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.