Tag Archives: sexual orientation

Couple fact patterns about sexuality and attitudes

Working on the second edition of my book, The Family, involves updating facts as well as rethinking their presentation, and the choice of what to include. The only way I can do that is by making figures to look at myself. Here are some things I’ve worked up recently; they might not end up in the book, but I think they’re useful anyway.

1. Attitudes on sexuality and related family matters continue to grow more accepting or tolerant, but acceptance of homosexuality is growing faster than the others – at least those measured in the repeated Gallup surveys:

gallupmoral

2. Not surprisingly, there is wide divergence in the acceptance of homosexuality across religious groups. This uses the Pew Religious Landscape Study, which includes breakouts for atheists, agnostics, and two kinds of “nones,” or unaffiliated people — those for whom religion is important and those for whom it’s not:

relhomoaccept

3. Updated same-sex behavior and attraction figures from the National Survey of Family Growth. For some reason the NSFG reports don’t include the rates of same-sex partner behavior in the previous 12 months for women anymore, so I analyzed the data myself, and found a much lower rate of last-year behavior among women than they reported before (which, when I think about it, was unreasonably high – almost as high as the ever-had-same-sex-partner rates for women). Anyway, here it is:

nsfgsamesexupdate

FYI, people who follow me on Twitter get some of this stuff quicker; people who follow on Instagram get it later or not at all.

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Transgender discrimination is sex discrimination

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The people defending segregated bathrooms have weird ideas about privacy.

The Obama Education department says schools can’t discriminate against transgender students if they want federal funding, under Title IX of the Education Amendments. This relies on an interpretation of the law, which did not include gender identity in 1972. The law permits sex segregated bathrooms, athletics, and classes that teach body stuff, but by this interpretation they have to permit transgender students to use the facilities consistent with their gender identity. I’m not a legal expert, so this is just a semi-informed thought.

Some conservatives believe Obama is wrong because the new rule tries to make sex socially constructed, which it isn’t. On Fox News Sunday, George Will said:

The ’64 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination on the basis of sex. The administration is saying sex is a synonym for gender identity. Not true. The “party of science” ought to know that sex is a matter of chromosomes. And the — those advocating for transgender rights have been saying for years that indeed it is a matter of sexual gender identity that is not the same as sex. So what is sinister here is the — is the president saying the language of the law simply doesn’t mean what it says.

(This is one of the reasons I don’t defend the sex-versus-gender distinction anymore).

The defense of sex segregation rules that exclude transgender people is based on notions of privacy that are counterintuitive (to me), whereby being seen naked by someone of the same sex is not a privacy violation but being seen naked by someone of another sex is. This has been litigated a lot with respect to prisons, where female prisoners have been successful in using privacy claims in some cases to get same-sex guards assigned to do strip searches and shower supervision. Although I support female prisoners’ attempts to reduce abuse by having female guards, the process we’re going through is part of a progressive weakening of sex segregation, which is mostly good. In fact, I think it would be a shame if we ended up shoehorning transgender rights into this binary-privacy construction, defending the right of transgender people to be seen naked only by the proper binary-category of people.

I don’t think transgender rights require creating new categories of protection, or changing the definition of sex and gender (although there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily). I think transgender discrimination is sex discrimination because it denies people the privileges one sex enjoys on the basis of their sex. I particularly like the logic of Judge Vaughn Walker’s Proposition 8 decision in California, in which he explained how sex discrimination creates sexual orientation discrimination, in that case by denying lesbians homogamous marriage rights:

Sexual orientation discrimination can take the form of sex discrimination. Here, for example, Perry is prohibited from marrying Stier, a woman, because Perry is a woman. If Perry were a man, Proposition 8 would not prohibit the marriage. Thus, Proposition 8 operates to restrict Perry’s choice of marital partner because of her sex. … Having considered the evidence, the relationship between sex and sexual orientation and the fact that Proposition 8 eliminates a right only a gay man or a lesbian would exercise, the court determines that plaintiffs’ equal protection claim is based on sexual orientation, but this claim is equivalent to a claim of discrimination based on sex.

