The stories behind the research studies


My name is Gayle Pitman. I am a psychologist with a Ph.D in clinical psychology and the psychology of women. For the past ten years, I have taught psychology and women’s studies courses at Sacramento City College.  In addition to teaching classes about gender issues and psychological disorders, I developed and now teach a class called “The Psychology of Sexual Orientation.” And I just published my first book, titled Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research – a book that, I must say, has quite a story behind it. So let me relay a bit of that story to you.  

In academia, sexual orientation is known as a “specialty topic,” a topic that is included as a course offering only if there is a resident expert on the faculty who specializes in that topic. Because it is such an idiosyncratic area, until recently there were no undergraduate-level textbooks focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in psychology. So, in my Sexual Orientation class, I limped along by cobbling together a “reader” comprised of articles – some academic, others more mainstream and accessible. I also assigned a non-academic book on LGBT issues for my students to read. And my students HATED them. I mean, HATED. In all caps. And yet, our classroom discussions were quite the opposite. They were rich. They were lively. They were heated, emotional, challenging, upsetting, inspiring. They were real. “You should take what we talk about in class and write your own textbook,” one of my students remarked one day, somewhat jokingly. I took her seriously.

And yet, even though I was awarded a full-time sabbatical to write this textbook, it just wasn’t happening. I was hit with a powerful case of writer’s block and procrastination. I sat in front of my computer for eight weeks straight, feeling guilty about all the time I was wasting. I spent countless hours on Facebook, I got better at solving advanced-level Sudoku puzzles on the computer – clearly, these were not activities that I was getting paid to do. So why couldn’t I get it together and put pen to paper (or fingertips to computer keys)? I realized one day, when I was sitting yet again in front of a blank document on my computer screen, that the idea of writing a textbook on such an inherently interesting topic bored the daylights out of me. Although I’ve learned some things from reading textbooks (and, in my student days, have stayed up quite late reading a textbook because of a test the next day), I’ve never stayed up until 3 o’clock in the morning because I just couldn’t wait to finish reading a textbook. And I couldn’t stomach the idea of requiring my students to pay $100 for a book that was boring – especially when the topic itself was so captivating.

On about the eighth week of this very frustrating bout of writer’s block, I had a phone conversation about my book with Esther Rothblum, a psychologist and LGBT researcher at San Diego State University whose work I very much respect. As she was telling me about one of her early research studies, she said, in a somewhat offhand way, “There’s a story behind every research study.” When Esther said those words to me, it dawned on me that the book that needed to be written wasn’t going to be a garden-variety textbook. Somehow, her comment shifted my perspective from that of an academic to that of a storyteller – and I realized that there was quite a story to be told. The path that LGBT research has taken, such as the work focusing on the biological basis of sexual orientation, has been like a series of slowly unfolding subplots, with lots of twists and developments. The people behind the research studies (both the scientists as well as the activists and reactionaries) bring humanity and character intrigue to the story. More often than not, the story ends not with a perky “happily ever after”-style ending, but instead with a series of unresolved questions. And all of the action takes place before the landscape of politics, religion, and moral values. I realized that I couldn’t just dryly report the research findings – I wanted to tell the story behind research on sexual orientation.

So that’s what I did, and the result is Backdrop: The Politics and Personalities behind Sexual Orientation Research

Although many stories were told in my book, the story never really ends. The battle over LGBTQ civil rights still rages on. Psychological research on LGBTQ issues still continues on – and is continually debated. And this is where my blog comes in. I wanted to write Backdrop for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I hoped to bring the science to life. More importantly, though, I wanted to start a conversation about LGBTQ psychological research – and the social policies and political controversies arising from that research. While I get to talk about these things all the time with my students, these rich and intense conversations shouldn’t just be contained within the walls of academia. That’s one of the joys of the Internet, particularly for such a marginalized and invisible group like the LGBTQ population. So please feel free to join me in conversation.

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Filed under LGBTQ, psychological research, Uncategorized

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