Au­thors de­fend con­tro­ver­sial re­port

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Paul R. McHugh and Lawrence S. Mayer Dr. Paul R. McHugh ( pm­chugh1@jhmi.edu) is Univer­sity Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and a pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try and be­hav­ioral sciences at the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity School of Medicine; he was fo

In a re­cent Sun op-ed, col­leagues at the Bloomberg School of Pub­lic Health sought to “dis­as­so­ci­ate” them­selves from a pa­per we pub­lished in The New At­lantis en­ti­tled “Sex­u­al­ity and Gen­der.” Our pa­per ex­plored, and found flimsy, any sci­en­tific sup­port for pop­u­lar no­tions about sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der.

Be­cause the op-ed writers im­plied that we were way­ward, we should clar­ify what they — and we — say.

Our col­leagues be­gan by com­plain­ing that our re­port failed to show “re­spect” for hu­man di­ver­sity, iden­ti­fy­ing re­spect as “the cor­ner­stone of univer­sity life.” But, re­spect is due ev­ery­one in our so­ci­ety. At univer­sity, the cor­ner­stone must be truth. “The truth shall make you free” pro­claims the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity seal in­spir­ing us.

Our col­leagues pre­sented two spe­cific crit­i­cisms: They noted that our ar­ti­cle was not “peer re­viewed” and that we did not dis­cuss two pa­pers they knew.

These seem odd com­plaints. We were not mak­ing a new sci­en­tific con­tri­bu­tion (need­ing peer re­view) but of­fer­ing lay peo­ple our sense of its lit­er­a­ture. We sub­jected our piece to the scru­tiny of the editors and their check­ers of fact and ref­er­ence as must any such re­port be­fore it ap­pears in pub­li­ca­tions such as The New Yorker or The At­lantic. To com­plain that it was not “peer re­viewed” would be to quar­rel with most ef­forts striv­ing to make sci­ence ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic.

Our pa­per en­tailed a care­ful study and full de­scrip­tion of close to 200 sci­en­tific pa­pers. Our col­leagues did not say in what spe­cific way the pa­pers they claim we over­looked (one pub­lished a month after ours) re­futed our con­clu­sions — prob­a­bly for the sim­ple rea­son that the pub­li­ca­tions do not do what they claim.

Cru­cially, our pa­per did not draw any pol­icy or prac­tice con­clu­sions and as such did not strive to af­fect the lives of gay, les­bian or trans­gen­der peo­ple or in any way “dis­re­spect” them.

We did say that sci­en­tific stud­ies did not now sup­port (though could not cat­e­gor­i­cally re­ject) the view that sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­tity is an “in­nate” bio-be­hav­ioral fea­ture of hu­man be­ings, fixed at con­cep­tion and rigidly defin­ing sex­ual de­sires, at­trac­tions and iden­ti­ties through­out life — i.e. the claim that gay peo­ple are “born that way.” We also said stud­ies of gay, les­bian and trans­gen­der pop­u­la­tions re­vealed among them a con­sid­er­able in­crease in men­tal dis­tress and dis­or­der up to and in­clud­ing sui­cide. And, we noted, sci­ence de­clares that there are only two hu­man sexes, so that thoughts such as “I’m a woman in a man’s body” did not de­scribe a bi­o­log­i­cal re­al­ity even though it might be a pow­er­ful feel­ing or as­sump­tion of a per­son and could take myr­iad forms. Fol­low up of chil­dren with such feel­ings demon­strated that the great ma­jor­ity — 80 to 95 per­cent — aban­don them as they ma­ture.

Our col­leagues did not of­fer any spe­cific sci­en­tific study that re­futed what we demon­strated. They stated that “ma­jor ad­vances” dis­prov­ing us had come from psy­chi­a­try and psy­chol­ogy but pointed to none. Specif­i­cally they said: “Sci­en­tific ev­i­dence clearly doc­u­ments that sex­ual and ro­man­tic at­tach­ments to peo­ple of the same and/or dif­fer­ent sexes are nor­mal vari­a­tions of the di­ver­sity of hu­man sex­u­al­ity.”

Claim­ing that a be­hav­ior is “nor­mal” can be am­bigu­ous in mean­ing. For ex­am­ple, with the word “nor­mal” our col­leagues may mean to re­ject the view that ho­mo­sex­ual or trans­gen­der be­hav­iors are so­cially “de­viant” be­cause ac­cept­ing them as “nor­mal” vari­a­tions makes for a more tran­quil and fair-minded so­ci­ety. For sim­i­lar rea­sons, other be­hav­iors pre­vi­ously con­sid­ered de­viant are now be­ing re-eval­u­ated, such as mar­i­juana use.

If, though, they meant we iden­ti­fied these be­hav­iors as de­viant, they mis­char­ac­ter­ize our re­port. We were chal­leng­ing the com­mon and con­tem­po­rary idea that ho­mo­sex­ual and bi­sex­ual “ori­en­ta­tions” are best un­der­stood as “nor­mal” in the sense of “built in,” as with the left-handed, i.e. an in­born, essential, fixed bio-be­hav­ioral vari­a­tion di­rect­ing one’s modes of ac­tion.

We specif­i­cally re­ferred to two stud­ies in our pa­per. First, the Na­tional Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study of Ado­les­cent to Adult Health (Add Health) de­scribed sex­ual de­sires chang­ing over time. One would ex­pect that if in­born and fixed for life, as with left-hand­ed­ness, then sex­ual at­trac­tions to same-sex peo­ple would ap­pear in youth and per­sist into adult­hood. The Add Health study how­ever demon­strated that the ma­jor­ity (more than 80 per­cent) of youth claim­ing such at­trac­tion in late child­hood and ado­les­cence iden­ti­fied them­selves as ex­clu­sively het­ero­sex­ual in adult­hood. An­other study — the pop­u­la­tion study from the Univer­sity of Chicago — demon­strated that, in con­trast to left-hand­ed­ness which is uni­formly dis­trib­uted in Amer­i­can adults, males raised in metropoli­tan cen­ters in ado­les­cence were close to four times more likely to live in a ho­mo­sex­ual part­ner­ship as adults than those raised in ru­ral dis­tricts.

We think a sub-text — re­vealed by their choice of words such as “dis­so­ci­ate” — car­ries our col­leagues’ mes­sage. To up­hold the rights and lib­er­ties of gay, les­bian and trans­gen­der peo­ple, all must con­cur that sci­ence proves sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and iden­tity are “built-in” and im­mutable. Be­cause we’ve chal­lenged this pre­ceptcum-party-line, we are re­pu­di­ated.

But we too de­plore de­pri­va­tions and abuse of the gay, les­bian and trans­gen­dered. Noth­ing we have said is fairly in­ter­preted dif­fer­ently. How­ever, we also de­plore at­tempts in the ser­vice of rights to use scorn and in­nu­endo to sup­press the truth about na­ture. Surely, truth and jus­tice can co­ex­ist.

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