"I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that."
From: The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, Act 3, Scene 1
By any measure the 2004 American election has been a momentous event. Along with the regular presidential and congressional vote choices, citizens of eleven states, including Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah also got to vote on initiatives to explicitly ban marriage between homosexual persons. Every one of these eleven state initiatives passed, meaning that, baring judicial review, homosexual marriage is now against the law in those states and apparently also in 27 other states that have previously passed similar laws. In some of those states, even civil unions are now against the law, as initiatives also sought successfully to ban any legal approximations of homosexual marriage.
Since we are presently confronted with dramatic and effective rejections of the idea of gay marriage, it seemed appropriate to use this month's essay to state clearly just how wrong, how harmful, how unfortunate and how damaging this sad turn of events is.
There is simply no stopping, no legislating away the bedrock facts that some people are born gay and will in adulthood find themselves attracted to same sex partners, fall in love with those partners and want to share their lives in a committed relationship. American society, based as it is on Judeo-Christian values, has never had an easy time with this fact, but it remains a fact never the less. There have always been gay people and there always will be gay people so long as there are people. No amount of family or cultural pressure can make a gay person into a non-gay person. Instead, the evidence suggests that sexual preference is determined largely (but not entirely) by biological forces (genes or prenatal hormone variations), which can be suppressed but not 'overcome' in adulthood. There is no evidence to suggest that "sexual reorientation" therapies ever work beyond simple promotion of the "suppressing of your desires" agenda. While societal recognition of the rights of homosexual people can be suppressed (as is currently the case), such suppression is and always will be powerless to make gayness go away. Instead, the only things that suppression of gay marriage can do is to further hurt and stigmatize gay people and to deny them their human right to love and to be loved.
Gay Rights Are Civil And Human Rights
Gay marriage issues thus distill, in my mind at least, to human and civil rights issues. At issue here is literally whether or not gay people are deserving of recognition as regular and normal human beings; as part of "us" rather than "them." If gay people are not fully human (if they are 'abnormal, perverted, dysfunctional, etc.) then we can sleep well at night in denying them things that we ourselves think are essential human rights. If they are normal human like us, then we are nothing but prejudiced in denying them what we give to ourselves.
The mental health professions are unified behind the understanding that homosexuality is a normal human sexual variation, and that homosexuals are as much perfectly normal human beings as are heterosexuals. It wasn't always this way. Prior to 1974 homosexuality was recognized as an official mental disorder. A rising tide of scientific evidence from animal and human studies suggesting that homosexuality was a common and normal event and not especially associated with mental illness, combined with the willingness of the political powers that be within the psychiatric and psychological establishment to get to know actual gay people in human terms and see that they were not perverts or deviants but instead normal folks living normal lives only with differing sexual preferences altered the landscape and caused the DSM diagnosis associating homosexuality with mental illness to be dropped. The story of how some of this went down was nicely documented in 2002 by the radio program "This American Life" in their documentary story "81 words". The official position of the American Psychological Association on homosexuality can be found here, and the similar position of the American Psychiatric Association here.
Though homosexuality is not a mental or medical disorder in of itself, there are serious mental and existential issues that come with the territory of belonging to a stigmatized group. Homosexual orientation emerges during the teen years as does heterosexual orientation. According to SAMHSA, the federal government's voice on substance abuse and mental health,
"Suicide is the third leading cause of adolescent mortality in the United States, accounting for 13 percent of deaths between ages 15 and 24. In 1996, more teenagers and young adults died of suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia and influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. According to Fleischer and Fillman (1995), a 1989 Department of Health Report on youth suicide found that gay and lesbian youth are up to five times more likely to attempt suicide. The increased risk among these youth is due to isolation, rejection, confusion, and shame due to the stigmatization of homosexuality, which results in depression, suicide, and low self-esteem."
The link is available here.
So, in fact, stigmatization of homosexuals in itself creates mental disorders and perpetuates the suffering and sometimes the untimely death of gay youth.
If there is no reputable scientific evidence to suggest anything wrong or deviant about homosexual persons save for what can be accounted for by way of the abuse they suffer as a marginalized group, then what exactly is the reason that such persons should be discriminated against and denied civic protections? I would suggest that it is not legitimate to deny homosexual persons full civic and societal recognition and protection for their committed relationships, and that the states have embarked upon a path that is contrary to the uplifting and spiritually grounded historical examples set by civil right leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., and contrary to the health and welfare of the nation and the citizens therein.
The civil rights movement is instructive here: The freedoms we take for granted today as self-evident truths were only a short while ago not so obvious. African Americans were slaves and property, regarded as subhuman and not worthy of rights until 1865. Thereafter in many quarters they were regarded as second class citizens not worthy of significant rights until at least the 1960s. Women did not have the right to vote until 1920. Each reform was fought bitterly by traditionally minded people who probably felt, like today's voters, that they needed to defend the status quo or society as they knew it would fail and all hell would break loose. In the African American case, outright ownership of people grudgingly and at gunpoint gave way to a "separate but equal" mentality similar to that which is today applied in widespread fashion towards the gay marriage issue (wherein it is proposed that gay persons be able to benefit from 'civil unions' that approximate civic rights accorded to marriage while more exclusive 'true marriage' status remains reserved for heterosexuals). Only with the tumultuous and violent civil rights movement of the 1960s was society moved towards better integration. The experiment is ongoing of course, but who among us who is not a member of the Klan would say that what we've got today isn't better than what we had before? Across the history of American prejudice, significant organized resistance to integration tends to give way over time to a general acceptance by most elements of society that integration, and recognition of the full and complete humanity of the formerly marginalized group is important, that justice is served in the process of integration, and that the overall lot of the country improves as a result.
At any rate, history gets written by the winners and all histories are biased. We'll either end up adding prejudice against gays to the historical bin where we store prejudiced and discriminatory practices perpetuated against African Americans, Female Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc. or we won't depending on which view ultimately prevails. From my own point of view as a psychologist, there is only one moral and ethical position that makes sense in light of the reliable and repeatable scientific evidence: that the states have made a serious and regrettable mistake in banning gay marriage which will hurt the country, and specific people within the country with homosexual orientations, more than it will ever help.
Interested readers should feel free to copy and distribute this essay so long as they preserve reference to Mental Help Net (www.mentalhelp.net) and the author.
Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
November 4, 2004