How We Ask about Gender and Sexuality Matters More Than You Think

Cross-posted at Social (In)Queery

When nationally representative surveys first started appearing that addressed issues of gender and sexual identities and practices, most people had the same question.  It was some derivation of, “How many gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans*/etc. people are there?”  And, from a sociological perspective, it’s a question often associated with a fundamental misunderstanding of how complicated a question like that actually is.

0226470202In 1994, Edward Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels published an incredible book on one of the first nationally representative surveys of the American population concerning issues of sexuality, sexual behavior, and sexual orientation–The Social Organization of Sexuality.  In their chapter, “Homosexuality,” they begin a brief section of the book on the “dimensions of sexuality” that encompasses some of my favorite findings out of the study.  In it, they write,

To quantify or count something requires unambiguous definition of the phenomenon in question.  And we lack this in speaking of homosexuality.  When people ask how many gays there are, they assume that everyone knows exactly what is meant. (here: 290)

Measuring the size of the LGBT population is difficult for more than a few reasons.  I spend a week on the considerations of measuring sexuality in my Sociology of Sexualities course.  During that week, we deal primarily with discussing the size of the LGBT population in the U.S., how this is measured, and both how and why measurements are likely skewed.  Ritch Savin-Williams has a wonderful short analysis of how challenging it is to estimate the size of the LGB population (here) and Gary Gates’ estimates of the LGBT population are some of the most widely accepted.

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Exodus International: Are Chambers’ Anti-Gay Politics Changing?

Exodus International is one of the most powerful forces in the ex-gay movement–a movement aimed at “healing” homosexuals through Christian doctrine, prayer, and “therapy.”*  Similar to the ways that certain groups of Christians promoted teaching “intelligent design” in schools alongside the theory of evolution, parts of the Christian Right have used the claim that homosexuality is not innate to contest legal protections for lesbians and gay men.  The ex-gay movement goes a step further, however, and argues that if homosexuality is not innate then what’s stopping people from ridding themselves of “it.”  Through prayer, ex-gay camps, and therapies designed to “help” gay men and lesbian women (through “sexual reorientation”) lead “normal,” “healthy,” heterosexual  lives, Exodus International–and the many movements with similar tactics and tenets–is a group that has long sought the “cure” to homosexuality through “reparative therapy.”  This is significant, as Robinson and Spivey (2007) note, as “Today, nearly every major Christian Right organization uses the existence of ex-gays to argue that homosexuals can change.  This notion is fundamental to their argument that unlike legal protections based on immutable traits such as race or sex, those based on sexual orientation are unnecessary” (here: 651).

The president of Exodus International, Alan Chambers, recently publicly challenged some of Exodus’ core practices, including questioning whether “sexual orientation change” is truly helpful or even possible (see here for the NYT summary of the alleged “rift in the movement”).  Chambers has been spokesperson for the group as well as president and stated that despite leaving a gay life to marry a woman and have children, he still struggles to “avoid sin,” but also believes that he—and others like him—should not be made afraid to admit this.  In earlier interviews, Chambers had been increasingly hesitant to make a claim surrounding the success of conversion therapies.  Part of this has led Chambers to reject the previous Exodus slogan, “Change is Possible!” (see here for a long panel discussion addressing this among other issues).**

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