Saturday, February 19, 2005

Warning: Facts Ahead

A Prefatory Comment
This post was originally written last April for another blog site. The MCPS sex education curriculum was shaping up, and the conservative minority who are now the core of the recall group were realizing that their anti-gay materials were not going to be included. They wrote a letter to the Board of Education, complaining about the curriculum.

This has become somewhat relevant again. The recall group's blog has been publishing pieces of the letter in sections -- if you read their stuff, this is what the "APPROVED!!!" series is about. The parts I have looked at have have been cut and pasted from last year's letter -- there might be something new, I don't know.

Several commentors at this site have referred to those documents, as if the information being posted there was very persuasive. So I guess it's time to dust off the old post. I apologize for its length.

I'll tell you from the start, I am not one who believes that everyone should live the kind of life I choose for myself. I also do not appreciate when others decide how I should live, as long as I am not hurting anyone. I consider tolerance to be a core American value. Call it a "bias" on my part, a "prejudice," but I believe in personal freedom -- my own and others'.

So it was with some interest that I read the fourteen-page letter sent to the school board by some members of the Citizens Advisory Committee for Family Life and Human Development, which approves materials for Montgomery County health classes. Recall group president Michelle Turner is listed in the newspaper as a signer of this letter, though her name does not appear on the copy I received. Only Henrietta J. Brown's signature appeared on the letter. Turner was quoted in the Montgomery Gazette as supporting the views expressed in the letter.

The letter was really long, and somewhat repetitious. I cannot address every detail here, though I will go into it more than perhaps most readers can stand. The gist of it is, as they say on the first page:
Reluctantly, I and others on the Committee, have concluded that the majority on the Committee, including the Chairman, are driven more by their own intolerance for differing viewpoints and a desire to promote a specific agenda than by any reasonable concern for the health and safety of the children in our school system.

'Course, them's fightin' words.

The Letter
The letter is in three parts. Section I lists the 15 materials approved and several that were rejected,with comments; Section II lists other materials that were rejected -- it's not said so, but the letter's authors clearly feel these things should have been included; and Section III argues that proper policies were not followed in the decision-making process. Here I will only comment on Section I. As you will see, that is more than enough.

Two Resources Not Accepted
It is noted that of 18 materials considered, 15 were approved. Materials not approved include two documents from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Sexual Stereotypes and Sexual Orientation, and When Gender Identities Become Confused. This latter paper recommends that a child who prefers to play with kids of the opposite sex, or "refuses to accept his or her biological sex" should be treated by a psychiatrist. Gender-neutral childrearing, this article says, "can deny inherent differences among youngsters." This gives us a glimpse of the viewpoint that the letter's authors would prefer to promote, that homosexuality is an aberration or a form of mental illness that can and should be treated.

Suicide Rates and the Surgeon General's Refutation
One particular point is repeated throughout this letter. Referring to an article that was selected for inclusion in the curriculum, the letter says, "This reference relies in part on a 1989 paper by Paul Gibson which incorrectly refers to suicide rates of homosexuals versus homosexuals. Gibson's paper was later refuted by the Surgeon General in 1999."

Now, it does not appear that Gibson's paper is available online (it was part of a report on youth suicide published the US Department of Health and Human Services), but the letter includes a footnote that quotes the Surgeon General's comments: "It has been widely reported that gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youth and that 30 percent of all attempted or completed youth suicides are related to issues of sexual identity. There are no empirical data on completed suicides to support such assertions, but there is growing concern about an association between suicide risk and bisexuality or homosexuality for youth, especially males." (The Surgeon General's comments can be found HERE.)

