September 25, 2007
Q: What does the president of Iran have in common with certain antigay activists in the United States?
A: Both maintain that homosexuals don’t really exist.
Yesterday, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied the existence of homosexuals in his country, the audience at Columbia University responded with laughter and derision.
Asked about the persecution of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad answered:
“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.”
The policies of Ahmadinejad’s own government would appear to contradict his statement. As documented by HOMAN (the US-based Iranian Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Organization) and the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO), Iranian law severely punishes men and women who engage in homosexual behavior. The punishment for male-male sex involving penetration is death. In 2005, two gay teenage boys were hanged after admitting to having sex with each other.
The public response to Ahmadinejad’s assertion has been similar to that of the Columbia audience. To most Americans, the idea that there are no homosexuals in Iran or any other country simply isn’t plausible.
But at least a few individuals apparently agree with the Iranian president, except for one detail: They would take issue with his assertion that there are homosexuals in the United States.
The Cameron Connection
Purveyors of junk science on the topic of sexual orientation increasingly seem to be denying that anyone is really gay or lesbian.
An example of this sentiment can be found in the guidelines that antigay activist Paul Cameron and his collaborators are developing on their new Web vehicle for reporting the results of their “research.”
As Jim Burroway reported on the Box Turtle Bulletin website, Cameron et al. recently announced that they’re creating their own on-line vanity press which presumably will feature papers that even Psychological Reports won’t publish. (They apparently also hope to reverse their cash flow; instead of paying Psychological Reports for publishing their papers, they say they’ll charge contributors upwards of $500 to publish an article on their own website.)
The content of the website has been changing, but a version I accessed on September 23 listed some rules for terminology:
“…[A]uthors should avoid terms such as ‘gay,’ homosexual,’ heterosexual,’ or ‘bisexual,’ as they are diagnostic and/or political, implying ’something’ beyond the empirical facts. Describing those who engage in SS [same-sex sexual behavior], or who don’t engage in SS but desire to, as ‘homosexuals,’ ‘bisexuals,’ etc. also implies ’something beyond the empirical reality’ of what individuals do and should be avoided….”
By September 25, the language rules were softened a bit but were still consistent with the previous version:
“With the understanding that persons who engage in same-sex sexual behavior are often called ‘homosexuals,’ ‘gays,’ ‘lesbians,’ and the like, it is preferred that the terms MSM (males who have sex with males), FSF (females who have sex with females) be used….”
Perhaps the shift toward a less categorical ban on on words like “homosexual” came after Cameron looked through his own published papers, e.g., a 2006 report titled Children of Homosexuals and Transsexuals Are More Apt To Be Homosexual. Nevertheless, the message is pretty clear: Sexual behavior corresponds to an empirical fact, but being gay or lesbian doesn’t.
What’s the point of this exercise? Why deny the existence of homosexuals?
The Law and Policy Connection
I don’t pretend to know President Ahmadinejad’s motivation for his statement at Columbia. But American homosexuality-deniers appear to be trying to create a rationale for antigay laws and policies.
This rationale is built on (at least) two components: (1) There’s no such thing as “a homosexual,” therefore, sexual minorities don’t constitute a minority group that is subjected to unfair discrimination and hence don’t need legal protection. (2) People who call themselves “homosexual” (or gay or lesbian or bisexual) can and should become heterosexual.
These arguments were presented, for example, in a legal declaration that Jeffrey Satinover submitted in the original San Francisco Superior Court case concerning the marriages of same-sex couples performed at San Francisco City Hall in 2004. He asserted:
“Homosexual or bisexual identification… spontaneously and dramatically declines to the largest degree over the course of the lifespan, especially in the adolescent years when sexual identity is most mutable and impressionable and subject to outside influence from peers, popular culture, formal education and the standards set by figures of influence as well as by the nature of actual sexual activity. Thus, to the largest degree, homosexual identification is a self-reinforcing, hence culturally-dependent phenomenon…”
“Homosexuality, once in the process of developing, can be altered. It can be more readily altered when mutually reinforcing effects of the environment (cultural, demographic variables — the “messages” sent by society) and the wishes of the individual are in accord. It is more difficult to alter if an individual decides to change course after having gone farther down a pathway that involves extensive repetition, but not necessarily impossible. For those who do not desire it… the best way to insure that this option remains viable is to create an environment that does not reinforce it in the first place.”
- There’s really no such thing as “a homosexual.” Impressionable young people who engage in same-sex behavior end up believing they’re “gay” or “bisexual” because they’ve been influenced or duped by popular culture, but most of them grow out of it.
- People who want to stop being homosexual can and should do so, and the best way for society to assist them is to make sure that the culture is as hostile to sexual minorities as possible. (As quoted on the NARTH website, Satinover believes that “homosexuality — like narcissism — is best viewed as a spiritual and moral illness.”)
Responding To The Arguments
These attempts by antigay activists to argue sexual minorities out of existence seem better suited to the imaginary worlds created by George Orwell and Lewis Carroll than to the contemporary United States. Unfortunately for them, their wish to create new meanings for words — or to completely abolish the concepts to which the words refer — doesn’t change reality.
In fact, most people in the United States experience their sexual orientation as a fundamental component of their identity. Most gay, lesbian, and bisexual people (and probably most heterosexuals) feel they couldn’t change their sexual orientation if they wanted to. And most don’t wish to change.
This isn’t to say that culture exerts no influence on how people experience their sexuality and form identities based on it. Indeed, historical and anthropological studies over the last several decades have documented the central role that culture plays in shaping such experiences and identities. They have also illuminated how the meanings attached to sexual behavior have changed over the course of history. However, the arguments presented by Satinover et al. ignore the fact that identities shaped by cultural forces are “real” — whether they reflect sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, or some other characteristic.
Nor am I arguing that no one’s sexual orientation changes over the course of their life. Many gay and lesbian people report that they once considered themselves heterosexual. However, claims that a particular “therapy” or “treatment” can alter a person’s sexual orientation have no scientific support. And there are solid grounds for questioning the safety and ethics of such interventions.
What, then, is the appropriate response to the arguments put forth by the American homosexual-deniers?
The Columbia University audience’s reaction to President Ahmadinejad’s statement strikes me as a good start. They booed and laughed.
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For more information about the situation of sexual minorities in Iran, check the websites of HOMAN, the IRQO (formerly the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organization, or PGLO), the International Lesbian and Gay Association, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and Human Rights Watch.
Journalist Doug Ireland has written about the persecution of Iranian sexual minorities in his blog and in articles for various publications, including In These Times.
In January of 2007, the IRQO sponsored an all-day symposium at the University of Toronto on systematic violations of human rights in Iran, including the rights of sexual minorities.