November 19, 2006

Psychology 101 for the DoD

Posted at 1:49 pm (Pacific Time)

The Pentagon is encountering an inconvenient obstacle in justifying its antigay policies. It’s slowly learning it can no longer get away with equating homosexuality and sickness.

The Department of Defense (DoD) recently came under public scrutiny for its 1996 Instruction on Physical Disability Evaluation. The final appendix of the 88-page memo listed “conditions and defects” that are not considered physical disabilities but nevertheless warrant separation from the armed services. Among these conditions and defects: “Certain Mental Disorders including … Homosexuality.”

In June, the Pentagon was called to task by the US mental health profession’s two major organizations — the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. Both APAs challenged the DoD’s factual error of labeling homosexuality a mental disorder and requested that the Instruction be corrected.

The DoD subsequently released a revised Instruction in which homosexuality was moved out of the “Certain Mental Disorders” category. But it’s still listed as a “defect” along with dyslexia, motion sickness, enuresis (bed-wetting), and “repeated veneral disease infections,” among others.

As was widely reported last week, the two APAs once again sent letters to the Pentagon. They acknowledged the DoD’s correction of the mental illness error, but noted that homosexuality isn’t a defect and pointed out that labeling it as such stigmatizes sexual minorities.

What’s particularly noteworthy about this story is the historic realignment it represents in how homosexuality is regarded by the institutions of American society.

The US military didn’t maintain regulations against homosexual activity until 1917, and then the sanctions focused on conduct, not sexual orientation. It wasn’t until the years immediately prior to World War II that the military began to exclude homosexual persons from its ranks, and that policy was based on a medical-psychiatric rationale.

Thus, the mental health profession played a central role in the original policy barring homosexuals from military service.

In 1973, however, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental illnesses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, which had included homosexuality since 1952. The American Psychological Association quickly endorsed this action and, in the years since, the two professional associations have taken a leading role in working to eradicate the stigma historically associated with homosexuality.

After it lost the support of psychiatry and psychology, the military sought other justifications for barring gay, lesbian, and bisexual personnel. Eventually, it settled on a rationale that emphasized supposed threats to unit cohesion and heterosexuals’ privacy rights. In essence, the Pentagon now argues that heterosexual personnel have so much antipathy toward gay people that they would be unable and unwilling to set aside that hostility for the good of the military mission. Moreover, the DoD portrays itself as powerless to confront this hostility in the manner it deals with, for example, racial discrimination or sexual harassment.

Of course, this argument is based on ideology rather than empirical data. US allies have successfully instituted policies that allow gay personnel to serve in their militaries. And empirical research reveals serious flaws in the Pentagon’s reasoning.

In the past, society’s major institutions spoke with one voice in condemning homosexuality. Organized religion declared it a sin. The law declared it a crime. And medicine — specifically psychiatry and psychology — declared it a sickness. The vocabularies used by these different institutions provided a quiver of rhetorical arrows for denigrating homosexuality and gay people — as immoral, criminal, sick.

The hegemony of heterosexism is crumbling, however. After the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling, consenting adult homosexual conduct isn’t illegal in the civilan world. And, as every student of introductory psychology learns, homosexuality hasn’t been considered a sickness for more than three decades.

Maybe the recent interventions by the two APAs will help the Pentagon to begin to grasp this fact.

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


November 14, 2006

Do Beliefs About Choice Lead To Sexual Prejudice?

Posted at 3:34 pm (Pacific Time)

If we could convince Rev. Louis Sheldon that being gay isn’t a choice, would he stop attacking sexual minorities?

In an interview with The Jewish Week, the Christian Right leader recently acknowledged that he’d known about Rev. Ted Haggard’s homosexual behavior months before it was publicly disclosed:

” ‘Ted and I had a discussion,’ explained Sheldon, who said Haggard gave him a telltale signal [of his sexual attraction to men] then: ‘He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn’t. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that.’

