28 December 2013

Changing attitudes

I’ve been following news about same-sex marriages in Utah over the last week, both in formal media and in accounts I’m seeing on-line in social media. I was really surprised to hear that a district court ruled Utah’s Amendment 3 unconstitutional, paving the way for same-sex marriages to begin in the state. 

For me there is definitely a temptation to feel like karma has descended on Utah, given the heavy involvement of the LDS Church in California politics during Proposition 8 five years ago. Those months are a sore spot for me.

Putting that aside, there is a lot of good news coming from the mountain west recently. Several petitions for immediate stays of the ruling have so far been denied and I’ve read reports of a celebratory atmosphere in Salt Lake City as many couples were married. 

It is also encouraging to read of Latter-day Saints who support marriage equality. Many of them are willing to stand in support of marriage equality even though Church leadership will not budge on this issue. It seems like I’ve heard many more positive stories than not, though my Facebook feed is far from a representative sample of liberal celebration versus conservative outrage.

Attitudes about gays and gay marriage are changing, and they are changing remarkably fast. I found the following analysis of estimated state-by-state support for gay marriage from the Williams Institute at UCLA. In the figure below I graphed support for gay marriage in 2004 versus 2012 for two “liberal” states (California and New York), two “swing” states (Florida and Ohio) and two states that typically vote very conservatively in national elections (Alaska and Utah). In each case (in fact, for all 50 states according to the Williams Institute analysis), support for gay marriage has increased over the last decade.

Modeled support for same-sex marriage in 6 selected US states in 2004 and 2012. Error bars show 95% confidence intervals.

Another dataset on Utah opinions about same-sex marriage was compiled by the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at BYU. According to these polls, between 2004 and 2012 there was an increase in the percentage of people in Utah that supported at least some legal recognition for gay couples. Pretty much all of that increasing support was for civil unions. 

Public opinion polls in Utah about legal recognition of same-sex relationships in 2004 and 2012.

There are still some entrenched points of view in Utah, no doubt. Two recent opinion pieces in Utah newspapers following Judge Shelby’s ruling carried the inflammatory titles “massacre of marriage” and “judicial tyranny”. There has long been a culture of misunderstanding, marginalizing and maligning gay people in the Church and broader society that will take time to change. But LGB people are in the open like never before. It will be increasingly difficult to look a gay brother, child, cousin, best friend, teacher, or parent in the eye and say that their love doesn’t count.

21 December 2013

Whoa, Utah?!

Yesterday a federal judge overturned a Utah state constitutional amendment adopted in 2004 that limits marriage to opposite-sex unions. Who would have thought that this would occur right now in the Mormon heartland?! I read through much of the judge’s legal opinion this morning and was pleased to find that he cogently addressed many of the arguments that have been made over the years by opponents of same-sex marriage.

This ruling may not be the end of the matter as far as Utah and gay marriage is concerned, but for the time being, wow! Some excerpts from yesterday’s ruling:

“The Constitution guarantees that all citizens have certain fundamental rights. These rights vest in every person over whom the Constitution has authority and, because they are so important, an individual’s fundamental rights ‘may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.’ W. Va. State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638 (1943).” (p.17)

“The right to marry is an example of a fundamental right that is not mentioned explicitly in the text of the Constitution but is nevertheless protected by the guarantee of liberty under the Due Process Clause. The Supreme Court has long emphasized that the right to marry is of fundamental importance.” (p.18)

“The State [of Utah] asserts that Amendment 3 does not abridge the Plaintiffs’ fundamental right to marry because the Plaintiffs are still at liberty to marry a person of the opposite sex. But this purported liberty is an illusion. The right to marry is not simply the right to become a married person by signing a contract with someone of the opposite sex. If marriages were planned and arranged by the State, for example, these marriages would violate a person’s right to marry because such arrangements would infringe an individual’s rights to privacy, dignity, and intimate association. A person’s choices about marriage implicate the heart of the right to liberty that is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. See Casey, 505 U.S. at 851. The State’s argument disregards these numerous associated rights because the State focuses on the outward manifestations of the right to marry, and not the inner attributes of marriage that form the core justifications for why the Constitution protects this fundamental human right.” (p.23-24)

“The State points to Supreme Court cases that have linked the importance of marriage to its relationship to procreation. … The court does not find the State’s argument compelling because, however persuasive the ability to procreate might be in the context of a particular religious perspective, it is not a defining characteristic of conjugal relationships from a legal and constitutional point of view. The State’s position demeans the dignity not just of same-sex couples, but of the many opposite-sex couples who are unable to reproduce or who choose not to have children.” (p.25)

“The State argues that the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is justified based on an interest in promoting responsible procreation within marriage. … The State has presented no evidence that the number of opposite-sex couples choosing to marry each other is likely to be affected in any way by the ability of same-sex couples to marry. Indeed, it defies reason to conclude that allowing same-sex couples to marry will diminish the example that married opposite-sex couples set for their unmarried counterparts. Both opposite-sex and same-sex couples model the formation of committed, exclusive relationships, and both establish families based on mutual love and support. If there is any connection between same-sex marriage and responsible procreation, the relationship is likely to be the opposite of what the State suggests.” (p.44)

