Research on Homosexuality

A number of fears—maybe it would be better to call them concerns—seem to be out there at the margins of the gay community over research on the origin(s) of homosexuality and the possibility of changing people’s sexual orientation. The concern is mainly that the results of such research could be used to prevent or extirpate homosexuality.

I suspect there isn’t much anyone can do about such research. Like all research, it is going to continue because people—including most of us who are gay—want to know more about ourselves and about how the world works. But I also feel certain that any concerns are greatly exaggerated.

Take the issue of research into the origins of (causes of, reasons for) male homosexuality. That would be interesting to know, just as it would be interesting to know the equally mysterious cause(s) of heterosexuality.

But scientists aren’t quite researching the right thing. Most researchers seem very confused about what homosexuality/homosexual desire actually is. And most seem overly impressed that most women also are attracted to men. So, they draw the logically invalid conclusion that male homosexuality must be caused by something female in gay men—as if desire for men can have only one cause.

Clever studies that manage to change an insect’s or animal’s overall behavior from male-typical to female-typical are not about homosexuality at all. Male homosexual behavior has no particular connection to acting like a female. It is not thinking, feeling, or acting like a woman. It is about a man (whether top or bottom) being attracted as a man to other men. (In some Third World countries, some gay men do imitate women as a signaling device, but that practice is being abandoned with the worldwide spread of gay liberation.)

Scientists should be doing research into the origins of homosexual desire.

Homosexual desire is largely a cognitive or conceptual matter, so the origin(s) have to be sought in the cognitive (even aesthetic) values of the gay individual.

What factors, we might want to know, result in our being attracted not just to men generically, but also to (and having a physical response to) a particular man across a crowded room, and not having any response to other men (or women) in the room? What meaning does this person’s appearance—and, later, other qualities—hold for us such that we feel desire?

Researchers who try to study twins to find genetic causes forget that twins raised together share a common upbringing, often look alike, and have similar personalities, leading parents and others to treat them similarly, generating a similar value system and a similar response to the world in both twins. Even twins reared apart often look alike and/or share common physical capacities, leading people to treat them similarly. Twin studies also are plagued by recruitment biases—using twins who know of their twin’s sexuality, which introduces a bias right away.

Studies of the human brain—including some of the most widely publicized—have not been replicated. They have been criticized vigorously for methodological flaws, and for ignoring the large number of exceptions and counterexamples. The same is true of “gene studies,” which also depend on assuming an implausibly low percentage of gay men, to say nothing of not facing the problem of people who feel both homosexual and heterosexual desire.

So, I don’t mind research on homosexuality. It is just that most of the research is pointless, misdirected, and based on false assumptions. If researchers ever find the reasons why some men are gay (and others heterosexual), that will be interesting to know. But there is no reason to think that will enable anyone to expunge homosexual desire. The vast number of elements that go into producing anyone’s personality and cognitive value system are too varied and too little understood for anyone to be able to control or change.

In fact, most of the studies of people (“ex-gays”) who claim to have changed their sexuality have serious methodological problems, from recruitment bias to insufficient follow-up to a failure to rigorously cross-examine interviewees (such as Kinsey did) to a failure to define what changing “sexual orientation” actually means. It doesn’t mean just a change in behavior. It has to mean a change in desire.

Perhaps the best recent book on the topic is Ex-Gay Research, edited by Jack Drescher and Kenneth Zucker (Haworth Press, 2006). It consists of a large number of commentaries, most skeptical, on the controversial study by Robert Spitzer of men and women who claimed they (more or less) had changed their sexual orientation. It is an excellent introduction to the basic issues involved.

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