October 15, 2006

Scapegoating Sexual Minorities: An Opinion Essay

Posted at 3:44 pm (Pacific Time)

In the wake of Rep. Mark Foley’s resignation from the US House of Representatives, antigay activists and their supporters seized on the scandal to revive the tired old stereotype of gay men as child molesters.

The Family Research Council, for example, complained that neither political party “seems likely to address the real issue, which is the link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse.” Paul Weyrich, head of the conservative Free Congress Foundation, was quoted by ABC News on the subject of gay men: “The reality is that many of them are interested in little boys. Not all of them, of course. But many of them.”

A Wall Street Journal editorial suggested the Foley scandal should increase liberals’ support for the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters. It portrayed the Republican leadership (who previously have shown no reluctance to exploit the public’s unease about same-sex couples for their political ends) as fearful of offending gay people “in today’s politically correct culture.”

Although promoters of the child molester myth claim their arguments are based in fact, a careful reading of the scientific research shows otherwise. Relatively few studies have systematically assessed how many pedophiles and molesters can be considered gay, straight, bisexual, or none of the above. Those addressing this question, however, haven’t found any inherent connection between an adult’s sexual orientation and his or her propensity for molesting children. The ranks of sexual predators include straight and gay adults, but neither group is disproportionately likely to spawn molesters.

In fact, many child molesters fit the “none of the above” category. They lack the capacity for a mature relationship with another adult. Instead of being straight or gay, they are attracted mainly or exclusively to children — boys, girls, or both. Conservative activists are quick to label such men gay when they molest young boys (and sometimes even young girls). But this simplistic (and politically expedient) assumption doesn’t fit with the facts about human sexuality and pedophilia.

The lack of a linkage between homosexuality and child molestation is widely recognized by clinicians and child welfare advocates. This is why relatively little research has directly addressed the issue — proving something we already know simply isn’t a priority. Indeed, a commentary that accompanied publication of a 1994 study in the journal Pediatrics (which found no link between homosexuality and child molestation) noted that debates about gay people as molesters “have little to do with everyday child abuse” and lamented that they distract lawmakers and the public from dealing with the real problem of children’s sexual mistreatment.

Of course, congressional pages aren’t prepubescent children. They are 16 or older, which is the age of majority in some jurisdictions. Regardless of whether they’ve reached the legal age of consent, teens in the workplace need to be free from sexual harassment and coercion by their supervisors and superiors. Here again, sexual orientation isn’t a predictor of perpetrating abuse. Neither straight nor gay people are disproportionately likely to molest teenagers, use their positions of authority to abuse their subordinates, or engage in other reprehensible acts.

The gay-men-as-pedophiles stereotype is part of a long tradition of portraying disliked minority groups as a threat to the majority’s most vulnerable members. In times past, Jews were accused of murdering Christian babies and black men were regarded as a threat to white women. Society’s out-groups make convenient scapegoats, and mustering public outrage against them is often disconcertingly easy.

Predictably the gays-are-pedophiles canard is now being touted by some conservatives. This move should be seen for what it is — an effort to shift the national discussion from questions about the congressional leadership to more comfortable turf, namely, gay-bashing and scapegoating sexual minorities.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 12, 2006

New Census Data: More Same-Sex Couples in the US

Posted at 12:33 pm (Pacific Time)

The 2000 US Census had special importance for sexual minorities because it yielded data on the number of households headed by someone in a cohabiting same-sex couple.

Now a newly released analysis of data from the Census Bureau has found that the number of such couples increased dramatically between 2000 and 2005.

The analysis was conducted by Dr. Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation, Law, and Public Policy at UCLA. Gates examined data on same-sex couples from the 2005 American Community Survey (ACS).

Unlike the decennial Census, which attempts to count every person living in the United States, the ACS is an ongoing survey conducted every year with a sample of households representing roughly 2.5% of the US population. By 2010, it will replace the Census long form. The 2005 ACS, the first to be conducted on a national basis, sampled 1.4 million households.

Here are some key findings from Dr. Gates’ analysis:

  • The number of cohabiting same-sex couples in the U.S. grew from nearly 600,000 in 2000 to almost 777,000 in 2005. This is an increase of more than 30%.
  • Based on the 2005 data, 53% of same-sex couples consist of two men while 47% consist of two women.
  • The rate of growth isn’t uniform across the country. Of the ten states with the largest percentage increases, 8 are in the Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, and Indiana). Their rates of increase ranged from 54% to 81%. These states had fairly small percentages of same-sex couples in 2000.
  • Also on the top ten list are New Hampshire (106% increase) and Colorado (58% increase).
  • Six states with a 2006 ballot initiative that would ban same-sex marriage — Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin — experienced more than a 30% increase in the number of same-sex couples in their population, even more than the national rate.

