Feature

The origins of homosexuality

A prominent psychiatrist has revived a bitter controversy by claiming that “motivated” gays and lesbians can change their orientation through psychotherapy. Is homosexuality an inborn trait or the reversible product of emotional conditioning?

Why are some people gay?

For the first half of the last century, homosexuality was widely considered a psychological disorder, caused by poor parenting. Sigmund Freud originated this view with his theory that boys can become homosexual if they have a detached, unaffectionate father or a dominant, emotionally demanding mother. After Freud, psychiatrists viewed homosexuality as a syndrome that could and should be treated and cured. That all began to change with the gay-rights movement in the 1960s. As gay men and lesbians demanded acceptance, psychiatrists began to view homosexuality in a new light. When researchers first studied groups of gay men, they found them to be no different—no more likely to be either disturbed or sane—than straight men. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declared it would no longer label homosexuality as a mental illness.

What role does biology play?

There is no definitive evidence, but many studies have supported the theory that biological factors determine sexual orientation. One theory is that there is a “gay gene.” This belief was popularized by Dr. Simon Le Vay in 1991. Le Vay, a neuroanatomist at the Salk Institute in San Diego, studied cells in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls such basic instincts as hunger, self-defense, and desire. Le Vay found these cells to be different, depending on whether a man was gay or straight. Another study in the early 1990s tried to zero in on a “gay gene” by comparing the sexual preferences of twins. In that study, Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute found that identical twins, who share 100 percent of their genes, were more likely than fraternal twins, who share only half their genes, to have the same sexual preference. Hamer said this showed that something in the X chromosome carried the key to sexual orientation. Around the same time, Dr. Laura Allen and Dr. Roger Gorski said they had identified a cluster of nerves connecting the brain’s right and left sides that is larger in gay men than in straight men. Last year, University of California at Berkeley psychologist Marc Breedlove reported that lesbians had a more masculine finger-length pattern than straight women. Lesbians, he said, had index fingers a bit shorter than their ring fingers, similar to men.

So why is the nature/nurture argument still going on?

These studies have their critics. Le Vay’s findings have been questioned because most of the brains he studied were from people who had died of AIDS. Perhaps it was the disease, the critics say, that caused part of the hypothalamus to be different. Another dissenting opinion is that the area shrank from increased sexual activity. (Studies in rats show shrinking of the hypothalamus from increased sexual intercourse, and gay men generally engage in sex more often than straight men.) Hamer’s twin study, critics say, was flawed because it did not account for the possibility that the sexual preference of one twin is influenced by the other’s.

What difference does it make?

The belief that some people have no choice but to be gay has powerful political implications. If orientation is as involuntary as skin color and ethnicity, gay activists say, how dare anyone condemn gays? Conservative Christians and other religious groups have objected to this idea, insisting that homosexuality is a choice, and an immoral one. They maintain that “highly motivated” gays can change, and they point to research of their own as proof. Columbia University psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, who has spoken publicly against homosexuality, announced recently that he had interviewed 200 gay men and lesbians who had undergone years of sexual-orientation therapy, and that most of them had indeed changed. Sixty-six percent of the men and 44 percent of the women reported “good heterosexual functioning” after undergoing therapy. Critics say the study doesn’t prove anything, because most of the participants were selected with the help of anti-gay religious groups or treated by therapists biased against homosexuality.

Why is the study so controversial?

Gay activists say Spitzer’s work assumes there is something undesirable about homosexuality, and that it will be used to stigmatize and penalize people who refuse to “convert.” These critics point to another recent study by two New York City psychiatrists, who found that 90 percent of gays failed to change their orientation through therapy. Many gays said the therapy sessions actually caused psychological harm, leading to depression and suicidal thoughts.

Just how common is homosexuality?

Even this issue is politicized. Sexual-research pioneer Alfred Kinsey estimated more than 50 years ago that 4 to 5 percent of the world’s men were exclusively homosexual. Another 10 percent, according to Kinsey, had had a homosexual experience. Around 2 to 3 percent of women were lesbians, according to Kinsey, with 13 percent having had at least one adult lesbian sexual experience, and 28 percent responding erotically to other women. Many experts in human sexuality say Kinsey’s findings were right on the mark. But critics, including lesbian and gay activists, say Kinsey’s estimates are low, because social constraints keep many people from admitting they are gay. They say it is more likely that gay men and lesbians represent about 10 percent of the population. Strangely enough, few people thought of homosexuality in these fixed terms until the late 19th century, when society first recognized that some men and women are exclusively attracted to people of the same sex. Until then, homosexuality was seen as a behavior that some people engaged in occasionally.

Homosexuality in history

The Old Testament denounced homosexual behavior, referring to it as “an abomination” punishable by death. As a result, homosexuality has been taboo in Judeo-Christian cultures for centuries. But throughout human history, many cultures have viewed homosexuality as a permissible variant.

    Homosexuality was prevalent in many early religions. The Hindu god Samba seduced mortal men, Zeus had relations with Ganymede, and homosexuality was considered only a mild transgression in Buddhism.
    Male homosexuality was common among the Aztecs.
    Hammurabi, who wrote Mesopotamia’s legal codes, had male lovers.
    The Celts, Aristotle wrote, not onlyaccepted same-sex relationships, they held them in the highest regard.
    St. Boniface wrote in the year 744 that many men had a gay double life in England.
    Many Native American tribes accepted homosexuals (and still do). If a young boy exhibited effeminate characteristics growing up, he would be allowed to dress as a woman, be raised as a female, and would later be allowed to marry a male. In these tribes, homosexuals are considered a third gender. Navajos call them “Two Spirit”—a person with both male and female spirits.

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