At a recent Saturday afternoon duplicate bridge party in the Virginia countryside, the conversation at my table turned to Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann's husband Marcus, who is under intense media scrutiny for owning and operating a Christian Counseling Center, partially funded by publicly-subsidized Medicaid payments, that regards homosexuality as a disease and attempts to "cure" gay people through bible study and prayer.
"I thought by now everybody knows you can't change a person's sexual orientation'" opined the guest in the South seat. "No one chooses to be gay. Even Lady Gaga knows we're just born this way!"
"I don't know," replied North. "I heard a story about the Bachmann clinic on the radio the other day that actually raised questions about the validity of that old 'gay gene' research."
In fact, the scientific evidence for the role of biology in sexual orientation has been steadily mounting. New large, population-based studies of twins have shown beyond a doubt that genes play a deciding role in whether a person is gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight. Other research has shown how these genes could evolve, why they tend to come from one side or another of the family, and how they are influenced by birth order.
It's no surprise that South and North were confused about the science. Anti-gay activists, including the Bachmanns, have spent enormous energy and resources doing everything they can to obfuscate the data, confuse the debate, and put scientists such as myself on the defensive. They have challenged the conclusions of the studies based solely on the sexual orientation of the investigators, questioned the use of federal funds to support basic research in the area, and even cooked up their own "peer reviewed journals" to publish studies making unsubstantiated claims of "curing" gay men and lesbians.
Meanwhile, the major LGBT advocacy groups have largely sidestepped the issue, which they regard as too touchy a diversion from their decades-long advocacy efforts to achieve equal rights under the law.
While I agree that fundamental human rights should never be determined by biology, simply ignoring solid scientific information comes at great cost.
Consider all the young people who have been sent to quack clinics such as the Bachmanns' for "pray away the gay" therapy by confused parents. Not only does such therapy not help these young people "turn straight," it very likely causes damage to their self esteem and increases their feelings of helplessness. Indeed, the American Psychological Association warns that attempts to change sexual orientation may lead to higher risk of suicide -- all because of the misconception that people choose to be gay.
This confusion also has a major impact on public opinion. Polling data show that people who believe that gays are "born that way" tend to be supportive of full equality, whereas those who believe it's "a choice" are opposed -- even to the point of calling for criminal sanctions against same-sex behavior.
When East heard that "choicers" wanted to put people like him in jail, he slammed his cards down on the table and said, "It's no wonder that the Bachmanns promote this crap! They make boatloads of money from frightened parents who don't know what to think and who would do anything they can to protect their kids."
"Too bad we can't use some sort of therapy to cure Marcus of his disease," said South.
"Which disease might that be?" I asked from the West.
"Well," said South, "greed, for one. And for another, DENIAL!"
"True that," exclaimed everyone at the table. And then we all went back to the hands we'd been dealt.