I was approached recently to sign a letter that was sent to the President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni. Parliament recently passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, and it would require people to turn in suspected homosexuals, and it listed 14-year prison sentences for people who engaged in same-sex behavior (for one offense; up to a life sentence for repeated offenses). Apparently President Museveni told a human rights group that he would not sign it if there was scientific evidence that those who are attracted to the same sex do not have a choice with regards to their same-sex sexuality. Hence the call for members from the scientific community to offer their thoughts on the research. Below is the letter written by Jack Drescher and Warren Throckmorton.
This was in some ways a no-brainer, while in other ways I had to take some time to think about it. The no-brainer was because I believe people do not choose to experience same-sex attractions. Most find themselves with their attractions at around the time of puberty. So that part was easy to agree to.
The time for reflection had to do with several citations of research in the letter that I thought were either incorrect or at least deserved some elaboration or clarification. But, at the end of the day, I decided to sign because I do not believe people choose to experience same-sex attraction, and that was what Museveni was reportedly open to discussing. In my opinion, that is not even the most helpful question to ask.
I am reminded of an 18-year-old I saw for a consultation a few years ago. After we were meeting for a while, I mentioned that I didn’t think he chose to be attracted to the same sex. He said, “Dr. Yarhouse, you’ve got to tell my parents; they think I chose this to make their lives difficult.” I said, “Of course, I don’t think you chose your attractions.” I added, “I do think you have choices to make, choices about behavior and identity.” He stopped me: “Dr. Yarhouse, don’t tell my parents that!” So often the wrong question is on the table: Do people choose to have a homosexual orientation? The better question is: What is volitional?
For the purposes of this letter and for people who are navigating these issues in Uganda, I would certainly say that people find themselves experiencing same-sex attraction. We may not fully understand why, and it is likely a combination of factors from both Nature and Nurture.
Letter to the President of Uganda,
Your Excellency Yoweri Museveni
We, the undersigned, are responding to President Museveni’s request for current and accurate scientific information about homosexuality.
The Causes of Homosexuality are Unknown
From a scientific perspective, the causes of homosexuality are unknown. What is known is that it is unlikely that there is one biological or genetic cause for homosexuality in all people. Some data suggest that genetic and hormonal factors during pre-natal development have some impact on sexual orientation, in different ways for different people. For example, homosexuality can be found at a significantly higher rate among identical twins when compared to non-identical twins or non-twin siblings. However the rate is not 100% among identical twins and the reasons for these differences remain unknown.
Despite early claims by some psychiatrists that faulty parenting causes homosexuality, there is little scientific evidence that parenting plays a role in directing a person’s sexual attractions. Neither is there much scientific support for theories that claim sexual abuse or recruitment causes homosexuality. The majority of people who were sexually abused did not later try homosexual behavior nor did they become homosexual.
Homosexuality is Not a Mental Illness
Starting in the 19th century, psychiatrists began classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. However scientific sex research done in the middle of the 20th century began to change this view. For example, according to studies done in the 1950s, homosexual men showed no greater sign of psychiatric problems and seemed as well adjusted when compared to a comparable group of heterosexual men. In 1973, a review of newer scientific research led the American Psychiatric Association to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic Manual (DSM). In 1990, the World Health Organization concurred and also removed homosexuality from the mental disorder section of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).
A Homosexual Orientation is Difficult, if Not Impossible, to Change
While mental health practitioners have tried to change a homosexual orientation since the 19th century, those results have been mostly unsuccessful. Sigmund Freud himself once said, “In general, to undertake to convert a fully developed homosexual into a heterosexual does not offer much more prospect of success than the reverse, except that for good practical reasons the latter is never attempted.”
In 2009, the American Psychological Association issued a report that studied the peer-reviewed scientific literature to date. That study found no scientific evidence that therapies designed to change sexual orientation are effective. While it is possible that some self-reports of change are true, science does not support the idea that sexuality is changeable for most people.
Homosexuality is Not the Same as Pedophilia
While homosexuality is no longer regarded as a mental disorder in the ICD, pedophilia or attraction to minors is still considered to be one. However, the available scientific research does not support the view that adult homosexuals primarily attracted to other adults pose a threat to minors any more than the threat posed by heterosexual adults to children. However, it is well documented that many who are opposed to any open expressions of homosexuality often raise the possible threat to children as a scare tactic.
Is Homosexuality Normal?
If by normal one means that homosexuality occurs in nature, then yes homosexuality is normal as scientific research shows it is found in many species besides human beings.
However a scientific definition of normal may not mean the same thing as a cultural definition. There are many cultures where homosexuality, once considered as an abnormal mental disorder, is now regarded as normal. Part of this change is due to scientific research that disproved many common myths and beliefs about homosexuality. When they do not have to hide for fear of social stigma and punishment, openly homosexual individuals serve as politicians, physicians, psychologists, teachers, police, military personnel, etc. Those who know them, their families, co-workers, and neighbors, consider them normal.
We thank you for this chance to summarize scientific research on this topic. Please direct any follow up questions to either Jack Drescher, MD or Warren Throckmorton, PhD.
Jack Drescher, MD
Warren Throckmorton, PhD