Friday, February 12, 2010

Letting the PFOX into the PHenhouse

Irony, anyone? This post at (not to be confused with complains about fliers being handed out at a public school near Washington DC by a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, or PFOX (is there a corporate tie-in? if not, there should be). The poster claims that the fliers were handed out "officially", quoting a Washington Post article:
The schools are required to distribute literature that isn't deemed hate speech from any registered nonprofit organization four times a year, the result of a 2006 lawsuit, said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Public Schools.
Fair enough. Are gay non-profits distributing handouts at these schools? How about atheist or secularist groups? Are there gay-straight alliances in those schools? If not, why not?

The writer provides a quotation from the ex-gay flier.
"Every year thousands of people with unwanted same-sex attractions make the personal decision to leave a gay identity through gender affirming programs, including therapy, faith based ministries, and other non-judgmental environments," the PFOX flier stated. "No 'gay gene' or gay center of the brain has been found. No medical test exists to determine if a person is homosexual. Sexual orientation is based on feelings and is a matter of self-affirmation and public declaration."
This, of course, rouses the ire of the writer: "Huh, maybe next week the Montgomery County Public Schools would like to hand out fliers suggesting that the world is flat? Because that carries about as much scientific fact as what PFOX is saying."

Well, no, actually. It happens to be true that no "gay gene" or "gay center of the brain" has been found, and that no medical or other test exists to determine a person's sexual orientation. I don't even see what is wrong with saying that sexual orientation is based on feelings (what else could it be based on?) and is a matter of self-affirmation and public declaration (okay, that one's iffy, but just about everybody conflates sexual orientation and sexual identity). "Sexual orientation" is a pseudo-scientific term intended to give the impression that some physical mechanism has been identified which directs people's erotic and romantic interests, but the actual research being done shows that the researchers don't know what they're looking for, and the term has no coherent scientific basis.

The trouble with the quoted material is that, while many people do "decide to leave a gay identity", there is no evidence that they succeed. (By the way, remember what I said about confusing "sexual orientation" and "sexual identity"?) The history of the "ex-gay" movement is a litany of failure and scandal, including sexual exploitation of its clients by the people who run it. Back when it was a secular phenomenon run by psychiatric and other mental health professionals, the most it could claim was to change people's sexual behavior, and it didn't even succeed at that. Oh, and of course the claim that faith-based ministries and therapy are "non-judgmental environments" is absurd.

The ex-gay hustlers like to claim that they just want to give a choice to people who are beset by "unwanted same-sex attractions", and to tell the truth I'm sympathetic to that idea in principle. I've known many gay people over the years who hate being gay and do their best to make gay society unliveable for everyone else as a result with self-pity, self-destructive behavior, passive-aggressive acting out, and general tediousness. And of course there are those who marry heterosexually in hopes that it will normalize them, at great emotional cost to their spouses and children. If it were possible for those who want to change to do so, I'd be all in favor of their changing.

Plus, of course, gay laypeople who buy into the pseudo-science of "sexual orientation" accept the anti-gays' assumption that people have no right to make choices about their sexual lives: if we can change, they agree, we must change. But that doesn't follow, any more than people must change their religious "orientation", even though religion is a lifestyle choice, not an inborn condition.

But to repeat, there is overwhelming evidence that people don't change from gay to straight. This is actually rather odd, given the much vaunted "fluidity" of sexuality, which people who claim to believe in the biological fixity of sexual orientation often proclaim out of the other side of their mouths. The failure of change "therapy" doesn't mean, however, that homosexuality (or heterosexuality for that matter) is inborn or otherwise biologically fixed. Many acquired conditions are permanent. But no one knows why people are drawn to persons of one sex or the other, or to both. A case against the ex-gay movement can be made without relying on bogus science.

I agree that the false claims in PFOX's literature need to be countered, but so do the false claims on which the writer bases his article. The ex-gays should be challenged, especially on the issue of "choice": do they also support the choice of other gay people with wanted same-sex attractions to live our lives happily and openly, and do they oppose religious bigots who want to silence us? The Montgomery County school officials should be given pro-gay material (not compromised by bad biology) to distribute with the next batch of report cards. Surely the Human Rights Campaign or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force could work on such a worthy project?