Blimey, that’s a title and a half for you…
Anyway, I’m wading into this debate rather late, as per usual, but the combination of religious bigotry and pseudo-psychiatric nonsense on display here is something that I just have to post about.
A Northern Ireland MP, and member of the Democratic Unionist Party, Iris Robinson, has expressed strong views on the issue of homosexuality. In a radio interview, she apparently described homosexuality as, ‘disgusting, nauseous, shamefully wicked and vile,’ and as ‘an abomination’. By describing homosexuality as an abomination, she’s quoting from the bible, specifically Leviticus Chapter 18, verse 22 (‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.’), and Leviticus Chapter 18, verse 13 (‘If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.’).
Now, you won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t share Mrs Robinson’s views on this issue for a whole range of reasons. I might be inclined to point out that, whereas (male) homosexuality is condemned as an abomination in two verses of Leviticus, shellfish are condemned as an abomination in three (Leviticus 11: 10, 11 & 12). I might also be inclined to point out that Leviticus forbids the wearing of cloth made from more than one type of material (Lev. 19: 19), or that it identifies women who have given birth as ‘unclean’, and sets out the number of days they must wait, and the live sacrifices they must offer at the tabernacle (one lamb, or two turtles, or two young pigeons), before they can be considered ‘pure’ again (Lev. 12: 1-8).
Having pointed out these things, I might draw attention to the fact that fundamentalist christians tend not to campaign for biblical “law” on any of these issues, as they do on the issue of homosexuality. I might ask on what basis they have decided which bits of Leviticus god actually meant, and which bits he was just kidding on about. I might enquire why, if they feel able to dismiss or ignore some aspects of “god’s law,” they can still argue that other sections have an absolute force that cannot be disputed or over-turned.
Still, none of that changes the fact that Mrs Robinson is entitled to her view, and that, other things being equal, she should have the right to express it in public. Unfortunately, Mrs Robinson chose not to leave matters there. Asked to comment on the case of a gay man, Stephen Scott, who had suffered a broken wrist, fractured ribs, and head and leg injuries when he was assaulted by three homophobic attackers, Mrs Robinson condemned the attack, but went on to re-assert her belief that homosexuality is an abomination. This was regrettable.
Most secular people (and, I suspect, the majority of christians, too) would tend to side unequivocally with the victim in this case. I think very few would choose to give some kind of spurious justification to the attack by describing the victim as being guilty of abomination. It’s worth bearing in mind that Mrs Robinson’s choice of word here (‘abomination’) specifically invokes the bible verse quoted above in which men who “lie” with men are warned they are responsible for what happens to them: ‘Their blood shall be upon them.’ This could be interpreted as an indication that the assault was justified by the word of god.
So far this is all just the standard bigotry and hypocrisy that I have, unfortunately, come to expect from religious fundamentalists, but Mrs Robinson goes further:
I have a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals trying to turn away from what they are engaged in, and I’m happy to put any homosexual in touch with this gentleman and I have met people who have turned around and become heterosexuals.
(Source here – paraphrased slightly)
This is the part of all this that really bothers me. There’s absolutely no reliable evidence that homosexuals can be turned into heterosexuals, or vice versa. Even if we accept that sexuality is entirely psychological (and, personally, I’m not sure that it is), there’s still no evidence that sexuality, once first established, can be changed. The professional bodies for psychiatrists and other Mental Health specialists acknowledge that homosexuality is not a mental disorder. If a psychiatrist, or other MH specialist, is approached by someone who is distressed by their sexual orientation, the correct response is to help the individual to come to terms with it, not to offer them the false hope of a conversion to an alternative form of sexuality.
The ‘very lovely psychiatrist’ to whom Mrs Robinson refers, Dr Paul Miller, takes a different view. He describes encountering gay people who are distressed by a conflict between what he calls their ‘religious identity’ and their ‘sexual identity.’ Rather than helping them to come to terms with that conflict, he instead undertakes what sounds very much like a form of psychodynamic therapy:
The sexual behaviour stems out of a person’s past […] What I do is I take a detailed history and I look at key relationships and their past and that would be relationships with mother and father and with peers, both same-sex and opposite sex peers. What I’m seeking to do is to help the person think as clearly as possible
Dr Miller doesn’t go into detail about how this detailed analysis, and the ‘clear thinking’ that results from it, translate into a reversal of sexual orientation. As he states explicitly that, ‘no one chooses to experience who they are sexually attracted to’ (same source), presumably he must believe that sexual orientation is determined at a subconscious level, and that, by bringing to the attention of the conscious mind the mechanisms by which the subconscious determination is reached, a change in sexual orientation can be achieved. As such, it would seem to be dependent on regarding sexual orientation as a purely psychological phenomenon. (If sexuality is not psychological, then psychological therapies aimed at altering it will, by definition, be ineffective.)