“The State’s second argument is that the Plaintiffs are really seeking a new right, not access to an existing right. … The alleged right to same-sex marriage that the State claims the Plaintiffs are seeking is simply the same right that is currently enjoyed by heterosexual individuals: the right to make a public commitment to form an exclusive relationship and create a family with a partner with whom the person shares an intimate and sustaining emotional bond. … If the right to same-sex marriage were a new right, then it should make new protections and benefits available to all citizens. But heterosexual individuals are as likely to exercise their purported right to same-sex marriage as gay men and lesbians are to exercise their purported right to opposite-sex marriage. Both same-sex and opposite-sex marriage are therefore simply manifestations of one right—the right to marry—applied to people with different sexual identities.” (p.27-28)

“The Fourteenth Amendment protects the liberty rights of all citizens, and none of the State’s arguments presents a compelling reason why the scope of that right should be greater for heterosexual individuals than it is for gay and lesbian individuals. If, as is clear from the Supreme Court cases discussing the right to marry, a heterosexual person’s choices about intimate association and family life are protected from unreasonable government interference in the marital context, then a gay or lesbian person also enjoys these same protections. The court’s holding is supported, even required, by the Supreme Court’s recent opinion concerning the scope of protection that the Fourteenth Amendment provides to gay and lesbian citizens.” (p.30)

“As noted in the court’s discussion of fundamental rights, the State argues that preserving the traditional definition of marriage is itself a legitimate state interest. But tradition alone cannot form a rational basis for a law. The traditional view of marriage has in the past included certain views about race and gender roles that were insufficient to uphold laws based on these views. And, as Justice Scalia has noted in dissent, ‘’preserving the traditional institution of marriage’ is just a kinder way of describing the State’s moral disapproval of same-sex couples.’ Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 601 (Scalia, J., dissenting). While ‘[p]rivate biases may be outside the reach of the law, . . . the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect’ at the expense of a disfavored group’s constitutional rights. Palmore v. Sidoti, 466 U.S. 429, 433 (1984).” (p.48-49)

“Although the State did not directly present an argument based on religious freedom, the court notes that its decision does not mandate any change for religious institutions, which may continue to express their own moral viewpoints and define their own traditions about marriage. If anything, the recognition of same-sex marriage expands religious freedom because some churches that have congregations in Utah desire to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies but are currently unable to do so.” (p.49)

“Applying the law as it is required to do, the court holds that Utah’s prohibition on same-sex marriage conflicts with the United States Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process under the law. The State’s current laws deny its gay and lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in so doing, demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason. Accordingly, the court finds that these laws are unconstitutional.” (p.2)

09 December 2013

I'm homophilic

If there is one thing about sexual orientation with which I agree with certain conservative religionists, it is that sexuality is not the sum total of a person. Of course. Each of us has characteristics, propensities, and abilities that are unrelated to, or only mildly connected to, our sexual interests.

But in some discourse I've seen, that kind of statement by conservative religionists seems meant to diminish gay attractions, to reduce them to some minor component of the human experience. If sexuality is only sex, the thinking seems to go, then being celibate or marrying someone of the opposite sex might be possible. If a "same-sex attracted" individual can be celibate or with an opposite sex partner, they need not call themselves gay, because they haven't succumbed to the defining characteristic of a homosexual - gay sex. If the person messes up and succumbs, still, they need not call themselves gay. They can believe their same-sex attractions are unwanted, believe their sexual instincts have been pathologized, and believe themselves to just be a broken heterosexual. Whatever the form of the denial, mentally the goal is to disown the sexuality. It is to see the attractions as foreign to one's core identity. This way of thinking leaves their brains and my stomach in knots. Such intentional mental and emotional compartmentalization must be a terrible way to construct a happy whole human being.

The belief that sexuality is just about sex is wrong. Humans spend much more time engaged in pairbonding behaviors than they do in actual sex. Many people probably spend a lot of time thinking about sex, but no one gets as much action as their libido thinks they're entitled to. Humans enjoy non-sexual affection, they nest, they daydream about romance, they find emotional security in having a significant other, they merge their lives and marry. They engage in a lot of behaviors related to their innate attractions that don't involve sex. We are a remarkably social species and the forms of our interpersonal relationships are diverse.

"Sexual orientation" is in many ways a poor term. If one gets to the heart of human attractions, I believe that we could just as easily describe a "romantic orientation" and an "emotional orientation" as we could a sexual orientation. I cannot speak for all LGB people, but when I'm attracted to someone of the same sex, I am not just interested in sexual contact. I'm interested in sharing adventures, holding hands and cuddling, smiling, crying, having interesting conversations, spending time together (even doing boring things!), or appreciating a beautiful spot in nature. A few such things can be done by myself, and many more with the welcome company of friends, but how great to share them with someone about whom I have piqued interest!? If I live the rest of my life without having sex again, I will still be gay. I will still wish to pairbond with my own sex.

Put simply, sexual orientation is really just about who one falls in love with. It isn't everything about a human being, but it is a heck of a lot. It doesn't need to be the sole defining characteristic of a person, but it doesn't need to be diminished either. So, perhaps if I am to put a label on myself, I should just say that I am homophilic*. I'm homosexual, but I am also homoromantic and homoemotional. I fall in love with guys, and the amazingness of the opposite sex notwithstanding, my brain is just wired for men.

*Though of Greek origin from "philia" indicating a friendship-like love, I'm using the suffix as we would in modern English to simply mean "an affinity towards". The Greeks had multiple words to describe different aspects of love, and many of them are applicable to the feelings I describe in this post.

