June 21, 2012

Is being gay like race?

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, June 21, 2012

Is being gay like race?

During Gay Pride Parade seasons I sometimes hear versions of the following argument: Science shows that homosexuals are biologically and genetically determined to be gay, like black people are biologically and genetically determined to be black, so questioning homosexuality is unjust—as racism is unjust.

Here are three reasons for thinking that this argument is problematic from the perspective of critical thinking.

Reason 1. Scientific evidence does not show that homosexual orientation is, like skin colour, wholly biologically or genetically determined. Scientific evidence seems very much to suggest, rather, that homosexual orientation is due to a cluster of interacting factors whose relative weights vary from person to person.

Some factors are biological (e.g., genes or heritable contributions may predispose, not causally determine, a person toward homosexuality; e.g., in some cases it is alleged that a mother's pre-natal antibodies may influence a male fetus's brain development so it is "feminized"). Some factors are social and psychological (e.g., childhood sexual abuse, some particularities of broken family life, or the broader cultural-social environment may play a role in influencing a person toward homosexuality). Some factors have to do with the individual's responses to biological and environmental inputs (responses that unintentionally tend to promote a predisposition).

Two things are clear: (a) same-sex attractions seem not to be due to choice, whereas (b) acting in accordance with or indulging one's sexual attractions is due to choice.

There is more. Psychologist Mark Yarhouse makes a three-tiered distinction between same-sex attractions, homosexual orientation, and gay identity. A person may have same-sex attractions (from time to time) or even a homosexual orientation (i.e., strong, durable, persistent same-sex attractions), yet that person may choose not to subscribe to a gay identity, which Yarhouse calls the "gay script."

The "gay script" reads as follows: Same-sex attractions (however strong, durable, or persistent) constitute the core of one's personhood and engaging in same-sex behaviour is crucial for self-actualization. Yarhouse argues, however, that a person may choose not to construct his/her self-definition in terms of the gay script. Why not? Because, according to Yarhouse, other scripts are available, scripts that don't make one's sexual attractions the core of one's identity as a person.

The upshot: The essential nature of gay identity seems very much to involve a decision.

In other words, whereas race does not involve choices or decisions, indulging in or acting on same-sex attractions and constructing one's self-description via the gay identity/script apparently do.

[For a helpful overview of the scientific understanding of the causal background of homosexuality, and for further explanation of the three-tiered distinction between same-sex attraction, homosexual orientation, and gay identity, see Yarhouse's 2010 book Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends.]

Reason 2. Unlike the impossibility of changing one's race, there are persons who have unwanted homosexual orientation or same-sex attractions and have changed them to significant degrees.

According to the 2009 study What Research Shows, done by the U.S.-based National Association for Research and Therapy for Homosexuality (NARTH), “over a century of experiential evidence, clinical reports, and research evidence demonstrate that it is possible for both men and women to change from homosexuality to heterosexuality [and] that efforts to change are not generally harmful.”

Yarhouse cautiously sums up his investigation of the relevant research as follows: "Although some people do experience a change in sexual orientation, most experience modest gains, and many share that they continue to have same-sex attractions at times." Yarhouse adds: "change can occur along a continuum."

In other words, whereas race cannot be changed to any degree, it very much seems to be the case that same-sex orientation and same-sex attractions can be changed to various degrees—at least for some people.

Reason 3. Medical concerns are not usually closely associated with race; however, persons who act on their same-sex sexual propensities (especially men) do have closely associated health concerns.

According to NARTH's above-mentioned study, "Researchers have shown that medical, psychological and relationship pathology within the homosexual community is more prevalent than within the general population." According to the website for the prestigious Mayo Clinic, "All men have certain health risks. Gay men and men who have sex with men face an increased risk of specific health concerns, however."

[Also, according to researcher Thomas Coy, "The risk of HIV from sexual contact for MSM (men who have sex with men) was approximately 150 times greater than the heterosexual male population in 2010." For the sake of perspective, Coy adds: "According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) the risk of  lung cancer for men who smoke is 23 times greater than for men who do not smoke."]

In other words, homosexuality is also different from race, health-wise.

In view of the above three reasons, it is reasonable to conclude that homosexuality and race are significantly dissimilar and so the analogy between homosexuality and race is deeply problematic.

Raising questions about homosexuality, then, is not akin to racism. Rather, in view of the present prevalence of Gay Pride Parades and these parades' apparent purpose of encouraging the larger society to accept and celebrate homosexuality, raising questions about homosexuality is more akin to seeking truth in advertising.

P.S. For the record, my raising of the above concerns about homosexuality does not stem from homophobia (an irrational fear or hatred of homosexuals) nor is it an attempt to show disrespect to homosexuals (I believe that all people are made in God's image and deserve respect, so disrespecting people with same-sex attractions is wrong, period). Rather, I am deeply interested in the pursuit of truth. In a democratic society it is important to seek truth—and especially important when it's not fashionable to do so.

[P.P.S. For a helpful online article on science and homosexuality, see psychologist Stanton L. Jones, "Same-Sex Science," First Things, February 2012.]

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)

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