Homosexuality Debate

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Homosexuality has been a subject of scientific study for many years. Much of the research has focused on whether homosexuality is a product of biology or psychological conditioning. That nature-nurture question often has entered into ethical and political debates about homosexuality. For example, in the early 1990s two studies were released that indicated that homosexuality may be biological. One study identified distinctive neural structures in homosexual men (LeVay 1993). The other correlated a genetic marker with male homosexuality (Hamer and Copeland 1994).

Those studies received significant media attention because they seemed to strike at the heart of the political debate about gay rights. Opponents of gay rights had argued that homosexuality is a choice and that homosexuals seek "special rights" for a deviant and destructive lifestyle. Consequently, gay rights advocates began to argue that the studies mentioned above showed that homosexuality is not a choice but an innate biological characteristic worthy of constitutional protection.

Early Studies of Homosexuality

These debates about homosexuality date back to the mid-nineteenth century, when Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825–1895), a German jurist, attempted to theorize homosexuality as a biological condition. Ulrichs believed that the embryo contains female and male "germs" and that as an embryo develops, one of the germs becomes dominant, producing either male or female sexual organs. These sexed germs, he argued, also produce the sex drive, and thus it is possible for the body of one sex to possess the sex drive of the other. Because Ulrichs was a jurist, not a scientist, his primary concern was to secure the civil rights of homosexuals, and he believed a biological theory would facilitate his efforts (Brookey 2002).

Shortly after Ulrichs introduced his theories, they were incorporated into the work of the neurologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902). Krafft-Ebing defined homosexuality as a predetermined sexual attraction brought about by either genetic or situational factors. Situational homosexuality, according to Krafft-Ebing, occurred when men were precluded from sexual intercourse with women or masturbated. He characterized situational homosexuality as an inherited condition that existed as the lingering residue of an animalistic bisexuality that would die out slowly in the process of evolutionary advancement (Brookey 2002). Krafft-Ebing's theories were influential for many years but would be eclipsed when Sigmund Freud introduced his own theories on human sexuality.

Freud argued that children are born into an innate state of bisexuality, but as they develop, this bisexual energy is directed into heterosexuality. However, if a child does not develop proper relationships with his or her parents, sexual development may be arrested and homosexuality can result. Freud did not believe that homosexuality is always the product of psychological pathology. Consequently, he regarded efforts to change homosexuals into heterosexuals with great pessimism (Lewes 1988).

Modern Theories

After World War II American psychoanalysts reinterpreted Freud's theories, particularly those regarding homosexuality. The psychologist Sandor Rado (1890–1972) led that effort when he rejected Freud's theory of innate bisexuality. Rado argued that bisexuality does not exist, rejected the possibility of biological homosexuality, and argued that homosexuality can only be a product of mental pathology. He claimed that homosexuality is a mental pathology and that the possibility for change is much greater than Freud supposed. Edmund Bergler (1889–1962) was a Freudian who advocated psychoanalytic therapy and claimed to have converted homosexuals. Bergler was also an active opponent of the early gay rights movement, and he often testified in government hearings that homosexuals should be precluded from public service.

The psychoanalytic position on homosexuality remained unchallenged until Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956) began publishing his research on human sexuality. Kinsey's work indicated that human sexuality is much more varied and fluid than psychoanalytic theories supposed. Rado's dismissal of bisexuality was challenged by Kinsey's empirical findings, which indicated that a significant number of adults had sexual experiences with persons of both sexes. Consequently, Kinsey's work also challenged psychoanalytic beliefs about homosexual pathology because it recognized that homosexuality was practiced by a variety of individuals and did not treat homosexuals as a distinct or deviant class. The psychiatrist Evelyn Hooker (1907–1996) also challenged many psychoanalytic assumptions about homosexuality. Specifically, Hooker's research concluded that many homosexuals did not suffer from severe mental disturbances and that homosexuals were just as diverse in their behavior and psychological profiles as heterosexuals were.

Kinsey's and Hooker's research established doubt in the psychiatric community about the pathology of homosexuality, and in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental diseases. That decision reflected suspicion of psychoanalytic approaches and concern about the use of behavior modification conversion therapy. Many psychoanalysts protested the decision, and ego-dystonic homosexuality, a condition experienced by homosexuals who wanted to change their sexual orientation, remained on the list so that therapists could continue to practice conversion therapy. Even that exception, however, was eliminated in 1997 when the APA determined that psychological therapies cannot cure homosexuality.

Judicial Decisions and Ethical Issues

The publication of LeVay's and Hamer's studies has renewed interest in biological explanations of homosexuality. Although gay rights advocates thought that research would yield political advantages, arguments about the biological basis of homosexuality did not acquire legal traction. A biological argument was presented to the Supreme Court in the 1995 hearing on Colorado's Amendment 2, an anti–gay rights initiative. Although the Court ruled against the initiative, the evidence demonstrating a biological basis for homosexuality was not mentioned in its decision (Keen and Goldberg 1998). In addition, the biological argument did not figure in the Court's 2003 decision to strike down state anti-sodomy laws.

Apart from the legal question, there are ethical concerns about the use of biological research to treat homosexuality (Murphy 1997). Would a "homosexual" gene lead to a genetic test for homosexual predisposition? Would couples choose to abort a fetus that tested positive for this genetic predisposition? Could homosexuals seek genetic therapy in order to change their sexual orientation? Could homosexuals be compelled to submit to that therapy? Currently, these ethical questions are moot because additional research has not verified Hamer's and LeVay's research conclusively. Both the legal and the scientific debates about homosexuality have not been resolved.


SEE ALSO Feminist Ethics;Gene Therapy;Genetic Counseling;Nature versus Nurture;Sex and Gender.


Brookey, Robert Alan. (2002). Reinventing the Male Homosexual: The Rhetoric and Power of the Gay Gene. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Provides an overview of the research on the biological aspect of homosexuality.

Hamer, Dean, and Peter Copeland. (1994). The Science of Desire: The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior. New York: Simon & Schuster. Summarizes research on the "gay" gene.

Keen, Lisa, and Suzanne B. Goldberg. (1998). Strangers to the Law: Gay People on Trial. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Covers the Supreme Court decision on Romer v. Evans.

LeVay, Simon. (1993). The Sexual Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Summarizes research on the brain structures of homosexuals.

Lewes, Kennneth. (1988). The Psychoanalytic Theory of Male Homosexuality. London: Quartet Books. Discusses the APA decision to declassify homosexuality.

Murphy, Timothy. (1997). Gay Science: The Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research. New York: Columbia University Press. Provides an overview of ethical issues related to research on the biological aspect of homosexuality.