20 November 2013

More progress

Today the governor of Illinois signed a law that legalizes same-sex marriage, making it the 16th state in the US to recognize gay marriage. This comes just after similar good news emerged Hawaii, where the legislature there also granted marriage equality to gays and lesbians. Gay marriage was approved in Hawaii despite organized conservative religious opposition.

It is instructive to look back just two or three years to see the rapid progress of marriage equality in the US. In fact, the sadness of proposition 8 in California seems almost like ancient history, though it was just five years ago that marriage equality was vigorously debated in my home state.

It was not too long ago that I recall reading about how opponents of same-sex marriage noted that gay marriage was only making headway because of "activist" judicial actions that flaunted the will of the people. But today we know that this "rogue" judiciary now includes the relatively conservative Supreme Court and its nullification of DOMA. Furthermore, of the sixteen states where gay marriage is now legal, the path to equality has come not just because of the courts, but also because of state legislatures and direct votes of the people.

On Sunday, a young gay Mormon came over to have dinner at my place. We were discussing the rapid evolution of public sentiment on gay marriage in the US. He predicted that marriage equality would even spread to Utah in five years. While I'm not sure I share that level of optimism, the rapid progress in this new wave of American civil rights is mistakable. Perhaps my children will look back on this time as adults and be unable to imagine a nation in which gay relationships were treated as second class by the law.

States in the US with some form of legal recognition for same-sex relationships as of 20 Nov 2013. I modified this map from a Wikimedia commons file, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Click here for a list of original and subsequent authors of the map and a link to the license.

09 October 2013

My only rejoinder is that I've done my best

Coming out is supposed to be a wonderful liberating event, and in many ways it has been. I'm so happy to be myself. But the last three years of my life have been immensely challenging too. I try to stay generally positive on this blog, yet it would be inaccurate to ignore the negative.

My life feels like it is being turned upside down recently, with not much indication that the near future will be much improved. There have been moves and job changes, periods of physical separation from my family, conversations, tough conversations, more conversations, a few close individuals who are angry with me, my broken heart, sorrow that I have hurt my wife, concern for my children, confusion, uncertainty about my career, loneliness.

I'm torn between different visions for my life, lost on a map that is full of courses but almost no details. I'm torn between what my wife wants and what I yearn for deep down. I can't give what others can give to their marriages, but I love my wife so deeply as a friend and as the amazing person that she is. In no way do I want to be a cause of her sorrow, but I want so much to follow my heart, to feel whole, to be myself. I don't know where I am headed in my career. I finished up a very successful term position recently, but my current work feels less rewarding. I don't even have a place that really feels like home anymore. I count 9 places I've slept in 3 states in the last 2 months and that doesn't include camping.

This morning I felt utterly defeated. I probably lost a chance for romance with someone I've become very close to. I had put so much energy into hoping that something would work out for us in the future. He was my first real gay friend (besides my sister), the first stranger I reached out to with some trepidation when I was first coming out and wanted to meet gay people. I fell into feelings for him almost instantly, unexpectedly. He was so integral to my coming out experience, such a positive example of acceptance of himself and of doing his best in a mixed orientation marriage. From practically the very beginning, I talked openly with my wife about these feelings and what occurred in our relationship over time. Emotionally I became very attached - and that process taught me how much emotional attraction is an integral part of my sexuality. I waited and waited as we both had a lot to figure out. I fell into something so utterly natural for me as a gay person and yet it caused so much sorrow for my wife to be a witness to all that unfolded.

Some days I get caught up in the swirl of these emotions of sadness and loss and feel so stuck. In those moments I feel an expectation to make all of the "right" decisions. But this is such an unpredictable journey that I can't keep up with it all. I'm colliding often with my own personal limits. I want to have happy children, a wonderful same-sex relationship, an enduring deep friendship with my spouse who finds comfort in moving on, friends who are proud of me and my choices, a decent job where I contribute meaningfully to the world, and some time for hobbies to enrich my life. But currently it feels like I am barely getting by. My intentions and hard work carry me a ways into positive territory, but the momentum of my past, my confusion, my failings, keep moving me back onto challenging ground.

To have a broken heart, to break another's heart, to feel deep sadness about both - I haven't experienced anything unique that almost every other human will experience. Yet all of these challenges seem to have fallen on me at once. I brought them upon myself though, and when sympathy is in short supply I must acknowledge that I'm the main cause of the mess. My only rejoinder when the spotlight is turned on my life is that I've honestly tried my absolute best at every turn. I can't wait for sunnier days again.

25 June 2013

Tomorrow is a big day

Apparently the US Supreme Court will issue rulings tomorrow on the federal Defense of Marriage Act and on California's Prop 8. The court has a conservative leaning, but hopefully it will recognize basic principles of equality under the law and rule in favor of further extending marriage rights for gay couples.

I cannot speak to the legal matters relevant to these cases, but I feel strongly that fairness and non-discrimination demand that we overturn laws that put gays and lesbians on unequal footing through no fault of their own. Though slow - even backwards - at times, the social and legal trajectory of this nation has long been in the direction of extending greater equality and fairness towards marginalized groups of people. May tomorrow be another milestone in this great tradition worthy of celebration.

