The issue of sexual orientation has been a very controversial issue since nations in the West began to recognize Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Transgender (LGBT) rights.
An important part of the current LGBT debate is the belief that sexual orientation is predetermined by biology. Therefore, if a person has no choice over whether to be gay or not, society cannot demand that he or she becomes ‘straight’. This is a sound and reasonable argument. Indeed, society cannot force people to change from something they have no control over.
On the other hand, the ‘born that way’ argument has been disputed by some people. A latest cross-discipline study published in the journal New Atlantis has challenged the belief that human sexuality and gender identity are determined by biology and remains fixed. The New Atlantis journal focuses on political, societal and ethical ramifications of technological advances.
The study, carried out by two researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, revealed that there is no scientific proof of sexual orientation being fixed. The researchers said the objective of their study is to draw the attention of the public to mental health problems of the LGBT community. The study cautioned against drastic medical treatment for transgender children.
According to the study, regardless of its political worth, the “born this way” notion by the LGBT community is not backed up by sufficient scientific data. But the study did not conclude or state that being gay is a choice. It merely said stating the opposite may be wrong.
The study, a 144-page paper, was written by Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer, an epidemiologist and biostatistician also trained in psychiatry, who is currently a scholar in residence at the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Dr. Paul R. McHugh, who also co-wrote the paper is a renowned psychiatrist, researcher, and educator and former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Dr. Mayer said many people who contributed to the study asked not to be identified. The anonymity they requested is to protect them from a potential backlash from those who would disagree with the study. He admitted the study may stir controversy among both pro and anti-LGBT people.
“Some feared an angry response from the more militant elements of the LGBT community; others feared an angry response from the more strident elements of religiously conservative communities. Most bothersome, however, is that some feared reprisals from their own universities for engaging such controversial topics, regardless of the report’s content—a sad statement about academic freedom,” Dr. Mayer said.
The paper’s three sections focus on sexual orientation, links between sexuality and mental health, and gender identity. Drawing on studies in fields varying from neurobiology to social sciences, the researchers wrote: “The understanding of sexual orientation as an innate, biologically fixed property of human beings – the idea that people are ‘born that way’ – is not supported by scientific evidence.”
The study stated that even the term ‘sexual orientation’ itself is ambiguous. The term, according to the study, is used to describe attraction, behavior or identity by different researchers. Sometimes, the same term refers to things such as belonging to a certain community or having certain fantasies.
The study said: “It is important, then, that researchers are clear about which of these domains are being studied, and that we keep in mind the researchers’ specified definitions when we interpret their findings.”
The researchers acknowledged in the study that there are biological factors associated with sexual behavior, but pointed out that there are no compelling causal biological explanations for human sexual orientation. For example, some studies have showed that there are differences in the brain structures of gay and straight people. But the study said the differences are not necessarily innate, and may be the result of environmental or psychological factors.
“The strongest statement that science offers to explain sexual orientation is that some biological factors appear, to an unknown extent, to predispose some individuals to a non-heterosexual orientation,” the study said.
Explaining further, the researchers revealed LGBT individuals are statistically at greater risk of having mental health problems than the general population. The researchers said in the United States for example, the rate of lifetime suicide attempts across all ages of transgender individuals is estimated at 41%, compared to under 5% in the overall population of the country. The usually accepted explanation for this is social stress from discrimination and stigma, but the study said that those factors may not solely explain the disparity and that more scientific research on the issue is necessary.
The paper added that the notion that gender identity is fixed and determined by biological factors is also not backed up by data. More scientific data is also needed to back this claim, according to the researchers.
“In reviewing the scientific literature, we find that almost nothing is well understood when we seek biological explanations for what causes some individuals to state that their gender does not match their biological sex,” the authors said.
Concluding the study, the researchers warned against resorting to drastic medical treatment such as sex-reassignment surgery for people identified or identifying as transgender. The researchers said their warning is especially true in children, whose sexuality is mutable and for whom such treatments may do more harm than good.
“There is little scientific evidence for the therapeutic value of interventions that delay puberty or modify the secondary sex characteristics of adolescents, although some children may have improved psychological well-being if they are encouraged and supported in their cross-gender identification. There is no evidence that all children who express gender-atypical thoughts or behavior should be encouraged to become transgender,” the researchers said.
The researchers finally noted that their study touches upon controversial issues, insisting that first and foremost, it is about science and the need for additional evidence in the field. They encouraged western societies to accept the study from a scientific point of view, and not by emotions and personal beliefs.