Nature/Nurture in the Discourse of Gay Rights

Recently, a clergyman from the religion of my childhood, gave a speech to a group who fervently believes in reparative therapy for gays and lesbians. His comment was that being gay was not in one’s “DNA.” According to the Salt Lake Tribune, “[Elder Bruce] Hafen spent a large portion of his talk, held during a Sunday-like service, criticizing the gay-rights movement and denying a biological link to sexual orientation….He attacked the APA’s [American Psychological Association’s] decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, deeming it politically motivated.”

Hafen, and the group Evergreen to which he was speaking, believes that one can overcome same-sex attraction. In fact, it is commonplace in this kind of discourse to refer to gayness as an attraction only, not an orientation, and, of course, not a legitimate lifestyle.

What if both sides of the nature/nurture issue when it comes to homosexuality are right? My limited understanding about the studies that have been done to discover how nature determines gayness, such as a “gay gene,” is that they overlook other studies which in fact have shown that orientation is formed after birth. I tend to agree with the latter. But I also believe that sexual orientation of each (or every) kind is formed after birth. But it’s formed at a very early age: even one to one and a half years old.

This would account for how studies contradict each other. But the gay movement, at least during the 80s and 90s seemed to seize on the imperative that being gay was something one is born with. This shouted down any other competing views, even those that were at least as scientifically sound as those cited by the APA which led to removing homosexuality from its list of illnesses or deviances.

Is there a way to honor the differing scientific views of this admittedly complex phenomenon? Hafen may be right when he says that the gay movement is politicized. But he’s missing the point as are those who stridently defend the nature-only position. If humans develop a sexual orientation at 18 months, then they have no choice in the matter. I think it is clear that orientation cannot be changed. That’s where Evergreen and other reparative therapy organizations are doing major harm, in my estimation.

On the other side of the argument, gay activists are not doing their cause (or the broader cause of human civility and productive discourse) any favors either. Discounting the experience–in this case studies supported by legitimate scientific method–of others is the same as discounting someone’s experience discovering their sexual orientation. Discounting shows disrespect to another and derails any productive exchange, leaving only strong-arming and manipulation in its place.

I think it’s also helpful to complicate our thinking by looking at possible reasons behind sexual behavior–whether it’s gay or straight. Perhaps there is a difference, for example, between orientation and someone with a kind of arrested development that can be addressed in therapy or elsewhere. I read somewhere that upwards of 40 percent of males have homosexual experience(s) to the point of orgasm before they reach adulthood. Yet a much smaller percentage of the adult male population identifies as gay, either out or inside of the closet. So maybe it’s not very clarifying to say “gay is as gay does. ” We certainly know for a fact that it’s not true that “straight is as straight does.” So why not the reverse of that?

The irony, of course, of Hafen’s speech is that he and the church he represents (LDS), is equally if not more politicized in combatting gay rights than the gay movement. He is disingenuous to only point his finger at the “gay movement.” He had an opportunity to implicate himself and the church he represents–and thus strengthen his argument and garner respect from the other side. But he opted out of that for the temporary power play he perhaps feels is essential–to win the battle in a war that I suspect he feels is going to be lost. The sad thing about Hafen’s being caught up in battle mentality, is that we need his contribution to the conversation. He is bright. He is articulate and he is needed. But he has sold that human birthright for a kind of ideological and distressingly unhelpful conversational zinger.

To me it doesn’t matter why people end up gay or straight, or even bisexual. Science seems to be unclear on the matter, unless you want to count that the majority of scientists determine what’s scientifically true. (That’s often proven not to be true if my rhetoric of science classes have any point at all.) I think it is becoming clear, especially with the recidivism evident in reparative therapy groups like Evergreen, that orientation is real and that it cannot be changed.

It is the right and moral thing to give gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people the same civil rights as straight people. But it doesn’t help the cause when pro-gay individuals dismiss alternative views of how orientation is arrived at in their efforts to secure gay rights. I think there might be better persuasion or at least better understanding among individuals in this divisive issue if we could do that.

Having said that, I realize that over the years I have alienated my fair share of folks who disagree with me on the need to acknowledge the gay lifestyle as a legitimate human variance and the need to give GLBT folks rights similar to their straight counterparts. It would seem that I have a penchant, borne out of fear, to browbeat, ridicule and manipulate others in order to walk away with a pyrite victory and its inevitable backwash: retrenchment in those on the other side of the argument.

Potential for understanding and constructive policy-making has been wasted over the past two decades on this issue because of a wrong turn taken by gay rights activists, and because of the fear that afterward sets in them and their advocates like cement. The AIDS crisis seemed to cement it further even while it raised the public’s consciousness (though not that of the Reagan administration, unfortunately).

But today, I argue that we are now a long ways from the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America.” This brilliant, seven-hour “Gay fantasia on national themes” by Tony Kushner had its role to play (and also, incidentally, prominently featured characters, themes and iconography from the religion of Mr. Hafen). But eventually those of us who advocate for gay rights have to re-enter a conversation that includes the other side in a more productive exchange that honors the experience (and legitimate science) of all. Saying that and doing it are, of course, two different things.

Who will be the leader that transcends the stymied conversation about gay rights that implicates us all?

Copyright, David G. Pace, 2010

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