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27 Feb 2006

religious fundamentalists, science and silence

Anti-gay Christian groups have repeatedly misinterpreted Robert Spitzer's study to assert that homosexuals can "turn straight" and a writer to a Singapore newspaper accused the American Psychiatric Association of buckling due to "pressure tactics" when it declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, Fridae columnist Alex Au sets the record straight.

Quite often, whenever the subject of homosexuality makes it into the Singapore press, a former law dean by the name of Thio Su-mien would fire off a letter arguing why homosexuality is sick, immoral or downright dangerous to society.

Soon after the Liberty League issue hit the news in Today newspaper a letter from her appeared. In the letter published on Feb 9, she said she was "nonplussed" that Today had said that "scientific and medical communities had established that homosexuality was not a disorder".

She reminded readers that homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) until 1973. But in the face of "pressure tactics" and "riots", the APA "buckled".

"Science was politicised and, hence, carried no probative value as scientific truth," she insisted.

On this reasoning, science was correct up till 1973, and thereafter, whatever it had to say was pretty useless. The inference one was expected to draw from this argument was that indeed homosexuality is a mental illness.

I wrote in reply to Today - but it was not published - that "in her discussion, she characterised that 1973 decision as buckling under pressure tactics, but one should note that in the 32 years since, the APA has not reversed the decision despite ample opportunity to do so."

"Nor did she give credence to the fact that all other advanced countries - Europe, UK, Japan, Australia, Canada, even China - likewise do not consider homosexuality a disorder. Neither does the World Health Organisation."

The 2001 Spitzer study
My letter also took issue with the way Thio misused the latest study by Robert Spitzer. She had said that "in a subsequent study where he investigated the claims of former homosexuals, Dr Spitzer concluded there was credible evidence that change was possible and that the homosexuality trait was not fixed."

This study is often cited in websites maintained by fundamentalist Christian groups whenever they feel they need scientific support for their anti-gay agenda. The way they write about this study, one wonders if they have even read, let alone understood it.

Spitzer had been intrigued by the claims from ex-gay groups that they had successfully turned homosexuals straight. As a researcher without any political agenda, he wanted to investigate those claims.

Recruiting mostly through these same ex-gay groups, he found 200 persons who vouched that the therapy they received had been successful on them.

Then he asked them a number of questions about what they were like before therapy and after. His questions concerned sexual behaviour, relationships and masturbatory fantasies, among other facets, in his search for what he called "homosexual indicators". He found that 81.5 percent still had some of these indicators. Only 18.5 percent claimed they had none of them.

However, even this result is questionable as other researchers have pointed out, criticising the methodology. Two-thirds of 200 participants in the study (143 men and 57 women) had been recommended by ex-gay groups, and 78 percent of them had previously spoken in public promoting conversion therapy. 97 percent of them were Christian and 93 percent of them said religion was "extremely" or "very important" in their lives. They were an intensely religious bunch, to begin with.

Quite clearly, these people are not your everyday gays and lesbians, and certainly do not resemble the gay people we see in Asia.

None of the participants were anonymous and the interviews were conducted over the telephone. There were no means to check whether the answers they gave were truthful.

Another major criticism was that Spitzer was grouping bisexuals with homosexuals in the study, so even if some of the participants claimed satisfactory heterosexual relationships after therapy, how is that significant when bisexuals always have the potentiality for heterosexual relationships?

Spitzer himself said that his study "should not be used to justify a denial of civil rights to homosexuals, or as support for coercive treatment."

"It would be a serious mistake to conclude," he added, that homosexuality is a "choice." In fact, he "personally favor[ed] antidiscrimination laws and civil unions for homosexuals."

It is amazing how the anti-gay lobby relies on a study that doesn't show what they want to show, and whose author rejects the use of his study to this end. On the other hand, it isn't amazing, since there is no other study that even comes close to supporting their religiously-motivated agenda.

Condoms and creationism
The same utter disregard for science can be seen in the claims made by many fundamentalist Christian groups about the reliability of condoms. They keep repeating a statement - that condoms are only 85% effective, insinuating therefore that they're useless for preventing HIV infection - which they say comes from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

What the CDC actually says doesn't even come close to that; it unequivocally says that based on their studies, "these data provide strong evidence for the effectiveness of condoms for reducing sexually transmitted HIV."

It is not just amazing how cavalier these fundamentalist groups are about scientific findings, it is disturbingly immoral when lives are at stake to spread false information. How ironic it is that these same groups, because of their religious affiliation, wear the mantle of moral authority.

The third, and probably the most well-publicised, front where these groups deny scientific knowledge is, of course, evolution. Very often, these same groups also promote the biblical account of creation (all completed in seven days) as the literal truth. The battleground for this is almost always in America, the fount of Christian fundamentalism.

Here at least, scientists and reasonable people, often Christians themselves, are fighting back, all the way to the US Supreme Court in one instance. In Edwards v Aguillard (1987), the Court ruled that creationism is not science, but religion, and cannot be taught in state schools.

Keeping heads down
In contrast, Christians who believe in a more inclusive church, and who dislike the divisive stridency of the anti-gay fundamentalists, seldom speak up against their co-religionists. On occasions when they do, by my observation, they still accept the premise, based on biblical interpretation that homosexuality is wrong, and only argue that since everybody is a sinner, so it might perhaps be overlooked. This is hardly a strong counter-argument, and it is no wonder that the anti-gay rhetoric continues to hog the airwaves.

The more scholarly argument, that a learned interpretation of the bible does not support the claim that it condemns homosexuality, is almost never heard, at least not in the public debate.

It seems, when it comes to the gay issue, that the Christians with a more modern outlook prefer to keep their heads down, or perhaps they themselves don't know any better.

This imbalance reminds me of the contest for the Muslim mind over the question of "jihad". On the one hand, there are those with a political agenda, who go about indoctrinating people to think that jihad means going out to kill and maim. Theirs is a self-serving, anti-intellectual interpretation of the word. Yet for some 25 years, this interpretation was allowed to spread, mostly unchallenged by peace-loving and critical-minded Muslims. It was only after the horror of 9/11 that moderate Muslims were roused to speak up, and then, only fitfully at first. Before that, it was difficult for many Muslims to speak up against the extremists or in defence of the "infidels" that the jihadists claimed were the root of all evil, even though a rich tradition of scholarly interpretation was always at the moderates' disposal.

Likewise, Christians and churches with minds less feverish than the fundamentalists, have a rich tradition of biblical interpretation and learning that would question the simplistic, hate-motivated ideas of the fundamentalists. Is it too difficult for them to speak up? Why?

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of People Like Us. Readers who have experience with applying for Dependent's Passes for their same-sex spouse to live together in Singapore could write to him so that that gay activists in Singapore can have some facts to go on. He can be contacted at yawning@geocities.com.


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