In Part Two, we were introduced (by way of an aborted article from Brad MacDonald of PCG) to some of the common homophobic myths plaguing our society. We had a grand old time ribbing Brad for his ignorance and general stupidity, and poking fun at his raging homophobia. But now it’s time to get a little serious: these myths, after all, are pervasive in American culture (especially among the religious) and do serious harm to our progress toward a freer, saner, and more ethical society. We will now set the record straight on the various poor arguments people use to excuse their irrational homophobia.
We will cover three myths in this installment: (1) the argument from the naturalistic fallacy, (2) the claim that a homosexual orientation is a free choice that gays make and that therefore they should be held accountable for their willful “sin”, and (3) the proposition (completely contradictory to the willful sin doctrine) that homosexuality is a mental disorder or a disease that can be “cured”.
It Jis Ain’t Natchrul!
This proposition involves a couple discrete concepts: (1) that homosexuality is “wrong”, and (2) that it is not “natural”. Supposedly the former concept is derived from the latter, utilizing what is sometimes called the naturalistic fallacy. It is a fallacy because a thing’s goodness does not necessarily follow from its naturalness. For example, predation is natural, and yet we don’t consider it morally pleasant. Radiation, harmful mutations, viruses and natural disasters are hardly things we want to happen to us, all-natural though they are. For a converse example, it could be argued that a given legal system is an “unnatural” (yet good) strategy for minimizing conflict. So the idea that something is good because it is “natural” (or wrong because it’s “unnatural”) is irrational to begin with.
But behind this fallacious line of reasoning lies the more fundamental question of how “natural” is to be defined. Anti-gay bigots often proclaim homosexuality to be “unnatural” on the basis of a strange concept of naturalness. According to them, something is natural only if it conforms to the “purpose” for its existence. Besides being the ad hoc fulcrum in a circular argument (more on this later), this definition is highly problematic on its face. Ostensibly, the penis exists for the purpose of penetrating the vagina, and the vagina exists for the purpose of being penetrated by the penis. And, by extension, the male exists for the purpose of imbuing the female with her purpose for existing, namely, as a semen repository and incubator of its products. At least, these are the distasteful implications of the anti-gay definition of what is “natural”.
It apparently is lost on these folks that one may do all kinds of things involving genitalia–and for that matter, erogenous zones in general–that are enjoyable (isn’t that a “natural” phenomenon–doesn’t the fact these body parts are packed with sensitive nerve endings say something about their “purpose”?) but which do not lead to the supposed “purpose” of sex: production of offspring. Is sex among infertile couples therefore “unnatural”? What about oral sex? Or breasts: shouldn’t we give up playing with these baby-feeding, fat and mammary gland storage devices, since utilization as “fun bags” is not their “purpose”? And isn’t it “unnatural” for you to be sucking on those nipples; how old are you? And what the hell are male nipples “for” anyway, if not for sexual stimulation (without procreation)? And what about romantic love? Doesn’t that enter into the “purpose” of sexual behavior in the minds of these bigots?
Let’s be honest: Isn’t sexual activity only “unnatural” to them if the participants happen to have similar genitals, quite apart from any imagined, superimposed “purposes”? (I won’t frighten these poor, provincial souls by bringing up the existence of intersex individuals or, O madness!, the terrible truth regarding the complicated nature of morphological sex and all such typological schemes. It suffices to point out that nature apparently abhors unambiguous dichotomies like this or that race, this or that sex, this or that sexual orientation. Sex, like everything else, is a fuzzy spectrum, not a coincidence of opposites.)
As you can readily appreciate, their argument begins to break down severely into circularity when one applies to it the slightest effort at critical thought. The naturalistic objection to homosexuality is thereby reduced to the form, “Homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, and it is unnatural because it is wrong.” (But wait! Didn’t Armstrong teach that the purpose of sex was to be an expression of love and to bond husband and wife together in a symbol of familial harmony that invoked Elohim? Sure. But that still doesn’t break the circle of the naturalistic argument, it merely introduces a different imaginary “purpose” imposed upon reality from the abstract externality of theological mysticism. In fact it is a completely different argument, which constitutes a separate myth that will be covered later.)
