Mother Jones (sort of) hearts NARTH

Me to my blog – “I wish I knew how to quit you!”

Can’t really leave this one alone. Mother Jones has a lengthy piece which discusses sexual identity, sexual orientation change, NARTH, and Lisa Diamond. Titled, “Gay By Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity” by Gary Greenberg, the article explores the politics of biological determinism and sexual identity. There are several gems throughout this piece but I have time for three.

I am not sure if the author is joining in this mistake or is simply pointing it out, but he notes that reparative therapists hope to take advantage of lack of consensus surrounding biological theories.

While scientists have found intriguing biological differences between gay and straight people, the evidence so far stops well short of proving that we are born with a sexual orientation that we will have for life. Even more important, some research shows that sexual orientation is more fluid than we have come to think, that people, especially women, can and do move across customary sexual orientation boundaries, that there are ex-straights as well as ex-gays. Much of this research has stayed below the radar of the culture warriors, but reparative therapists are hoping to use it to enter the scientific mainstream and advocate for what they call the right of self-determination in matters of sexual orientation. If they are successful, gay activists may soon find themselves scrambling to make sense of a new scientific and political landscape.

Implicit in this paragraph is a mistake I hear frequently – “If we can disprove biological determinism, then we prove reparative therapy is effective.” This is misguided. Finding flaws in a theory is not a way to prove a competing theory. The competing theory – in this case, reparative drive theory – must still be proven. And to my way of thinking, there are many empirical flaws with reparative drive theory.

Lisa Diamond points out this problem later in the article:

Why then can’t the experience of therapy and the relationship with the therapist also effect change?” Diamond calls this interpretation a “misuse” of her research—”the fluidity I’ve observed does not mean that reparative therapy works”—but what is really being misused, she says, is science. “We live in a culture where people disagree vehemently about whether or not sexual minorities deserve equal rights,” she told me. “People cling to this idea that science can provide the answers, and I don’t think it can. I think in some ways it’s dangerous for the lesbian and gay community to use biology as a proxy for that debate.”

Actually, she touches on a point central to this article. Biology alone is an inadequate foundation for arguing for social change. The author spends some ink discussing the historical efforts to link biology and acceptance (via Kertbeny and Ulrichs – well worth the read) and then ends up arguing that the gay rights movement needs to find other foundations beyond biological determinism. Curiously, the author has this to say about NARTH. It sounds a bit like a supportive statement but I suspect it may be a warning to his ideological compadres.

NARTH is perfectly positioned to exploit this confusion by arguing that sexual orientation can be influenced by environmental conditions, and that certain courses are less healthy than others. That’s how NARTHites justify their opposition to extending marriage and adoption rights to gay people: not because they abhor homosexuality, but because a gay-friendly world is one in which it is hard for gay people to recognize that they are suffering from a medical illness.

Based on NARTH’s significant missteps (Schoenewolf, Berger, etc.) over the last couple of years, I would argue that the association is anything but “perfectly positioned to exploit” anything. Furthermore, I do not think remedicalizing homosexuality has much of a future. Too many people know gay people who are not mentally ill or living disordered lives for this characterization to take hold. Besides, if homosexuality were ever to become a medical illness, wouldn’t the American with Disabilities Act remove any additional legal barriers to civil rights? In fairness to the members of NARTH, not all would want to re-pathologize homosexuality. And this may not even be the official policy of NARTH, but I am primarily pointing out my doubts that any significant movement in the professions toward seeing sexual orientation as a more flexible trait for some people will come from NARTH. It will come from people like Lisa Diamond and others who are doing research, synthesizing biological and environmental studies, publishing findings in peer-reviewed outlets and presenting work to peers, friendly and unfriendly.

In short, it appears to me that within the mental health professions, the rationale for client self-determination is respect for the dignity of individuals. While we may point out probabilities, we recognize the rights of self-direction with appropriate informed consent.