Monday, July 27, 2015

Should sexual orientation fluidity affect the politics of gay rights?

There is an important piece in New Scientist titled “Sexuality is fluid – it’s time to get past ‘born this way.’” The author, Lisa Diamond, is a professor of developmental and health psychology at the University of Utah. She is also a lesbian. According to whomever edits the site, “Gay rights shouldn't depend on how a person came to be gay, and we should embrace the fact that sexuality can change, says developmental psychologist Lisa Diamond.”

There is a great deal of this article that I agree with. I have personally experienced some fluidity; some movement of the needle within the sexual orientation continuum. However, I have problems with the title. More accurately it should read that there is some fluidity in sexual orientation. Moreover, the author reinforces the fact that we are born with our sexual orientation. These days, titles are click bait. Dr. Diamond correctly explains:
… people are born with a sexual orientation and also with a degree of sexual flexibility, and they appear to work together. So there are gay people who are very fixedly gay and there are gay people who are more fluid, meaning they can experience attractions that run outside of their orientation. Likewise for heterosexuals. Fluidity is the capacity to experience attractions that run counter to your overall orientation.
  1. Agreed. I have explained to others:
  2. I may have attractions to women from time to time.
  3. If those attractions were of sufficient strength to act upon (they are not) I might consider myself to be bisexual. I am gay.
  4. It's important to note that fluidity is like outdoor temperature. It may change but there's not much that we can do to influence those changes.
Diamond explains:
… there’s a core part of the population that is about as gay as the day is long, and they don’t appear to be affected at all by social acceptance … But the most common form of same-sex attraction is not exclusive attraction but a bisexual form. You can imagine that these people are likely to be influenced by social acceptance of same-sex sexuality.
I don't think that Professor Diamond's  research supports her proportional estimates. I have sent her an email to find out. Moreover she does not address the notion that sexual orientation is a continuum with heterosexual and homosexual at the extreme ends.

It's important to understand that her piece is more about the politics of gay rights than homosexuality as a scientific subject. Diamond says many things about sexual orientation that I thoroughly agree with.
  • “For a start, same-sex attraction does not appear to be contagious.”
  • “I think all the evidence suggests that we’re born with an underlying capacity, and then that capacity interacts with a whole bunch of other influences.”
  • “… twin studies show that there’s a genetic contribution to same-sex attraction – but that is not the only thing going on.”
Her conclusion:
It doesn’t matter how we got to be this way. As a scientist, I think it’s one of the most fascinating questions out there and one that I will continue to investigate. As a lesbian and a progressive, I think it’s totally irrelevant and just politics.
I doubt that Professor Diamond sees the emails that I see. To put it politely her perspective is, well, “academic.” The Catholic Church continues to insist that gay people are “objectively disordered.” They propose to treat gay people as if they have a bad habit comparable to alcoholism and drug addiction. They even have a ministry that employs pseudo-scientific 12-step mythology to make people celibate.

At least the Church seems to confirm that gay people exist. Conservative Protestants (mostly evangelical Baptists) define people not by attraction but how and with whom we have sex.

We have fierce adversaries which means that we need to be very careful when we say that sexual orientation is not immutable. Fluidity and how we identify as gay, straight or bisexual are two very different things. I think that Diamond is conflating the two. It is vitally important to correctly insist that sexual orientation is innate. If the needle moves (which includes heterosexuals) it's not within our control and the fluidity is unlikely to influence how we identify.

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