A controversial new report claims that the notion that people are born gay or transgender is “not supported by science.”
Instead, it ascribes a number of environmental effects as helping influence a person’s sexuality and gender identity, while claiming that scientific studies into both areas have failed to definitively draw a conclusion either way.
The report, “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences,” is appears in The New Atlantis journal — which is not peer-reviewed and is co-published by conservative think tank The Ethics and Public Policy Center — and was compiled by Arizona State University statistics professor Lawrence Mayer and Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor Paul McHugh.
The report’s findings should be tempered by that latter author’s inclusion. McHugh has a history of homophobic and transphobic comments, including against transgender people who choose to have gender confirmation surgery.
“Transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men,” he wrote in an article for The Witherspoon Institute. Instead, they “become feminized men or masculinized women, counterfeits or impersonators of the sex with which they ‘identify.’”
He has also previously referred to homosexuality as an “erroneous desire,” compared medically accommodating a transgender child to “performing liposuction on an anorexic child,” believes that homosexuality is a “choice,” and has called post-op trans women “caricatures of women.”
As for the report itself, by analyzing studies into sexuality, gender identity, and the mental health of LGBT people, Mayer and McHugh have apparently determined that the concept of sexuality and gender identity being innate is not backed up by current scientific evidence.
With regard to sexuality, the pair note several key findings. The biggest — and, likely, most controversial — is that the “born that way” theory is wrong. They say that the very concept of sexual orientation is “highly ambiguous,” which doesn’t help the accuracy of studies, but those that have focused on determining genetic traits have come up short.
“Epidemiological studies show a rather modest association between genetic factors and sexual attractions or behaviors,” they write, “but do not provide significant evidence pointing to particular genes.”
They say the same is true for studies that have focused on hormones and other influences on a child’s prenatal development. While there are studies examining biological influences on a person’s sexuality, “such as the influence of hormones on prenatal development,” the report argues that the evidence is limited.
Similarly, studies that attempted to determine differences in the brains of gay and straight people have “found some differences, but have not demonstrated that these differences are inborn rather than the result of environmental factors,” they argue.
Environmental factors are particularly focused on by Mayer and McHugh, with childhood sexual abuse offered as an example where LGBT people report higher rates than heterosexuals — as well as higher rates of emotional and physical abuse. However, they conclude that with regards abuse, the idea that it could makes someone gay or trans “remains speculative” and fail to address that often LGBT people can be abused because they know they are LGBT.
The same applies to the influence of other environmental factors, such as whether or not a person spends their youth in a rural or urban environment. Mayer and McHugh cite a NORC study which determined that those who grew up in urban environments were four times as likely to have had a same-sex sexual encounter in the year before the survey. However, that only shows a difference in sexual activity, not whether a person was “born gay” — it’s much easier to find same-sex partners in urban areas, for instance — something Mayer and McHugh again attest to.
Instead, Mayer and McHugh ascribe to “gene-environment relationships” — the concept that a mix of genetic traits and environmental factors can ultimately influence a person’s actions and behaviors.
“We can say with confidence that genes are not the sole, essential cause of sexual orientation,” they write. “There is evidence that genes play a modest role in contributing to the development of sexual attractions and behaviors but little evidence to support a simplistic ‘born that way’ narrative concerning the nature of sexual orientation.”
With regard to gender identity, the report again argues that it is not something “innate and fixed,” noting that there is “little scientific evidence that gender identity is fixed at birth or at an early age.” Citing several studies that attempted to show differences in the brains of transgender individuals — such as their brains more closely adhering to those of their gender identity, not their biological sex — they argue that the studies “show inconclusive evidence and mixed findings regarding the brains of transgender adults.”
Again, Mayer and McHugh return to environmental factors, arguing that none of the studies looked at any factors outside gender identity being an innate trait.
While they say it’s possible a person could be transgender due to genes or hormonal factors, they once again argue that “psychological and environmental factors such as childhood abuse” could be the root cause as well.
They are particularly critical of parents who allow or encourage children to consider themselves transgender, especially young children who may outgrow any expressed desire to live or dress as the opposite gender.
They also caution against parents being overly eager to embrace a child as transgender, utilizing hormonal and surgical methods to allow a transition, in case the child later reverts back to identifying as their biological sex. “There is little scientific evidence for the therapeutic value of interventions that delay puberty or modify the secondary sex characteristics of adolescents,” they write, even though they acknowledge that there are transgender children who grow up happier because their parents embraced their identity.
Mayer and McHugh do identify a need for increased efforts to deal with the mental health needs of LGBT people, who are “about 1.5 times higher risk of experiencing anxiety disorders than members of the heterosexual population,” they write, “as well as roughly double the risk of depression, 1.5 times the risk of substance abuse, and nearly 2.5 times the risk of suicide.”
That rate is particularly high among transgender individuals, with the rate of suicide attempts “estimated at 41%, compared to under 5% in the overall U.S. population.”
(There’s mild irony in that Mayer and McHugh’s report could lead to a negative impact on the mental health of some LGBT people, as conservative bloggers latch onto their arguments about an supposed lack of a “gay gene” or its trans equivalent.)
As for any backlash from those who don’t agree with their findings? “We anticipate that this report may elicit spirited responses, and we welcome them,” the report states.
As for suggestions that McHugh’s past comments would color their report’s findings and accusations that it was only created to support McHugh’s extreme claims, Mayer disagrees.
“That isn’t true,” Mayer told The Christian Post. “Every line in this I either wrote or approved of. There is no bias either way. The bias is just towards science.
“I think we get into these very high volume battles, particularly in this current environment,” he continued. “When science supports our position, sometimes it is better to tone down a bit. In other words, conservatives have been highly critical of the report too already because it didn’t support this or didn’t support that. The idea is that let the science speak and then see how they respond to it.”
As it transpires, with expected gusto. Anti-LGBT activists are already urging supporters to read the report and use it as evidence to further discriminate against LGBT people.
(This article has been updated to clarify the political influences of the journal’s co-publisher and expand upon the anti-LGBT history of one of its authors.)
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!