Science and Homosexuality

On Monday, January 16, 2012, my article “Same-Sex Science” documenting the growing acceptance of false beliefs about homosexuality promulgated in the name of science will be officially published in the February issue of the journal First Things (in print and on its website). This article is extracted from a much longer, original version “Sexual Orientation and Reason: Implications of False Beliefs about Homosexuality.”

To summarize these articles, I quote first from the introduction of the shortened version published by First Things:

“Many religious and social conservatives believe that homosexuality is a mental illness caused exclusively by psychological or spiritual factors, and that all homosexual persons could change their orientation if they simply tried hard enough. This is a view that is widely pilloried—and rightly so—as both wrong on the facts and harmful in effect. But few who attack this view are willing to acknowledge that today a wholly different, far more influential and pervasive, and no less harmful set of falsehoods, each attributed to the findings of “science,” dominate the public discourse about homosexuality. We are told that homosexual persons are just as psychologically healthy as heterosexuals, that sexual orientation is biologically determined at birth, that homosexual relationships are equivalent to heterosexual ones in all important characteristics, that sexual orientation cannot be changed and that the attempt to change is necessarily harmful, and that personal identity is properly and legitimately constituted around sexual orientation. These claims are as misguided as the ridiculed beliefs of some social conservatives, as they spring from distorted or incomplete representations of the best findings from the science of same-sex attraction.”

In both the short version in the long version, I trace the scientific evidence and reasoning relevant to these claims. The conclusion from my longer version provides a good summary of the endpoint of this journey at this time:

“Public opinion and social policy developments today are being driven by assumptions that cannot stand under rigorous examination. Some of these beliefs are unhelpful simplifications, some simply go beyond what we reliably know, and others are demonstrably false.

 “The realities that emerge from the considerable research base of the field are complex. That gay and lesbian individuals together constitute less than 2% of the population does not diminish our shared moral obligation to treat them the respect. The evidence suggesting increased risk for psychological distress and physical health complications of various sorts is associated with being gay or lesbian does not validate construal of homosexuality as a mental illness; further, this increased risk may legitimately be attributed to some degree to abusive or even violent treatment by those who disapprove of their choices, but we cannot eliminate the possibility that this elevated distress is to some degree or partially an entailment of living life contrary to the normative grain of our gendered sexuality. The etiology of homosexuality is mysterious; on average it certainly involves some biological contributors and it certainly involves some socio-cultural contributors, but how these factors contribute in the formation of individual sexual orientations is mysterious, as is the role of childhood, adolescent, and adult choices made, consciously or unconsciously, that contribute to the solidification of orientation. There is sufficient evidence, however, to know that sexual orientation is quite dis-analogous to race.

 “We know that homosexuality is not immutable, but we have little basis to believe that every individual homosexual person can reorient to heterosexuality, and have many reasons to believe that a process of change is demanding and uncertain. Just as we know from the research of Evelyn Hooker and others that some homosexual persons are just as psychologically strong and resilient as some heterosexuals, so also we know that some homosexual relationships can be admirable in many ways, and remarkably equivalent on certain important dimensions of health and stability compared to heterosexual relationships. But we also know without question that homosexual partnerships do not have the intrinsic capacities for reproduction of male-female pairings, and have good reason to believe that the typical homosexual relationship differs in certain ways from the average heterosexual relationship. We know that some individuals ground their identity in their sexual orientation; we have insufficient resources within the social sciences to determine the legitimacy of this reality.

 “Our culture is polarized between those relentlessly advancing the full acceptance and normalization of all things homosexual, indeed of all sexual variations, and those resisting those moves in the name of traditional values. There are, of course, many bewildered individuals poised between the polarities, uncertain what the issues are but moved by compassion in response to stories of the sufferings of GLB persons but often equally moved – perhaps by deeply rooted instinct, perhaps by nostalgia –by a deep fear of change. I can propose no easy or innovative third way; the choices before us as a culture indeed appear to be profound and fundamental.

 “As moral and religious traditionalists face this profound polarization, it is important that we confess our own culpability in creating the mess we are in. We were complicit, even if ignorantly and passively so, in the cultural embrace of the disease conceptualization of homosexuality. We offloaded responsibility for the articulation of a thoughtful, caring, theologically rich and pastorally sensitive understanding of sexual brokenness onto the disease conceptualization, and thus were unprepared for the vacuum created by its timely demise. We have failed to articulate thoughtful understandings of human sexuality in light of evolving scientific findings and cultural developments. Perhaps most importantly, we failed and continue to fail to engage individuals who embrace homosexual identity with compassion, understanding, and love, and to seek to defend them against unjust discrimination and violence.

 “We know much more now than we did 10 and 30 years ago about the emotional well-being of homosexual persons, the complicated interaction of nature and nurture in the causation of sexual orientation, of the complicated, limited, and difficult possibilities of sexual orientation malleability, of the functional and descriptive characteristics manifest in same-sex partnerships and of the contours of the psychological identities of homosexual persons. The contributions of science to this complicated area, however, remain sketchy, limited and puzzling. It is remarkable how little scientific humility is in evidence given the primitive nature of our knowledge.

 “Perhaps if our culture can recognize the fluid and incomplete nature of our knowledge of the homosexual condition, if we can recognize the limits of reason, we may be able to create a public space where differing parties agree to disagree and give each other room to live in civility. But the best ecclesiastical, professional, legal and social policy will not be founded on falsehoods or on grotesque and indefensible simplifications, but on a clearheaded grasp of reality in all its complexities, as well as on a humble recognition of all that we do not know.”

Readers are invited to consult either the short or long versions for more information.