Strangely, though, Dr Miller argues that:
no one is born gay because gay identity is a complex interaction between genetics and environment
As far as I’m aware, to date there has been no published research which has successfully identified a genetic component in sexual orientation. This makes it a little strange that Dr Miller is able to speak with such confidence, particularly as this issue (genetics) would seem to be outside his area of competence (psychiatry). It’s even stranger Dr Miller should chose to raise the point, because it rather undermines his argument.
Asserting that no-one is born gay is consistent with the belief that sexuality is entirely psychological, but invoking the concept of genetics isn’t. If there is a genetic component to the ‘gay identity,’ then being gay is partly biological, and so can’t be entirely psychological. If sexual orientation isn’t entirely psychological, then no psychological “therapy” can be entirely successful – by definition, it can affect only the psychological aspects of sexuality. I’m sorry for labouring this point, but I think it helps to explain what happens with those ‘many homosexuals’ Dr Miller claims to have turned into “heterosexuals.”
Take me as an example. As a poof, I have absolutely no desire to have sex with a woman, but that doesn’t mean I’m physically incapable of it. Given the right mental stimulation (if I thought about guys, basically) I’m sure I would be capable of “performing,” although probably not in a way that would bring much pleasure to the unlucky woman concerned.* Equally, it’s well within the realm of the possible for me to stop having sex with guys. But none of that would mean that I was now a heterosexual.
I might appear to be heterosexual. I might tell a psychiatrist who had been trying to turn me straight that I was. There’s even a chance that, if I was desperate enough to believe it, I might manage to temporarily convince myself that I’d succeeded in making the change. But, fundamentally, I’d still be as gay as I always was. This is, I’m certain, what happens with the people Dr Miller “converts.”
I know some people will argue that what Dr Miller is doing is perfectly benign. He says he works only with people who want to change their sexual orientation. He says if someone changed their mind he would not force them to continue “therapy”. He makes sympathetic noises about being ‘gracious’ towards those who find the process of changing their orientation ‘too difficult.’
But I’m reminded of parallels with the discredited practice of subjecting homosexuals to aversion “therapy”, in which gay and bisexual people were given electric shocks or injected with emetic drugs when they looked at pictures of their own sex, in the hope that the association of unpleasant physical sensations with the “wrong” sexual desires would turn them straight. Although some people were coerced into “treatment” as an alternative to prosecution or imprisonment, the number of people seeking “help” actually peaked after homosexuality was decriminalised. Most of those “patients” undertook the “treatment” voluntarily. For the most part, the “therapists” involved in the work had the best of motives – they genuinely believed they were helping people. None of that changes the fact that what they experienced and administered was little better than torture.
It’s easy to get caught up thinking about the horror of aversion “therapy.” It’s certainly something that looms large in my mind – as a poof with mental health problems I’d have almost certainly been recommended to try it if I’d been born a generation earlier than I was. But although I’m grateful I never had to experience the trauma of aversion “therapy,” the thing I’m most grateful for is that I live in a time and a place where homosexuality isn’t, for the most part, seen as wrong.
When I grew up, in the 70s and 80s, most of what I saw and read and heard about homosexuality was negative, but at least I had the chance to seek out alternative views. As I realised I was gay, I also had the opportunity to gradually come to realise that there was nothing wrong with it. I came to understand that, if someone was saying (or more often shouting) that I was evil, or ill, that HIV (a disease I do not have) was god’s judgement on me for my sinful life, then there was something wrong with them, not me. And it’s that realisation that people like Dr Miller and Mrs Robinson are trying to prevent.
They are trying to reinforce the idea that these selectively chosen parts of Leviticus (and only these parts) are right. That my continued existence as a homosexual is an abomination. That I am personally responsible for every negative thing that happens to me. That there is only one way to alleviate the suffering they think is an inevitable consequence of my orientation (and not of their prejudice against it), and that is to undergo “psychiatric therapy” to change it.
Even if this were possible (and, again, there’s no evidence that it is), it would still be wrong. I would be the first to say that my sexual orientation is only a part of me. It doesn’t, on it’s own, define me. But it is a fundamental part of my nature, a central plank in what it is that makes me me. Essentially, by saying they want to change my sexual orientation, they are saying that they want me to disappear.