This is why I prefer a less dubious definition of “natural”, such as what you might find, oh, I don’t know, in a dictionary. It goes something like this: “existing in or formed by nature–as opposed to ‘artificial’.” Simple. The proper definition is not a very good ideological weapon for the bigots, though, which is why they crafted a special one designed for the purpose. And make no mistake: their purpose in this is to tell you what your purpose is in sex (assuming you are either a male penetrator or a female sperm receptacle–all other possibilities are meaningfully ignored), by way of a sly equivocation on the word “natural”. Alas for them, word definitions, regardless of their exacting specifications, simply are not qualified for the job of prescribing behavior.
But not only does the dictionary definition of “natural” avoid the unwholesome (and, dare I say, “unnatural”) duty of telling you what “purpose” your genitals and other organs are “for”, it also reveals that homosexuality is indeed perfectly natural, since we’ve already pointed out that homosexual behaviors have been found to be “existing in” nature. And they are also “formed by nature”, which brings us to our next myth–that homosexuality is a choice.
Oh, Those Genes Are Just Fabulous!
Homosexuality, say the Fundamentalists, is such a horrible “sin” in the eyes of their god that he made up a special category for it: abomination! But gay sex is not the only thing the Bible calls an “abomination”. So are pigs. And yet we don’t see Fundamentalists protesting the existence of pigs or trying to “cure” them of their piggish ways. Some Fundamentalists even eat them (ew)! What Fundamentalists certainly don’t do is try to argue that their god did not create pigs or other such “abominations”. And yet, they make a special case out of homosexuality: “God did not create homosexuality,” they shout, “Gays choose to be gay!” Of course, they have to say that. After all, what kind of god would create certain tendencies in people just to label them with words like “abomination”–and then demand the murder of anyone who displays said tendencies? (Oh, wait, I must have forgotten we were talking about Yahweh here, hardener of hearts and sender of lying spirits.)
We’ve already demonstrated that homosexual tendencies are natural. But we’re going to get a little more specific in addressing this charge that sexual orientation is somehow “chosen”. First we’ll give the bigots their chance to weigh in on the issue, with their windy references to outmoded mysticism and obscurantist philosophical imperatives. Then we’ll go directly to the first and last legitimate authority on all meaningful questions and ask, “What does the science say?”
Let’s hear from the Fundamentalists first (later we’ll consult those who actually have neurons to abuse). They sum up their stance this way:
Proponents of the homosexual agenda [more on this later] often claim that homosexuality is unchangeable and has a genetic basis. However, this does not prove that homosexuals do not choose to behave this way. By definition, a consenting homosexual relationship must be made by choice, even if there is a latent homosexual desire. People with homosexual tendencies in their genetics can still resist the temptation to commit sin, and remain faithful to the teachings of the Bible.
Right out of the PT, right? Nope (but it might as well have been). That’s from a lovely propaganda piece brought to us by the bigots over at Conservapedia. In the context of homosexuality, any Fundamentalist can speak for any other: they’re interchangeable because they all believe the same things and utilize the same poor reasoning–Armstrongists certainly included. Sure, their delusional bigotry may vary in relatively unimportant details, but at their core they all agree and are of a piece.
So, their argument, what they agree on, is, “Of course homosexuality is a choice, just like any other that involves resisting temptation.” Notice how they’ve re-framed the question by making the value judgment implicit. By this strategy they get to make two bold and contradictory assertions simultaneously: homosexuality is a free choice and a tempting “sin”. It’s no wonder Fundamentalists can so readily imagine a double-talking serpent beguiling their mythological primal mother. You have to watch these sons of devious snakes; they drip with oily venom (and they probably don’t even know it themselves).
So, what could it be that makes this “choice” so tempting in the first place? Conservapedia conveniently mentions genetics. Is there any connection there? Probably. I won’t go into the technical details. It suffices for our purposes to point out that research tends to support some genetic influence. For example, a 2008 Swedish twin study revealed that:
Overall, genetics accounted for around 35 per cent of the differences between men in homosexual behaviour and other individual-specific environmental factors (that is, not societal attitudes, family or parenting which are shared by twins) accounted for around 64 per cent.
