Thursday, August 25, 2005

Conversion Disorder

What can one say about The Volokh Conspiracy? On the one hand, their contributors are intelligent, intellectually honest, and generally civil. This is no mean feat given that the right-leaning end of the blogosphere is currently being overrun by dishonest idiots who also happen to be complete jackasses.

On the other hand, they have flaws -- the most serious of which is that they have a tendency to argue from an ivory tower (much like that stereotypical Manhattan liberal I keep hearing about). I first took serious notice of this back during the debate over bankruptcy reform, when Todd Zywicki casually questioned whether or not death should count as a serious medical problem. It's a classic case of being unable to see the forest for the trees -- the argument is solid as far as it goes, but the larger context renders it nonsensical. That's a problem.

Well, they're at it again and this time it's Eugene.
Gays and Lesbians Trying to Convert Others to Homosexual Behavior: I've seen lots of assertions that it's a "myth" that gays and lesbians try to recruit others into homosexuality…Yet it seems to me that this assertion of "myth" is likely itself something of a myth, or at least quite incomplete.
Now we all know what he's talking about here. It's a fairly stock piece of conservative Christian propaganda that there exists a homosexual cabal, ensconced in Hollywood and in our colleges and universities, that is actively attempting to lure otherwise God-fearing heterosexuals into the exciting, yet sinful, world of man-on-man/woman-on-one fluid exchange. I've always found this to be a rather amusing argument because of what it implies about those making it. I don't believe it because I know I'm not vulnerable to persuasion in this arena. To be blunt: I don't like dick -- and no amount of fancy talk is going to convince me otherwise. The fact that some people believe in conversion theory implies that they sense a certain -- shall we say -- personal malleability on this issue within themselves. How else could they be so certain that conversion risks exist?

However, that's not where Eugene is going.
The gay rights movement has aimed — in my view, on balance quite laudably — to make homosexuals feel more comfortable with their homosexuality, and to help people who are attracted to the same sex be more willing to act on that attraction. But it follows that the movement also necessarily, and I suspect intentionally, also helps people who are attracted to both sexes be more willing to explore the homosexual facet of that attraction. It thus increases the likelihood that the bisexually-attracted people who would otherwise engage in purely heterosexual relationships (because of fear of social stigma, or because of their own disapproval of their homosexual attraction) will instead be also willing to engage in some homosexual relationships.

If I'm right, the movement thus is trying to convert those who have a bisexual orientation but act purely heterosexually — or would act purely heterosexually, if we're talking about people who haven't started having sex yet — into also experimenting with homosexuality. This doesn't mean that most gays and lesbians are trying to do this to particular people up close and personal; there are obvious costs to that, such as the risk of rebuff if you get the other person's interest wrong, or the risk of quick abandonment if the other person is interested in experimenting but then concludes the experiment has been a failure from his or her point of view, so many gays and lesbians might well prefer partners who have a more definite homosexual preference. But there are many actions that might go into this sort of "conversion" (if only a conversion into a mix of homosexual/heterosexual behavior, and a conversion that in many cases will end up proving to be only temporary): Providing oneself for the actual sexual behavior is one, but so is public action to destigmatize homosexual behavior, or to provide positive homosexual or bisexual role models, something that for perfectly understandable reasons many gays and lesbians are indeed trying to do.
In other words, by creating an environment where the stigma against homosexuality is less severe, homosexual activists are "converting" non-practicing homosexuals and hetero-only bisexuals into practicing versions of same.

Now, I don't know about you, but that's not exactly what I would call conversion. In my mind (and in the mind of the conversion theorists), conversion means straights being drawn to the dark side and exploding as flaming queers, not the release of latent/closet tendencies that have been bubbling beneath the surface the whole time. When people talk about the "myth" of recruitment, they're talking about the former phenomenon, not the latter.

So -- it seems like the "myth" is a myth after all, and Eugene's argument is no more than a strawman. Sure, it might be interesting to examine how the softening of social stigma leads to an increased expression of homosexual behavior. And it might be technically accurate (as Eugene argues later in his post) to refer to it as conversion. But using that terminology in a public sphere, knowing the connotations it has in that context, is -- well -- clueless.

Fortunately, Orin Kerr pushed back on Eugene fairly hard (you can follow the entire discussion here), thus saving The Conspiracy's position on the blog roll for another day. But, I'm warning you guys. You do this 12 or 13 more times and you're cut.

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