I think you can apply the same logic to transgender rights with respect to bathrooms, etc. Laws insisting on sex-matched bathroom use have the effect of forcing only transgender people to use bathrooms with people of the other gender. If you’re going to have sex segregated bathrooms, it’s an equal protection problem if transgender people disproportionately suffer the negative consequence of that. But underlying that, it’s a problem of sex discrimination: because of her sex, a trans woman can’t use the facility that she is most comfortable with.

Under the new education guideline, schools can provide everyone with an individual-user options (but not force only transgender people to use them), or they don’t have to have sex-segregated bathrooms at all (although they would presumably have to provide individual-user facilities as an option).

If people are deeply committed to the gender binary, the last bastions of which are sex-segregated bathrooms and athletics, then I think they are right to be freaking out. As much as transgender rights activists often reinforce the gender binary by asserting a right to cross it without challenging it, the very debate we’re having undermines the concept. Eventually, someone could argue successfully that sex segregated bathrooms are sex discrimination for everyone, which they obviously are – and the justification for that is weakening.

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LGBT teens made homeless

From the Williams Institute at UCLA, a report for the No Family For You file: “Serving Our Youth: Findings from a National Survey of Services Providers Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth Who Are Homeless or At Risk of Becoming Homeless.”

The report is cautious in its write-up, which is appropriate, because a survey of service providers only gets you a view through one window into the problem of homeless youth who are LGBT. But in terms of orders of magnitude, I think it’s fair to conclude that LGBT youth make up a very disproportionate share of homeless youth, and that rejection by their families is the leading precursor to their homelessness.

Here is the relevant figure, based on the responses of service providers:

It’s a good reminder that families are only a source of care and support for those who are cared for and supported by their families.

As this report hit the wires last week, ThinkProgress generated one of those graphic Facebook memes, which looked like this:

I wouldn’t use this survey of agencies – representing an unknown proportion of all agencies serving an unknown proportion of all homeless people – to try to nail down a number like “40% of homeless youth are LGBT.” (One question: what about homeless youth who are with their homeless families?) Anyway, let’s just agree it’s a serious problem and they are probably very over-represented in the homeless population.

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Gaydar study calibration

The other day the New York Times had a Gray Matter science piece by the authors of a study in PLoS One that showed some people could identify gays and lesbians based only on quick flashes of their unadorned faces. They wrote:

We conducted experiments in which participants viewed facial photographs of men and women and then categorized each face as gay or straight. The photographs were seen very briefly, for 50 milliseconds, which was long enough for participants to know they’d seen a face, but probably not long enough to feel they knew much more. In addition, the photos were mostly devoid of cultural cues: hairstyles were digitally removed, and no faces had makeup, piercings, eyeglasses or tattoos.

Even when viewing such bare faces so briefly, participants demonstrated an ability to identify sexual orientation: overall, gaydar judgments were about 60 percent accurate.

Since chance guessing would yield 50 percent accuracy, 60 percent might not seem impressive. But the effect is statistically significant — several times above the margin of error. Furthermore, the effect has been highly replicable: we ourselves have consistently discovered such effects in more than a dozen experiments.

This may be seen as confirmation of the inborn nature of sexual orientation, if it can be detected by a quick glance at facial features.

Sample images flashed during the “gaydar” experiment.

There is a statistical issue here that I leave to others to consider: the sample of Facebook pictures the researchers used was 48% gay/lesbian (111/233 men, 87/180 women). So if, as they say, it is 64% accurate at detecting lesbians, and 57% accurate at detecting gay men, how useful is gaydar in real life (when about 3.5% of people are gay or lesbian, when people aren’t reduced to just their naked, hairless facial features, and you know a lot of people’s sexual orientations from other sources)? I don’t know, but I’m guessing not much.

Anyway, I have a serious basic reservation about studies like this — like those that look for finger-length, hair-whorl, twin patterns, and other biological signs of sexual orientation. To do it, the researchers have to decide who has what sexual orientation in the first place — and that’s half the puzzle. This is unremarked on in the gaydar study or the op-ed, and appears to cause no angst among the researchers. They got their pictures from Facebook profiles of people who self-identified as gay/lesbian or straight (I don’t know if that was from the “interested in” Facebook option, or something else on their profiles).

Sexual orientation is multidimensional and determined by many different things — some combination of (presumably many) genes, hormonal exposures, lived experiences. And, for some people at least, it changes over the course of their lives. That’s why it’s hard to measure.

