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Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

Neurohormonal Wars

Old questions and dubious debates in the psychology of gender.

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In May 2011, a majority of the districts in my denomination (Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.) voted to remove from its constitution the requirement that church leaders "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness." Individual congregations and presbyteries still have the freedom to adhere to that earlier standard. Indeed, the Session of my own church passed a resolution affirming it shortly after its adoption by the PC(USA) in1996. But the more recent vote now makes it possible for persons in same-sex relationships to be considered for ordination to the offices of elder, deacon, or minister in churches and presbyteries that are open to it. Score another point, it would seem, for the view that same-sex attraction is biologically fixed, so the desire to act on it should not be constrained by literalist readings of ancient texts. Coincidentally, this is more or less the message coming from adherents of what is called Brain Organization Theory (BOT). Its working assumption is that the tendencies of women and men—whether related to sexuality, "masculine" vs. "feminine" personalities, or skills like verbal, mathematical, and spatial ability—are strongly driven by hormonal forces, beginning during prenatal development. These forces are assumed to produce complementary sets of virtues and skills, resulting in mutual heterosexual attraction. And even when nature is not so obliging (as in the case of homosexuals), hormonal events—in this case aberrant ones—are again assumed to be responsible.[1]

Around the same time, The New York Times Magazine ran a largely positive article on the American Psychological Association's 2007 Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation.[2] That document was critical of religious conservatives who insist same-sex attraction is never anything more than a careless choice or a reversible habit. But it also made a clear (and long overdue) acknowledgement of the importance of religious identity. If strongly religious persons with same-sex attractions seek to resist such impulses, it said, the appropriate response includes "therapist acceptance, support, and understanding of the clients, and the facilitation of clients' active coping, social support, and identity exploration, without imposing a specific sexual orientation identity outcome." Indeed, the task force discouraged the use of essentialist-sounding terms like lesbian, gay, and bisexual. It noted that "for some, sexual orientation development is fluid and has an indefinite outcome," affected by factors such as "age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, disability, language, and socioeconomic status." The report cautioned that "not all sexual minorities (i.e., those who experience significant erotic and romantic attractions to adult members of their own sex) adopt a lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity." Instead, "some individuals choose to live their lives in accordance with personal or religious values."[3]

This clearly reflects a more social-constructionist view of sexuality and (by extension) other gender-related traits, interests, and behaviors. Brain organization theorists lean toward biological essentialism. They assume that terms like sexual orientation, masculinity, and femininity refer to obvious and largely stable behavioral patterns, then try to find the biological events that supposedly cause them. Social constructionists problematize these terms, asking how masculinity, femininity, and sexual orientation are differently defined and reinforced (or punished) in various times and places. Each side in this version of the nature-nurture debate agrees that both forces are at work, but they differ greatly as to which is the stronger, and how the two work together.

The Times article largely endorsed the APA's more social-constructionist conclusions. Its author interviewed one actively gay and very secular therapist in Texas who claimed to have learned the hard way that some conservative Christian gay men are not helped by coming out of the closet, nor by switching to a more liberal, gay-affirming church. Prior to 2007 he had endorsed APA ethical guidelines that said, in effect, "We're supposed to support religious beliefs and support sexual orientation." But, he added, "there was nothing I knew of that says what to do when they conflict." In wake of the task force report, he now helps such men stay discreetly closeted, be prudent in their same-gender sexual contacts to avoid health and professional risks, and otherwise remain faithful members of their church. One such client, a young assistant pastor, "didn't want to join another church, nor did he want to come out. For many therapists, the approach would have been to affirm his sexual orientation. But the man cared more about preaching than he did about having an open, intimate relationship with a man."

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