08 May 2013

Eight greats about being gay

1. Currently, opportunities for LGB people to embrace and celebrate their identities in western society are probably greater than at any time in the past. We still have a ways to go for full equality and dignified treatment across all segments of society, but the greater openness and acceptance of homosexuality in contemporary society is unmistakable and remarkable.

2. I am not constrained by traditional western concepts of gender. In many ways, my personality is consistent with mainstream American concepts of masculinity, yet I am free to be tender, nerdy, sweet, spacey, apathetic about football, or to be anything else I am comfortable with. Obviously straight men are free to be whatever they want to be as well, but there is often pressure in the heterosexual male world to act in ways that meet certain norms.

3. I really value my close male friendships. Friendships have almost exclusively been the way for me to experience intimacy with male peers, so they have long been an important part of fulfilling some of my homosexual emotional needs. I hope that what I offer my close friends reflects how important those relationships are to me.

4. I usually feel very comfortable around my closer female friends and co-workers. I don’t know how many straight men have trouble being close friends with women, however I suppose I have little or none of the sexual or romantic tension that can arise sometimes in those relationships for straight men.

5. I appreciate the male body. I will just leave it at that.

6. I can celebrate my uniqueness. Being gay is not all that common and it is one way in which I stand out.

7. By being gay, I have a way to empathize with the underdog. There have been a lot of challenging things about being gay in my life, especially while growing up and coming to terms with my sexuality. While feeling a little bit inadequate isn’t always the best feeling, it usually prompts me to work extra hard. It is hard to defeat hard work.

8. I feel best being myself. The closet sucks. Having a secret identity (unless you get paid for it) sucks. Loathing something about yourself (which you are powerless to change) is no way to run a life. I don’t know when or how I acquired my sexuality, but I am pretty sure it is here to say. I am out now and happy when I am comfortable with my identity.

27 March 2013

Social experiments

I was on work travel from the northwest to the east coast last week and returned home on a hideously early flight. A 6 AM flight departure meant a rise before 4 AM, and that was east coast time. I set the alarm clock for 3:40 or so, but a sharp crack of lightening that sounded like a bomb explosion near my hotel got me up just before the alarm clock anyway. My initial flight from Georgia to Chicago was on a small plane with only three columns of seats: one column on the left side of the plane and two on the right. I wondered how the plane stayed balanced. I was assigned to the middle column and sat next to a guy of about my own medium-sized stature dressed in military fatigues. Often I am shy and don't readily open up with strangers, but this time I started up a conversation.

The army guy was friendly and told me about his 7-8 years in the military, his two tours of duty in Afghanistan and his education at West Point. In his late 20s, he was a captain already, in charge of some 100 soldiers. He was trained to fly Blackhawk helicopters and he could fly smaller helicopters too, but not planes. He showed me a schematic of the Blackhawk design from a digital “owners manual” he had on his iPad. I wondered if I needed security clearance to see it. I didn’t ask.
The Captain’s duty that day was a sad one, a trip to North Dakota to attend the funeral of a soldier who had died overseas in a Blackhawk crash. It was not someone that he knew personally, but he was to be a part of the support system for that grieving family.

Towards the end of the flight, I worked up the courage to ask him about the repeal of the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military. I didn’t come out to him, but that could be an unusual question for someone to ask without some personal interest in the matter. He said that the change in the policy was really no big deal. There were some guys who came out after the repeal, but he said that their sexual orientation was suspect anyway. As an officer with oversight and administrative responsibilities in the army, his biggest worry was that some guys would be uncomfortable with their now-openly gay comrades and would ask for re-accommodation. That concern did not materialize. The gay thing was a non-thing, it turned out. Our conversation moved on from there.

For decades as a society, we have worried about homosexuality. The worries have spilled all over, a mess we are only now beginning to clean up: gays will recruit impressionable teens to their immoral “lifestyle”, gay marriage will undermine the foundations of a “traditional” family, homosexuality is incompatible with the masculine culture of the military. Perhaps these stereotypes were built originally on small kernels of truth. But common sense, empirical data, and getting to know a real live gay person usually quickly dispels these stereotypes.

Perhaps the origin of many of society’s misconceptions about homosexuality lies in fear. Homosexuality is something many people don't understand, probably because it is so foreign to their own emotions and thoughts. But fears aren’t usually rational emotions, so the conclusions we derive from them generally should be suspect. Fear tends to discourage us from seeking out rational answers to our concerns or questions. Fear tends to shut doors to other people. Fear provides a quick and easy answer, but it may very well be the wrong one.

One of the manifestations of society’s fears about homosexuality is when those opposed to or uncertain about gay rights decry “social experiments” such as gay marriage or allowing gays to serve openly in the military. Even during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments this week about California’s Prop 8 case, Justices Kennedy and Alito hinted at the sentiment that gay marriage was a “social experiment” by saying, “We have five years of information to weigh against 2,000 years of history or more”, and “Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new…So there isn’t a lot of data about its effect”. (1)

I find that labeling progressive changes in society like gay marriage as “experiments” can come across as pejorative. That sort of language focuses on the novelty (the gender part) and ignores the commonality shared across the human experience. In the light of shared experience, openness in the military about one’s identity is not a social experiment. It is a reaffirmation of principles – honesty, integrity and pride – that are integral to military culture. Likewise, gay marriage is not a social experiment. It is about love and commitment and family, cherished values that virtually all of us seek. What is so experimental about that?