Consider, for example, a scenario in which someone who felt gay at a young age married heterogamously anyway — not too uncommon. Would such a person self-identify as gay on Facebook? Probably not. But if someone in that same situation got divorced and then came out of the closet they probably would self-identify as gay then.

Consider another new study, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, which used a large sample of people interviewed 10 years apart. They found changes in sexual orientation were not that rare. Here is my table based on their results:

Overall, 2% of people changed their response to the sexual orientation identity question. That’s not that many — but then only 2.5% reported homosexual or bisexual identities in the first place.

In short, self identification may be the best standard we have for sexual orientation identity (which isn’t the same as sexual behavior), but it’s not a good fit for studies trying to get at deep-down gay/straight-ness, like the gaydar study or the biological studies.

And we need to keep in mind that this is all complicated by social stigma around sexual orientation. So who identifies as what, and to whom, is never free from political or power issues.

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(Gu)Estimating the size of the LGBT population

There is no one answer to the question, “How many people are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender?” But demographer Gary Gates, who works for the Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law, has compiled the results from nine surveys that attempt to measure sexual orientation — five of them from the U.S. He estimates that 3.5% of the U.S. population identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual, while 0.3% are transgender. Here is the breakdown for the different surveys:

He also points out that bisexual identification is generally more common among women than among men. Among women, more than half of the lesbian/bisexual population identifies as bisexual; among men more than half identify as gay.

As is the case with race, we may rely on self-identification when it comes to sexual orientation. But criteria external to individuals’ identities may matter as well. These include the perceptions or actions of others (such as cross-burning or job discrimination), as well as qualities measurable by impersonal means (such as phenotypical traits or genes). In the case of sexual orientation more than race, these externally-measurable qualities include behavior (such as the gender of those one has sex with). The interpretation of these qualities, and their measurement, necessarily are highly contingent on social constructions.

In the case of sexual orientation, the questions are not usually asked, so the answers are not bureaucratically normalized. If the government and other data collectors were to start asking the question regularly, the results would probably settle down, as they have with race. In Michel Foucault’s terms, you might say the population is not disciplined with regard to sexual orientation as well as it is with race. (Of course, the public is unruly when it comes to measuring race as well, especially outside those outside the Black/White dichotomy, as “Asians” and “Hispanics” often offer national-origin identities when asked to describe their race.) Settling down doesn’t mean there would be no more changes, just that variability between surveys would probably decline.

Because of this complexity, it is interesting to compare results when people are asked about their sexual behavior, and their sexual attraction. Here surveys find much higher rates of gayness. As Gates shows, for example, 11% of Americans ages 18-44 report any same-sex sexual attraction, while 8.8% report any same-sex sexual behavior.

Whether demographers, or the public, or anyone else, considers these experiences and feelings to define people as gay/lesbian or bisexual is not resolved. For example, as Gates notes in a much longer law review article that describes the methods behind his report – and the reactions to it – some media simply ignored the self-identified bisexual population, and those with same-sex attraction or behavior, declaring that the gay and lesbian population was less than 2% of Americans. Others concluded that the commonness of bisexuality implies most gays and lesbians in fact have a “choice” about their sexual orientation.

I recommend the law review article for Gates’s in-depth discussion of “the closet” issue with regard to surveys, and the problem of measuring concealed identities — which vary according to social context and sometimes change over the course of people’s lives.

I’m grateful that Gates has pursued these questions, and taken a lot of grief in the process. He concludes:

These are challenging questions with no explicitly correct answers. The good news is that strong evidence suggests that, politically at least, the stakes in this discussion are no longer rooted in an urgent need to prove the very existence of LGBT people. This progress hopefully provides the space to more critically and thoughtfully assess these issues in an environment where a sense of urgency is not paramount. Today, the size of the LGBT community is less important than understanding the daily lives and struggles of this still-stigmatized population and informing crucial policy debates with facts rather than stereotype and anecdote.

As with race, measurement of sexual orientation may be essential to legal and political responses to inequality and discrimination — even as the process helps solidify fixed identity categories we might rather do without.

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Was FDR born that way?

Back when kids were kids.