Apart from raising questions about his complicity with Rev. Haggard’s ongoing deception, Rev. Sheldon’s comments illustrate a pattern that has been well-documented in the United States: In general, antigay heterosexuals assert that homosexuality is a choice. By contrast, unprejudiced heterosexuals are likely to believe that sexual orientation is inborn or otherwise not chosen.

What, if anything, does this pattern mean for efforts to eliminate sexual prejudice?

It’s often assumed that a cause-and-effect relationship is operating here — that heterosexuals will become less prejudiced if they can be convinced that being gay isn’t a choice.

In fact, most gay people in the US don’t experience their sexual orientation as a choice. In my own empirical studies, I’ve found that the vast majority of gay men and most lesbians report having little or no choice in this regard. (I’ll discuss these data further in a future posting.)

Yet, the notion of organizing anti-prejudice campaigns around a “we-didn’t-choose-to-be-gay” theme sparks philosophical and political debate. Such arguments are outside my purview as a social scientist. Based solely on empirical research, however, this plan is problematic for several reasons.

First, many heterosexuals’ beliefs in this realm aren’t internally consistent. If someone regards homosexuality as a choice, you’d expect them also to believe gay people can change their sexual orientation. Conversely, those who think it isn’t a choice should believe that people can’t change. But the data only partly conform to these patterns.

In a 1999 national telephone survey I conducted, more than 1200 heterosexual adults were asked whether they believed being homosexual is something people choose for themselves or something over which they have no control. A bit later in the survey, they were asked their opinion about what proportion of gay people can stop being homosexual if they want to do so. Half were asked these questions about gay men, the other half were asked about lesbians.

Overall, 47% said homosexuality is something men choose for themselves, and 57% expressed this belief about female homosexuality.

As expected, most respondents who said being gay is not a choice also believed that few (if any) gay people can stop being homosexual — roughly 72% expressed this opinion about gay men, and 76% about lesbians.

But it was a different story for those who said homosexuality is a choice. Only 50% of them believed most or all gay men can become straight, and only 43% expressed this opinion about lesbians. Many believed that fewer than half of homosexuals can change (27% said this about gay men, 34% about lesbians).

I’ve asked similar questions in subsequent surveys, with the same results: Many heterosexuals who believe being gay is a choice nevertheless say most gay people can’t choose to stop being homosexual. This contradictory pattern suggests that believing homosexuality is chosen might not be about facts or logic, at least for some people.

There’s another problem with the idea that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality isn’t chosen will reduce their sexual prejudice. Such a plan will only work if beliefs about choice are actually the basis for heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities. However, the data about choice beliefs and sexual prejudice are largely correlational, which means they don’t necessarily reveal a causal relationship. Even if one factor does cause the other, we can’t be certain which comes first — beliefs about choice or prejudice.

The chain might actually begin with prejudice. After all, conservative Christians base their attitudes on the argument that homosexuality is sinful. To be a sin, homosexuality has to be a choice. Otherwise their antigay hostility looks less like moral rectitude and more like bigotry. So perhaps many heterosexuals with antigay attitudes say homosexuality is chosen as a way of justifying their preexisting prejudice.

Research relevant to this hypothesis has been conducted by Dr. Peter Hegarty, a Stanford-trained social psychologist who is on the faculty at the University of Surrey in England.

Dr. Hegarty observed that beliefs about choice and the immutability of sexual orientation weren’t as closely linked with public attitudes toward sexual minorities in England as in the USA. In a series of studies, he found that beliefs about choice were strongly correlated with sexual prejudice among American students, but not among English students.

In further data analyses, he divided the participants into two groups: (1) those who perceived statements that homosexuality is unchosen and unchangeable to signify tolerant attitudes toward sexual minorities, and (2) those who didn’t perceive such a connection. He found that choice beliefs were correlated with prejudice only in the first group.

Dr. Hegarty interpreted his findings as indicating that heterosexuals may construct their beliefs about choice “to fit their sexual politics rather than the reverse.” Insofar as they understand beliefs about choice to express a particular political viewpoint (no choice = progay; choice = antigay), they use them for just that purpose. Some say homosexuality is chosen to express an antigay stance while others express a progay position by saying it’s not chosen.