But if we ditch the condescension, and still insist on calling these societal changes experiments, I can get on board with that. After all, I am a scientist and I recognize that experiments are fundamentally one of our most valuable tools as human beings to learn and make progressive changes in society. By conducting such experiments, we will likely confirm what common sense already suggests to us: gay marriage will not unravel the fabric of western society; talking openly about LGBT experiences with young people will help them be more inclusive and compassionate, but it isn’t going to “convert” a generation of teens to homosexuality. In fact, we can look to the most recent experiment – the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” – to learn that it hasn’t undermined the nation’s armed forces. It was really just, no big deal…

26 February 2013

Let's talk about the data

I’d be one of the first to admit that I enjoy reading the stories of LGBT people. When I first came out over two years ago, I devoured information on-line. Videos, blogs, essays – it was all so fascinating because I was finally seriously exploring a part of me that I had ignored and been ashamed of for so long. I read materials from across the spectrum of the gay Mormon experience, from those who intended to live a life consistent with conservative religious beliefs to those in open same-sex relationships who had left Mormonism behind. And although I now have a much better sense of where I fall personally on that spectrum, I still read a diversity of viewpoints. My personal friendships and acquaintances with gay people span this entire range too.

I appreciate these stories for their authenticity and their insight into how others think about and respond to some very challenging situations. I’ve learned a lot and seen different perspectives as I have tried to solidify my own feelings about my sexuality. In my encounters with these diverse stories, I can only give each writer or storyteller the benefit of the doubt. The gay Mormon dilemma is a very tough one – in a single individual there is a unique juxtaposition of two complex ways of interpreting human purpose and experience. Homosexuality and Mormonism often deeply clash. There are few easy synergies between how these two worldviews interpret experiences or prioritize values. I personally have been on two very different sides of the divide and I can empathize.

Stories have power. They have a profound ability to link us to others. We empathize with experiences similar to our own and we identify with the shared emotions. In my own quest to understand my sexuality, certain writings, though in the voice of others, tell parts of my story too. For instance, I’ve connected with Carol Lynn Pearson’s tender and heartbreaking accounts of the dissolution of her marriage to a gay husband. I’ve been reminded of my own past struggles when I read accounts by other gay Mormons who long believed that if they could just be righteous enough, God would free them from their attractions. Sorrow, confusion, loneliness, the liberation of self-acceptance – yes, I have felt that too!

Despite its great value, anecdote only takes us so far in the quest to understand the LGBT experience. As a scientist, I find that a very important issue is seldom addressed in discussions of homosexuality, especially in conversations that emerge from Mormonism. That missing piece is the guiding hand of science and empirical research. Many of the questions that society asks about homosexuality have, or can be, addressed by science. These include the origins of homosexuality, the sociological implications of same-sex relationships, and questions about the physical and psychological health of gay people.

Thankfully, some data are out there. Like any scientific endeavor, the answers are not yet complete. However, enough research is available to steer us in the right direction if we are open to incorporating it into our worldviews. That information can help us seriously re-evaluate prejudices and misunderstandings of the past. As examples, I’d like to very briefly tackle two questions.

One idea that is promulgated by some is that homosexuality is changeable or curable. This concept could arise, for example, from the belief that sexuality is a mental choice or that heterosexuality is the only “real” form of sexual expression. Often anecdotal accounts of individuals who have purportedly changed their sexuality are used in support of this notion. What has the research uncovered about this question?

A useful place to begin is a statement by the American Psychological Association in 2008 that noted, “Both heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality…several decades of research and clinical experience have led all mainstream medical and mental health organizations in this country to conclude that these orientations represent normal forms of human experience. … To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective”.

Recent studies do suggest that some LGB people can have fluid sexual identities. For example, in an investigation of long-term adult sexuality, Moch and Eibach (2011) found that for females, homosexuality and bisexuality appeared to be quite fluid. However, they also found that male homosexuality was nearly as stable as male heterosexuality. While some individuals may have changeable identities, this may not mean that the underlying attractions have diminished or disappeared. Additionally, while there are some published studies that claim to show evidence for a change in sexuality, the most celebrated of these – by Spitzer in 2003 – had serious methodological flaws and was retracted by its author recently. For a lot of people, being LGB is a permanent part of being human.

A second example is illustrated by a statement made in the Ensign magazine in 1974 by a Latter-day Saint doctor (not a general authority of the Church) in a Q&A feature: “Homosexuals and lesbians seldom are happy people. Theirs is a relationship that is unnatural, one not bound by fidelity, trust, or loyalty, and one totally lacking in the meaningful family relationships that marriage offers.”

Many assertions were packed into those two sentences. Some of them are testable with research. First, on whether homosexuality is “natural”, the APA statement referenced above concludes that it is a normal expression of human sexuality. Neill (2009) provided an extensive list of many animal species in which myriad same-sex behaviors have been documented. In other animal species, those behaviors include sexual play, diverse sexual acts and pair bonding. Same-sex behavior in animals may have several adaptive functions including the formation and maintenance of social groups, dissipation of group tension, practice for heterosexual activities later in life, and protection of partners in pair bonds (Bailey and Zuk 2009, Neill 2009).

