Prepare for This Study on the Misuse of Science on LGBT Issues to Be Misused

Acknowledging the ambiguity in research is hardly debunking myths.


Lady Gaga
Van Tine Dennis/Sipa USA USA/Newscom

When you find yourselves turning to the lyrics of a Lady Gaga song as evidence of a widespread "myth" about scientific research, maybe take a step back for a moment and reconsider your angle,

The New Atlantis is a journal about science published by the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. It's not a peer-reviewed science journal—it's an opinion journal about science. Don't take this as criticism—we're not hypocrites. We write opinion pieces frequently that are informed by science but are also intended to push forward liberty-minded policies.

They have a brand new journal out getting attention in conservative circles that purports to provide "the most up-to-date explanation of many of the most rigorous findings produced by the biological, physiological, and social sciences related to sexual orientation and gender identity."

What this report is really about is pointing out how many theories about sexual orientation and gender identity are exactly that—theories. Lady Gaga's song "Born This Way," is invoked early on in the study as an example of pushing a theory that sexual orientation is innate and that the science on the matter is settled when it is not.

Essentially, what this "Sexuality and Gender" report is intended to do is increase an emphasis on the ambiguity of the research to help push against public policies that want to treat everything about sexuality and gender identity as "settled science." The reality, though, is that much of what is in the report is not in any way, shape, or form "debunking" any "myths," as David French puts it at the National Review, because while some people may believe sexuality is innate, the science has been fairly consistent in saying the reasons currently remain inconclusive. (And since we don't have a scientifically confirmed explanation of where sexual orientation comes from, nothing has even been "debunked.")

In fact, here's how the American Psychological Association (APA) itself responds to the question "What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?"

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

That the APA doesn't classify homosexuality as a "mental illness" any longer and opposes efforts by therapists to change people's sexual orientation does not mean that the APA has concluded that sexual orientation is inherent or unchanging.

The New Atlantis study also puts out these nuggets:

Members of the non-heterosexual population are estimated to have about 1.5 times higher risk of experiencing anxiety disorders than members of the heterosexual population, as well as roughly double the risk of depression, 1.5 times the risk of substance abuse, and nearly 2.5 times the risk of suicide.

Members of the transgender population are also at higher risk of a variety of mental health problems compared to members of the non-transgender population. Especially alarmingly, the rate of lifetime suicide attempts across all ages of transgender individuals is estimated at 41%, compared to under 5% in the overall U.S. population.

What's fascinating about tossing out these numbers is that, first of all, they have nothing to do with the legitimacy of non-heterosexual orientations on gender identity. It's information intended to cast doubt on the state of minds of gay and transgender people without actually establishing a correlation. (To the study's credit, it does acknowledge the evidence that discrimination and social stigmas against LGBT people contribute to these figures.)

Second, numbers like this get tossed around within the LGBT community itself. There is a well-established understanding of the additional mental health concerns that people who are gay or transgender face. There are therapists and counselors who specialize in helping gay and transgender clients with problems ranging from depression to domestic abuse. There's certainly no "myth" that working out one's non-standard sexual orientation or gender identity comes free of mental baggage.

A good chunk of the study seems devoted to challenging the legitimacy of transgender transitions, and again, a lot of it is a reminder that the science is not settled. The study is probably going to catch a lot of critique from the left for its obvious agenda and clear intent to be used politically. But I do actually think it's fair of them to point out how much remains ambiguous and unsettled about gender identity given that we are in the crafting federal government policy about how or whether to accommodate transgender people.

Indulge me a moment in a childhood anecdote: I played a lot with girly things and with girls as a boy. Even when I was a small kid, I did have that sense that I was not "like" the other boys, something that many gay guys experience long before hitting actual puberty. My interest in girly things is long gone now (though I have recently become overly interested in mid-century design—not sure if that's a gay thing or a Los Angeles thing, or both).

With the enhanced interest in recognizing transgender kids, I think about that now and wonder whether I would be pushed by some well-meaning soul to consider whether I was transgender. I was not. I was confused, and the idea of treating a child as though he or she is "confused" has taken on a significant amount of stigma. It's easy to see why, given that the term "confused" has often been used to dismiss those who claimed non-standard sexual orientations. (I would point out here before conservatives start pointing to this confusion as evidence of something that the source of the confusion was the fact that I was gay. And about that part of my identity, there is most assuredly no dispute, regardless of the science behind it.)

We're seeing transgender policy that is pushing on both end of the scales, and that's frustrating. We have some people who want to treat a child's gender confusion as a settled matter and not a process of normal childhood development. We have some who want to treat it as though it will be a cultural disaster if we accommodate a child's confusion and not use social pressure to push him or her to conform to birth sex. And we have a federal government that is attempting to intervene on policies, which turns this all into a new stage of the culture war. Ultimately a child's sexual and gender identity is a matter for that child and the child's parents or guardians to work out. It shouldn't be the role of the government to step into this process to pressure parents or families in either direction. The purpose of this study is obviously to help one side push back against policy prescriptions from their opposition.

Read the report for yourself here.