Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thinking about homosexuality

After unexpectedly attending the trial of two men in Malawi who had been arrested for being homosexuals, and after hearing about the proposed “gay-killing” legislation in Uganda, I ran across this interview by Rachel Maddow of Richard Cohen. Mr. Cohen is an unlicensed therapist who specializes in counseling people who have unwanted homosexual feelings. He completely condemns the Ugandan legislation. But the Ugandan author of the law has cited Cohen and his book, entitled “Coming Out Straight,” as a formative influence. Watch the interview.

Mr. Cohen has been ridiculed and shunned by professional psychiatric associations and of course by most homosexuals. Certainly he seems like a bit of a weirdo. In particular his “tennis racket” therapy is odd. But the vehement attacks on him by many homosexuals have been unseemly and overblown. Mr. Cohen, at least in his interview with Ms. Maddow, was certainly not your typical Christian fundamentalist homophobic bigot (although the statistics he cites, and then disavows, in the interview don’t help him any). He doesn’t say that homosexuality is immoral. Rather, if the feelings are unwanted, he treats it as psychological disorder. In the nature vs. nuture debate over the origins of homosexuality he is firmly in the later camp. Because of the historical and continuing prejudice against homosexuality it is understandable why homosexuals would be offended by Mr. Cohen’s beliefs. But I think that much of the offensive has more to do with that history of prejudice than with Mr. Cohen. I say this because I can’t imagine being offended if someone were to tell me that my heterosexuality was a psychological disorder. I would think that person was weird, uninformed, or just your average nutball, but he would hardly make me angry.

In any case, the interview prompted me to do a little browsing about the scientific consensus on the nature of homosexuality and it appears as if the jury is still largely out. Although most homosexuals believe instinctually that their sexual orientation is not a choice, attempts to find a “gay gene” have failed. Nevertheless much scientific research does seem to indicate that one’s sexual orientation is determined early on, possibly in the womb. Others like Alfred Kinsey believe that there is a continuum of sexual orientations which are influenced by a range of nature and nurture factors. Others still, who are usually but not always critical of homosexuality, think it is entirely a matter of nurturing. For a great review article of this stuff see here.

For me Kinsey’s suggestion matches my own anecdotal experiences best. The idea that everyone exists on a sexuality continuum, and that their place on that continuum is dependent upon a large number of biological and environmental factors, has a lot of explanatory power. I have met too many bisexuals of varying degrees and of both genders, to believe that everyone is either straight or gay. I have also witnessed people going through phases of being homosexual and of being heterosexual, so the idea that environmental and even psychological factors, play no role doesn’t seem credible.

What do you think?


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