Pruden v. LeVay in the Salt Lake Trib: My response

David Pruden, Executive Director of Evergreen International and Simon LeVay, writer and neuroscientist had parallel op-eds in the Salt Lake Tribune this month about the origins and mutability of sexual orientation (click the links to read them). I submitted the following response to the trib, which was considered but turned down today for sunday’s paper. No word if it will end up in a future edition but I am going to post it anyway.

Sexual orientation: An interactionist’s view

The Tribune recently printed articles by David Pruden and Simon LeVay regarding sexual orientation. I want to present an alternative view.

I am more tentative about cause than either Mr. Pruden or Dr. LeVay. I disagree with Mr. Pruden that all researchers have abandoned the born gay view. Many researchers enamored with biological determinism continue to look for anything besides environment that could determine our sexuality. Sometimes their enthusiasm reminds me of the optimist cleaning the horse stall – “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

On the other hand, Dr. LeVay is correct that biological factors cannot be dismissed. Corroborating research is required to learn how these factors operate but research consistently demonstrates small and subtle biological influences.

An alternative proposition incorporating biological and environmental factors is offered by Daryl Bem at Cornell University. He suggests that erotic attractions are not directly coded in genes, or wired in the brain via pre-natal hormones. Rather, biology may influence sexual orientation through the expression of childhood temperament (levels of aggression, eye-hand coordination, etc.), which are influenced by pre-natal factors. The most durable finding in years of research regarding homosexuality is that adult homosexuals recall gender atypical preferences as children (e.g., feminine boys, tomboyish girls). For instance, boys feeling different from other boys during childhood due to culturally feminine preferences may see males as the opposite sex just as puberty ushers in hormones and the accompanying unfocused sexual feelings.

While Dr. Bem’s theory awaits additional investigation, there is supporting research. One study found that neither genetic similarity nor a shared womb was associated with adult homosexual orientation unless childhood gender nonconformity was factored in. Even with this research, we must be tentative due to the observation that not all gays, especially lesbians, felt different from same-sex peers as children. The best we can say at present is that different factors, biological and environmental, may be relevant for different individuals. This would make sexuality akin to many human preferences, unchosen in the immediate sense, but acquired over time via an interaction of one’s nature and life’s nurture. Although difficult to fit into a headline, sexual orientation is more complex than “gay genes” versus “no gay gene.”

What ever “causes” sexual orientation, there is clear evidence that sexual orientation is somewhat flexible, at least for some. One recent study found that about one-third of participants reported spontaneous change in sexual orientation categories (e.g., gay to straight; bisexual to gay). Another one-third reported less dramatic change. These changes were naturalistic; no therapy was involved.

While Dr. LeVay is correct that sexual reorientation therapy does not lead to benefit for all clients, he is on shaky ground when he states: “By all accounts, the chances of “success” – if that is the right word – are far outweighed by the likelihood of experiencing lasting psychological trauma.” The results of research on change depend on what former clients are polled – some believe therapy helped and some do not. There is no research that can predict what percentage of people might benefit and what percentage might experience harm. We need more research not dogmatism.

However, no matter what causes various sexual desires, or how flexible they might be, humans are endowed with the capacity to reflect on their situations and direct their actions to live in alignment with their beliefs and chosen values. Scientific research on biological and social factors that are relevant to adult personality cannot be prescriptive. That is, science can tell us much about what is, but little about what we ought to believe. Many questions of public policy, or how we should relate to God are independent of what science might ever find out about our sexual proclivities.

Sourcing Sexuality – Webcast

Short notice but check out this webcast today (july 18 at 19:00pm in Britain) called Sourcing Sexuality, hosted by the Dana Centre. The program features discussion from Sven Bocklandt, geneticist, University of California, Los Angeles, Qazi Rahman, psychobiologist, University of East London and King’s College London and Jeffrey Weeks, Executive Dean of Arts and Human Sciences, London South Bank University. I am writing this as I wait for it to come on and the music playing is worth the visit.

UPDATE: Good program. The video will be available soon at the same link. When the Q & A came up, mine was the first question. It was:

Michael Bailey and colleagues in 2000 only found an 11% (for men) and 14% (for women) pairwise concordance homosexuality. These twins were reared together, shared the same womb and same genes.

Doesn’t this argue that chance is involved in sexual orientation outcomes? Different biological and environmental factors would be more dominant for different people. Thus, the search for the cause of sexual orientation is likely to always be frustrated by exceptions since there may be multiple pathways to sexual attractions.

I would hope that both social constructionist and biologically minded panelists could have a go at this question.

More later

UPDATE: I was going to say more about the program but it is supposed to be online within a couple of days. I think it was a valuable program for anyone interested in this issue so keep checking the website. Regarding my question, Sven Bocklandt said there are several twin studies, some with larger concordances but whatever they were, environment must play a role. The social constructionist, Jeffrey Weeks, indicated agreement with my statement.