It’s hard to explain to a readership that is, I think, for the most part straight why this matters so much, why it isn’t just a case of, “You’ve got your opinion, they’ve got theirs, what’s the big deal?” You’ll read what I’ve written here, and hopefully you’ll agree that I’ve got a few arguments on my side. But I suspect some of you will think I’m making too much of this. “Obviously a bad day for Aethelread,” you’ll think. “The poor guy must be feeling a bit emotionally fragile if he’s getting so worked up over this.”
One or two of you may be inclined to accuse me of trying to stifle legitimate scientific enquiry, or say that I’m trying to shut down free speech. But that really isn’t the case. Of course fundamentalists of any and every religion have a right to believe in whatever they want. Of course they have the right to live their lives in accordance with what they believe to be the diktats of their god. But that’s not what Mrs Robinson and Dr Miller are trying to do. They are trying to control the actions of others, and they’re trying to do it in a particularly insidious way.
Most of the gay people who read or hear Mrs Robinson’s diatribes against homosexuality won’t ultimately be persuaded that she’s right, although she may succeed in prolonging the length of time it takes them to come to terms with themselves. Most of the gay people who are converted to “heterosexuality” by Dr Miller won’t ultimately stick with their new “orientation”, although they may have been persuaded to get married in the meantime, thus spreading their own unhappiness to other people. At the most fundamental level, Dr Miller and Mrs Robinson know this is the case. That’s why Dr Miller includes his weasel words about people who find the process of change too difficult to manage.
What they are actually trying to do is limit the mental space in which gay people can come to recognise that there’s nothing wrong with them, that they have the same entitlement to love and happiness as everyone else. There’s no “love for the sinner” in what Mrs Robinson and Dr Miller preach, there isn’t even any genuine desire to help the people who come forward for “assistance”. Mrs Robinson, abetted by Dr Miller, is trying to stop people from coming out, to force them back into shame and self-loathing and fear, to make them spend their lives “passing” for straight.
Mrs Robinson has spoken in a TV interview about how she feels that “political correctness” is being deployed to prevent her, and christians like her, from expressing their views. Despite the way I feel about her opinions, I’m sympathetic to the claim. In an ideal world I’d much rather she got to spill her vitriol and bile across the airwaves than that she was censored. I would guess in the long term she’s actually defeating her own aims by speaking so harshly (the majority of people tend to instinctively recoil from extremism), but even if that were not the case, I’m a big defender of freedom of speech. I think it’s the most important of the “intellectual” human rights. The right to life, the right to health, and the right to the pursuit of happiness come first, second, and third, respectively, but the next most important is the right to freedom of expression.
I would never casually make a call to restrict anyone’s rights, and I am distinctly uncomfortable that I have to write in these terms now. But in parallel with all of these rights, including the right to freedom of expression, comes the responsibility to behave in a way that doesn’t impact on the rights of others. In other words, Mrs Robinson’s right to freedom of expression can be defended only so long as it doesn’t impact on the rights of others.
Fundamentally, Mrs Robinson wants to use her freedom of expression to curtail the freedoms of others. It’s obvious that she wants gay people to just get “better”/ keep quiet/ fade away. Her systematic record of voting against civil partnerships makes it clear that she’s opposed to the right of gay people to publicly express their love for each other. Her discussion of the evils of homosexuality, and her promotion of “cures” and “therapy” for it, will make life for gay people a great deal harder, both in terms of the way they think about themselves, but also in terms of the way that their friends and families, and the wider community, think about them. Anything that enhances the “respectability” of homophobia increases both the likelihood of anti-gay violence, and also the fear of it amongst gay people.
Everything Mrs Robinson says is ultimately aimed, not at preserving her right to live her own life according to her beliefs, but at curtailing the rights of others. I’m not arguing that she can’t believe what she wants to believe, just that she can’t use her own beliefs to justify riding rough-shod over the rights of others.
All this talk about beliefs and rights and coercion perhaps seems rather intellectual and academic, so to close I’ll refer to Stephen Scott, the man who was attacked for being gay.
He said he had struggled with coming to terms with being homosexual, something made more difficult by his background.
“I took an overdose last November because I was finding it hard to cope with being gay – I had no support from anyone and felt on my own,” he said.
Mrs Robinson’s right to express her opinion is important. But Mr Scott’s right to life, his right not to be attacked, his right to happiness, his right, fundamentally, to exist, are more important.
* I’m worried this comes across as rather misogynistic. I don’t hate women, very much the opposite. I know that they’re attractive and desirable people, and although I don’t personally want to have sex with them, that’s no reflection on them.