The Causes of Homosexuality: A Scientific Update

By Vern, Bonnie; Vern, Bullough | Free Inquiry, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview
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The Causes of Homosexuality: A Scientific Update


Vern, Bonnie, Vern, Bullough, Free Inquiry


Public policy issues related to homosexuality have been brought to the fore by two contemporary events. Of several anti-gay proposals voted on in the November 1992 election, a Colorado statute passed. It was less prejudicial than some of the other proposals, but it nevertheless was a clear expression of public anxiety and a lack of understanding regarding homosexuality. The state referendum canceled three anti-discrimination statutes that had been passed in Denver, Boulder, and Aspen and amended the state constitution to outlaw anti-discrimination statutes focused on sexual preference. Thus, it is still illegal in Colorado to deprive citizens of equal opportunity for employment or public accommodations on the basis of race, ethnic origin, sex, or age, but, if their sexual preference departs from the norm, they are fair game.

The other issue that has come under scrutiny is the longstanding policy of dishonorably discharging gay and lesbian members of the armed forces if their sexual preference becomes known. Most NATO countries that have similar policies have already changed them, and the United States has recently modified its outright ban. Since a significant proportion of the armed forces have always been gay, any policy discriminating against gays is wasteful, and probably does nothing to change individuals'sexual preferences.

Change, however, is not easy, and there is a real lack of public knowledge of the dynamics of homosexuality, which contributes to a fear of the unknown. This situation has led to what may be a foolhardy effort to try to review and synthesize the current literature on the topic. We say foolhardy because the research literature is in a period of rapid expansion and is often marked by significant disagreements as to the meanings of the findings. We will, however, give our own interpretations.

At mid-century, the Kinsey study classified sexual orientation on a seven-point scale, from exclusively heterosexual orientation through bisexuality to homosexuality, and identified five percent of adult males as primarily or exclusively homosexual, with approximately three percent of adult females preferring same-sex partners. More recent data gives slightly lower figures but is within a similar range. Using data from five sample surveys done between 1970 and 1990, Roberts and Turner estimated that a minimum of five to seven percent of the U.S. men have had some same-sex contact as adults, although only one-quarter of that group had male-male sexual contact in the last year.(1)

Beginning Research

Homosexuality has been explained in a variety of ways throughout history. Early Christians condemned it as sinful, but not a sin of major proportion. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a shift in the paradigm governing the control of sexual behavior occurred as the various Christian churches lost enforcement power. Sexuality, as other aspects of human conduct, increasingly fell under the purview of the state and the medical establishment. The state had been gradually moving into the business of controlling sex since the medieval period, but by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that interest had broadened to include attempts to control marriage, contraceptives, prostitution, homosexuality, and other related behaviors. People whose activities departed from the norms of society were likely to be adjudged criminals instead of sinners. As this happened, judges, serving as the decision-makers on sexual matters, found traditional descriptions of sexuality were inadequate, and they encouraged scholarly interest in sexuality, particularly stigmatized sexuality.

The first scientific explorations of sexual preference were carried out by German physicians and scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825--1895) was probably the first researcher into the phenomenon and also the first self-proclaimed homosexual.(2) Ulrichs coined the term urning to describe what we now call homosexuality, and argued that urnings were a third sex.

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