Monthly Archives: January 2012

Born this way, or gay by choice?

Last week, in an interview with the New York Times, former “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon sad this about her current relationship: 

“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.”  

Many people celebrated Nixon for making such an honest and courageous statement about her sexuality. However, not everyone was pleased with Nixon’s statements. For example, celebrity chef Cat Cora of CBS’s The Talk said this: “I’m gay, and I was born this way. So, I really feel like it was dangerous and irresponsible of Cynthia, especially in this environment today when so many young people are taking their lives.” Another response to Nixon’s comments was this: “So apparently Cynthia has never heard of bisexuality? As a gay man, I don’t have the ability to choose who I’m attracted to — like flipping on a light switch… one day I’m straight and the next day I’m gay; and I’m pretty sure straight people don’t have this ability either. So, yeah, just because Cynthia is bisexual doesn’t mean that every gay person is capable of making a choice.”

Clearly, Nixon’s statements touched a raw nerve. The “born this way” theory of homosexuality has gained considerable traction in scientific circles as well as throughout our culture. And with good reason – the “born this way” theory has been an incredibly powerful tool in securing LGBTQ civil rights. But the dirty little secret in the LGBTQ community is that it doesn’t adequately explain everyone’s experience. And that controversy is why sparks have been flying all week throughout the Internet and televised media.

But I want to focus briefly on two New York Times comments that caught my attention. Let’s start with this one:

“Congratulations to Ms Nixon for defying the politics of being gay. Choosing is much more courageous, and genuine, than being forced by genetics.”

Being forced by genetics. That statement got me thinking. The United States is a highly individualistic society. Free will, individual responsibility, and personal choice are deeply-held values in our culture. And, compared to people who live in more collectivistic, group-oriented cultures, we tend to be very strong-willed. We don’t like to submit to an authority figure. We don’t like being told what to do – and we certainly don’t want to be forced to do anything. Given our cultural landscape, you’d think that we’d gravitate more towards a choice-based theory of sexual orientation. Choosing our desire seems much more appealing than being forced by something out of our control – like our genes. We like to feel like we have control over our lives.  

However, we’re talking about a group of people that has been historically subjected to prejudice, discrimination, violence, and oppression. And that, to me, is a game-changer. I can’t imagine a gay man who has been the target of severe homophobia saying, “I chose to be gay, and the homophobia I experience is a consequence of my choice.” As Nixon herself said, “A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out.” And why wouldn’t we want to opt out of being victimized by sexual oppression? We wouldn’t opt out only if we couldn’t opt out – if we were born that way. And this is probably why the “born this way” theory has been, in my opinion, the single most powerful tool in the quest to eliminate sexual oppression.

The other New York Times comment that got me thinking was this:  “The whole point of freedom is freedom to choose.”  While we live in the land of freedom and opportunity, the reality is that the privileged have more freedoms and opportunities than the oppressed. If Cynthia Nixon wasn’t a white, successful, privileged woman, probably buffered to a large extent from the more severe forms of homophobia, would she be saying that her sexuality is a choice? I’m not sure. Although I’m well aware that the lion’s share of psychological research on the causes of sexual orientation supports a biological explanation, those studies were overwhelmingly conducted with gay male participants – men who, according to hate crime research, are twice as likely as lesbian women to be victimized because of their sexual orientation. Interestingly, gay men are much more likely than lesbian women to consistently adopt a “born this way” perspective on their sexuality. Even given the preponderance of biological evidence, I would argue that how we’re positioned in society likely influences our personal understanding of our sexual identities.

So that brings us back to – you guessed it – homophobia. If our highly-individualistic culture wasn’t so powerfully infused with homophobia, what would we say caused our sexual orientation? I bet that lifting the specter of homophobia from our culture would switch up these explanations considerably.