How to explain these huge increases between 2000 and 2005? Although some of the change may result from more gay, lesbian, and bisexual people cohabiting in committed relationships, Gates suggests that this factor is unlikely to account for the magnitude of growth documented by the ACS. Rather, it is probably the case that more same-sex couples are reporting their relationships to Census Bureau researchers.

This greater visibility could result from several factors, including more widespread awareness of the Census data about same-sex couples and a greater willingness to be out of the closet. That increased willingness to disclose may reflect a sense that sexual stigma has declined and it is now safer to be openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Coming out may also represent a decision to take a stand against antigay groups and ballot campaigns.

The Census only counts same-sex couples, and only those who are living together and in which one partner is the household head. Because it doesn’t ask directly about sexual orientation, the Census doesn’t tell us how many Americans are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual.

Using data from another large-scale survey, however, Gates estimated that 4.1% of US adults identify as a sexual minority. This translates into an estimated 8.8 million gay, lesbian, and bisexual persons.

Applying this estimate to the ACS data, Gates came to some additional interesting conclusions:

  • In terms of absolute numbers, California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Illinois have the largest sexual minority populations, along with the District of Columbia.
  • New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston have the largest sexual minority populations among metropolitan areas.
  • Ranking states by the percentage of the adult population who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Washington, Massachusetts and Maine come out on top.
  • Among large metropolitan areas, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland (OR), and Tampa have the highest percentages of sexual minority residents.
  • Same-sex couples are found in all Congressional districts in the U.S.

The full report, Same-sex Couples and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Population: New Estimates from the American Community Survey, and other analyses of Census data are available at the Williams Institute Web site.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 11, 2006

Let’s Talk About It

Posted at 12:02 am (Pacific Time)

Happy National Coming Out Day.

October 11 is the day set aside every year to remind gay, lesbian, and bisexual people about the importance of coming out, and to remind heterosexual people how they can support their sexual minority family members and friends in living open, honest, and fulfilling lives.

This year, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians & Gays) have partnered in a campaign called Talk About It. As the title says, the goal is to encourage sexual minority women and men to discuss their experiences with their heterosexual relatives, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.

Toward that end, HRC and PFLAG have created a A Resource Guide To Coming Out, which provides information and advice for sexual minorities, and A Straight Guide to GLBT Americans, which is designed for heterosexuals who want to support and assist their gay, lesbian, and bisexual loved ones. Both guides are available on the HRC Web site.

This campaign gets it right — in many ways.

Coming out is tremendously important for sexual minority individuals. While concealing one’s sexual orientation can be highly stressful, being out of the closet is often associated with better mental and physical health. Not only does being open about one’s sexual orientation eliminate the need to be constantly vigilant and secretive, it also creates opportunities to get help and emotional support from significant others in the face of society’s prejudice against sexual minorities.

Moreover, coming out plays a major role in reducing sexual prejudice. For heterosexuals, knowing someone who is openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual often leads not only to a better relationship with that person, but also to more positive feelings and less prejudice toward sexual minorities in general. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, compared to other heterosexuals, straight people with gay and lesbian friends and close family members tend to be less prejudiced against all sexual minorities.

However, simply knowing that a friend or relative is gay, lesbian, or bisexual doesn’t necessarily reduce a straight person’s prejudice. It’s also critically important to talk openly. In my own research, I’ve found that the heterosexuals with the lowest levels of sexual prejudice are those who not only know someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but have also spoken directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority.

But many sexual minority adults don’t discuss this aspect of their lives with family members, friends, or coworkers.

In a recent national survey, I found that a majority of lesbians and gay men in the US consider themselves to be out to their immediate family members. However, substantial numbers never speak about lesbian and gay issues with their parents or siblings. A similar pattern holds in their relationships with other relatives, coworkers, and straight acquaintances. Bisexual adults are even less likely to talk with straight people about their sexual orientation and how it affects their daily lives.

Of course, coming out can be risky, and talking about one’s sexual orientation is often difficult. Here’s where the HRC/PFLAG project is right on target. The Talk About It guides offer practical suggestions to assist sexual minorities and straight people alike in getting those conversations started.

So today, on this National Coming Out Day, do something positive to fight sexual prejudice. Have a conversation. Talk about it.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 7, 2006

Child Abuse and Christian (Right) Science

Posted at 3:54 pm (Pacific Time)

Although Christian Right groups are highly suspicious of science in matters such as evolution and the origins of the universe, they like to argue that scientific research strongly supports their claims that homosexuality and pedophilia are linked.

The Family Research Council has produced what is perhaps the most extensive attempt to document this claim. It is an article by Timothy J. Dailey titled Homosexuality and Child Abuse.