Yet another possibility is that the choice-prejudice linkage might result from the causal influence of some third factor, such as heterosexuals’ personal contact with sexual minority people. In another survey I conducted in the early 1990s, I found that Whites (but, interestingly, not Blacks) harbored much less sexual prejudice and were much less likely to regard homosexuality as a choice if they personally knew one or more gay people. Presumably, those relationships reduced their prejudice and gave them an opportunity to learn their friend or relative’s ideas about the origins of her or his own sexual orientation.

In summary, we don’t yet know why beliefs about choice are correlated with sexual prejudice. One may cause the other, or perhaps both result from a third factor, such as personal contact with gay people. The data we have don’t support the notion that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality is inborn or otherwise not a choice will cause them to be less prejudiced. If anything, it appears that stating a particular belief about choice may be a way of justifying one’s preexisting antigay or progay attitudes.

This is essentially the position that Rev. Sheldon took when he dismissed Rev. Haggard’s private comments about the genetic roots of sexual orientation as something “they need to say.” What he didn’t note is that, just as much and perhaps more, he and his followers “need to say” that homosexuality is a choice.

* * * * * *

Dr. Hegarty’s article, ” ‘It’s Not a Choice, It’s the Way We’re Built’: Symbolic Beliefs About Sexual Orientation In the US and Britain,” was published in 2002 in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 12, pp. 153-166.

For further discussion of Revs. Sheldon and Haggard, see Timothy Kincaid’s posting on

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


November 3, 2006

LA Times on Lesbian/Gay Parents: He Said/She Said?

Posted at 11:37 am (Pacific Time)

I didn’t plan my October 30 posting about parenting by same-sex couples to coincide with an article on the same topic in the Los Angeles Times.

But there it was in last Monday’s edition — the story by Kevin Sack, titled “Do Children of Gay Parents Develop Differently?“, a sidebar to his 3-part series on a gay male couple attempting to have children.

The headline’s question was answered — sort of — in the sub-headline, which read “Research suggests there’s no distinction. But the field is a young one, and studies are often colored by politics.”

The questions raised by that “but” prompted me to write this post.

To begin, it’s important to note that the Times accurately characterized current knowledge in many respects:

  • It reported (correctly) that experts generally agree that no empirical basis exists for concluding the children of lesbian and gay parents fare worse or better than those raised by heterosexual parents.
  • It (correctly) summarized the conclusions of sociologists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz in their 2001 literature review published in the American Sociological Review: “Almost uniformly, they wrote, the research found no systematic differences between children reared by a mother and father and those raised by same-sex parents.”
  • It quoted Dr. Charlotte Patterson, one of the leading researchers in this field (whose recent paper I summarized in Monday’s posting), as saying the children of lesbian and gay parents display “pretty positive adjustment.”
  • And it noted (correctly) that major professional organizations with relevant expertise — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Medical Association — have endorsed the conclusions summarized by Dr. Patterson.

In discussing the limitations of current research, however, the article raised three questions that may have left many readers doubting the validity of this entire area of research.

Question #1. Is the research definitive?

I’m sure everyone working in this area would agree that more research is needed on parenting and sexual orientation. In making this point, however the Times adopted what struck me as an accusatory and dismissive tone that cast undue doubt on the findings to date:

“Despite three decades of research on gay parenting, social scientists cannot conclusively determine whether children raised by homosexuals develop differently, for better or worse, than those raised by heterosexuals. Though the early consensus is that they do not, even the investigators acknowledge the field is too young, the numbers too few, the variables too many and the research too values-laden to qualify as definitive.”

The message seems to be that the lack of conclusive findings is damning. In truth, however, social scientists lack “definitive” findings on practically every topic we study. The investigators are usually the first to acknowledge this fact.

Yes, we need more research on parental sexual orientation and its effects (or lack of them) on children. Yes, that research should be conducted with bigger and better samples. But the published studies now number more than two dozen. Over time, the measurement techniques and sampling strategies used in this research have grown increasingly sophisticated. Recent studies have reported findings from a representative sample of the US population.

