Some gays and lesbians may change their self-identification at various points throughout their lives. Others cannot. The bottom line, a panel of researchers said Saturday, is that no one can — or should — be expected to.
The panel was part of a national conference of Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays being held in Salt Lake City this weekend. On Saturday, the panel discussed the question of so-called reparative therapy, which purports to help people change from homosexual to heterosexual.
Dr. Lisa Diamond, a researcher at the University of Utah, told members from PFLAG chapters across the country that the outlook on sexual orientation is changing, and where people once saw black-and-white distinctions between homosexuals and heterosexuals, now there is a more accepted view that sexual identification is fluid.
"It doesn't say anything about the nature of sexual orientation," Diamond said. "It's about the nature of life."
She said sexual self-identification is often dependent on one's circumstances. A woman who once identified as bisexual who is in a monogamous same-sex relationship may find it easier to identify as lesbian. A man who finds himself almost exclusively attracted to men may nonetheless find it limiting to describe himself as gay.
However, Diamond said this does not support the idea that people can consciously change their fundamental attractions through therapy or other means.
Representatives for organizations that practice reparative or conversion therapy could not be reached for comment Saturday. However, a statement on the Web site of Evergreen International, a Salt Lake-based organization that promotes change in sexual orientation based on standards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, agreed that sexual orientation is unique from individual to individual.
"Evergreen views homosexuality as an unintentionally acquired condition that may have biological, developmental and psychological causes," the site says. "It is not a predetermined or unchangeable condition, but one that can be altered. The speed and extent of your transition will, to a large degree, be determined by your own individual set of challenges."
Dr. Tim Murphy, a researcher at the University of Illinois' College of Medicine, said attempts to "cure" homosexuals have led to "a lot of objectionable therapies, not only in psychiatry but in medicine." These have included everything from testicular transplants to prescribed bicycle riding.
Questions of the ability to change sexual orientation are often mired in a debate over the biology, genetics and psychology that may or may not lead to sexual orientation. Dr. Joan Roughgarden told the PFLAG audience that more than 300 vertebrate species have been found to practice homosexuality.
She said her research suggests that, if homosexuality is biologically or genetically formed, it is not a Darwinian maladaptation but just one of many different ways living beings form relationships and communicate affection.
But Murphy said that, to some extent, questions about why some people are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender are moot, especially since it's likely different for everyone.
"Questions about the social standing of homosexual men and women are more important than discussions of the development of sexual orientation," he said.
The PFLAG conference hits Salt Lake City just before Utahns are set to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being strictly between a man and a woman. Organizers say they did not plan the conference in Utah because of the proposed amendment.
Still, the amendment has come up at the conference. At Saturday's panel, Roughgarden said gender-based definitions of marriage put governments in tricky spots. As an example, she said estimates suggest that as many as one in 500 people are born "intersex," meaning genetically or physically they are neither male nor female. If Virginia certifies someone with XXY chromosomes male, will such a man's marriage to a woman be recognized in Maryland, which may define "male" differently?