The thing I've always loved about science is that, in the end, the truth really does win out, and most scientists are eager to know what it is. But there are always exceptions. When it comes to emotionally and politically charged topics like human sexuality and gender, even highly regarded professionals may find themselves tempted to bend the facts to support their own viewpoint rather than reality.
Such appears to be the case for Drs. Lawrence Mayer and Paul McHugh, coauthors of a recent report on sexuality and gender that has attracted substantial media attention. It was published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical areas of public policy,” in its non-peer reviewed journal The New Atlantis.
The article claims to be “a careful summary and an up-to-date explanation of research — from the biological, psychological, and social sciences — related to sexual orientation and gender identity.” It claims to show sexual orienation is chosen and not fixed, and that gay people are not "born gay." In truth, it is a selective and outdated collection of references and arguments aimed at confusing rather than clarifying our understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Mayer and McHugh begin by baldly stating that sexual orientation is an “ambiguous” concept compared to other psychological traits, and that there are “currently no agreed-upon definitions for purposes of empirical research.”
This is pure balderdash. The scientists who actually work in this area widely accept the American Psychological Asdociation's definition of sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic and/or sexual attractions to men, women or both sexes,” and we have reliable, empirically validated ways to study it. Sexual orientation may be complex — every human characteristic is — but it is certainly far less complicated and ambiguous than many of the facets of personality that psychologists spend their time attempting to measure and study; e.g., “warmth,” “self-esteem,” and “imagination.”
The authors' review of the role of genes in sexual orientation, the area of my own research, is revealing of their methodology. Of the six studies using proper probability sampling methods that have been published in the peer-reviewed literature in the past 16 years, they include only one — and it just so happens to be the one with the lowest estimate of genetic influence of the entire set.
They then discuss, at great length, an obscure study of 7th- to 12th-graders, published in a sociology journal, that doesn't even measure sexual orientation, instead relying on a single question about “romantic attraction.” It's an odd choice of articles to review given Mayer and McHugh's emphasis on proper trait measurement; perhaps they were driven by the fact that it failed to find any heritability, thus supporting their claim that nobody is “born gay.” A very different conclusion was reached by a careful meta-analysis of all the available twin data, recently published in a large review that Mayer and McHugh fail to even mention.
This type of data cherry-picking makes the section of the report on gender identity equally unreliable. For example, the authors come out strongly against affirming the identities of transgender children, arguing that their “dysphoria,” as they insist on pathologizing gender fluidity, might be transient. But they neglect two very important recent studies showing that trans children who are affirmed by their parents are as happy and healthy as their peers, and that allowing them to express their true gender decreases depression and anxiety.
The section of the report on mental health correlates rings especially false. It begins by acknowledging several studies demonstrating that the prejudice, discrimination, and stigma experienced by LGBT people are significant contributors to their increased rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicidality. But instead of focusing on how such social stressors might be reduced, the authors jump to the conclusion, with no supporting evidence or calculations whatsoever, that these factors are insufficient to fully explain the observed mental health discrepancies. The not-too-subtle implication is that LGBT people are intrinsically defective, and that no amount of legal or societal acceptance will ever fix them.
Equally dubious are the authors' repeated calls for “more research.” Mayer has never published a single article on human sexuality or gender (his name doesn't even appear in the paper's bibliography), and McHugh actually has a long history of blocking such efforts, beginning with his closure of the pioneering gender identity clinic at Johns Hopkins in 1979. McHugh claimed that his decision was based in science, but his real motivation became clear through his repeated reference to gender-confirmation surgery as a “mutilation” and his decision to explain his actions not in a scientific journal but in a conservative Catholic publication.
Rest assured that this report will have zero impact in the scientific world, which gives vanity journals like The New Atlantis about the same credence as the National Enquirer. It does, however, lend a certain air of legitimacy to the anti-LGBT arguments of various right-wing groups in the U.S. (which have received the publication with glee), the religious fundamentalists who are working to export homophobia to the developing world, and of course to pseudo-scientific organizations such as NARTH that promote “conversion therapy.”
Over the past two decades, I've been gratified by the gradual increase in knowledge and acceptance of the deeply rooted, intrinsic origins of sexual orientation and gender identity, and equally pleased by the growing realization that freedom of sexuality and gender are basic human rights independent of any scientific explanation. It doesn't upset me all that much when politicians and priests dispute the facts; after all, the Catholic Church only admitted that Galileo was right in 1992 (the same year I started my research at the National Institutes of Health), and it still doesn't accept Darwin.
But when the data we have struggled so long and hard to collect is twisted and misinterpreted by people who call themselves scientists, and who receive the benefits and protection of a mainstream institution such as John Hopkins Medical School, it disgusts me.
DEAN HAMER, Ph.D., is a scientist emeritus at the National Institutes of Health.