ST Online Forum: Changing a person's sexual orientation: conclusion flawed

Sunday, May 20, 2007

ST Online Forum
May 19, 2007

Changing a person's sexual orientation: Conclusion flawed

I AM writing in response to Dr Alan Chin Yew Liang's letter titled, 'Figures speak for themselves: Practising gays have higher risk of HIV'.

I thank Dr Chin for keeping the discussion on an emotional topic grounded in rational discourse, and such an effort deserves a considered response.

First, with regard to Dr Chin's point about the higher relative incidence of Aids in homosexual people - the risk of contracting Aids among people who 'practise' homosexual sex is not a justification for continued criminalisation, but by safer-sex education and outreach programmes. This is exactly society's approach towards addressing the risk of contracting STDs among people who actively 'practise' heterosexual sex or that of lung cancer among people who smoke.

Dr Chin goes on to address the question of whether or not a person can change his sexual orientation, and quotes a study by Dr Robert Spitzer to draw the conclusion that 'even if one person can change, then homosexuality is not an immutable trait'.

Unfortunately, Dr Chin's conclusion is a skyscraper erected upon a foundation of straw. Dr Spitzer's study does not support Dr Chin's claim that homosexuality is not immutable because the sample population was not random but specially hand-picked for a special purpose.

Sadly, this is a mistake that is made so often by non-specialists that Dr Spitzer himself was compelled to respond. On May 21, 2001, the Wall Street Journal published a commentary by Dr Spitzer about his own study where he said (verbatim):

'In reality, change should be seen as complex and on a continuum.'Some homosexuals appear able to change self-identity and behavior, but not arousal and fantasies; others can change only self-identity; and only a very few, I suspect, can substantially change all four.

'I suspect the vast majority of gay people would be unable to alter by much a firmly established homosexual orientation.

'I did not conclude that all gays should try to change, or even that they would be better off if they did.

'In other words, just because one person among millions might possibly be able to change his intrinsic sexual orientation and attractions after years of therapy, it does not therefore mean that everyone else is able to (or should even try, given the potential destructive consequences of failure). After all, can you imagine what it would take to make a red-blooded straight man stop being attracted to a Playboy centrefold?

Lastly, I will turn again to Dr Spitzer's commentary to address the issue of equal treatment (not protection, mind you!) for homosexual people:

'My study concluded with an important caveat: that it should not be used to justify a denial of civil rights to homosexuals, or as support for coercive treatment.

'Gay rights are a completely separate issue, and defensible for ethical reasons.

'I could not have said it any better myself.

Lee Jin Hian