This same point is reiterated at least five times in this letter, so let me emphasize, the Surgeon General did not deny that homosexuals' suicide rate was higher than that of heterosexuals. He did not refute Gibson's paper or say it was incorrect. In fact, he never mentioned it. Gibson's 1989 research was based on the best evidence of its time, and the Surgeon General's message is that there is growing concern about the topic -- not that it doesn't exist -- and that there needs to be more research to find out the true extent of the problem. The issue is that it is very difficult to get good empirical data on homosexual behavior, not that Gibson's paper was incorrect. The statement that Gibson's research was refuted by the Surgeon General, as this letter asserts many times (and as the recall group still does on their web site), is a falsehood.

Repeatedly in this letter, the minority group refers to Gibson's paper having been "refuted by the Surgeon General," "incorrect information with respect to the suicide issue," etc. This is a very thin string to hang an important argument on. Granted, there is not, to my knowledge, extremely sound scientific evidence for the actual suicide rate for young gays compared to other young people, but the phenomenon is a widely accepted, and is supported by data as good as can be found, with no evidence that it is false.

[Added 2/05] We note that the same game is being played by the Bush administration. A conference on suicide later this month in Portland had scheduled a talk titled "Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals." Officials of the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an important funding agency for mental health reseachers, suggested that the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender be removed from the title of the talk. Asked how strong a suggestion, [SAMHSA spokesman] Weber replied: "Well, they do need to consider their funding source." Federal agency balks at word 'gay'. Conservative elements consider it important not to report a link between sexual orientation and identity and suicide.

Another point emphasized by the letter is that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to engage in pedophilia. But the question is not so simple, and the research does not support this conclusion. One researcher, named Paul Cameron, has published some studies showing that homosexuals are more likely that heterosexuals to engage in pedophilic acts. His research has been highly contested, for instance in this site at the University of California, Davis, Psychology Department: Facts About Homosexuality and Child Molestation (Note: PDF file). Pedophilia is a complex subject in itself, and it seems that most of the research evidence suggests that most same-sex child molestations are performed by adults who would not be regarded as "homosexuals."

According to Department of Justice statistics, Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics,

Nearly all of the offenders in sexual assaults reported to law enforcement were male (96%). Female offenders were most common in assaults against victims under age 6. For these youngest victims, 12% of offenders were females, compared with 6% for victims ages 6 through 12, and 3% for victims ages 12 through 17. Overall, 6% of the offenders who sexually assaulted juveniles were female, compared with just 1% of the female offenders who sexually assaulted adults.

Females were more than six times as likely as males to be the victims of sexual assaults known to law enforcement agencies. More specifically, 86% of all victims of sexual assault were female. The relative proportion of female victims generally increased with age. Sixty-nine percent of victims under age 6 were female, compared with 73% of victims under age 12, and 82% of all juvenile (under age 18) victims. The female proportion of sexual assault victims reached 90% at age 13 and 95% at age 19 (figure 3).

The report notes that 39-40 percent of victims under twelve years old were assaulted by offenders who were also juveniles. Thus somewhat more than half of attacks on young children are perpetrated by adults. Means are not given for teenage victims, but from the graph it appears that the modal age of the offender for victims 12-17 is about 16 years old.

The Committee minority's letter makes the comment "Note, however, that it is omitted that a disproportionate number of pedophiles are homosexual considering their small percentage in the population," with a footnote to The American Psychiatric Association Fact Sheet on Pedophilia. The reader would then trust that that "fact sheet" did in fact note the disproportion. But the fact sheet does not mention homosexuals at all -- it is simply a layman's guide to the DSM diagnosis of "pedophilia." The authors obviously did not expect any reader to look this up.

This is a hot topic, with a lot of literature being generated by "family values" religious groups, which makes the subject very hard to research. The assertion that homosexuals are more likely to molest children is, to put it generously, not a well-accepted scientific finding.

Hate Crimes
The letter criticizes one article by saying, "The resource also relies on a 1987 U.S. Dept. of Justice study that stated, "gays and lesbians are the most frequent victims of hate crimes in the United States. This information is outdated and no longer correct according to the 2002 Hate Crime Statistics."

