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Authors defend controversial report on sexuality

Authors of a controversial report on sexuality and gender defend their work amid criticism from colleagues.

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 precept-cum-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.

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 for 26 years the psychiatrist-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer (Lawrence.Mayer@asu.edu) is a scholar in residence in the Department of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a professor of statistics and biostatistics at Arizona State University.

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