By Dr. Mikle South, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University
In the past couple of days, a number of friends have asked for my opinion on a recent blogpost from Mormon Women Stand (MWS) entitled “Groundbreaking Research on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Backs up the Family Proclamation and Teachings of Prophets” with the subtitle “Almost Everything the Media Tells You About Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Is Wrong.”
The MWS blogpost reviews a recent article in a publication called The New Atlantis which claims to have definitively shown “that some of the most frequently heard claims about sexuality and gender are not supported by scientific evidence.” The upshot of the MWS claim is that homosexuality has no biological basis and that LGBTQ people have deliberately chosen their sexual orientation. There is an additional subtext discounting the role of discrimination against LGBTQ people as an underlying factor for their high rates of depression and suicide.
I have now heard about a number of well-meaning LDS bishops who have sent a link for this post to members of their flock concerned about the experience of LGBTQ youth in the church, with a note along the lines of “so here is what science has proven and you should let your worries go.” Unfortunately, the MWS blog post has things all wrong, and has the potential to cause extensive harm.
Let me state my agenda upfront. First, as a mental health researcher and a practicing psychologist, my highest priority is to help improve human welfare. Because LGBTQ youth and adults—especially those rejected by family and close friends–are at increased risk for poor health and mental health outcomes, including suicide, I have extra concern for their welfare. I believe that is why so many friends have asked for my opinion on this, and why I want to respond.
Second, I am not an expert regarding the science of sexuality. I am aware of substantial evidence supporting a strong biological influence on sexuality, but the nature of science makes it impossible to ever “prove” anything one way or the other. My commentary is not about whether sexuality is innate or a choice. Rather, my point is to examine the accuracy and the consequences of the MWS blogpost. In brief, I have three concerns.
- The original New Atlantis report does not represent good science, despite its claim that “this report is about science and medicine, nothing more and nothing less.”
- I examined the original article in terms of standard benchmarks for establishing acceptable quality of scientific research, as recognized by other scientists, universities, and funding agencies. These benchmarks provide an important context about whether other scientists find that the research methods are adequate and the conclusions are appropriate to the findings. The article does not meet any of these benchmarks. Specifically, it was not peer reviewed prior to publication. The journal itself, The New Atlantis, does not appear in the Journal Citation Reports database, the premier source for tracking how often other scientists cite articles from that journal. While the authors of the The New Atlantis article criticize the findings of other scientists who used acceptable methods, they themselves did not use acceptable statistical techniques such as meta-analysis, and the research they review is highly selective.
- Much of the MWS blogpost is cut-and-pasted material from a scholar employed by the Heritage Foundation named Ryan T. Anderson. Anderson received his PhD in Economic Policy but is known primarily as a political philosopher. He does not have a background in psychology or psychiatry and is thus an unusual choice to rely on for a scientific review of the research. Anderson’s pick of entertainer Lady Gaga as a primary representative of the scientific viewpoint was equally puzzling.
- The “research” cited in The New Atlantis report is not groundbreaking, rather it is a lengthy recycling of previous arguments.
- Science as a discipline is imperfect, but concluding that the body of work on the nature of sexuality is “wrong” is simply not tenable–and an affront to the scientific method of inquiry, hypothesis-testing, and replication. Science is a dynamic entity and putting a definitive “stop” to the process is inappropriate.
- The link between The New Atlantis report and The Family Proclamation is tenuous and overstated.
- While the author of the MWS blogpost repeatedly affirms that the findings of the report support the truths contained in the LDS church’s Family Proclamation, my own view is that this is a misappropriation of church materials to suit her own bias.
- I first note considerable confusion over the use of the term “gender.” In psychology and biology, “sex” is used to refer to the biological characteristics of a person’s sex organs, i.e. the plumbing they are born with (while also acknowledging that, for a few babies, this is not clear cut at birth). “Gender” refers to a societal construction of what it means to be “masculine” or “feminine.”
- The terms are often used interchangeably, but in this context it is important to know what is meant. The LDS church usually uses “gender” to mean what psychologists and biologists typically call “sex.” One could thus accurately interpret the Family Proclamation as saying “Boys are born as boys and they will always be boys. Girls are born girls and will always be girls.”
- The author of the MWS post has chosen to interpret this statement from the Proclamation as a statement against the biological nature of sexual preference, but this is only a matter of opinion. To claim this viewpoint as factual is vastly overstated and also in contradiction to numerous recent statements on the issue by LDS general authorities.
- Most importantly, the content and the tone of this post focus much more on blaming the victims of discrimination–our LGBTQ brothers and sisters–rather than encouraging more acceptance and love for everyone.
- LGBTQ youth and adults, whether LDS and not, suffer immensely from discrimination and rejection. If you have doubts about this, please talk to any LGBTQ friends, family members, or neighbors. They will tell you multiple examples of small and big ways they have been ill-treated on account of their sexuality.
- LDS members are repeatedly counseled to seek out the afflicted as Christ did, to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.”
- No one but God knows the balance of innate biological versus environmental influence (including trauma, abuse, as well as societal pressures) versus some sort of “choice” for each individual’s sexuality. It is inappropriate for any of us to claim we know better, and whatever our beliefs on the matter, it is inappropriate to discriminate against others on account of it,
- The take-away conclusion of the MWS blogpost is this: “If you’re LGBTQ and you are feeling rejected, it’s only because you were mentally ill to start with. Besides, your choices about sexuality are your own fault anyway so don’t ask us to assuage your tender feelings.” My own view is that this post and similar writings promulgate feelings of rejection that further contribute to the epidemic of depression and suicide among our LGBTQ neighbors and friends.
- I encourage us to have much more of an “Is it I?” mentality about what we can do, individually, to love others as Christ did. Christ repeatedly had harsher words for the self-righteous who judged others poorly, while reaching out to and serving those whom the ruling righteous judged as sinners.
For these reasons and others, I plead for responsible people to stop sharing the MWS blogpost, the source post from Dr. Anderson, or The New Atlantis article which at its core is a scientific travesty. In contrast to the provocative title of the MWS post, the article in question does not represent valid or groundbreaking research, does not factually affirm the divinity of the Family Proclamation, and it has more potential to increase rejection and discrimination than it does to encourage Christlike love for LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Instead, I recommend that all of us ask ourselves: how can I be more welcoming and loving? It might help to seek out an LGBTQ friend, family member or neighbor and ask for their opinion on the same question. Listen, don’t judge, and help make the world a better place for everyone.
- These views are entirely my own and are not intended to represent the viewpoint of my employer, the church I belong to, or any friends or family members.
- I sent a request more than a week ago to the Mormon Women Stand site to respond to my concerns but have not heard back from them.
- As stated at the outset, this article addresses the accuracy and tone of the MWS blogpost and its sources and does not comment on the nature of sexuality and sexual orientation, or the structure of marriage. I suggest to the moderator that any comments on this question are not germane to my article and should be removed.