Accurate, replicable scientific research results can and do influence our personal decisions and self-understanding, and can contribute to the public discourse, including cultural and political debates. When the research touches on controversial themes, it is particularly important to be clear about precisely what science has and has not shown. For complex, complicated questions concerning the nature of human sexuality, there exists at best provisional scientific consensus; much remains unknown, as sexuality is an immensely complex part of human life that defies our attempts at defining all its aspects and studying them with precision.
For questions that are easier to study empirically, however, such as those concerning the rates of mental health outcomes for identifiable subpopulations of sexual minorities, the research does offer some clear answers: these subpopulations show higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide compared to the general population. One hypothesis, the social stress model — which posits that stigma, prejudice, and discrimination are the primary causes of higher rates of poor mental health outcomes for these subpopulations — is frequently cited as a way to explain this disparity. While non-heterosexual and transgender individuals are often subject to social stressors and discrimination, science has not shown that these factors alone account for the entirety, or even a majority, of the health disparity between non-heterosexual and transgender subpopulations and the general population. There is a need for extensive research in this area to test the social stress hypothesis and other potential explanations for the health disparities, and to help identify ways of addressing the health concerns present in these subpopulations.
Some of the most widely held views about sexual orientation, such as the “born that way” hypothesis, simply are not supported by science. The literature in this area does describe a small ensemble of biological differences between non-heterosexuals and heterosexuals, but those biological differences are not sufficient to predict sexual orientation, the ultimate test of any scientific finding. The strongest statement that science offers to explain sexual orientation is that some biological factors appear, to an unknown extent, to predispose some individuals to a non-heterosexual orientation.
The suggestion that we are “born that way” is more complex in the case of gender identity. In one sense, the evidence that we are born with a given gender seems well supported by direct observation: males overwhelmingly identify as men and females as women. The fact that children are (with a few exceptions of intersex individuals) born either biologically male or female is beyond debate. The biological sexes play complementary roles in reproduction, and there are a number of population-level average physiological and psychological differences between the sexes. However, while biological sex is an innate feature of human beings, gender identity is a more elusive concept.
In reviewing the scientific literature, we find that almost nothing is well understood when we seek biological explanations for what causes some individuals to state that their gender does not match their biological sex. The findings that do exist often have sample-selection problems, and they lack longitudinal perspective and explanatory power. Better research is needed, both to identify ways by which we can help to lower the rates of poor mental health outcomes and to make possible more informed discussion about some of the nuances present in this field.
Yet despite the scientific uncertainty, drastic interventions are prescribed and delivered to patients identifying, or identified, as transgender. This is especially troubling when the patients receiving these interventions are children. We read popular reports about plans for medical and surgical interventions for many prepubescent children, some as young as six, and other therapeutic approaches undertaken for children as young as two. We suggest that no one can determine the gender identity of a two-year-old. We have reservations about how well scientists understand what it even means for a child to have a developed sense of his or her gender, but notwithstanding that issue, we are deeply alarmed that these therapies, treatments, and surgeries seem disproportionate to the severity of the distress being experienced by these young people, and are at any rate premature since the majority of children who identify as the gender opposite their biological sex will not continue to do so as adults. Moreover, there is a lack of reliable studies on the long-term effects of these interventions. We strongly urge caution in this regard.
We have sought in this report to present a complex body of research in a way that will be intelligible to a wide audience of both experts and lay readers alike. Everyone — scientists and physicians, parents and teachers, lawmakers and activists — deserves access to accurate information about sexual orientation and gender identity. While there is much controversy surrounding how our society treats its LGBT members, no political or cultural views should discourage us from understanding the related clinical and public health issues and helping people suffering from mental health problems that may be connected to their sexuality.
Exhausted by “science says”?
During Covid, The New Atlantis has offered an independent alternative. In this unsettled moment, we need your help to continue.
Our work suggests some avenues for future research in the biological, psychological, and social sciences. More research is needed to uncover the causes of the increased rates of mental health problems in the LGBT subpopulations. The social stress model that dominates research on this issue requires improvement, and most likely needs to be supplemented by other hypotheses. Additionally, the ways in which sexual desires develop and change across one’s lifespan remain, for the most part, inadequately understood. Empirical research may help us to better understand relationships, sexual health, and mental health.
Critiquing and challenging both parts of the “born that way” paradigm — both the notion that sexual orientation is biologically determined and fixed, and the related notion that there is a fixed gender independent of biological sex — enables us to ask important questions about sexuality, sexual behaviors, gender, and individual and social goods in a different light. Some of these questions lie outside the scope of this work, but those that we have examined suggest that there is a great chasm between much of the public discourse and what science has shown.
Thoughtful scientific research and careful, circumspect interpretation of its results can advance our understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. There is still much work to be done and many unanswered questions. We have attempted to synthesize and describe a complex body of scientific research related to some of these themes. We hope that this report contributes to the ongoing public conversation regarding human sexuality and identity. We anticipate that this report may elicit spirited responses, and we welcome them.