The Science of Sexuality

IDAHO-rr_tcm7-115931Posted by: Jack Fisher, Human Rights Officer

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As the United States continues to struggle with how our own society chooses to engage on the issue of civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, there seem to be parallels in that same debate in Ukraine.  Forty years ago in the United States, no states had laws protecting LGBT people from employment or housing discrimination, no states allowed civil partnerships or same-sex marriages, the American Psychological Association still considered homosexuality to be a mental disorder, police raided bars frequented by LGBT people, and LGBT people who wished to hold public office, serve in the military or work for the government could not disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity.  As Ukrainians begin to openly debate their own laws with respect to LGBT people, it is important that those taking part in the debate have access to the best possible science regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, so as to make the most informed choices possible.  Here, as best as we can tell, is a summary of what science has determined about sexual orientation.

People do not choose to be homosexual
Most gay people report feeling different during childhood, and, during puberty, realize that their sexual feelings are primarily or exclusively towards those of their own sex.  Much as heterosexuals do not make a conscious choice to “be” straight, gay people do not make a choice to “be” gay. Most gay people report experiencing an extended period during which they struggle with the fact that they are gay, attempting to hide their sexuality due to the social stigma attached to it.  As a result of this internal conflict, rates of attempted and actual suicide among LGBT youth are significantly higher than in the general population.   Some surveys claim that 30-40% of LGBT youth attempt suicide – a rate four times higher than among heterosexual teenagers.  It would make little sense for anyone to choose a sexuality which dramatically reduced their statistical likelihood of finding a life partner, which put them at increased risk of bullying or violence, which prevented them from the free and full exercise of their civil and human rights, and which was likely to lead to conflict with or rejection by their closest family members and friends.

Homosexuality is not a disease or a disorder, and it is not contagious
In 1974, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the primary manual used by American and many other psychologists and psychiatrists, removed homosexuality from its categories of “mental disorders.”  This was due to the increase in research which showed that homosexuality was innate, unchangeable, and did not prevent healthy individuals from leading fulfilling lives.  Some who argue against giving parental rights to LGBT people contend that they should not be allowed to raise children, because they will be more likely to raise gay children.  But a 2005 study on children raised by gay couples showed that these children were indistinguishable from children raised in households with a mother and a father – and were no more or less likely to grow up to be gay.

Homosexuality cannot be changed or fixed
Decades of studies of “reparative therapies” of homosexuality have shown that attempts to change a person’s sexuality are ineffective, and frequently lead to adverse psychological side effects.  In a 2002 study of reparative therapy, for example, only 3% of participants reported that they had successfully changed their sexual orientation.   Even these three percent were taken only at their word, with no attempt to measure their physiological and sexual response to individuals of the same sex.  Several high profile individuals who reported that reparative therapy “cured” their homosexuality later recanted.

Genetics appear to play an important role in homosexuality, but there doesn’t appear to be any one “gay gene” 

Studies of identical twins have found that approximately half of twins with a gay or lesbian sibling will also be gay or lesbian.  If there were a determinative gay gene, then this figure would be 100%, as identical twins share all of their genes.  However, given that estimates of homosexuality in the general population range from 1-3%, this finding suggests a strong genetic component to homosexuality.   Some studies indicate that the genetic marker Xq28 may play a role in male homosexuality, although this has been disputed by other studies.  Epigenetic factors also seem to partly explain homosexuality.  Epigenetics is the study of the fact that, while any given person has thousands of genes, only some of these are “switched on” or active, while others remain “switched off.”  Hormonal changes while an embryo is in the womb appear to switch on and off certain genes, and may explain why one identical twin will be homosexual while the other is heterosexual.  Birth order also appears to play a role in homosexuality. Blanchard and Klassen reported in 1997 that each older brother increases a man’s chance of being homosexual by 33%, possibly due to the fact that women’s hormonal responses to each successive male embryo varies.  Finally, there appear to be important differences in brain structure between homosexuals and heterosexuals.  A study by Simon LeVay showed that male homosexuals had hypothalamuses similar in size to female heterosexuals, while lesbians had hypothalamuses similar in size to male heterosexuals.  These differences in brain structure may also partially explain homosexuality.

Homosexuality is not an import from the West
Homosexual behavior has been observed in every culture, in every society, at every time in history.  Anthropologists Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe reported that women in Lesotho, (Africa) form long-term, socially acceptable sexual partnerships called motsoalle.  In 2400 BCE, Egyptian male couple Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were immortalized for all time in a series of bas reliefs showing them kissing, surrounded by their heirs.  Homosexuality has been depicted in the literature and art of ancient China and Japan, and in Thailand, Thai kings frequently had both male and female lovers.

Even in the United States, discussion of homosexuality arouses strong passions, with many people arguing that same-sex relationships are immoral, or dangerous to society and to the traditional family unit.  Yet through debate we have come to recognize the importance of protecting the right of all people to freely express their views, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to live without the fear of violence.

May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

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