The folly of seeking a 'cure' for homosexuality

Robert A. Bernstein

September 26, 1991|By Robert A. Bernstein

A NEW STUDY comparing the brain structures of gay and heterosexual men recently captured the media fancy.

The study proves virtually nothing about the origins of homosexuality. But the media reaction -- led by none other than the putative dean of level-headed objectivity, Ted Koppel -- reaffirms society's baneful ignorance about its gay and lesbian citizens.

The research was conducted by a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute. Its results offer a modicum of support Robert A.Bernsteinfor, and give a somewhat new spin to, a proposition already widely accepted by serious researchers into sexuality: namely, that biological factors play an important role in sexual orientation.

To many of us with gay or lesbian children, or with gay and lesbian friends, an additional bit of evidence of the innateness of sexual orientation comes as no surprise. We are not so naive as to assume that our children and those good friends whimsically chose to be part of a despised and besieged minority.

What does surprise is the widespread fanfare accorded to a relatively tiny and tentative study, and the media's display of knee-jerk heterosexism: their unthinking assumption, that is, that heterosexuality is the only "correct" orientation.

The study found that the size of certain brain tissue nodes was significantly smaller in 19 homosexual men who died of AIDS than in 16 men "presumed" to be heterosexual, and about the same size as in six presumably heterosexual women. The measurements support a hypothesis that male sexual orientation is linked to the size of this particular part of the brain.

The results are also consistent, however, with a number of other inferences: for example, that the smaller node size is the result rather than the cause of homosexuality, or that it relates to some neutral nonsexual factor that happens to coincide with homosexuality.

The study sample, in any event, was admittedly quite small. And even then, it found "exceptions" -- homosexual men with large measurements and "presumed" heterosexual men with small ones. The principal researcher, moreover, was the first to caution that no conclusions can be drawn in the absence of confirmation by further studies.

Reputable and respected researchers long ago turned up substantial evidence of genetic and hormonal influences on sexual orientation. The new study is a potentially significant contribution to that ongoing stream of scientific knowledge. But the ultimate formula as to what "causes" a particular sexual orientation assuredly is quite complex. Most authorities attribute a subtle blend of genetic, hormonal and environmental factors.

So the sociological import of the new study is slight. But it provided a springboard for some normally reasonable commentators to exercise their misguided conviction that homosexuality is abnormal and, in the best of worlds, something to be eliminated.

Koppel is a prime case in point. On his popular and respected ABC "Nightline" show, he asked his guests whether the study might lead to a "cure" for homosexuality. Ironically, one of the guests was Evelyn Hooker, whose pioneer studies nearly 40 years ago first demonstrated the fallacy of the belief that same-sex orientation is an illness. She later told a reporter she was "outraged" by Koppel's question, which she rightly described as "monstrous."

But Koppel was hardly alone. National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" suggested that parents might use a prenatal determination of the sexual orientation of a fetus to insure that their child would be heterosexual. And the Washington Times speculated on the possibility of brain surgery "to turn a homosexual into a heterosexual."

Homosexuality is of course a minority orientation. But it is the normal state of being for some 25 million Americans -- just as it has been for a substantial proportion of every society throughout history. Among homosexuals are some of our most gifted and giving citizens. Some civilizations, indeed, have accorded special places of honor to their homosexual members.

In the final analysis, the media yearning for a "cure" -- related to something that is not an illness, but merely a natural human difference -- raises sobering questions. Do we really want a nation of clones, driven by the need to conform to common-denominator images? Or are we sufficiently mature to accept the challenges, and joys, of diversity, and to celebrate our God-given differences?

What we need is not brain surgery for lesbians and gay men, but a procedure for stretching narrow heterosexual minds.

Robert A. Bernstein is a retired law professor and U.S. Justice Department lawyer. He writes from Bethesda.

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