Monday, July 25, 2011

Mrs. O'Leary's Canard: The Causes of Homosexuality

While many people sincerely believe that individuals are born with same-sex attraction (SSA), can't change, and should, therefore, embrace their 'gay' identity, there is no replicated scientific evidence to support this belief. There is, however, a massive campaign of disinformation.

The foregoing sentences constitute the lead paragraph of an editorial, written by Dale O’Leary, that appeared last Friday on the website of the Mobile (Alabama) New Sun.   Normally, I wouldn’t take notice of, let alone comment upon, what was written in a small southern newspaper.  However, a link to the article was recently shared approvingly on a mailing list geared to active LDS men who are struggling with same-gender attraction.  Given this LDS connection and after reading the editorial, I decided to comment on it.

I should probably say as well that my blog has since its inception been essentially about my personal journey of coming out of the closet, out of marriage and out of orthodox Mormonism.  But as time has progressed, I find that my personal journey is increasingly seen as part of a much larger journey involving many others besides myself.

It is for these reasons that I have chosen to write about this editorial. 

The first two paragraphs of the editorial read as follows:

While many people sincerely believe that individuals are born with same-sex attraction (SSA), can't change, and should, therefore, embrace their 'gay' identity, there is no replicated scientific evidence to support this belief. There is, however, a massive campaign of disinformation.

For the last 15 years I have carefully followed this issue and written a book and numerous articles on the subject. I have found and read every study cited as proof of some kind of genetic or prenatal influence and not one of them offered replicated scientific evidence. On the other hand, the evidence against a genetic cause has continued to pile up.

Ok.  So I was immediately intrigued by this person’s approach. How on earth, I thought, can someone boldly assert that there is no scientific evidence to support the “belief” that individuals are born with “same-sex attraction.”  Secondly, why the implication that all those who hold such a belief assert that such individuals should “embrace their gay identity”?

I was further intrigued by O’Leary’s statements about his (I assumed him to be a man) qualifications to make such sweeping statements.  I mean, it sounds pretty impressive, right?  “Following” for 15 years, writing a book and “numerous” articles, finding and reading every study, etc. 

I assumed O’Leary to be some sort of clinical psychologist with a Ph.D.  But what I discovered upon doing a bit of research is that she is a freelance writer and lecturer with a B.A.  from Smith.  She is a conservative Catholic, a member of Opus Dei, and recipient of a Fellow Award of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH). 

In short, she is a social commentator with no scientific background but possessing a very definite conservative religious agenda, as is expressed in this statement of hers, made in 2000 (, Oct. 23, 2000):

“There is no incontrovertible evidence that sexual desire for persons of the same sex is genetically determined … Homosexuals are not born that way. God did not make them that way... Homosexuality is born in trauma. Something caused a developmental deficit."

Isn’t it nice to know that we are all suffering from a development deficit?

Let’s continue with O’Leary’s editorial:

If SSA were genetic then identical twins would virtually always have the same pattern of sexual attraction; however, a study based on the Australian twins registry found that in only 11 percent of the instances in which one male twin had SSA so did this other. This makes a genetic cause impossible.

Wow!  Ms. O’Leary, who had previously harped on the lack of “replicated scientific evidence” to support a belief that one is born with same-sex attraction, apparently has no problem with using one scientific study (which she does not cite in her editorial) involving twins to support her religious position and reduce an extremely complicated area of scientific research down to a startlingly sweeping statement:  a “genetic cause” of homosexuality is impossible.  Extraordinary.

In discussing possible “explanations” for “same sex attraction,” Ms. O’Leary introduces what to me was a novel concept:  infant trauma that turns a baby gay:

… a number of therapists are convinced that some babies are born more vulnerable to the anxiety [I have to admit that was the first time I’ve heard same-sex attraction referred to as an “anxiety”]. This vulnerability combined with early negative experiences [like what?] can affect the babies' ability to identify with their same-sex parent or peers. The child grows up trying to find the love and acceptance missed as a baby and this need becomes interpreted as sexual desire. Because these negative experiences occur during the first two years of life - before memory - persons with SSA may honestly say they always felt different and believe they were born that way.”

Ms. O’Leary goes on to cite a couple of books that have been written by reparative therapists that ascribe same-sex attraction to a lack of attachment in the early years of life.  I guess maybe that when the old canards and myths about sexual abuse, detached father, overbearing mother, etc., that involve older children are increasingly being discredited, one has to go back earlier in life to find the sources of this “anxiety” and “vulnerability.”

Ms. O’Leary then moves to her to climactic concluding comments:

“When the individual histories of persons with SSA are probed, the reasons for their patterns of thought can usually be discerned. Unfortunately, rather than helping persons with SSA find the cause of their feelings, the gay activists deceive those experiencing SSA into believing that they were born that way and can't change, so they might as well "Come out. Join the gay community. Be proud."”

The main problem I have with these statements is that Ms. O’Leary implies that a genetic cause of homosexuality leads inevitably to the conclusion that a man or woman “suffering” from same-sex attraction must necessarily “give in” and “be gay.” 

This is a red herring.  Even if one concludes that there are genetic causes for homosexuality, it does not necessarily inevitably follow that one is “doomed to be gay.”  But by setting up this argument in this fashion, Ms. O’Leary seeks to make her position – that homosexuality is caused by psychological and emotional shocks – look better.  It is a false dichotomy.

The truth is that responsible scientists will conclude that we as a society still know very little about the “causes” of homosexuality.  But ambiguity does not serve the purpose of religious zealots and bigots.  Promoting their own agenda and firing up the troops requires clear-cut answers that can be reduced to slogans.  Of course, bogus science that supports the slogans helps; but it is not strictly necessarily.  Just ask any Holocaust survivor.


  1. O'Leary makes the common mistake of bundling genetic, prenatal, and natural as if they are all the same thing.

    I agree that a genetic cause has not, to my knowledge, been shown. But, homosexuality could still be naturally caused without being genetically identifiable.

  2. Good post. This is bringing me back to my days at Evergreen.
    My Dad came home from the conference and thought, "could something that happened to him that young really have made him gay?" My Mom said that yes, of course it could. Dad then preceded to blame himself for getting upset with me when I was a baby, thinking he'd caused my homosexuality. He started spending more time with me. There were some positive things that came from him believing that. But on the flip side he felt guilt. And I felt angry with my Dad because I was told that it was his fault that I was same sex attracted.
    This is the beginning of a long thought and memory. More to come later.

    A note to Ms. O'Leary.
    The trauma in my life didn't come when I was a baby, or from not attaching to my dad. I tried that approach, to discover and undo the origins of my same-sex attractions. The real trauma in my life came from following reparative therapists and others who magically promised to "undo" and "heal" me.
    When it doesn't work, they say things like well it can't be healed completely. It's hard to undo the trauma, etc.
    The real problem is that it isn't peer reviewed. Subject the methods to scientific rigor, or at least to the standards of the profession. If they did, they'd find that they are less than effective. All that I can effectively conclude is they are effective at convincing people that they've diminished their same-sex attraction for a time. But even then, a long term study would show that it often doesn't work long term.

  3. Thanks for your insights and reflections, Alex.

    Brett - I agree; it almost seemed like she deliberately used the word "genetic" in order to set up a straw man. Almost as though she was trying to say that "gay activists" say that homosexuality is inherited (genetically), rather than having a biological cause. Having set this up, she then tries to debunk it via the lame Australian twin study reference.

  4. Who's the model in the first picture?