But, as the author of this study hastened to explain, there is not likely to be a “gay gene”. What is most probable and most harmonious with the available evidence is that genes play a role in determining sexual orientation…alongside those “individual-specific environmental factors” he described. I’ll let the expert explain: “In other words, men [and there are reasons this statement was limited to men: please read the article before lecturing me on “male privilege”] become gay or straight because of different developmental pathways, not just one pathway.”
And, in other words, science shows that homosexuality is a choice in exactly the same way heterosexuality is a choice.
And, in any case, what’s wrong with choosing to be who you are? The only answer the Fundamentalists (and Catholics, it seems) can muster is the standard circular argument appealing to “natural law” (i.e., the naturalistic fallacy): homosexuality is wrong because it is wrong. But, despite their utter logic fail, they have convinced some confused souls that their homosexual orientation is something better left unfulfilled. Besides, they contend, gays can be “cured” of this supposedly conscious lifestyle decision.
“I Got Better.”
Putting aside for the moment the absurdity of claiming both that homosexuality is a free choice (like chocolate or vanilla) and that it can be “cured” (like being turned into a newt), let’s take a brief excursion into the crazy world of SOCE (sexual orientation change efforts) to determine the validity (if any) of such endeavors.
The most common form of SOCE is called reparative therapy. Just to keep things simple, we’ll focus our attention here, but be advised that all SOCEs elicit similarly chilly responses from the professional and scientific community–and for similar reasons–good reasons, as we’ll see.
Practitioners of reparative therapy operate on the assumption that homosexuality is a mental disorder, and their methods reflect this perspective. So, right away we run into a potential problem: if homosexuality is, in fact, not a mental disorder, then reparative therapy sits on a foundation of sand, and we shouldn’t be surprised if it proves to be an exercise in futility.
So, is psychiatric treatment even appropriate in the case of homosexuality? First, let’s quickly explore the origins of this assumption that homosexuality is pathological. It all starts, not surprisingly, with religious bigotry. A short article on the subject can be found at a site maintained by U.C. Davis professor Dr. Gregory Herek. He writes:
Modern attitudes toward homosexuality have religious, legal, and medical underpinnings. Before the High Middle Ages, homosexual acts appear to have been tolerated or ignored by the Christian church throughout Europe. Beginning in the latter twelfth century, however, hostility toward homosexuality began to take root, and eventually spread throughout European religious and secular institutions…By the end of the 19th century, medicine and psychiatry were effectively competing with religion and the law for jurisdiction over sexuality. As a consequence, discourse about homosexuality expanded from the realms of sin and crime to include that of pathology. This historical shift was generally considered progressive because a sick person was less blameful than a sinner or criminal (e.g., Chauncey, 1982/1983; D’Emilio & Freedman, 1988; Duberman, Vicinus, & Chauncey, 1989).
And there you have it in a nutshell: the bigotry of the prevailing religious “wisdom” was casually carried over into mainstream medicine and psychiatry, and much nonsense-based abuse ensued. But proper science would eventually be brought to bear on previously unexamined assumptions. Professor Herek continues:
Today, a large body of published empirical research clearly refutes the notion that homosexuality per se is indicative of or correlated with psychopathology. One of the first and most famous published studies in this area was conducted by psychologist Evelyn Hooker.
Hooker’s (1957) study was innovative in several important respects. First, rather than simply accepting the predominant view of homosexuality as pathology, she posed the question of whether homosexuals and heterosexuals differed in their psychological adjustment. Second, rather than studying psychiatric patients, she recruited a sample of homosexual men who were functioning normally in society. Third, she employed a procedure that asked experts to rate the adjustment of men without prior knowledge of their sexual orientation. This method addressed an important source of bias that had vitiated so many previous studies of homosexuality.
Hooker administered three projective tests (the Rorschach, Thematic Apperception Test [TAT], and Make-A-Picture-Story [MAPS] Test) to 30 homosexual males and 30 heterosexual males recruited through community organizations. The two groups were matched for age, IQ, and education. None of the men were in therapy at the time of the study.
