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Why are some people gay? Part 1

University of Utah psychologist Lisa Diamond

By Kim Schuske

Salt Lake City, UT – People are shaped by a mix of biology, environment, and culture, so it shouldn't be surprising that sexual orientation is just as complex and messy as any other human behavior. University of Utah research psychologist Lisa Diamond says there is no easy way to answer the question of how many people are known to be gay.

"The reason that's a hard question to answer is that it depends on your definition of gay," says Diamond. "Typically the dimensions that are studied are same sex attraction, same sex behavior, same sex identification. Some folks also pay attention to same sex fantasy."

Diamond says adding to the confusion is a fairly large group of people, especially women, who are attracted to both sexes.

"We now know from studies in the United States and many other countries that the number of individuals who fall into that bisexual range, is far greater," says Diamond. "Which is why I think you find such discrepancies between behavior and attraction and identity. Because if your attractions fall in that bisexual range you sort of have a lot more options in terms of how your going to think about yourself and what your going to do with your life."

The bottom line is there's no single definition of gay. But Diamond says the public tends to focus on people that identify as being gay which is around 3-percent. She says most scientists focus on people with same sex behaviors or attractions. That's around 10-percent of men and up to 11-percent of women.

Michael Westley believes his orientation is a biological trait. "I know for me, this is a part of who I am, this is a part of my makeup that I never had any control over," he says.

Westley grew up as an only child in a Catholic family in Sandy Utah. He's sitting in a small meeting room across from the Utah Pride Center where he works. While growing up, he knew he was attracted to other boys, but at the time it wasn't clear how that would impact his life.

"I was very adamant that I would be able to choose very clearly what all my happiness meant. And that meant for me a wife and children and a home and a career," says Westley.

He was eighteen years old lying on the couch with his girlfriend one day, when he finally admitted to himself that he was gay.

"I was there with this beautiful woman who had very strong affection for me," says Westley. "And after having dated her on and off for three years I began to realize that nagging feeling that was in the back of me, I finally put a name to it that night and it was loneliness. And in that moment as we laid there watching Moonstruck on the couch together I realized I was not going to live a life where loneliness was going to be the chief feeling."

Westley says at the time, homosexuals in the media were gay men with shaved heads, wearing short shorts marching in San Francisco. He says getting past the stereotypes and being with men has made life rich and fulfilling. According to psychologist Walter Schumm from Kansas State University, culture can influence the number of people who identify as being gay. He authored a study that compared supportive and unsupportive societies.

"It was clear that the societies that were more supportive of homosexuality have higher rates of it being expressed," says Schumm.

Lee Beckstead, a private practice psychologist in Salt Lake City says an unsupportive culture can be a powerful force. He sees many people where behavior and orientation don't align.

"You can hold that sense of abstinence, or that sense of distraction for a while, but then the reality starts showing up that you really don't have that great desire to be with your opposite sex spouse," says Beckstead.

According to psychologist Lisa Diamond, behavior and attraction are two different things that always overlap.

"Anyone can change their behavior, and anyone can change their identity, there is no reliable evidence for long term change of the attractions, and especially removal of same sex attractions," says Diamond.

The American Psychological Association and other groups maintain people do not choose their same or opposite sex attractions. But where does attraction come from? Can a persons' environment play a role? One idea that has been around for decades, suggests that how parents treat their children can influence a child's sexual attractions and orientation when they grow up. Psychologist Walter Schumm sees no convincing evidence this is true.

"In terms of parental effects, I think the consensus typically is that there's nothing there," says Schumm.

Psychologist Lisa Diamond goes even further.

"You often hear things about distant fathers and controlling mothers and all these things. The scientific research that has been conducted looking at whether that matters, has conclusively found that it doesn't," explains Diamond. "You will not find any reputable scientist studying this question who thinks that parents can make their kids gay by how they treat them."

Other environmental factors are less well studied says Schumm. For examples, children who are sexually abused, more frequently grow up to identify as gay or have same sex partners. But that correlation does not mean sexual abuse causes homosexual attractions, he says.

"One thing people have a hard time understanding is that life is complicated and social scientists have to wade in and try to sort out dozens and maybe hundreds of factors that are involved in any type of outcome," says Schumm. "So therefore you're really trying to find a light post in the fog."

Private practice psychologist Lee Beckstead thinks trying to distill sexual orientation down to a cause can be misguided. Especially when it is used by people on either side to push a political, religious, or social agenda. Instead he says individuals should be given the autonomy to figure their orientation out for themselves. Copyright 2010, kuer

For questions or comments, contact reporter Kim Schuske at:

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