On the stability of human homosexual relationships, Peplau et al. as far back as 1996 reported that “many lesbians and gay men establish lifelong partnerships”. They showed data from another study that looked at the success of gay versus heterosexual relationships. For couples that had been together for 10 or more years, separation rates (over an 18 month period) were equivalent for married couples (4%) versus gay and lesbian couples (4% and 6% respectively). For couples that had been together 2 years or less, separation rates were higher for gay and lesbian couples (16% and 22% respectively) than for married couples (4%), but about the same as for non-married heterosexual couples (17%). These latter statistics suggest that nothing is inherently worse about same-sex relationships, but rather they lend support to the notion that institutional sanction of relationships (marriage) is important for relationship stability. What an interesting finding as society currently discusses the merits of gay marriage!

How about happiness for LGBT individuals? It is well-known that gay and lesbian youth have much higher rates of suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Is this because their sexuality is inherently flawed or is it due to homophobia or lack of acceptance? In a study of gay youth, Detrie and Lease (2007) discuss how social connections and perceived support are key for self esteem. Perceived support is also important for relationship success in gay adults, just as it is for heterosexual couples (Blair and Holmberg 2008). Perhaps rates of suicide in gay youth will decrease dramatically if they have markedly greater support from family, friends and society generally.

These are two broad examples of how research can inform our discussions of homosexuality. In applying science to the complexity of human experience, it is critical to remember just that – that individuals are complex and that collectively, human populations are variable and diverse. Therefore, means and medians do not always apply to every individual. You and I might find ourselves on the tail of a statistical distribution.

However, this variation does not undermine the value of science. First, empirical research is valuable because it helps reveal dominant trends in the human experience. For instance, if unbiased data show that a majority of mixed orientation marriages soon end in divorce after a gay spouse comes out, that is key information that can guide public policy and inform religious discourse about homosexuality. A young gay Mormon contemplating heterosexual marriage will be in a much better position to make informed choices if he or she knows something about the success rates of these marriages and the factors and compromises that tend to make them more likely to succeed.

In the formation of public policies that involve homosexuality, I believe that empirical research and protection of individual rights should always take precedence. On questions of gay adoption of children, same-sex marriage and non-discrimination ordinances, arguments backed by solid data should be given the most weight. Anecdote, belief and faith have their place in discourse, but I believe they should be subservient to science in the public sphere.

What about questions for which little or no data are available? How about highly inconclusive information? Questions about the root causes of homosexuality are one such matter where scientific consensus has not been reached. Some data suggests that genetics could play a role in the formation of sexual orientation (e.g., the incidence of dual homosexuality is statistically higher in gay identical twins; Kendler et al. 2000). There is likewise other evidence for a prenatal effect on homosexual development in men, possibly due to changes in maternal immune responses during later pregnancies (Bogaert 2006). But the jury is still out.

In cases like these, the path forward is clear – we need additional data and additional research. However, falling back on old assumptions or substituting unsubstantiated belief structures for empirical evidence isn’t usually productive. Anecdotes, even if numerous or compelling, are not a substitute for careful research.

One of the beauties of science is that it is both a collection of facts and a method of inquiry. As a method, it has a self correcting, almost revelatory nature. As new facts are uncovered, new techniques for discovery or analysis become available, and new hypotheses advanced, human understanding can move forward. Science has much to offer our discussions about homosexuality. As in other fields, findings are subject to the scrutiny of skepticism and the democracy of scientific discussion.

I have been motivated to help (in my own tiny way) bring science into discussions about homosexuality. Towards this end, on my personal blog, I have started a collection of links and citations that will help point interested readers to some sources of research about topics pertinent to homosexuality. In the coming months, I hope to expand content. I encourage all who have questions about homosexuality to visit those links and other quality sources of information. For my part, I plan to keep learning as I go. Our personal stories of what it is like to be gay, or have a gay relative, spouse or friend, touch our hearts. Empirical research more often speaks to our minds. Moving forward in conversations about homosexuality, I believe that we must embrace both. I am confident that in doing so, individuals, churches and communities will increasingly move in the direction of compassion, celebration and full equality for all LGBT people.


- Bailey and Zuk. 2009. Same-sex sexual behavior and evolution. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 24:439-46.
- Blair and Holmberg 2008. Perceived social network support and well-being in same-sex versus mixed-sex romantic relationships. Journal of Social Personal Relationships 25:769-91.
- Bogaert. 2006. Biological versus nonbiological older brothers and men’s sexual orientation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 103:10771-4.
- Detrie and Lease 2007. The relation of social support, connectedness, and collective self-esteem to the psychological well-being of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of Homosexuality 53:173-99.
- Kendler et al. 2000. Sexual orientation in a US National Sample of twin and nontwin sibling pairs. American Journal of Psychiatry 157:1843-6.
- Mock and Eibach. 2011. Stability and change in sexual orientation identity over a 10-year period in adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behavior 41:641-8.
- Neill. 2009. The Origins and Role of Same-Sex Relationships in Human Societies. McFarland & Co, Inc. 470 pp.
- Peplau et al. 1996. Gay and lesbian relationships. Reprinted in Kimmel and Plante 2004. Sexualities.
- Spitzer. 2003. Can some gay men and lesbians change their sexual orientation? 200 participants reporting a change from homosexual to heterosexual orientation. Archives of Sexual Behavior 32:403-17.

09 February 2013

Hummm... relationships

I've been thinking a lot about relationships lately. Some of my thoughts have centered on a few lists. By no means do I intend to reduce the complexity, rewards and challenges of relationships to a few lists, but for me, focusing on a few concepts is a valuable way to organize some of the new and confusing thoughts and feelings that I have had about relationships over the last two years.

