Human sexuality is complicated. That’s a key conclusion from a study of the sexual behavior of a half-million Britons and Americans published late last month. The study, the largest of its kind so far, analyzed the genetics of same-sex sexual behavior and the role genes play in a person’s sexuality. While political activists and commentators will apply their own interpretations, the study’s findings were straightforward, clear enough that a dozen mainstream news sources reported, “There is no ‘gay gene.’”
After 51 researchers in six countries studied the genomes of a half-million people, they found that genes play an identifiable role in same-sex sexuality for no more than about one third of the people studied. Even for this subset, the identified causal relationship was very small. Altogether, the study reported, the genetic correlations they identified are so weak that they “do not allow meaningful prediction of an individual’s sexual preference.”
Instead, according to the researchers themselves, “non-genetic factors — such as environment, upbringing, personality, nurture — are far more significant in influencing a person’s choice of sexual partner, just as with most other personality, behavioral and physical human traits.”
These conclusions don’t surprise me. As a licensed psychotherapist with over 50 years of experience, my conversations with patients match the complexity and ambiguity revealed by this study. And just as with other personality or behavioral traits, men and women who feel trapped by sexual desires that don’t match the lives they want to lead sometimes turn to psychotherapists for help. Help to understand — and perhaps overcome — the influences that have shaped their sexuality, so that they can live the lives they choose.
Like any good therapist, I learn about my patient’s family history, relationships and deeply held values. I’m prepared to help my patients better understand themselves, to grow, to change. In fact, patients often schedule an appointment with me precisely because they desperately want change: freedom from addiction, relief from anxiety or depression, or help during a difficult season of marriage.
Some choose to visit me, as a fellow Orthodox Jew, specifically because they want to reduce same-sex attraction, to marry someone of the opposite sex, and live a life that’s aligned with their faith.
Many of my patients face challenges that likely have some genetic basis. Borderline personality disorder; depression; addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex or gambling; and a whole host of other mental health diagnostic categories could possibly, but not necessarily, have some genetic predisposition.
In all those situations, no one has ever told me I should avoid helping people make changes that they want in their lives — simply because there could be an inherited, genetic component to their distress.
The only exception, it seems, is if I try to help an adult patient move away from unwanted same-sex attraction, or achieve more comfort in his or her biological sex.
Then and only then, the city of New York has insisted on censoring me. In 2018, the City Council adopted a law making it illegal for any anyone to provide psychotherapy services that “seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or seek to change a person’s gender identity to conform to the sex of such individual that was recorded at birth.”
While the city said it was trying to ban “conversion therapy,” that’s not the kind of therapy I practice. Nonetheless, the private discussions I have with my patients are swept up in the city’s censorship.
I serve my patients as a classic psychotherapist. I listen; I talk. My patients and I have conversations, and they are always free to disagree and walk away. Still, city government interferes, threatening to fine me thousands of dollars if I simply speak with adult patients and help them to pursue the therapy goals they have chosen.
That’s why I filed a lawsuit against the city of New York — a lawsuit that prompted the City Council to introduce a bill on Sept. 12 that would repeal that censorship. I hope it comes up for a vote and passes soon, because politicians have no right to censor my conversations with patients. They have no right to intimidate my friends and colleagues into silence or force them to offer professional advice that only affirms same-sex behavior and identity. And politicians have no right to interfere with the therapy goals my patients have asked me to help them achieve.
My faith tells me people can change; my professional experience tells me people sometimes do change. I never guarantee therapy outcomes or force my patients into anything, but I’ve met with desperate and motivated people seeking to change their feelings and attractions, and have seen them, years later, surrounded by the families they desired.
Sexuality is complicated. Human nature is complicated. Because of this complexity, my patients deserve the option of therapy that isn’t censored by the government or disrupted by politics. My patients deserve better — and so do all New Yorkers.
Schwartz, PsyD, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist in Brooklyn.