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, Uncategorized

The skinny on gay fat

If the most common New Year’s resolutions are any indication, January seems to be the month of repentance, atoning for all the decadence of the holidays.We tell ourselves that we’re going to stop spending so much money. We’ll spend more time with family. We’ll get organized. And – we’ll exercise more and lose weight. So I wasn’t surprised that The Advocate ran an article on its website this week titled, “Are You Gay Fat? 5 Ways to Keep That Get Fit Resolution.”

Wait. Gay fat? Not just fat, but gay fat? I’d never heard this term before. Upon Googling “gay fat,” lo and behold, Urbandictionary.com offered up this definition:

A gay man who does not have a gym-perfect body, but rather carries a body fat percentage in the 12% – 20% range. A man who is considered gay fat within the community would likely be considered athletic, physically fit and in-shape within the greater cultural context.

I shouldn’t be surprised (or shocked) by the fact that a slang term has been coined that reflects the body image standards within the gay male community – standards that differ significantly from their heterosexual counterparts. But I was. So I’m going to use this as an opportunity to unpack this term, and to address the consequences of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating within the gay male community.  

To start with, let’s look at the recommendations made by the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health regarding healthy body fat percentages for men:

Men:

Age Underfat Healthy Range Overweight Obese
20-40 yrs Under 8% 8-19% 19-25% Over 25%
41-60 yrs Under 11% 11-22% 22-27% Over 27%
61-79 yrs Under 13% 13-25% 25-30% Over 30%

(Source: Gallagher et al. Am J Clin Nut 2000; 72:694-701)

Based on this chart, if you are a male with a healthy percentage of body fat, then you are gay fat. And “underfat” equals “attractive and desirable” in the gay male community.

Numerous psychological research studies on body image and eating disorders among gay men reinforce this reality. For example, Letitia Anne Peplau, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA, published a study in 2009 in the Archives of Sexual Behavior titled “Body Image Satisfaction in Heterosexual, Gay, and Lesbian Adults,” in which the prevalence and degree of body dissatisfaction was compared among gay men, lesbian women, heterosexual men, and heterosexual women. Compared to heterosexual men, gay men reported more negative evaluations of their appearance and more preoccupation with their weight, with 42% of gay male participants reporting that their body image negatively impacted their sex life. Several studies, including a series of studies conducted by Australian researchers Yolanda Martin and Marika Tiggemann of Flinders University, indicate that gay men are far more likely than heterosexual men to objectify themselves and other men, and that objectification is associated with body shame, drive for thinness, and overall body dissatisfaction. This objectification appears to be reinforced in the media that’s directed towards gay men – for example, a 2008 content analysis of the images of gay men used in four major gay publications (The Advocate, Out, Instinct, and Genre) revealed a high degree of objectification in these images, as well as a high importance placed on a specific body type. In other words, the models peppered throughout these magazines tended to be underfat and muscular – definitely not gay fat.

I’m very familiar with the research literature on body image and eating disorders among gay men – these issues have concerned mental health professionals and researchers for decades. And, as I reflect on the “gay fat” concept, I’m struck by how much gay male body image culture parallels the body dissatisfaction, eating disorder, and objectification trends among young women. I’m also struck by how strongly gay male popular culture mirrors what we see in fashion magazines like Vogue, InStyle, Elle, and Cosmopolitan – publications that dictate and reinforce the popular culture of its readers. Young women in the United States live in a body image-toxic culture, and increasingly we’re seeing the same phenomenon in gay male culture. However, I don’t think we’re at a point where eating disorders and body dissatisfaction in men – even gay men – is taken seriously at all. Time for a change.

 

  

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Setting off my gay-dar

Last week, former child star Kristy McNichol made the earth-shaking and surprising announcement that she is a lesbian (!), living with partner Martie Allen for the past twenty years.