The first list contains attributes that I look for in another person. When one forms such a list, it tends to be in terms of finding a romantic partner. However, it could also be generalized in some way to include friendships or even business and work partnerships. For me, some of the critical things on this list include compassion, honesty, hard work, attraction, intelligence, creativity and a love for learning and discovery. I cannot, for instance, imagine developing a close relationship with someone where trust was a significant problem. 

My second list is the inverse of the first. It comprises the attributes that I potentially offer to others. This is a challenging list. Even though I can enumerate some positive attributes that I think I offer to others, I know that in each of these areas I fall at least somewhat short. In self-evaluation, there is also an important balance to be achieved. On the one hand, self-confidence is attractive to others and is healthy. On the other hand, taken too far, that confidence can become arrogance which is very unattractive to others and is unhealthy. I probably struggle with both lack of self-confidence and some arrogrance from time to time (like everyone else??), but self-confidence tends to be my more frequent challenge. The other challenge with the self list is that the contents of this list may vary from person to person. My wife might value a certain set of attributes about me, but a close friend may see other things. While we may have a lot of control over the personality and behavioral attributes we work hard to cultivate in ourselves, we have no control over what others see or value in us.

Mutual attraction forms from some compatible combination of the first two lists. When we first meet someone, maybe we pick up on a few of the more outstanding attributes we see in someone else. As a relationship begins to form, we are learning a lot about the other person and (consciously or not) thinking about whether they meet some of the other attributes we look for in others. Obviously there is never any perfect match between two people since no one person can offer a complete suite of physical, personality and behavioral attributes that meets every need of another person. Even in the rare cases where two people feel that they are a near perfect match for each other, there is always the possibility that needs, attractions and personalities diverge over time.

The final list pertains to relationships themselves, not the individual involved. Once a romantic parter or friend has been found, the challenging matter of forming a mutually beneficial relationship begins (in the context of friendship I am talking about close, long-term friendships not the shorter-term, more numerous friendships and acquaintances that may come and go with life). For me, the list that describes a successful close relationship has a few critical points. First, mutual attraction needs to be present. This includes physical, sexual, emotional, social and intellectual attraction (minus the sexual and perhaps much of the physical for friendships). Romantic relationships that miss some of these elements may not work in the long-term; friendships that lack social, emotional and intellectual attraction may not really develop far in the first place. Second, close relationships require committment and trust. Third on the list is communication. We all have different styles of communicating love, discomfort and needs. But in the maturation of the relationship, the two individuals need to develop ways of communicating that are honest, respectful of each other, and that can actually lead to the resolution of challenges. My final item is symmetry. By symmetry, I think that the healthiest relationships need to be balanced. In other words, each partner should be putting in roughly equal effort and committment into the relationship. If one partner puts in much more energy, he or she may feel disappointed or unappreciated and the other partner may feel pressured or uncomfortable. Friendships often adjust fairly smoothly to a mutually-acceptable level of effort. Achieving a balance may be difficult in more intense or romantic relationships, and may be the reason many of them do not succeed.

I have been immensely blessed with a few very close relationships in my life. They continue to this day. I cherish them because of the joy they bring to me and the growth that has ensued. These relationships have taken a lot of work. If there is one thing I tend to do well in close relationships, it is to invest heavily in others and to commit to do my very best. There are many other things that I tend to not do so well, and for the forgiveness and patience of others I am grateful.

None of us is a relationship expert. But what have you learned about close relationships in life? What are the critical elements that make close friendships, family relationships and romances flourish?

04 February 2013

The eternal dance

Everything ends; no one escapes this coldness
Every melody. Every memory.
Yet this dance of love is eternal
And we get swept into it briefly
Only to be tossed out, left as observers
The dance is incomprehensible, irresistable, surely too quick
New dancers stumble in
Taking our place, they too smile and then are gone.

With luck we dance another time or two
The same dance, the same love
Shared by us all.
It never ends
Be happy for the dancers
They keep the songs going until your time comes.

16 January 2013

The end of religion?

A provocatively-titled article came across a social media site today and caught my eye. In "Religion may not survive the Internet", Valerie Tarico lists several reasons why conservative religions are threatened by information flow. That - the free exchange of ideas and instant communication -  not the internet per se, is more accurately the threat, if any, to the survival of certain belief systems.

Religion has been with humankind for at least some 20-30 thousand years, if interpretations of cave art in southern Europe are correct. Given its long history and the high percentage of people that still identify with some religious tradition in the 21st century, I do not think it is going anywhere anytime soon. Thus, Tarico's title is hyperbole. However, she does raise some interesting points in the article:

(1) The mechanisms (overt, covert, intentional or otherwise) that some religious traditions have relied on to maintain homogeneity of belief may not be as effective in an age when information can flow much more freely than ever before. Insularity may be one such mechanism. When people form cohesive groups that more or less cut off discourse with the outside world, it may be easier to maintain certain religious beliefs. It is hard to know how much this really goes on today. It would seem that in our information age virtually everyone would be exposed to just about any set of ideas. However, even in a sea of information, are some people so selective in what they read or hear that they very rarely encounter perspectives that contradict their own beliefs?

