The surrounding debate on Homosexuality, Gay rights, Same-Sex marriages, etc. is much larger than the issues themselves. Such debates are very often compounded by a high degree of passion that unfortunately, sometimes, replaces compassion. This does not mean that the topic cannot be approached from a rational and objective point of view. But this requires more discipline and considerable emotional restraint from all sides.
The basic context for the debate is that around ideology and science. Ideology is a systemic ordering of ideas, opinions, doctrines and symbols. They form a coherent philosophical outlook or perspective concerning how individuals, groups, and society should act. Science is a systemic ordering of data and knowledge forming a coherent and reliable explanation of phenomena based on observations, experimentations and rationality. At its best, science is the polar opposite of ideology. At its worst, science and ideology are hopelessly intertwined.
One would think of identifying ideology with the religious movements or churches. However, ideology is also at the core of many political groupings and lobbying groups, including the LGBT movement. In the ensuing debates, both sides try to exploit science, and thereby violate its neutrality, by using scientific findings to reinforce their position. This is often the case with the issue of determinism.
Determinism is the view that individuals have no free will because their choices and actions are caused by forces beyond their control. Determinism is central in the ongoing debate about sexual orientation primarily as an underlying assumption. The homosexual rights movement of the 1970s embraced this position.
There are three views about determinism. The first is the so called “Hard determinism” which holds that responsibility for one’s actions is an illusion. The second is “Soft determinism”, where causation is not compulsive and to act freely is not to act unpredictably. And thirdly, “Indeterminism”, which holds that the self can influence causation. Today, the hard and soft determinists’ view dominates debates involving sexual orientation.
Advocates of both stances are seen to adopt a hard determinist position, whether it is biology or parenting/early life experiences. There are a relatively few hard determinists also in the scientific community who believe that sexual orientation is biologically determined. A case in point is the position of Blanchard and Zucker (1994), who hold that birth order is the single most reliable discriminating factor amongst homosexual males.
The soft determinists hold that the origins of behaviour, including sexual orientation, are multiply determined and involve some measure of “choice” or “decision”. Many contemporary psychotherapies adopt a soft determinist position. Their basic premise is that sexual orientation is a function of “nature” or heredity, “nurture” or environment, as well as “choice” or decision.
For many, the sexual orientation debate is basically a matter of genetics versus “choice”. This distinction is itself a manifestation of hard determinism. It is more correct to say that the inclination to homosexuality, bisexuality or heterosexuality is not a choice. However, the individual has a choice to make in what to do with the inclination. While from a scientific perspective, the origins of sexual orientation are still unclear, from an ideological perspective there seems to be little doubt. Well respected scientists tend to adopt a more cautious position. Bits of evidence seem to highlight the idea that the roots of sexual orientation are multiple and variable (McWirther, 1993). As long as there are questions to be asked the answers could be many. Current research suggests it is multiply determined.
Scientific research studies are often cited in debates on the morality of homosexual behaviour. Both liberals and conservatives have a limited understanding of the scientific research on homosexuality and often make inaccurate assertions, such as, “Science confirms that homosexuality is a genetic condition”, or illogical conclusions such as, “Since it is impossible to reverse sexual orientation, being gay is a normal lifestyle variant”.
What is more probably closer to the truth is that research is currently incomplete and inconclusive. Nevertheless there is some evidence for psychological, environmental, family, and genetic influences and brain differences in the causation of homosexuality. This is known as the “Interactionist hypothesis”, that is, that some combination of nature and nurture appears to be operative in explaining sexual orientation.
Can one change one’s sexual orientation? A profound change in sexual orientation occurs only infrequently. Initial change may occur for only a minority and relapses may be frequent. However, much discretion and professional expertise is required particularly when dealing with adolescents as their orientation might be still evolving. An even greater sensitivity is needed when dealing with victims of sexual abuse, whose sexual orientation might be affected by the injury. This is an area where ideology should be left out and more space be given to compassion. Personal integrity, I believe, is more important than sexual orientation.
Is it possible to untangle ideology from science? Only then is it legitimate and useful to consider how scientific findings can be brought to bear on the topic of homosexuality. What is certain is that we are in a culture in transition. In 1969 the phenomenon was brought from the closet of fear to open dialogue. Today there is a wider recognition of the dignity of homosexuals and the promotion of legal rights. Similarly, there is more awareness that gay people are everywhere and do not fall under the traditional stereotypes particularly when discovering great people who were gay, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Tchaikovsky, etc.
The battle lines now are drawn on the issue of gay marriage. This is drawing a lot of ideology from all sides. It is certainly paradoxical that while many heterosexuals do no longer believe in the marriage institution, homosexuals want to be part of it. Even here there should be an exercise on whether to approach the issue from the point of view of objectivity and substance, or from ideology. While many would be ready to acknowledge that two homosexual persons can genuinely commit themselves to each another on a private level, this position falters when it comes to publicly and formally acknowledging this kind of relationship. Maybe we should let the social sciences enlighten us more about this.