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13 June 2014

Changing views on homosexuality

Changing views on homosexuality

Royal College of Psychiatrists. Photo credit: Oosoom via Creative Commons

Virtually ignored by the media, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) has quietly issued a statement marking a small but significant shift in the direction of acknowledging that likely causes of homosexuality are "a combination of biological and postnatal environmental factors."

This represents a revision of its previous view expressed in 2007 that sexual orientation is "biological in nature determined by genetic factors…and/or the early uterine environment..."; and that "there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person's fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation"; or with regard to sexual orientation change efforts (SOCE) that "there is no evidence that such change is possible."

Now the RCP is saying that "It is not the case that sexual orientation is immutable or might not vary to some extent in a person's life" even though "there is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed."

By introducing the term 'postnatal', the RCP has taken a low profile though nevertheless significant step to acknowledge that research over the last few years has increasingly recognised the importance of nurture and environmental influences in explaining sexual orientation. 

The RCP has also revised its view on whether sexual orientation can change. However, it does not yet acknowledge that change and choice can take place in therapeutic contexts which has caused critics to accuse the RCP of 'double-speak' and 'ideological propaganda' (eg Christian writer Robert Gagnon in a Facebook posting, 30 May 2014).

The RCP continues stubbornly to reject any right of an individual to self-determination in seeking therapeutic help to facilitate sexual orientation change. The College appeals to the American Psychological Association (ASA) in claiming that therapy doesn't work and is harmful, even though the ASA now accepts that evidence neither shows whether therapy works or does not work or that SOCE is no more or less harmful than other forms of therapy.

Despite there being some basis for criticism the fact remains that this represents an important shift in position. However, probably even more significant is the almost simultaneous publication of recent landmark research by the renowned American sex researcher Dr. Lisa Diamond on whether homosexuality is unchangeable and whether homosexual people change.

Lisa Diamond is a self-identified lesbian and vocal supporter of same-sex marriage and is considered by many in her field to be one of the leading experts on female homosexuality. In 2009 she shook up previous understandings by publishing her findings about the fluidity of female sexuality (see Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire, Harvard Press, 2009).

Now, in a lecture at Cornell University in October 2013, she presented her more recent discoveries about male and adolescent sexuality which, according to Karen Booth, Director of Transforming Congregations, are likely to have similar impact.

Diamond concludes, for example, that fluidity in identity, attraction and behaviour is not specific to women but is rather a general feature of human sexuality. She also questions whether the gay community can any longer advocate for rights based on the concept of immutability "now that we know it is not true".

Amongst several crucial points summarised by Karen Booth, she concludes that Diamond now clearly acknowledges that most same-sex attracted people to some degree either "prefer opposite-sex attraction or have the potential to move in that direction" and that "patterns of sexual attraction, identity and behaviour change profoundly over a young person's lifetime, with most of the openness to 'movement' toward heterosexuality occurring in the late teens and again in the late twenties."

It remains to be seen how widely this rapidly changing picture translates into academic, therapeutic and cultural awareness and acknowledgment.