The 2002 Hate Crime Statistics can be found HERE (Note: big, slow-loading PDF file). According to that document, nearly half of reported "hate crimes" (4,393) were racially motivated; 1,576 were motivated by religious reasons against various groups; and 1,464 were against homosexuals.

I find one 1987 Justice Department study quoted as saying:
The most frequent victims of hate violence today are blacks, Hispanics, Southeast Asians, Jews, and gays and lesbians. Homosexuals are probably the most frequent victims. Verbal intimidation, assault, and vandalism are the most commonly reported forms of hate violence. hate crime statistics

Unfortunately, the report itself does not seem to be available online, so one cannot find the context of this paragraph. The statement, "Homosexuals are probably the most frequent victims," though, does not sound like an authoritative pronouncement.

Homosexual Advocates ... Not
The letter complains about an article called "Questions and answers about homosexuality," which is, according to the author of the letter, "written by Advocates for Youth, Washington, DC. Advocates for Youth is a non-medical homosexual advocacy group that on its website, advises kids to go to gay bars for information."

Well! That is a shocking development!

If one checks the web site of Advocates for Youth, one finds that -- far from being a "non-medical homosexual advocacy group" -- it is a well-balanced site (from their web site) "dedicated to creating programs and advocating for policies that help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health," that promotes teaching information about contraception as well as sexual abstinence. The organization has been in existence since 1980, and a focus of its work is in developing countries around the world. The letter's comment that it "advises kids to go to gay bars for information" must be a reference to this, from the section entitled I Think I Might Be Lesbian, Now What Do I Do? Part of the answer to the question, "How Can I Find Other Women Like Me?" was: Look for a local gay and lesbian newspaper. Check with local bookstores, health food stores, and gay bars for copies.

That seems a far cry from what is implied by this letter. Put fairly, the advice is to "find a gay newspaper," not "go to gay bars for information." This sort of rhetorical device is successful only as far as readers fail to follow up. I admit I have spent too much time on this, but it is fascinating to see how those who seek to polarize a discussion will distort the facts to do so. This site is not a "homosexual advocacy site," and the advice it gives is sadly misrepresented by the authors of this letter.

Biological Differences
The letter challenges a resource that stated that "Biological differences between male hetereosexuals and gay men have been found to exist in certain areas of the brain." The authors continue, in parentheses, "Dr. Simon LeVay, whose work was incorrectly the basis for the 'Gay-gene theory' stated, 'It's important to stress what I didn't find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn't show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work. Nor did I locate a gay center in the brain ... Since I looked at adult brains, we don't know if the differences I found were there at birth or if they appeared later.'"

I must note that it is even more important to stress what Dr. LeVay did find, which was that "Biological differences between male hetereosexuals and gay men have been found to exist in certain areas of the brain." Just as the article says. This kind of "hey! look over there!" argument might work well on stupid people. The refutation though does not address the point being argued. You might be interested to read Dr. LeVay's discussion of The Biology of Sexual Orientation online. Yes, there are biological differences.

Incidence: Bad Math
Throughout this letter, the authors argue that the incidence of homosexuality is only three percent, compared to higher numbers that are sometimes given. Of course the actual incidence is not known, for two good reasons: first, homosexual behavior is a sensitive topic, and is bound to be underreported in surveys, and secondly, it is not clear where one draws the line between "being gay" and engaging in occasional homosexual acts, or in having homosexual fantasies that are not acted upon. Measurement and definition, two problems here.

The authors of this letter challenge the statement in one accepted resource, that "one out of four families has a lesbian, gay, or bisexual in the immediate family." In parentheses they state, "however less than 3% of the population is gay." I say, do the math. If a typical family has two parents and two children, which is pretty close to the US average, and one in four families has a gay -- or bisexual, that should double the chances -- member, then we would expect one in sixteen Americans to be gay or bisexual. That's about six percent, not far from estimates that the letter writers would accept, especially given the "or bisexual" component. It is a shame that these people are advising the school board -- at least it's not the Math Committee!