Unaware of each subject’s sexual orientation, two independent Rorschach experts evaluated the men’s overall adjustment using a 5-point scale. They classified two-thirds of the heterosexuals and two-thirds of the homosexuals in the three highest categories of adjustment. When asked to identify which Rorschach protocols were obtained from homosexuals, the experts could not distinguish respondents’ sexual orientation at a level better than chance.
A third expert used the TAT and MAPS protocols to evaluate the psychological adjustment of the men. As with the Rorschach responses, the adjustment ratings of the homosexuals and heterosexuals did not differ significantly.
Hooker concluded from her data that homosexuality is not a clinical entity and that homosexuality is not inherently associated with psychopathology.
Hooker’s findings have since been replicated by many other investigators using a variety of research methods. Freedman (1971), for example, used Hooker’s basic design to study lesbian and heterosexual women. Instead of projective tests, he administered objectively-scored personality tests to the women. His conclusions were similar to those of Hooker.
Thank you, Evelyn Hooker, for showing how science is done.
So, the evidence conclusively supports what should have been the null hypothesis all along: homosexuality is normal; not a disorder. Now we see that reparative therapy is a baseless practice–one that involves electroshock treatments, drug-induced nausea, suppression of perfectly healthy urges and other physical and psychological tortures associated with “aversion therapy”–not to mention the necessary promotion of incorrect and prejudiced views regarding homosexuality. But what about their results? Do the numbers bear out the baseless nature of their methods? You bet they do! Give yourself a gold star if you are not surprised.
Unfortunately, good science never stops peddlers of delusions, especially if they can prop up their nonsense with bad science. In the “‘Curing’ Gays” episode of his excellent podcast, Skeptoid, Brian Dunning laid out the facts and took the homosexuality-as-disease advocates to task for their shoddy science:
At least one prominent group promotes itself as a science-based professional organization of psychiatrists and psychologists who disagree with the APA’s finding that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, charges the APA with politicking and creating a hostile environment that discourages research into homosexuality as a disease. NARTH acts as a referral service for more than 1,000 member counselors, mostly church groups. NARTH does not require that its members be licensed therapists or doctors. NARTH also works closely with Focus on the Family…
The overwhelming majority of psychological studies show that change efforts have never worked; however, both [reparative therapy practitioners] Exodus and NARTH link to a few cherrypicked studies in an effort to show that change efforts are successful. Chief among these is one by Dr. Robert Spitzer in 2001. It’s a perfect example of how poorly conducted these studies are, and that it’s one of the Exodus and NARTH favorites shows what a sparse field they have to work with. The main criticism is with Spitzer’s methodology, a telephone survey of only 202 subjects, provided by Exodus. In fact, fully a fifth of the subjects were directors of Exodus International ministries. 100% of them were religious, nearly all Christian. The selection criteria was that all had undergone reparative therapy after self identifying as being previously gay — in other words, the only subjects chosen for the survey were those who [had] already shown the effect the experimenter hoped to prove! If that’s not enough, more than three quarters of the subjects had spoken in public in favor of sexual orientation change efforts. Among the questions was to self-report their own sexual orientation on a scale of to 1 to 7, 1 being fully heterosexual, 7 being fully homosexual. But amazingly, of the 202 subjects, only eight stated that their Exodus therapy took them from 5 or more to 3 or less, the only range that could reasonably be called a successful conversion. Of those eight, seven were Exodus ministry directors, and the eighth refused a followup interview. Yet Spitzer concluded from all of this that reparative therapy was effective. Spitzer’s methodology and conclusions were roundly criticized, including directly by the APA itself.
Spitzer’s “study” wasn’t science; it was a circle jerk (and some might call that gay–shame on you, Exodus International!).
Obviously, there is no scientific validity whatsoever to the treatment of homosexuality as a disease. But what about real diseases popularly associated with homosexuality? In particular, is it true that being gay is practically a death sentence? What about AIDs? Isn’t that evidence of God’s holy wrath against his gay creations?
Stay tuned for the answers to these and many other exciting questions, when we continue our examination of even more homophobic myths in the final installment of this four-part series!