I’ve been trying to decide how to respond to this Boston Globe article about what makes people gay. For some reason, the whole notion of finding the "cause" of homosexuality has always made me nervous, because to me it implies a "cure" lies somewhere — which implies that there’s something wrong or disordered about it. It doesn’t help that the article begins by describing a boy who doesn’t conform to gender expectations as having "childhood gender nonconformity." Even that rather innocuous term makes my skin crawl just a little.
When the twins were 2, Patrick found his mother’s shoes. He liked wearing them. Thomas tried on his father’s once but didn’t see the point.
When they were 3, Thomas blurted out that toy guns were his favorite things. Patrick piped up that his were the Barbie dolls he discovered at day care.
When the twins were 5, Thomas announced he was going to be a monster for Halloween. Patrick said he was going to be a princess. Thomas said he couldn’t do that, because other kids would laugh at him. Patrick seemed puzzled. "Then I’ll be Batman," he said.
Their mother – intelligent, warm, and open-minded – found herself conflicted. She wanted Patrick – whose playmates have always been girls, never boys – to be himself, but she worried his feminine behavior would expose him to ridicule and pain. She decided to allow him free expression at home while setting some limits in public.
That worked until last year, when a school official called to say Patrick was making his classmates uncomfortable. He kept insisting that he was a girl.
Patrick exhibits behavior called childhood gender nonconformity, or CGN. This doesn’t describe a boy who has a doll somewhere in his toy collection or tried on his sister’s Snow White outfit once, but rather one who consistently exhibits a host of strongly feminine traits and interests while avoiding boy-typical behavior like rough-and-tumble play. There’s been considerable research into this phenomenon, particularly in males, including a study that followed boys from an early age into early adulthood. The data suggest there is a very good chance Patrick will grow up to be homosexual. Not all homosexual men show this extremely feminine behavior as young boys. But the research indicates that, of the boys who do exhibit CGN, about 75 percent of them – perhaps more – turn out to be gay or bisexual.
To me, it seems a bit of a double-edged sword. On one side, a genetic or biological basis for homosexuality might help convince people that gays shouldn’t be discriminated against for an innate characteristic. But on the other side, finding a genetic or biological cause for homosexuality opens the door to possible attempts to biologically "cure" it and to prevent it in cases like the boy mentioned above, and possiblly even in utero. The article, though, goes on to show that even some conservatives are having second thoughts upon hearing the evidence that’s been compiled from various studies, suggesting a biological or genetic basis.
This accumulating biological evidence, combined with the prospect of more on the horizon, is having an effect. Last month, the Rev. Rob Schenck, a prominent Washington, D.C., evangelical leader, told a large gathering of young evangelicals that he believes homosexuality is not a choice but rather a predisposition, something "deeply rooted" in people. Schenck told me that his conversion came about after he’d spoken extensively with genetic researchers and psychologists. He argues that evangelicals should continue to oppose homosexual behavior, but that "many evangelicals are living in a sort of state of denial about the advance of this conversation." His message: "If it’s inevitable that this scientific evidence is coming, we have to be prepared with a loving response. If we don’t have one, we won’t have any credibility."
It remains to be seen, though, what that "loving response" will look like. To some people, sending a kid like Zach to a "reparative therapy" facility might qualify as a "loving response." It’s also worth noting that facilities like Love In Action/Refuge are already distancing themselves from the notion that they can help change a person’s innate orientation, and focusing instead on helping them change their "behavior." That might add up to a "loving response" as well. Bigots are already spinning the latest findings to further their own arguments.
Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem has proposed an intriguing theory for how CGN might lead to homosexuality. According to this pathway, which he calls "the exotic becomes erotic," children are born with traits for temperament, such as aggression and activity level, that predispose them to male-typical or female-typical activities. They seek out playmates with the same interests. So a boy whose traits lead him to hopscotch and away from rough play will feel different from, and ostracized by, other boys. This leads to physiological arousal of fear and anger in their presence, arousal that eventually is transformed from exotic to erotic.
Critics of homosexuality have used Bem’s theory, which stresses environment over biology, to argue that sexual orientation is not inborn and not fixed. But Bem says this pathway is triggered by biological traits, and he doesn’t really see how the outcome of homosexuality can be changed.
Of course, it’s inevitable that this research will continue. Experience shows that advances in science and technology can’t be stopped no matter how much handwringing goes on concerning the consequences. What worries me is how society will respond if or when a "cause" or multiple "causes" for homosexuality are pinned down? Will the response be a reinforcement of the idea that people shouldn’t be discriminated against becauseof inborn traits? If the discovery includes scientific efforts to reverse sexual orientation biologically or genetically (if something so strongly engrained can be reversed) will the impetus then be on gays and lesbians to remove themselves from a discriminted class by "taking the cure"?
Ultimately, I don’t think arguments for gay & lesbian equality should hinge on whether sexual orientation is inborn or accquired. It doesn’t matter why we’re gay. It matters that we’re gay, and how we’re treated. Equality should stem from the simple fact of being citizens. Nothing more or less. Let science do and discover what it will, but don’t muddy the waters of civil rights issues by injecting something that promises to raise at least as many questions as it may answer.