Hate Crimes
And again, they argue against an article that says "Hate crimes are prevalent [among gays and lesbians]." The authors say, "This statement is refuted in 2002 FBI Fact Sheet for Hate Crime Statistics." As we have already noted, above, that document reports 1,464 hate crimes against homosexuals. Most people would say that counts as "prevalent." (For instance, "only" 1,064 hate crimes against Jews were reported. But I doubt the Committee members would argue that hate crimes against Jews are not prevalent.) Again, they assume no one will go to the sources of information.

Change in HIV Rates
Complaining about another resource, they wrote this: "This is listed as a fact: 'Infection with HIV, the virus that causes Aids, is increasing more rapidly among heterosexuals than among homosexuals.' Many resources from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control refute this statement."

No, they're wrong. "Many resources from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control" support the statement. I admit I didn't read every single document at CDC's vast web site, but I looked at a lot of them, and they all say the same thing. Look at the graph. It shows very clearly that AIDS is increasing for heterosexuals and declining markedly among homosexuals ("MSM" is "men having sex with men" in the graph). Just what the resource says.

Why lie about it?

Changing from Straight to Gay and Vice Versa
In criticizing another resource that was accepted by the majority of the Committee, the minority letter states: "A number of unsupported and inaccurate statements and critical ommissions are found which reflect the doctrinal bias of the Committee. For example, under 'Myths': Myth #2 states: 'If you are 'straight,' you can become homosexual. As a 'fact' it is stated: 'Most experts in the field have concluded that sexual orientation is not a choice.'"

But the truth is, most experts in the field have concluded that sexual orientation is not a choice. The statement is perfectly true. Experts in the field are in widespread agreement, just as biologists are in agreement that species evolve according to Darwinian principles. Religious devotees outside the field may not understand the research findings, and to tell the truth, not everything is known yet, but most researchers in the field agree it's not a choice.

One study, mentioned in the letter, is widely cited by conservatives as showing that homosexuals can successfully change their orientation. The paper, by psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, was based on interviews with a special sample of individuals who had claimed that they did change their sexual orientation. The anti-gay movement latched onto this study as "proof" that homosexuality is a choice. Later that same year, when Finnish lawmakers began considering a law that would grant gay couples the same privileges as straight married couples, Spitzer's research was cited by those opposed to the proposal. Spitzer himself wrote to the Finnish legislature, noting that (quoted from Psychiatric News, December 21, 2001):
he was "disturbed" that his study results were being "misused by those who are against antidiscrimination laws and civil unions for gays and lesbians."

Spitzer explained that while his study results run counter "to the current view of most mental health professionals," who maintain that homosexuals cannot change their sexual orientation, his report was "based on a very unique sample." Such results "are probably quite rare, even for highly motivated homosexuals," he said.

He added in his letter to the parliament member that "it would be a serious mistake to conclude" from his research that homosexuality is a "choice." Finland's Parliament Assesses U.S. Reparative-Therapy Study

I don't think there has ever been any other study claiming to show that gays "choose" their lifestyle.

In Conclusion
It appears that a small subset of individuals, including former members of the citizens advisory committee, has an oddball set of beliefs which they would want to propagate to our children through the public schools. They seem to believe that homosexuality is inherently bad, that people who find themselves confused about their sexual orientation should do everything they can to be heterosexual, that homosexuality is a kind of ideology that can be spread through teachings. This group wrote a poorly-crafted letter; they did not make their point well, and the critical reader can easily discover that their arguments are built on a foundation of deceits.

It appears to me that the alternative proposed by the committee minority -- falsehood, innuendo, distortions, intolerance -- is no better, in any way, than the well-rounded resources that the Committee has recommended. It is an appalling move for these Committee minority members to try to force their own life-choices on other members of the community.


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