Discussions of homosexuality can get pretty intense, even nasty. For instance, discussing the question, “Is homosexuality a mental illness?” can get downright ugly. Emotions aside, there’s an interesting history to this question. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is used by psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose clients. Prior to 1973, homosexuality was listed in the DSM as a disorder. Imagine, all of my undergraduate and graduate education in psychology – 1961 to 1970 – taught me that homosexuality was a mental disorder. In 1973, however, three years into my 41-year career as a researcher and college professor, my class lectures and discussion – not to mention my thinking – had to be modified.
Actually, I didn’t have any personal problem with the change. Anecdotally, it never made sense to me to consider the gay people I knew as having a mental disorder. It just didn’t fly.
DSM notwithstanding, many folks still believe that homosexuality is an abnormal condition. To support their belief, they note that depression and other mental disorders can run higher in gays. Psychologists, however, generally agree that the greater presence of such conditions is due to pressures from anti-gay groups, discrimination, oppression, bias, and rejection. Mental health professionals say homosexuality should not be seen as some sort of abnormal mutation, but as a part of the normal range of human sexuality. If depression is present in a gay person, treat the depression, but accept the client’s sexual orientation.
There’s another issue that can get folks all riled up when discussing homosexuality: Nature – “I was born this way” – vs. Choice – “I choose this lifestyle.” Discussions of this issue can get complicated because people on both sides can go online and easily find websites and “research findings” that support their position.
The most objective comment I can make about this issue is: Psychologists and psychiatrists generally agree that reputable research supports the “innate” position. That is, most people experience little or no choice in sexual orientation. The cause may be genetic, or possibly prenatal – when the fetal brain is exposed to gender hormones like testosterone during the second trimester – but either way, the “innate” position says that the brain’s sexual preference is present at birth.
I have thought about the nature-choice issue quite a bit over the years, and one day something occurred to me. Dozens of times, and in many courses, my students and I discussed child development, sexual behavior, and how parents could best help their kids deal with questions and impulses. Invariably we would discuss when – and how – parents should give their kids “the talk,” you know, the birds and bees and all that really good stuff.
Guess what? In all those class discussions, no student ever mentioned that a parent had said to them – or even that the parents should have said to them – “We think it’s time to talk about sex. You’re old enough now, and it’s time for you to choose your lifestyle. Are you’re going to be heterosexual or homosexual? What’s it going to be? Are you going to be attracted to girls or boys? The choice is yours.”
Logically, if someone believes sexual orientation is a choice, shouldn’t parents have that conversation with their kids? When I began asking that question to my students, I generally saw puzzled expressions, and comments like, “Huh? That makes no sense.”
One time a male student reported to the class that he tried the question out with his friends. “I asked my roommate when he decided to make it with girls instead of guys. He said, ‘What are you talking about? Girls always turned me on!’ I also have a buddy who’s gay and asked him the same question. ‘When did I choose guys? Seriously? That’s crazy. I remember when I was 9 years old watching an old Star Trek TV show. There was this scene with William Shatner without a shirt and I felt a jolt of something I had never felt before. God, that chest! Nine! I hadn’t even hit puberty but a bare-chested man just flattened me. By the time I was 15 it started to become clear. The Star Trek thing suddenly made sense. I was turned on by guys, not girls. I hated it because I wanted to be like the other guys. For a long time, I hated myself, not because I chose to be gay, but because I was obviously made different from my horny friends who always talked about girls. I wanted to be like that, but I wasn’t, and I couldn’t make it any other way.’”
“I couldn’t make it any other way.” A major coping challenge is becoming comfortable with who you are. Sometimes “who you are” can be modified: “I’m too short-tempered with my kids and spouse. I need to learn how to express my anger in more acceptable ways.” Sometimes, “who you are” can’t be modified, as in the case of my student’s friend. Make sure you know the difference.