On the specific questions of (a) whether the children of gay parents are less well adjusted than the children of heterosexuals, and (b) whether their parents are less fit, we actually know quite a lot, especially about families headed by lesbians. The research to date has consistently found no inherent deficits among gay parents, and their kids have proved to be as well adjusted as children with heterosexual parents. The burden of proof rests with those who claim that being raised by lesbian or gay parents harms children.

As more data become available, our understanding of parental sexual orientation and child development will become even more extensive and nuanced. We’ll be better able to describe the entire population of kids with sexual minority parents. But scientists’ reflexive caution and our oft-repeated mantra that “more research is needed” hardly mean we know nothing in this area today.

Question #2. Do scholars disagree about how some of the data should be interpreted?

The Times quoted Dr. Stacey, who questioned researchers’ interpretations of some of their findings, echoing the comments she and Dr. Biblarz made in their 2001 paper.

Drs. Stacey and Biblarz agreed there are clearly no deficits in the psychological or social adjustment or intellectual abilities of children raised by sexual minority parents. However, they hypothesized that those children might differ from kids with heterosexual parents in other areas, namely, conformity to traditional gender roles and sexual attitudes and behavior. They discussed a few studies that reported such differences, and speculated that other studies might also have found significant differences if the researchers had recruited larger samples or used different statistical techniques.

I reviewed the latter studies myself and, for the record, I respectfully disagree with Drs. Stacey and Biblarz about most of them, as I noted in my 2006 American Psychologist paper. But the questions Drs. Stacey and Biblarz raised are legitimate and useful.

This is how science works. Researchers report their data in detail so other scholars can examine the results, debate them, and build on them in future studies.

However, it’s important to stress that, while Drs. Stacey and Biblarz proposed alternative interpretations of the data, they didn’t equate differences with deficits. Rather, they concluded:

“Most of the differences in the findings discussed above cannot be considered deficits from any legitimate public policy perspective. They either favor the children with lesbigay parents, are secondary effects of social prejudice, or represent ‘just a difference’ of the sort democratic societies should respect and protect.” (p. 177)

Nor did they question the researchers’ honesty or integrity. Such accusations have been the province of the Christian Right. This leads to the final question raised in the Times article.

Question #3. Do the researchers in this area lack integrity? Are they merely pursuing their own political agenda?

This charge came from Timothy J. Dailey, to whom the Times implicitly accorded the status of social scientist. Dailey, however, isn’t a scientist. He’s a representative of the Family Research Council, a Christian Right organization with an unabashedly antigay political agenda.

(Regular readers of this blog may remember that Mr. Dailey also wrote the FRC’s report claiming child molesters and pedophiles are disproportionately likely to be gay men; see my October 7 posting.)

Dailey’s allegation (quoted by the Times) is that much of the existing research on sexual minority parenting has been “compromised by methodological flaws and driven by political agendas….”


” ‘openly lesbian researchers’ — he named Patterson specifically — ‘sometimes conduct research with an interest in portraying homosexual parenting in a positive light….’ To do so, Dailey wrote, ignores ‘the accumulated wisdom of cultures and societies from time immemorial, which testifies that the best way for children to be raised is by a mother and a father who are married to each other.’ “

Although the Times article gave voice to Dailey’s ad hominem attack on Dr. Patterson’s work, it didn’t note that her research has been subjected to extensive peer review and published in the most highly regarded professional journals in the field. Unlike the FRC, scientific reviewers base their evaluations on the quality of the research, not the researcher’s personal characteristics or claims about “the accumulated wisdom of cultures and societies from time immemorial.”


On balance, the Times mostly got it right. However, by granting unwarranted legitimacy to the FRC’s claims, the article probably led some readers to dismiss the research in this area as simply “colored by politics.” If so, this is unfortunate.

Empirical research can’t reconcile disputes about core values, but it is very good at addressing questions of fact. Policy debates will be impoverished if this important source of knowledge is simply dismissed as a “he said, she said” squabble.

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