. As I see it, impulses are not of the same moral significance as behavior, especially chosen behavior. I do not see sexual or gender inclinations as being chosen. What one does may or may not match up with a Christian sexual ethic, but I do not view feelings in the same manner. In any case, I want to emphasize that persons who experience gender identity conflicts should reach out and seek advice from medical and mental health professionals, as well as their spiritual advisors. 

Now I suspect for some this will not be a sufficient reaction to this article. I invite readers to discuss the issues raised in the article. I invite clergy and transgender advocates to comment and offer rationale for their views. Some think I need educated; so educate me.