With 76 footnotes, many of them referring to papers in scientific journals, this screed’s facade of scholarly rigor gives it some degree of truthiness. A careful check on what the sources actually say, however, belies this impression. Specifically, its central argument — that “the evidence indicates that homosexual men molest boys at rates grossly disproportionate to the rates at which heterosexual men molest girls” — doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

I’ve recently updated and expanded the section of my web site devoted to Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation. It now includes a detailed review of the main sources cited by Dailey and the FRC to support their claim. Some of the new material is summarized below. For more background and context for interpreting the studies, please see my web site.

In brief, the scientific sources cited by the FRC report don’t support their argument. Most of the studies they cited did not even assess the sexual orientation of abusers. Two of the studies explicitly concluded that sexual orientation and child molestation are unrelated. Only one study (Erickson et al., 1988) might be interpreted as supporting the FRC argument, and it failed to detail its measurement procedures and did not differentiate bisexual from homosexual offenders.

Here are my comments on the 9 main sources cited in the 2004 version of the FRC article.

1. Freund et al. (1989). Heterosexuality, homosexuality, and erotic age preference. Journal of Sex Research, 26, 107-117. As the FRC concedes, the findings from this study contradict their argument.Its abstract summarizes the authors’ conclusion: “Findings indicate that homosexual males who preferred mature partners responded no more to male children than heterosexual males who preferred mature partners responded to female children.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 6, 2006

Foley Scandal: Antidote to Potential NJ Backlash?

Posted at 12:44 am (Pacific Time)

The New Jersey Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision this month in Lewis v. Harris, the case challenging that state’s marriage laws.

Many gay rights attorneys are hopeful the Court will rule that same-sex couples have the right to marry in the Garden State. Such a ruling, however, could motivate conservative Christians nationally to come to the polls in large numbers in November, thereby foiling the Democrats’ hopes of taking control of one or both houses of Congress.

Now the Mark Foley scandal has created new uncertainty about the potential impact of a favorable New Jersey decision.

Is it possible that conservatives’ disgust over the Republican leadership’s handling of the scandal could neutralize their opposition to marriage equality? Might they stay home on election day, despite their concerns about marriage equality in New Jersey?

Or would a pro-gay ruling by the NJ Court revitalize conservatives and get them to the polls to vote Republican after all — especially in states with anti-marriage measures on the ballot?

Those states include Virginia, where Republican incumbent George Allen faces a strong challenge in the Senate race. Might Allen’s reelection chances be boosted by a pro-gay decision in New Jersey?

It seems likely that one important factor would be whether cultural conservatives believe Republican candidates deserve their votes despite the Foley debacle, or whether they now see Republicans as no better than Democrats on their issues.

Of course, if the Court rules against same-sex couples, the marriage equality issue will probably lose some of its national potency, at least in the 2006 elections. (Though it’s likely to remain important in the states with ballot measures.)

For now, however, the New Jersey ruling’s potential effect on the election outcome remains anyone’s guess.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 3, 2006

Anti-Gay Groups: Trying To Change The Subject

Posted at 11:14 am (Pacific Time)

As I anticipated in my Saturday post, antigay activists and their supporters have been seizing on the Foley scandal as an opportunity to link being gay with being a pedophile.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins issued a statement yesterday in which he complained that neither Republicans nor Democrats “seems likely to address the real issue, which is the link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse … ignoring this reality got the Catholic Church into trouble over abusive priests, and now it is doing the same to the House GOP leadership.”

An editorial in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal made a similar linkage, arguing that the Foley scandal should increase liberals’ support for the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay scoutmasters.

Just to repeat what I wrote on Saturday: The ranks of child abusers, pedophiles, and sexual predators include people of all sexual orientations (and, as explained on my website, many child molesters don’t even have a true adult sexual orientation). The same goes for people who engage in sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct in the workplace: They can be straight, gay, or bisexual.

But none of these groups are disproportionately likely to behave badly. A person’s sexual orientation isn’t related to his or her propensity for sexual abuse or engaging in other reprehensible acts.

Stereotypes routinely portray denigrated minority groups as a threat to the majority’s most vulnerable members. The myth that gay men are child molesters fits this mold. Predictably, it is being touted now by conservatives who’d like to shift the national discussion from questions about the congressional leadership to the more comfortable turf of gay-bashing.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


October 1, 2006

The Lighter Side of Paul Cameron

Posted at 10:31 am (Pacific Time)

Paul Cameron, the antigay activist and discredited psychologist who was declared persona non grata by the American Psychological Association back in the 1980s, continues to promote discrimination under the guise of science. My website includes extensive critiques of some of his “studies.”

Although Cameron is taken seriously by some of the Christian Right, most people are able to see his work for what it is. For a great example, see The Daily Show‘s Jason Jones skewering Cameron’s arguments for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on September 18. A portion of the “Tangled Up In Bleu” clip is available on The Daily Show’s website.

[The links for this post were updated on June 3, 2008.]

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.


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