“Show of hands: How many didn’t know Kristy McNichol was gay? Anyone? Anyone? Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

As stereotypical and politically incorrect as this may sound, that statement, made by a commenter on The Huffington Post, certainly reflected my own reaction. And I’m not the only one who sensed all along that McNichol was a lesbian – while she never publicly came out during her career, there was plenty of speculation about her sexuality throughout the celebrity gossip mill. In fact, many celebrities who eventually come out of the closet probably don’t realize how much they’re stating the obvious. Just as an example, the Huffington Post article about McNichol’s coming-out ended with a list of 25 other stars who “surprised the world” when they came out of the closet. While some people on the list really did surprise me when they came out (such as Kelly McGillis and Portia de Rossi), most of these gay-list celebrities were anything but surprising. Ellen DeGeneres. Elton John. Clay Aiken. George Michael. Adam Lambert. Neil Patrick Harris. Sean Hayes. Chris Colfer. Melissa Etheridge. Rosie O’Donnell. Need I say more?

So what is it that makes us able to peg these celebrities as gay? Now we’re getting into the realm of “gay-dar” – that sixth sense that many people claim to have when determining whether someone is gay or straight. As fuzzy of a concept as it seems, gay-dar is a fairly well-researched area. The studies seem to address two major questions: (1) Is gay-dar accurate? and (2) What cues, exactly, do we tend to use when making this gay vs. straight determination?

Let’s start with accuracy. In a 2010 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, participants rated sexual orientation by looking at pictures, watching brief videos, and listening to sound recordings of gay men and heterosexual men. In the words of the researchers, “[s]exual orientation was assessed with high, though imperfect, accuracy.” To get a little more specific, a series of studies conducted by Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto indicate that people can judge sexual orientation in a split second (30 milliseconds, to be exact) with a 70 percent accuracy rate. That’s pretty amazing, if you think about it.

So what cues are we picking up on in those 33 milliseconds that allow us to judge sexual orientation so accurately? Although many gay-dar hypotheses exist, some argue that what we’re using boils down to nothing more than obvious stereotypes – and, to some extent, that may be true. The “gay lisp” is a good example of this. As stereotypical as this sounds, quite a few linguists and psychological researchers have studied the presence and qualities of the “gay accent” – a distinctive, unique dialect, independent of geographic location (at least in the United States), that tends to characterize the speech of some (but not all) gay men. The gay accent, however, is one of the more stereotypical cues we might use, and it probably won’t lead to a 70 percent accuracy rate. In fact, if we only relied upon the gay accent, then our gay-dar would be pretty crude, rudimentary, and potentially dangerous, relying solely on exaggerated stereotypes and only accurately identifying those who fit the stereotypes.

And yet, I think we could make the argument that gay-dar is a highly refined, albeit poorly understood, cognitive instrument. Judging from the Archives of Sexual Behavior study, when research participants listened to sound recordings of gay men, it didn’t take long at all to make an accurate assessment of the speaker’s sexual orientation. There was no conscious “analysis” of the qualities of the speaker’s dialect – instead, a judgment, usually accurate, was made in the blink of an eye. And when we look at Nicholas Rule’s work, not only did people assign a sexual orientation quickly and accurately, they did so with very little information to go on. In one study, participants looked at photos of eyes, and nothing else – and they still made accurate judgments in a split second. I’d challenge an artificial intelligence expert to come up with an algorithm that enables a computer to rate sexual orientation with that level of accuracy – a tall order, given that we’re probably using very subtle and implicit cues to make these judgments.

Of course, most of this research focuses on men (again), which doesn’t help us much with the Kristy McNichol question. And, of course, women complicate the picture – especially given that women’s sexual orientation tends to be more fluid than that of men. Why was Kristy McNichol’s coming out announcement no big surprise – but Meredith Baxter’s was (at least to me)? Is it just coincidence that almost all of the men, but only some of the women on the Huffington Post’s “surprised the world” list, were predictably gay? Gay-dar may seem like a fluffy and frivolous research topic, but I think it could actually help us better understand the distinctions between male sexual orientation and female sexual orientation – and open the door to grasping the complexities of the human mind.

