It’s the newest talking point, touted by major news outlets and conservative blogs: A recently published study concluded that the idea that people are born gay or transgender is “not supported by science.”
Instead, Arizona State University statistics professor Lawrence Mayer and Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor Paul McHugh surmised that a number of environmental factors may be more determinative of whether someone identifies as gay or transgender. Writing in The New Atlantis, a conservative opinion journal, the pair say genetics may also play a contributing role, but that there is no evidence showing that sexual orientation and gender identity are definitively linked to a person’s biological makeup. As soon as it was published, the Internet was awash with headlines trumpeting that “Born This Way” was a myth. Although past studies have similarly found that there is no conclusive evidence showing a genetic predisposition to homosexuality, the current report was being touted as though it were Holy Writ.
The timing of the report — and the oversimplification of its conclusions (not to mention Mayer and McHugh’s past anti-LGBT rhetoric and involvement with anti-equality causes) — has raised eyebrows among psychologists, counselors and therapists who regularly work with the LGBT community.
“They’re oversimplifying the issue, because it’s really difficult to narrow down that information with basic studies,” says Lori Ann Shapiro, a licensed clinical social worker. “They’re using information about the brain. You can’t truly define what’s going on in the brain based solely on scans or hormonal tests.
“I’ve heard theories or suppositions about these issues. When a child or baby is in utero, they believe that all fetuses essentially start out the same, and, then, after a certain week, the body and brain get signals to develop as male or female, and things of that nature. So who knows what kind of signals are happening in utero that dictate gender identity, sexual desire, what your sexual orientation will be? I don’t know whether it’s that simple.”
According to Rob Williams, the analysis by Mayer and McHugh says more about the difficulties of proving anything scientifically than it does about gender or sexuality.
“Their review shows that the scientific understanding of these complex and core human experiences is almost nil,” says the clinical social worker. “Applying statistical analysis of the studies to date leads to almost no rigorous conclusions. I think that’s the danger in this article. It makes it sound like there is no link, when in actuality, science hasn’t been able to prove anything.”
“In this research, they’re trying to show that they can’t prove something, so, therefore it’s more of a choice,” says psychologist Gregory Jones. “When you start talking about choice, that’s where you get into the political realm of trying to influence the public versus providing pure scientific data and knowledge.”
Others see a more sinister motive behind the timing of the publication of Mayer and McHugh’s report, noting that it coincides with a time when transgender issues have become a political wedge issue as several prominent anti-discrimination lawsuits are working their way through the courts.
“This was a political act, not an academic act,” insists Sarah McBride, national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign. “What is clear is that McHugh and Mayer are really writing about their personal prejudices or biases, not actually about rigorous academic study.”
In response to a report that attempted to debunk some of the conclusions drawn by Mayer and McHugh, HRC noted that most medical experts agree that so-called “conversion therapy” can’t change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and that transgender patients benefit from receiving gender-affirming care.
HRC also pointed out that McHugh has made several statements disparaging transgender people who seek out gender confirmation surgery, calling transgender people “counterfeits” and “impersonators.” He has also referred to homosexuality as an “erroneous desire.”
Mayer and McHugh’s report has “the credibility of a middle-school essay,” says McBride, and criticizes the decision to publish it in The New Atlantis, rather than a peer-reviewed journal.
“Beyond the media narrative around this, it’s pretty thinly veiled in its pursuit of seeming academic and rigorous and objective,” she says. “There’s no question this was written in an attempt to provide anti-transgender forces with something that they could source to. It is an attempt to provide, in these court cases, anti-equality forces with some leg to stand on.
“This piece would be laughable if not for the potential harm it can do to transgender people, and in particular, transgender children,” she continues. “My hope is that folks have learned a lesson from the marriage equality fight, that objective, fair-minded judges will not be fooled by this essay. But that’s certainly their intention, and it’s certainly the threat that it poses.”
Licensed professional counselor Kris Oseth says any implication that sexual orientation or gender identity is caused by factors such as childhood sexual abuse can be problematic for people still coming to terms with their sexuality.
“[It’s] a very harmful message…[to link being gay] to the trauma you’ve gone through,” she says. “I think it can be very damaging. What we know is that there are people who have experienced emotional trauma or sexual trauma, and they are not gay. They do not become homosexual.”
Jones adds that many people often become aware of their sexual orientation and gender identity from an early age, often around 3 or 4 years old, which would undermine the argument that homosexuality or transgenderism is a conscious choice.
“Children’s minds aren’t sophisticated enough at such a young age to be making choices like that,” he says. “The fact is that, whatever causes it, it’s something innate and built-in, that we cannot change.”
Many of the clients Jones sees who identify as LGBT are not necessarily struggling with their gender identity or sexual orientation, but are trying to navigate societal expectations and are dealing with personal relationships, including familial acceptance.
“They’re struggling with how to get through the system to be who they are. And how to get through all of this red tape just to be themselves,” he says.
Like LGBT advocates and fellow therapists, Williams has some concerns that anti-LGBT forces may attempt to use Mayer and McHugh’s report to justify discriminatory actions. But he also points out that the gay community has been able to gain greater societal acceptance even without a “silver bullet” that definitively links homosexuality to a person’s genetics.
“The real point here is: why does it matter?” he says. “Why is people’s sexuality, or their gender expression, such a big deal? And that goes back to long-ago attempts by the Church to regulate people and by societies to regulate people and what they do. But in today’s society, who cares what you do in the privacy of your own home?”
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