Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in the history of the Texas and one of the most successful state leaders in recent American history, fell into a nasty trap concerning the nature of gay identity.
After an effective speech on economics in San Francisco (where else?), a questioner asked him to defend the new Texas Republican platform that promised to respect the right of therapists to provide counseling to patients who sought to overcome their homosexual inclinations. When Perry candidly acknowledged that he didn’t know whether or not such therapy worked, his interlocutor asked if he considered homosexuality a disorder. In response the governor reportedly commented that “whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability not to do that.” He then added, “I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.”
The press disparagingly summarized his comments with headlines saying “Rick Perry Compares Homosexuality to Alcoholism” and thereby damaged his long-shot presidential prospects, while notably ignoring his smart, substantive speech on job creation and the business climate.
The governor’s unfortunate experience demonstrates the special care that conservatives – particularly religious conservatives – must take when addressing all issues of gay rights and gay identity. Above all, it’s foolhardy and unnecessary to be pushed into a simple yes-or-no answer on the irrelevant question of whether or not homosexuality constitutes a lifestyle choice.
When confronted with this challenge, it’s important to acknowledge that for some people there appears to be no choice at all: for whatever reason, they seem hard-wired from an early age for same-sex attraction. Most Americans know someone among their friends, family-members, school-mates or passing acquaintances, who insists he has no more choice over his gay orientation than he does right-or-left-handedness. Aside from ongoing scientific debate over the origins of homosexual identity, it’s a terrible political strategy to dismiss such claims as dishonest and deluded. Social conservatives concede no important ground by agreeing that some people have no choice over gay orientation, just as most people have no choice over our powerful opposite-sex attractions.
On the other hand, it’s obvious that many other individuals do exercise some element of choice in selecting the gender of their sexual partners. All contemporary surveys of sexual identity in America show that bisexuals who report intimate experience with both male and female partners easily outnumber those who describe themselves as exclusively gay or exclusively lesbian. While gay rights advocates argue that bisexuals are innately, inevitably drawn to both males and females they clearly exert some level of control on how they act upon these contradictory instincts.
Should a bisexual who wants to curb his attraction to same-sex partners and concentrate exclusively on heterosexual relationships be allowed to seek therapy for that purpose? Or, if another bisexual wants to stifle any instinct toward opposite sex coupling and focus entirely on same sex options, should a therapist be permitted to help achieve that goal?
Most people would rightly object to governmental intrusion into such therapeutic relationships and they should similarly protest ongoing liberal efforts to criminalize “reparative therapy” for those adults who voluntarily seek such help from properly licensed professionals. The problem with the Texas GOP platform that Governor Perry haltingly attempted to defend is that it actually seemed to go beyond tolerance toward such therapy and to endorse its effectiveness. “We recognize the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle,” the platform foolishly and unnecessarily declared. It then added, far less controversially: “No laws or executive orders shall be imposed to limit or restrict access to this type of therapy.”
Rather than promoting such treatment, despite its checkered record of success, conservatives should insist that government maintain scrupulous neutrality toward controversial medical approaches – neither preventing nor promoting them. It’s not for bureaucrats to decide which course of therapy or counseling a patient should voluntarily and privately pursue.
At the same time, it’s appropriate to challenge any liberal interlocutors to apply the same approach to the similarly controversial treatment known as “sex change” surgery for those tormented by their male or female identity. In a recent column in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Paul McHugh, former chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital, flatly declared: “’Sex change’ is biologically impossible…And so at Hopkins we stopped doing sex-reassignment surgery, since producing a ‘satisfied’ but still troubled patient seemed an inadequate reason for surgically amputating normal organs.” He also cited a major 30-year study at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute showing that “beginning about 10 years after having the surgery, the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties. Most shockingly, their suicide mortality rose almost 20-fold above the comparable non transgender population.”
In other words, far from indicating a reliably beneficial outcome, the expensive and radical sex-change surgery remains every bit as dubious as the controversial reparative therapy that tries to minimize homosexual inclinations. Yet liberals seek tax support for one dubious (and irreversible) medical procedure while they want to block altogether another far less costly, far less painful course of psychological therapy.
Rather than raising such contradictions in politically correct thinking, Governor Perry stumbled into an invocation of alcoholism, and thereby needlessly insulted all those who have come to terms with their own homosexuality, as well as their friends and supporters. Obviously, giving in to an inclination to alcoholism will almost always do serious damage to your prospects for a happy and productive life, but many of those who act upon an instinct toward same-sex attraction manage to build loving, lasting relationships and careers of distinction and service.
This column originally appeared at TruthRevolt.org on June 16, 2014.