I think that Tarico's misstep is to equate this free-flow of information with the internet. Yes, the internet has accelerated the pace of information exchange, but information exchange has been possible for a long time by a number of different vehicles. The data on evolution, for example, have been out there for some time. It just required more work to find it in the past. She also seems to indict religion generally, but some of her arguments probably only apply broadly to more fundamentalist religions traditions. I see the free flow of information as a threat mostly to religious systems that are adament about doctrinal orthodoxy.

One potential causalty of information exposure is religious literalism. Specific narratives like Noah's Flood have no credibility scientifically. A young curious mind raised on stories of Noah (and mind you, curiosity is a key variable in the equation!), isn't going to find much support for such traditional religious ideas in information from the outside world. At risk too, are antiquated social constructs that are an important part of a specific religious tradition but which cannot withstand the scrutiny of empirical evidence or informed discussion. Being a gay blog, I'll mention homosexuality here as an example. When, by the freer flow of information, people find out that gay people are often law-abiding, charitable and accomplished citizens, or that practically to a person gay people relate that they never "chose" their sexual orientation, an archaic belief that homosexuality is a Satan-inspired threat to humanity becomes very hard to sustain.

The solution for religious systems in an age of information overload is simply to adapt. My guess is that many mainstream religions are doing so - they learn to embrace science, evolution, rational inquiry, and increasing social equality. Religions, like languages and genes, must evolve to survive.

(2) Tarico points out that science represents a threat to religion, and not just because it might directly contradict certain religious claims. She writes:

"Religion evokes some of our most deeply satisfying emotions: joy, for example, and transcendence, and wonder....Fortunately, science can provide all of the above...[thus] it should be no surprise that so many fundamentalists are determined to take down the whole scientific endeavor. They see in science not only a critic of their outdated theories but a competitor for their very best product, a sense of transcendent exuberance." (1)

I think that these thoughts are the highlight of the article. Religion's most powerful claim to its continued value for humanity is it's ability to provide a transcendent experience for individual believers. If that transcendence can be achieved elsewhere - in a classroom, in nature, through a microscope - then one of the most important functions of religion is lost.

In my own experience this makes a lot of sense. As a scientist I find such fascination in the natural world that there seems no need to call upon the supernatural. Whether ecology, geology, or the diversity of life, I find such an unending wealth of questions and discoveries that I can connect with the broader world around me in profound ways. Steeped in science, I am left to feel miniscule - much like I would by believing in an all-powerful God who watches over me. Yes, I am still swayed by the need for love and purpose - intangibles that science may have little to say about - but I've also found that specific religious systems are not necessary to appreciate and seek after such things.

Religion seems to be here to stay. Yet I do hope that it will continue to evolve to be a more rational and loving human enterprise. Maybe the internet will be part of accelerating that process. Thoughts?

10 January 2013

Good-bye, I love you

Carol Lynn Pearson is the godmother of gay Mormons. I’ve never met her, though interestingly enough, I do have a round-about connection. Many years ago, she briefly stayed at my wife’s family’s house in northern California. My mother-in-law, who was then stake Relief Society president, had invited her up to speak to the women in the area.

“Good-bye, I love you” is the story of Carol Lynn and her gay husband, Gerald. They met at BYU, married, and started a family. Though Gerald had had some degree of same-sex experiences prior to marriage, he developed strong feelings for Carol Lynn and wanted to be married. Both Carol Lynn and Gerald were performers. Carol Lynn was also an aspiring poet. Her poems would go on to win awards and she has published many books over the years.

Despite the tenderness of his feelings for Carol, over time, restlessness stirred in Gerald. He grew distant from the Church and had several affairs with men. Carol learned of his unfaithfulness from a friend while Gerald was away. She was devastated. For some time, Gerald had been dropping hints about new ways of thinking about his sexuality and about relationships, but Carol had long believed that Gerald’s experimentation with homosexuality was a thing of the past. Being raised in the ignorance and vilification of gays that was more common 1-2 generations ago, she could just not believe that her husband was of those gays.

The couple tried their best to make their relationship work. They moved to the Bay Area in California from their home in Utah, but there continued to be strains on their marriage. They eventually decided, after about a dozen years of marriage, to divorce. The final pages of Carol Lynn’s poignant book relates their separation and the lives that Carol Lynn and Gerald led over the next several years before his death – independent lives, yet lives intimately intertwined because of their children and their strong abiding friendship.

I’ve known about the Pearson story for awhile, but it was last weekend that I finally read the book. Well written, powerful, honest and with a compelling narrative, it took me less than 2 days to finish. By the end, I was in tears and choked with emotion.

The story of the Pearsons touched me deeply. There are superficial similarities – their dozen years of marriage to my 11; their 4 children to my three; Gerald’s increasing distance from the Church like mine. But there are also other ways that I connected to the story. I can relate deeply to Gerald’s persistent restlessness, for instance, and his insatiable need to capture more from life. I understand the need to search for meaningful male intimacy and the sense that one cannot put that off indefinitely. I also note the strong similarities between Carol Lynn and my wife. Both of these remarkable women seem to have an almost infinitely deep well from which to draw love and compassion for others. Both have dug deep emotionally to make the best out of challenging situations.

Of course my story continues; it is unknown where it will lead. But regardless of romantic matters, if my wife and I can keep love and friendship between us as the Pearsons managed to exemplify, I think we will have done at least one thing well.