A Commentary on Gay Rams and the Nature/Nurture Debate
January 25th, 2007
My friend Richard is one of the gayest people I know. He’s not only gay, but he is one of the happiest, friendliest and most cheerful souls you could ever hope to meet. He fits every definition of the word. One morning he was watching one of those news-chat programs in which a well-meaning guest was intoning with great sympathy that gay people are “that way” because they were born gay. It’s not their fault; they didn’t have a choice. Richard responded to that condescending tone by throwing up his hands and exclaiming, “Well if it’s not a choice it oughta be!”
I thought about that a few weeks ago when the blogging world exploded with news of Dr. Charles Roselli, of the Oregon Health and Science University, and his experiments to “make gay rams ex-gay”, or at least that’s how the research was represented. For some reason, about 8% of rams will only try to mate with other rams, and the actual goal of his research was to try to figure out how to identify those rams which are more likely to breed.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) learned of this (these studies had actually been appearing in professional journals since
the mid-nineties 2002), and hyped it into a worldwide outrage. Dr. Roselli was inundated with e-mails, including death threats (“I hope you burn in hell”, “please die”, etc.) and Martina Navrotilova wrote that such treatment “can only be surmised as an attempt to develop a prenatal treatment” for homosexuality.
This morning’s The New York Times followed up with the story behind the story heard ’round the world:
Dr. Roselli, whose research is supported by the National Institutes of Health and is published in leading scientific journals, insists that he is as repulsed as his critics by the thought of sexual eugenics in humans. He said human sexuality was a complex phenomenon that could not be reduced to interactions of brain structure and hormones
But others continue with their criticisms:
Paul Root Wolpe, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and a senior fellow at the university’s Center for Bioethics, said that although he supported Dr. Roselli’s research, “I’m not sure I would let him off the hook quite as easily as he wants to be let off the hook.”…
If the mechanisms underlying sexual orientation can be discovered and manipulated, Dr. Wolpe continued, then the argument that sexual orientation is based in biology and is immutable “evaporates.”
It evaporates indeed. Biology can be manipulated much more easily than minds and hearts. The argument that says that homosexuality is pre-natal and can’t be changed misses an obvious point. If it’s pre-natal, it can’t be changed because we don’t know how to change it. But just because we don’t know how to change a lot of pre-natal conditions today doesn’t mean we won’t discover how to do it in the future.
But there are those who claim to know how to change sexuality today because, according to their favorite theories, it arises solely from what happened to us after we were born. But that argument is just as flawed. The fact is the mental health professions have not demonstrated a very good track record in “fixing” all sorts of horrible things our mothers or fathers supposedly did to us. And part of the reason is simple: our parents cannot bear the sole blame for who we are or whatever ails us.
Parents (especially mothers) have, at various times throughout history, been blamed for autism, asthma, epilepsy, schizophrenia, alcoholism, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, stuttering, poor peer relationships, low self-esteem, social phobia, sociopathy, bad grades, and homosexuality. And what do many of these patients get after so many years of therapy? Autism, asthma, epilepsy, schizophrenia, alcoholism, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, stuttering, poor peer relationships, low self-esteem, social phobia, sociopathy, bad grades or homosexuality and someone to blame it on.
That’s not to say that bad parenting doesn’t contribute to severe difficulties later in life. It often does. And investigating those past influences can be a benefit to many people by giving them important insights into how they see their world and react to it. But the mental health professions have had, at best, middling success in “correcting” the effects of parental factors.
I have often argued that, first of all, it is silly to suppose that something as complex as human sexuality and romantic attractions can be boiled down to a single cause for all people. But even if such an argument could be made and it were somehow proven that homosexuality were environmental, does that mean we are any closer to “curing” it?
The best evidence says we aren’t, and that assessment seems to be shared by the collective “gut check” taking place in a society where psychoanalysis has fallen out of fashion. Psychoanalysis (that particular branch of psychology based on the methods and theories of Sigmund Freud in which childhood experiences reign supreme) reached its peak some thirty years ago, but it has been losing its influence ever since. (When’s the last time you heard of someone seeing their analyst?) The reason for its loss of influence is obvious: While it may help some people, it hasn’t proven to be terrible effective for many. Woody Allen is just as messed up today as he ever was. And yet, ex-gay groups like Exodus and NARTH continue to cling to those outdated notions because it’s all they have. There is no pill or vaccine to “cure” homosexuality. Not yet, anyway.
But what if someday there is a pill or a vaccine? Will that put an end to all gay people? Probably not. As I said before, there is not likely to be a single cause for all gayness. We are not sheep. Nor are we fruitflies, which can be made to try to mate with other fruitflies of the same gender with the modification of a single gene. We are human beings, and we are a very complex bunch.
So what if new discoveries cover all of our biological bases and we still have gay people? What then? Well, I guess that would prove what we already suspect and shouldn’t be afraid to say, that the environment plays a role for some people. But then that brings us back to the nurture side of the debate and the very dicey “success” we’ve had with dealing with it so far. If the ever-growing number of ex-ex-gays in our midsts tells us anything, it’s that we’re not likely to see many therapeutic breakthroughs here.
And this brings me to my second argument. It is not only silly to argue that human sexuality can be blamed solely on biology or parenting because it is scientifically ludicrous, it is silly to argue it because it merely reinforces the assumption that something must have gone wrong. Laura Schlessinger says we are a “biological error”. Strike the “error” from that statement and you have the prevailing pro-gay argument on what happened. Most gay activists have bought into the same argument; they’ve just chosen a different side. The only difference between these gay activists and the anti-gay lobby is in their arguments about what went wrong.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a call to end all research into the etiology (origins) of sexuality. I’m a big believer in knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I’m very quick to rush off to the University library whenever I hear of a new study being published. I’m as fascinated by all of these studies as anybody can be. I’m also a firm believer that this research should go forward and we should let the chips fall where they may. We should never fear intellectual curiosity, no matter where it leads us.
But I would suggest we step outside of the nature/nurture debate altogether and instead adopt Richard’s attitude. If it’s not a choice, it should be. And while we’re at it, we can also choose to be grateful to our parents for contributing to the good things that are in us. I’m grateful to both of my parents for nurturing in me a love of science, a love of reading, a love of exploration and discussion, a love of antiques, a love of traveling, and so much more. They also nurtured in me a deep faith and a strong sense of justice and fair play. Many of these characteristics may well have been pre-natally ordained, but they nurtured them anyway. And if they nurtured my developing sexuality — and if they influenced how I relate to other people — then who am I to wag my finger at them? And more personally, how dare anyone else speak badly about my mom and dad?
Besides we must never allow this argument to serve as a distraction from the fundamental values that we are really wrestling with. These values go to our very core as men and women and as citizens. And they are also the founding values of our great nation: that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. And we are endowed with these rights not because of how we were born, but because of the fact that we were born.
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