Monday, January 24, 2005

Curing Homosexuality

This one is sticky, and I'm still not sure what to think about it. The Houston area now has some new billboards from Christian groups, addressing homosexuals. The Houston Chronicle reports:
The advertisements, which depict either a smiling man or woman, bear the message, "I questioned homosexuality. Change is Possible. Discover how." The billboards are in promotion of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family's "Love Won Out" conference scheduled for Feb. 19. "The conference is meant to help people understand what causes homosexuality and how to prevent it," said B. Joe Cline, a Galveston resident who organized advertising effort that uses 15 billboards.
FOTF says the conference features former homosexuals, and that it is designed to help homosexuals cure themselves of their homosexuality. Gay advocacy groups, unsurprisingly, are outraged. That's my gut response, too, but I'm not sure it survives reflection. What exactly is the problem with these ads, and does it outweigh free-speech considerations? Here's the (unfortunately context-free) quotation of objection from the Chronicle story:
The billboards, however, have drawn the ire of Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of Houston. A spokeswoman for the gay advocacy groups denounced the campaign, describing the effort as "lies" and "myths." "For an organization to spend their time and money promoting untruth and lies against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders is a deplorable situation. Our children are perfectly fine the way they are," said Sue Null, an advocacy chairwoman with PFLAG. Null, the mother of a gay son and lesbian daughter, said Focus on the Family's claims are not plausible, especially when it says intense religious pressure can change a person's sexual orientation.
It looks like there are two seperate objections being presented here, but neither of them seems convincing to me as an objection to these billboards. First, consider the statement that "our [gay] children are perfectly fine the way they are". This seems very likely to be true (or anyway, at least as true as it would be for any other children). There's nothing bad about being gay, and the fact that someone is gay certainly doesn't mean that one is psychologically unwell. Focus on the Family is emphatically on record disagreeing with me, here -- but I don't see that disagreement manifesting in the billboards in question. "I questioned homosexuality. Change is Possible. Discover how." There's no condemning, or criticizing. There's definitely no brimstone. So the fact that it's ok to be gay isn't really an issue in this debate, as far as I can see. What about the other objection -- that the statement that "change is possible" constitutes "untruths and lies against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders"; the charge that it is "implausible" that "intense religious pressure can change a person's sexual orientation"? Well, this is, of course, an empirical question, and I've never seen evidence for the claim that change is impossible. Indeed, I don't even know what such evidence would look like. There is, however, evidence for the contrary FOTF claim -- they're parading around people who describe themselves as "former homosexuals", and I see no reason not to take them at their word. At any rate, the fact that they describe themselves as former homosexuals provides evidence that they are homosexuals, which is in turn evidence that it is possible for people to change their sexual preferences. Also, it just seems to be perfectly common sense that preferences can change. Not typically by mere choice, but surely things like social pressures influence what sorts of things we prefer. If I may indulge myself in a bit of armchair sociology, I think it's extremely likely that a major reason that there are so many bisexual women in my generation, compared both to bisexual men in my generation and to bisexual women who are older than I, is that it is a good deal more socially acceptable to be a bisexual woman now than it was decades ago, or than it currently is to be a bisexual man. Some people will want to say to this that I am failing to recognize the biological fact that some people are just genetically predisposed to be homosexual. I don't know the scientific literature enough to say with a high credence whether there is such a fact or not, but I don't see that it matters to my point. Just because some people are genetically disposed to be overweight, it doesn't follow that a person who claimed that there was "a way" to lose weight would be uttering untruths and lies against overweight people. Now, there's a perfectly good question lurking that has not been addressed: why would a gay person *want* to become straight? This is the point where gay advocacy groups should be focusing. But instead, they're being sidetracked, lured into fighting on the Religious Right's turf. For some reason, they feel compelled to excuse gay people, when they should just stand up for a valid lifestyle. But this doesn't change the bottom line on this billboard issue. Given that there *are* gay people who wish they weren't gay -- and there surely are at least some -- Focus on the Family is in a position to potentially help them get what they want.

1 comment:

  1. Well, it doesn't sound as if the gay activists are arguing the billboards should be taken down -- they're arguing against FOTF's ideas with their own, and they're (probably unintentionally) using this as an excuse to argue the larger issue -- that there's no reason for anyone to think that being gay is bad, and that it's wrong for people to make gay people feel bad for being gay. You're right that FOTF might be able to "help" gay people who want to become straight, but it's like they're selling the solution to a problem they intentionally created, like movie villians do.