I can’t wait to see historian Jo B. Paoletti’s forthcoming book Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. Her work is profiled in a new Smithsonian.com article my friend Scott showed me. I used an article of hers to write about historical changes in the social construction of gender for children, which got me into the whole gender-color thing.

The Smithsonian article has this great portrait of Franklin Roosevelt at about age 2, dressed — as children typically were at that time — in a gender-neutral outfit of frilly white dress, patent-leather shoes, feathery hat and long hair:

I recommend the article.

It reminds me of the Born This Way blog, which features pictures of kids that, in the view of their adult selves, express their true nature. The site is “a statement in sociology. As you’ll see – time after time – their sexual orientation was simply NOT a choice.” Here’s one:

The text says:

In 1968, I was “The Flying Nun” for Halloween, as I was obsessed with her TV show. Everyone had a big laugh over the boy in a dress! But being so young, I really didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I kept wearing my magical dress for playtime, all the way through here, in the summer of ’69. I started to sense that I was different from anyone I knew. By the time I was 12, it dawned on me that I was gay.

So, what would a gay 5-year-old in 1884 have done?

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Evolutionary sexuality

I’m reading up on the biology and sociology of sexuality, and am struck by the volume of palpable progress being produced, much of it reasonable for all I know. On the biological determinants of sexual orientation, for example, there seem to be at least two thriving growth areas of research concerning androgen exposure or other chemical shenanigans in the uterus: older brothers and finger length. But that’s another story.

Following the references around led me to wider questions of evolution and sexuality, and the real reason for this post. Evolutionary theory done wrong is a carnival mirror: what is good is adaptive and natural, what’s bad is artificial or maladaptive. In a well-written polemic against sexist sociobiology in 1985, Mina Caulfield quoted from The Evolution of Human Sexuality, by Donald Symons. He theorized – amazingly – that real human female orgasms have no “adaptive significance,” but fake orgasms might:

A male’s concern with female orgasm (perhaps based on the misconception that it plays the same role in her sexual experience that it does in his own) might inadvertently lead him to discover heretofore latent erotic possibilities in himself and hence to modify further his behavior to increase his own sensual pleasures. …. A female might have or pretend to have orgasms to enhance her partner’s self-esteem, to increase his sexual pleasures… to increase her value to him, or to indicate that she cares for him.

Go figure.

Incidentally, the speculation and debate over the role of sexual displays in evolution has been going strong ever since, including topics such as the attractiveness of women’s armpit odors to men at different times in their menstrual cycles (it matters, but the results are only generalizable for women not wearing deodorant and not taking the Pill).

Symons’s logic (there is a lot more) reminds me of the funniest sociology spoof I remember, from The Onion, “Sociologist Considers Own Behavior Indicative Of Larger Trends.” The story summarizes research by sociologist Stephen Piers, whose work over several decades has eerie echoes in his personal life.

Piers’ 1974 paper, Domestic Situationality: The Fortunate Male In American Society, was hailed as a landmark work almost immediately upon publication. Published one month after Piers’ wedding to college sweetheart Angela Beckman, Domestic Situationality reported that American males were “blissfully happy, despite lacking the freedom of single life.” However, in his 2000 paper, U.S. Wives: Lying, Cheating Whores? he found an enormous upswing in infidelity among American middle-aged wives and a parallel rise in the risk of fiery death among single male textile salesmen from Seattle.

The story even includes snippy criticism from a rival sociologist, quoted as saying,

Piers reports that ‘the married American male can no longer stand his wife’s hyena-like laugh … I don’t know if Piers keeps up on the literature, but I reported that trend almost three years ago. By the time Piers released his findings, the American husband’s general attitude toward the laugh had long passed into the stage known as ‘icy acceptance.’

As our grad students must know best, the scientific enterprise relies on the image of progress – new discoveries are necessary for career advancement. Some of this is fed by news media, with the complicity of researchers who are so happy to see their work referenced they’re willing to let some exaggerations slide (believe me). Today’s example is the story “‘Useless stay-at-home men’ a female myth,” from the Guardian – that one’s real.

In addition to its pernicious effects, this institutional bias may serve as a motivation to do good research. It’s probably not as corrupting as the tendency for scientists to see what they want to see in their results, and to make theories to justify their preconceptions.

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