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Gay by Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity

If science proves sexual orientation is more fluid than we've been led to believe, can homosexuality still be a protected right?

| Mon Aug. 27, 2007 2:00 AM EDT

In 1838, a 20-year-old Hungarian killed himself and left a suicide note for Karl Benkert, a 14-year-old bookseller's apprentice in Budapest whom he had befriended. In it he explained that he had been cleaned out by a blackmailer who was now threatening to expose his homosexuality, and that he couldn't face either the shame or the potential legal trouble that would follow. Benkert, who eventually became a writer, moved to Vienna, and changed his name to Karoly Maria Kertbeny, later said that the tragedy left him with "an instinctive drive to take issue with every injustice." And in 1869, a particularly resonant injustice occurred: A penal code proposed for Prussia included an anti-sodomy law much like the one that had given his friend's extortionist his leverage. Kertbeny published a pamphlet in protest, writing that the state's attempt to control consensual sex between men was a violation of the fundamental rights of man. Nature, he argued, had divided the human race into four sexual types: "monosexuals," who masturbated, "heterogenits," who had sex with animals, "heterosexuals," who coupled with the opposite sex, and "homosexuals," who preferred people of the same sex. Kertbeny couldn't have known that of all his literary output, these latter two words would be his only lasting legacy. But while homosexual conduct had occurred throughout history, the idea that it reflected fundamental differences between people, that gay people were a sexual subspecies, was a new one.

Kertbeny wasn't alone in creating a sexual taxonomy. Another anti-sodomy-law opponent, lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, proposed that homosexual men, or "Uranians," as he called them (and he openly considered himself a Uranian, while Kertbeny was coy about his preferences), were actually a third sex, their attraction to other men a manifestation of the female soul residing in their male bodies. Whatever the theoretical differences between Ulrichs and Kertbeny, they agreed on one crucial point: that sexual behavior was the expression of an identity into which we were born, a natural variation of the human. In keeping with the post-Enlightenment notion that we are morally culpable only for what we are free to choose, homosexuals were not to be condemned or restricted by the state. Indeed, this was Kertbeny and Ulrichs' purpose: Sexual orientation, as we have come to call this biological essence, was invented in order to secure freedom for gay people.

But replacing morality with biology, and the scrutiny of church and state with the observations of science, invited a different kind of condemnation. By the end of the 19th century, homosexuality was increasingly the province of psychiatrists like Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay Jewish Berliner. Hirschfeld was an outspoken opponent of anti-sodomy laws and championed tolerance of gay people, but he also believed that homosexuality was a pathological state, a congenital deformity of the brain that may have been the result of a parental "degeneracy" that nature intended to eliminate by making the defective population unlikely to reproduce. Even Sigmund Freud, who thought people were "polymorphously perverse" by nature and urged tolerance for homosexuality, believed heterosexuality was essential to maturity and psychological health.

Freud was pessimistic that homosexuality could be treated, but doctors abhor an illness without a cure, and the 20th century saw therapists inflict the best of modern psychiatric practice on gay people, which included, in addition to interminable psychoanalysis and unproven medications, treatments that used electric shock to associate pain with same-sex attraction. These therapies were largely unsuccessful, and, particularly after the Stonewall riots of 1969—the clash between police and gays that initiated the modern gay rights movement—patients and psychiatrists alike started questioning whether homosexuality should be considered a mental illness at all. Gay activists, some of them psychiatrists, disrupted the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association for three years in a row, until in 1973 a deal was brokered. The apa would delete homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (dsm) immediately, and furthermore it would add a new disease: sexual orientation disorder, in which a patient can't accept his or her sexual identity. The culprit in sod was an oppressive society, and the cure for sod was to help the gay patient overcome oppression and accept who he or she really was. (sod has since been removed from the dsm.)

The apa cited various scientific papers in making its decision, but many members were convinced that the move was a dangerous corruption of science by politics. "If groups of people march and raise enough hell, they can change anything in time," one psychiatrist worried. "Will schizophrenia be next?" And their impression was confirmed when the final decision was made not in a laboratory but at the ballot box, where the membership voted by a six-point margin to authorize the apa to delete the diagnosis of homosexuality. It may be the first time in history that a disease was eliminated by the stroke of a pen. It was certainly the first time that psychiatrists determined that the cause of a mental illness was an intolerant society. And it was a crucial moment for gay people, at once getting the psychiatrists out of their bedrooms and giving the weight of science to Kertbeny and Ulrichs' claim that homosexuality was an identity, like race or national origin, that deserved protection.

three decades later, at least one group is still raising hell about the deletion: the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (narth), an organization founded by Charles Socarides, a psychiatrist who led the opposition to the 1973 apa vote. "They will wipe the floor with us," Socarides (who died in 2005) once said, "but we will wear our wounds as badges of courage," and at narth's November 2006 national meeting in Orlando, Socarides' firebrand rhetoric is still in the air. You hear it when Joe and Marian Allen take to the lectern to tell us how God has called them to "give testimony" about their gay son who was murdered by his lover, a tragedy that they manage to twist into a cautionary tale about what happens when a "struggler" is told by a "well-meaning therapist" that he was "born gay" and can't change it. Or when a minion of James Dobson's Focus on the Family cheerfully explains the Gay Agenda to me: "It's doing whatever you want, whenever you want, with whoever you want, wherever you want."

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