A dog that moos?

The new advertising effort designed to convince Americans that gayness is determined pre-birth features a dog named Norman who moos like a cow. Don’t know any dogs that moo, do you? Sounds like a good start for a Dr. Suess book though.

I will say that it is a slick website. However, the designers need a better science advisor.

Here is what they say about identical twins and homosexuality:

“If one twin is born gay, there is a higher chance (52%) that the other will be gay as well.”

“Since identical twins share DNA, this tells us that genetics plays a part in sexual orientation.”

“That means some people are born gay.”

Leaving aside the faulty logic, the website quotes a decade old study that has been widely criticized. A newer more representative study in the year 2000 found that 11% of male identical twins and 14% of female twins shared homosexual orientation.

This website also waddles out Julio and Fabio the new penguin pride icons. According to the website, these two penguins “mate exclusively with each other.” Have the borndifferent folks forgotten about Silo and Roy? Silo and Roy are chinstrap penguins who used to be in love but Silo is now “ex-gay.” Just last year after I wrote about Silo’s conversion, spokeswoman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Roberta Sklar said in the New York Times: “There’s almost an obsession with questions such as, ‘Is sexual orientation a birthright or a choice?’ And looking at the behavior of two penguins in captivity is not a way to answer that question.”

Someone call the born different folks. They must have missed the memo.

You might be from Porchmuth if…

Sometimes reader and commenter Jim Burroway tells me he is also from the fair city of Portsmouth, Ohio. A great place to be from, eh Jim?

Got me all nostalgic so I thought up these tests to see if you might be from Portsmouth.

1. When people ask you where you’re from, you say, “Porchmuth, Ahia.”

2. You know where the Stadium is.

3. You know where the Shoelace Capital of the World is: Porchmuth, Ahia.

4. You can identify yourself as a “river rat” or a “hilltopper.”

5. You know what a “double-dip” and a “pickle-dip” hamburger is (hint: grease is involved).

6. Your car or truck probably costs as much or more than your house is worth.

7. You have gone sled riding on a levee.

8. You know at least three “Kentuckyen jokes.”

9. You know who Al Oliver, Larry Hisle and Don Gullett are.

10. You know where Southern hospitality begins.

Jim and anyone else from Porchmuth: Feel free to add some of yer own on. (Note: Previous sentence ends in a preposition. If you’re from Porchmuth, you don’t see any problem with the place that preposition is at.)

NEA Wrap Up

Well, not that much of a wrap up really.

The original resolution language that drew the ire of the American Family Association was not passed. However, the substitute language was passed. It will be reported in the press two ways: one, that the language was sent back to committee at the request of the Alabama delegation and two, that the substitute language supporting civil unions and gay marriage in the states already recognizing them did pass. Both apparently are true. Only in the NEA can something pass and still be referred to committee after it passed. I am told that is what happened in this case. Here is my guess: The AL leaders needed something to offset a rebellion back in Sweet Home.

No word as yet from Wayne Besen with his accounting of the fracas on the convention floor last Saturday. Strange to me that Wayne has not commented. Here is a pic of Wayne (left) and Greg (right) discussing things.

Big Day at the NEA convention in Orlando

A sampling of big doings at the NEA confab:

1. I blogged earlier this week about a change in language regarding gay marriage that was to be voted on at the convention. Resolution B-8 was submitted by the NEA’s GLBT Caucus but was later the NEA Resolutions Committee. The change would put the NEA on record as supporting same-sex unions in the seven U.S. states where they are now legal. The update is that the Resolutions Committee has advanced the original resolution (B-8) and the revised resolution (B-10) as amendments to be voted on by the NEA Representative Assembly. So if both passed the NEA would be able to have its wedding cake and eat it too.

2. Wayne Besen’s group, TruthWinsOut and a couple of other advocacy groups had a news conference in front of the Orlando Convention Center protesting the presence of the ex-gay educator caucus. Today’s Orlando Sentinel reports on the news conference and reaction from the ex-gay educators caucus.

3. A little later, there was a verbal dispute near the ex-gay educator’s caucus booth, one result of which was Wayne being escorted out of the convention center by some of Orlando’s finest law enforcement. Word is that the F-word was flying. Be interested in Wayne’s account of the fracas.

Cool Blast from the Past

Well, at least I think it is.

I am at the Exodus conference today. While I was eating lunch a man approaches me and says, “Hi, I’m Rich, and you counselled my mom when I was in the lifestyle.” Long story short, in my former private practice in Portsmouth, OH, I counselled this man’s mother who sought my help for a variety of issues, one of which was how to respond to her gay son. For instance, I supported her decision to go to his gay men’s chorus concerts which meant a lot to him. Eventually, he went through a religious renewal, one consequence of which was a desire to align his behavior with his beliefs. He now directs an Exodus member ministry and says he has finally found what he wants his life to be about. His mom is also doing well. Nice unexpected blast from the past.