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Follow the money

Securing funding to conduct psychological research is no easy task, particularly if the areas of study are at all politically or socially controversial. Alfred Kinsey was lucky enough to secure funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct large-scale surveys on male and female sexual behavior – funding that was terminated when things got too controversial. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the famed husband-and-wife research team, never received any formal funding for their work. And countless sex researchers, particularly those who study LGBTQ issues, end up conducting what UCSF psychiatrist Nanette Gartrell refers to as “shoestring science,” cobbling together a little money here, a little money there to pursue their work.  

That said, the funding landscape for LGBTQ researchers, program directors, and policymakers has improved substantially over time. Last month, a New York-based nonprofit organization called Funders for LGBTQ Issues released its 2010 calendar year report titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Grantmaking by U.S. Foundations,” which provides information on the grants awarded by U.S.-based foundations to LGBTQ-related causes. Here’s some of the good news:

  • In 2010, 97.2 million dollars were awarded, a 3.9 percent increase from 2009.
  • U.S. foundations awarded 3,457 grants worldwide to LGBTQ organizations and projects.
  • Compared to 2009, grants dollars increased in 2010 by 12 percent to the lesbian community, and grants dollars increased by 24 percent to projects addressing the needs of gay men.
  • Funding addressing the needs of LGBTQ people of color was 14 percent of total dollars awarded.
  • Funding addressing the needs of LGBTQ youth reached 13.78 of total dollars awarded.  

These numbers are refreshing, given how many LGBTQ centers, organizations, and research programs have historically operated on a shoestring. In addition, while many of these grant-giving foundations are LGBTQ-specific (such as the Pride Foundation and the Stonewall Community Foundation), others are very much mainstream. These are very familiar names to the general public – Ford Foundation, Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation – even Rockefeller is on the list. Things really do seem to be getting better.

Of course, there has to be more to the story, right? When we delve more deeply into the report, we find some more disturbing trends:

  • Although the number of transgender-focused grants increased from 2009 to 2010, the total dollars awarded to transgender causes decreased by 5 percent.
  • The LGBTQ aging population, a growing population sector, received just under two and a half percent of total funding.
  • Projects addressing the needs of LGBTQ people with disabilities received less than 1 percent of total dollars.
  • For the second year in a row, zero dollars were awarded to bisexual-focused issues.

Obviously, people with disabilities and the aging population don’t necessarily represent the majority of the LGBTQ community, and it could be argued that the amount of money granted to these groups parallels the statistical demographics. It could also be argued that the drop-off in funding for the transgender community is due partly to the lagging economy – especially given the fact that the number of transgender-focused grants has increased. However, the fact that, in both 2009 and 2010, bisexual-focused issues received no money whatsoever is deeply disturbing. Yet again, bisexuals are subsumed under the general lesbian and gay community and rendered invisible as a distinct identity with unique and specific concerns.

And there are specific concerns and issues, and unique forms of oppression that bisexuals experience. For example, several studies indicate that people who are not exclusively same-sex attracted make up about 50 percent of the LGB population – suggesting that bisexuality isn’t just a statistical minority fringe group. Moreover, given that more women than men tend to identify as bisexual, biphobia may well be inextricably linked with sexism – a theory supported by the fact that psychological research focusing on sexual minority women lags far behind that of men. And a 2007 report from the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force indicates that bisexual women and men tend to have poorer mental and physical health than their lesbian and gay counterparts, suffering from higher rates of smoking, alcoholism, depression, and suicide attempts. These are issues that can’t be ignored – but they’re being ignored, at least by the groups with funding power.

If you want to get a pulse on the state of LGBTQ issues, follow the money. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, when things get politically or socially controversial, the money evaporates. Bisexuality is controversial. Gender-bending is controversial. At the risk of going out on a limb, it seems as if anything that makes the LGBTQ community seem less than mainstream and palatable to mass heterosexual culture is controversial. It’s time for that to change.

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, children, gay suicides, gender nonconformity, human rights, LGBTQ, LGBTQ youth, psychological research, sexism, transgender, transphobia, Uncategorized