Tonight, at 9pm est, 20/20 will feature a segment examining homosexuality and genetics and more.
I post often about causal factors in sexuality; such factors are puzzle pieces that interest me (along with other human traits and variations). In addition, the intersection of personal values and sexuality ratchets up the interest level. Thus, the recent article, “Respecting Ex-gays”by John Corvino is a must read.
Corvino wants to take a live-and-let-live approach. He ends his piece with a familiar, but altered soundbite:
So when ex-gays announce, from billboards and magazine ads, that “Change is possible,” I say: Possible? Maybe. Likely? No. Desirable? Not for me, thanks.
He is fine with being gay and wants ex-gays to respect him in the same way he wants to respect their right and responsibility to steward their lives according to conscience.
He notes three problems he perceives among ex-gay ministries in general that will lead me to the next part of this post. First is “their tendency to promote myths about the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” by generalizing from some people’s unfortunate personal experiences.” He notes that testimonies of promiscuity and unhappiness do not describe his life and should not be taken as true of all same-sex attracted people. Next, he laments “the ex-gay ministries’ abuse of science” saying, “Ex-gay ministries tend to lean on discredited etiological theories—domineering mothers, absent fathers, and that sort of thing.” Finally, he says, “The third and related problem is that many ex-gay ministries promote not merely a ‘change,’ but a ‘cure.’ ‘Cure’ implies ‘disease,’ which homosexuality is not.
Although I might quarrel with degrees, I essentially agree with Corvino’s assessment here. Along with the recent shifts in Exodus away from promoting public policy stances, I am hopeful that the issues of research and use of science will be vigorously addressed as well.
On the point of shifts in views of causation, Dean Byrd at NARTH has an article on the NARTH website giving some cautious kudos to the APA for a revised pamphlet regarding sexual orientation. The subtitle of his article is “The APA has now begun to acknowledge what most scientists have long known: that a bio-psycho-social model of causation best fits the data.”
Contrasting the original edition of the pamphlet with the new one, Byrd believes the current statement is more accurate. The new statement reads,
What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.
In response, Byrd opines:
Although there is no mention of the research that influenced this new position statement, it is clear that efforts to “prove” that homosexuality is simply a biological fait accompli have failed. The activist researchers themselves have reluctantly reached that conclusion. There is no gay gene. There is no simple biological pathway to homosexuality. Byne and Parsons, and Friedman and Downey, were correct: a bio-psycho-social model best fits the data (italics in the original).
My first thought after reading this paragraph was that those I know who are researching pre-natal factors have not concluded any such thing, reluctantly or not. Furthermore, the lack of current evidence for biological theories does not disprove a potential, now-unknown biological influence, nor does lack of strong evidence for general inborn factors prove true a bio-psycho-social model. Next, I wondered what that model looked like. As far as I can discern, all bio-psycho-social really means is that there are many factors and we do not know how they interact to yield adult sexual orientation.
Then I wondered when NARTH would make an APA-like statement about theorized environmental factors such as child abuse and same-sex parenting deficits. What if NARTH acknowledged “what most scientists have long known: that a bio-psycho-social model of causation best fits the data?” Wouldn’t there be a need for a statement cautioning readers of their materials that evidence for parenting playing a large or determining role is meager? Paralleling Dr. Byrd’s assessment of the APA pamphlet, shouldn’t NARTH say with italics, “There is no homogenic family. There is no simple familial pathway to homosexuality.” Appeals to those theories criticized by Corvino would be less frequent, right? Hey, changes are happening all over, why not this?
I wrote Dean and asked him about NARTH’s stance. He answered for himself by saying,
I think that the bio-psycho-social model of causation makes it clear that there is neither a simple biological or environmental pathway to homosexuality.
While I think NARTH should go much further, this statement may be the start of a more nuanced position from them. I would not go so far as Corvino did and say that familial factors have been discredited. On point, this is not what the APA said at all. What we should be saying is that there are many lines of research open with many factors under investigation. It appears pre-natal and post-natal factors play different roles for different people. Beyond that, the subject is still under study.
Would this change be so hard?
The new fruit fly research has observers wondering about a drug to alter sexual orientation. This article by John Tierney raises some of the inevitable questions which will arise if indeed such a bridge can be made between flies and humans.
He quotes an email from researcher David Featherstone on the controversy:
I asked Dr. Featherstone if it might be possible one day to quickly alter humans’ sexual orientation. Here’s his answer:
Although I am not sure my research is a big step in this direction, I think that ultimately the answer will be: Yes. After all, the goal of neuroscience is a complete understanding of brain function. Understanding in science is typically demonstrated by the ability to control a process.This morning, I received an email from a transsexual 5 years into her hormone therapy. She told me she regularly modifies her libido and orientation with diet and drugs. She even sent me a scientific reference explaining why her regimen might work. Now that is amazing research.The question of whether or not homosexuality should be turned on and off is not a scientific question. It is an ethical/societal dilemma. I am glad my work is stimulating the discussion earlier rather than later. History is replete with poorly thought out attempts to ‘cure’ societal/behavioral ‘illnesses’ that turned out, with proper perspective, to not be ‘illnesses’ at all.
This seems like science fiction now, but deciding such matters may be ahead of us. Good to talk about it now.
UPDATE: John Tierney has posted more from David Featherstone with more explicit commentary about what is novel about his work. He ends his emails on this note regarding ethics:
So the question is not if we will understand the biological basis of homosexuality enough to alter it, but when. And what people will choose to do with the knowledge. If there is a demand, I guarantee some pharmaceutical company will make the stuff. Or will the government outlaw treatments for behaviors that are obviously no threat to the individual or society? Would this imply that the government officially thinks that homosexuality is no one’s business but one’s own?