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Gayness: not all biology, but not all choice either

By David Skidmore - posted Monday, 14 June 2004

The Australian Family Association’s (AFA) Dr David van Gend seems to think there are not enough heterosexuals and is trying to recruit members of the gay community.  According to van Gend, the American psychiatrist Dr Robert Spitzer has published a review entitled 200 Participants Reporting a Change from Homosexual to Heterosexual Orientation (2003).  For van Gend this is proof enough that homosexuality is not a fixed identity. With psychiatric therapy, and presumably the power of Jesus Christ, he triumphantly asserts that the “gay Titanic” will “founder on [this] large and immovable fact.”  Bingo!  More recruits to the straight cause.

First of all, a word of warning – always be wary of “large and immovable facts” – especially when it comes to the social sciences or psychology. The racial inferiority of colonised peoples living under 19th Century European colonial empires was once regarded as a given.  Arthur de Gobineau’s An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853-55) was just one notable theoretical work on how some groups of people are supposedly biologically inferior to others. His and other racial supremacists’ “facts” are now regarded as pseudo-scientific relics. Nor should we forget Paul Cameron, whose anti-gay “research” was so flawed and unethical it led to his expulsion from the American Psychological Association. Cameron’s work is still sometimes cited by Christian fundamentalist extremists such as the Family Research Council in the USA.

Besides leaping on research that is yet to stand the test of time (not to mention the fact that van Gend is not giving us the whole story – interestingly he didn’t mention 93 per cent of participants in Dr Spitzer’s study regarded religion as “very” or “extremely” important in their lives, 19 per cent had connections with “ex-gay” ministries and none were chosen randomly) van Gend makes several other erroneous assumptions. First of all, he asserts “…blacks cannot stop being blacks, but gays can stop being gay.” This is not entirely true. Accounts of Australian Indigenous people last century tell of those with lighter skin colouring who managed to pass as white in a time when being identified as Aboriginal was regarded as shameful. And Michael Jackson is merely the most well-known African-American who altered his appearance to look Caucasian.


Also fallacious is van Gend’s rather offensive implication that gays are not a persecuted minority group. Statistics from the NSW Anti-Violence Project alone show far too many gay men and lesbians are bashed or murdered specifically on the basis of their sexuality. Nor was it that long ago that all states and territories in Australia imprisoned people found guilty of “homosexual acts”. Research by trade unions indicates a shockingly high level of workplace discrimination, harassment and even outright violence against lesbians and gay men.  If that is not persecution, I don’t know what is.

Jews are included in van Gend’s list of “genuine” persecuted minority groups. This is rather strange since their inclusion undermines his thesis that gay people are not a genuine persecuted minority because they can change in order to conform to societal standards. Unless you regard being Jewish as a fixed racial characteristic, it is generally assumed that one can convert to Judaism or from Judaism to another religion and still be a genuine adherent to one’s chosen faith. In other words, being Jewish can be a chosen identity but it is without question a legitimate choice.  Anyone attempting to offer Jews “reparative therapy” in order to change would be rightly regarded as a bigot.

Van Gend likes to use the free-market concept of “choice”. But is being gay really a choice as it is commonly understood? I believe being gay is not a genetic disposition such as having blue eyes. Blue eyes are either blue or they are not. This is not the same as sexuality. Spitzer’s study found that women respondents reported significantly more change in sexual orientation than the men. This may indicate female sexuality is more fluid than that of males. That partly accounts for the greater numbers of gay men who are “out” than lesbians. And Spitzer’s research included only 57 females compared to 143 males. There are also more open bisexuals than in the past, demonstrating that sexuality is not either/or but is spread across a spectrum. Indeed, Alfred Kinsey’s research in the 1940s, while it is now known to contain fundamental errors, is useful in that it showed sexuality was less clearly defined than previously thought.

Nonetheless, homosexuality is not chosen in the way one can choose to join the AFA or choose to legislate against same-sex marriage. There are many lesbians and gay men who didn’t select their sexuality from a smorgasbord of options. However, they not only came to terms with it but became proud of who they were. Not only is it difficult for some heterosexual commentators to grasp this fact, it is extremely offensive to trivialise the life experience of lesbians and gay men as simply a series of freely chosen decisions.

And this brings me to the most fundamental problem with van Gend’s article. That is, the assumption that something is inherently wrong with homosexuality. There is no evidence of this unless you regard the work of people like Paul Cameron as evidence. There may be homosexuals unhappy with their lives but there are unhappy heterosexuals as well. Gay men and lesbians still face discrimination and violence - but then so do heterosexual women. We should feel no more compelled to change our sexuality than heterosexual women should to change their sex (it would be fascinating to know what van Gend thinks of people who voluntarily undergo sex -change operations). But as long as we have a “reparative therapy” industry telling us we are not fully human there will continue to be anti-gay persecution. Fortunately, as long as we are being persecuted there will be a gay rights movement fighting for our human rights and happiness.

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About the Author

David Skidmore works for a non-government organisation in NSW that lobbies for people with disabilities. He has also worked on behalf of pensioners, homeless people and tenants. In his spare time he's a gay-rights activist.

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