Genes and sexual orientation: Tale of two activists

Over at Americans for Truth About Homosexuality (AFTAH), Pete LaBarbera alerted his readers that he was on WGN last night in connection with a story about “gay genes.” He noted in a mass email yesterday (did anyone see it?):

Americans For Truth will be featured tonight in a story on the cable super-station WGN-TV, based in Chicago, concerning the latest academic pursuit of the “gay gene.” It will air between 9:00 and 10:00 Central Time on WGN which reaches across the country. You can learn more about the (liberal biased) Northwestern U. “genetic homosexuality” study at As you know, pro-homosexual advocates are seeking to prove that homosexuality is genetic — with the hope of then declaring the issue outside the bounds of moral debate.

While this is not a strong denouncement of the project, it appears that AFTAH believes the research led by Alan Sanders is biased from the start. LaBarbera is right that some activists would like to prove a genetic source of homosexuality (case in point below). However, what if there are genetic components to sexual orientation? Is there any way to discuss or research these factors without being considered “liberal” and/or “biased?” Isn’t a blanket dismissal of pre-natal factors just as biased?

On the other hand, as if to prove LaBarbera’s point, enter Wayne Besen’s new videos from Dean Hamer and Jack Drescher.  To Dean Hamer, Besen poses the question, “Is homosexuality inborn?” Hamer replies that “there is more and more evidence that sexual orientation has a strong biological component.” Hamer then points to two “population based studies of twins.” One is Kendler’s study in the US and the other is Bailey and Martin’s study in Australia. Hamer says these studies “have shown that genes are the single most important factor in whether a person is gay or straight or somewhere in between.” He said the studies have been replicated and are convincing. I will save for another post a detailed response to those statements, but for now I will say that I do not agree with Dr. Hamer’s characterizations. For instance, in the Australian study, the actual concordance of homosexuality among male identical twins was only 11%. Kenneth Kendler and colleagues in 2000 found a higher concordance (31.6% combining males and females), but did not designate genetics as being a determining factor. About his study of twins, Kenneth Kendler told the BBC,

By no means is sexual orientation genetically determined but clearly genes are playing some role by interacting with a range of environmental factors.

Dr. Drescher’s video provides a more nuanced and I think accurate reading of research. About those who say they know what causes sexual orientation, Dr. Drescher says, “The truth of the matter is, we don’t know, nobody knows, and anybody who says that they know is lying to you.” Drescher also presents a reasonable view of the role of sexual abuse saying that for individual people, such abuse could play a role but as a general rule, believing abuse to be at root is an unfounded stereotype.

Now, coming full circle back to the website LaBarbera noted in his email –, we find a nuanced and I believe accurate view that cuts between activists Besen and LaBarbera. Here are a couple of excerpts:

At the present time, there is no uniformly accepted theory of why some men and some women develop a sexual orientation that is more or less exclusively focused on members of their own sex.


Most contemporary researchers believe that sexual orientation – the general disposition of people toward homosexuality, bisexuality, or heterosexuality – is the result of both biological factors and psychological experiences. Most researchers do not believe that sexual orientation is the result of nature (biology, including genetics) alone or nurture (environment) alone. What researchers want to know is how specific factors in biology and psychology interact to guide sexual development. These researchers therefore look for biological and psychological differences between homosexual and heterosexual people, both men and women.

Then after listing the many studies which find biological factors correlated with sexual orientation (e.g., finger length ratio differences, brain differences, etc.), the website says this:

These studies are designed to show a correlation between a trait and sexual orientation. This is not the same as showing that a trait causes sexual orientation. What is not yet known is whether these traits and sexual orientation have a common origin in genetics or other biological influences on development, though these hypotheses are being pursued. In any case, these lines of research are suggestive rather than definitive. Among other factors, it is these and other uncertainties that prompt continued research.

These statements sound anything but biased to me. All concerned would do well to heed them. Working hard to spin what is known may play well to activists but saying homosexuality is or isn’t all “genetic” or “inborn” or “environmental” does not well represent what is known. We need to follow the research where it leads and hold our theories loosely.

Photographer focus of human rights complaint

The Washington Times reported Monday that a New Mexico photographer is defending herself against a human rights inquiry because she declined to take wedding pics for a lesbian nuptual. Should the photog, Elaine Huguenin, have to do the job?

What if this was a Catholic photographer who refused a Protestant wedding? Or what if it was a polyamorous wedding? What if it was a florist who did not send flowers? Or a caterer? Or what if it was a counselor who did not want to provide pre-marital counseling to a lesbian or gay couple? Or a counselor who did not believe in providing pre-marital counseling to a divorced couple?

Feel free to list other questions and answers. What should the New Mexico HRC decide?

Pew Forum releases major study of religion in the US

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a major study of religion in the US today. The LA Times has one news report summarizing the findings. Protestants are declining but overall 8 of 10 people say they are Christians. Lots of other findings at the Pew Forum website…

American Psychiatric Association to host symposium on religion, therapy and homosexuality

The American Psychiatric Association will host a symposium called “Homosexuality and Therapy: The Religious Dimension” at their annual meeting in Washington DC on May 5, 2008. I will be on the panel along with David Scasta, MD, Rev. Albert Mohler, Bishop Gene Robinson and moderator, John Peteet, MD. Dr. Scasta is past-president of the Association of Gay and Lesbian Psychiatrists (AGLP); Dr. Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a candidate for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bishop Robinson is the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal Church and Dr. Peteet is Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard, Medical Director (Psychiatry), Adult Psychosocial Oncology Program, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Chair of the APA Committee on Religion, Spirituality & Psychiatry.

An extensive background article by David Scasta about the symposium can be found on page 10 in this month’s newsletter of the AGLP. An excerpt:

Could we ever get a group of scientists and clinicians on both sides of the religious divide to seek common ground while committed to honesty in the scientific research about homosexuality – no matter what the outcome? While I can plead that most gays are not dead by their mid 40s and that those conclusions come from a distorted, blatant attempt to discredit gays, Christian conservative groups will dismiss my ranting out-of-hand. However, when someone like Dr. Throckmorton makes the same conclusions, these groups reluctantly listen. By the same token, when Dr. Throckmorton states that an assertion in our film [Abomination] is not supported by the data, AGLP ignores him. But if someone from AGLP makes that assertion…I decided to talk with Dr. Throckmorton.

The symposium will be held between 2:00-5:00 pm in lecture halls 159 A & B in the Washington DC Convention Center and include the following components:

Practice Framework for Managing Sexual Identity Conflicts

Warren Throckmorton, PhD

The Psycho-Social Bases of Theologies that Compel Efforts to Change Sexual Orientation: The Psychiatric Ethical Response

David Scasta, MD

A Pastoral Approach for Gay & Lesbian People Troubled by Homosexuality

Bishop Gene Robinson

A Pastoral Approach for Gay & Lesbian People Troubled by Homosexuality

Rev. Richard Albert Mohler, Jr., PhD

Discussant, Dr. Peteet, Chair of the APA Committee on Religion, Spirituality & Psychiatry.

I want to thank David Scasta and John Peteet for taking the initiative in making this symposium a reality. I look forward to the meeting, the give and take and opportunity to bring the discussion of sexual identity issues to this forum.