Time To Revisit The Science Of Sexual Orientation

(CBS)
Last March, "60 Minutes" first ran a story about "The Science Of Sexual Orientation." At the time, Brian Montopoli interviewed Shari Finkelstein, the producer of the segment, about some of the criticisms being leveled at the story and some of the difficult issues involved with covering a controversial topic like this. Since the piece re-aired this past Sunday, we have received many of the same complaints and questions as before and thought it appropriate to re-publish that discussion here. (For a follow-up, see here). Now, here's Brian's original post from March:

Because of its religious, political and social significance, the topic seemed destined to invite controversy, and indeed, some blogs have already criticized the piece. (Many others, it should be pointed out, have lauded it.) I spoke to producer Shari Finkelstein about the early criticism, her goals for the piece, and the concerns those involved had in putting it together.

"We felt we couldn't shy away from a hot button issue because people might become upset," said Finkelstein. She said she was concerned about criticism from two groups – the religious right and the gay and lesbian community. Many people in the former group believe sexuality is a choice, and thus would likely not respond well to the contention voiced by scientists in the piece that sexuality is inborn, if not necessarily entirely genetic. She feared some in the gay and lesbian community, meanwhile, might be offended by the portion of the piece that discussed how "the science was showing a lot of stereotypes [about people's voices and movement] could be proved scientifically," though she felt on the whole that gays and lesbians would respond positively to the piece.

The key for Finkelstein – as it was for Scott Pelley in a piece on global warming – was to stick to science. "We decided we would just look into what the science was showing and report on that, and let people react to what was out there however they will," she said. That meant not including in the piece people more associated with the cultural debate, such as those who argue that homosexuality is a choice, a position most scientists reject. "We just did not want to get into that controversy, because it was not about the science," said Finkelstein.

The piece, some pointed out, did not explore one question that it seemed to raise: If sexuality can be affected by hormones, is it possible to alter a child's sexuality in the womb? And if so, what are the social ramifications? (One blogger raised this question here.)

"Frankly, there are so many issues associated with this subject and we had so much trouble fitting even what we did into the piece," Finkelstein said when I asked why the issue had not been addressed. She pointed out that the issue has actually been around for a while, as the search for a "gay gene" raised questions about the potential for altering someone's sexuality long before scientists began looking at hormones.

Another of the early criticisms of the story is that it was "confusing gender non-conformity with homosexuality," as one blogger put it. In the story, a nine year old boy named Adam, who is interested in dolls and paints his nails, is held up as an example of childhood gender nonconformity, unlike his twin brother, who has a G.I. Joe collection. Adam also says he thinks of himself like a girl. Critics said the story erroneously portrayed Adam as likely to turn out gay because of his gender non-conformity. Wrote the blogger quoted above:
Ask any gay man, do you want to be a woman. You will get a definite no. It sounds like Adam is going to end up being a transgender. Transgender, not gay. It's a completely different type of mindset, personality, everything. Apparently 60 Minutes has never heard of this, though I know they have.
"We thought we were very careful not to label his sexuality in any way, because he's nine years old," says Finkelstein. "He doesn't have a sexual orientation. But we did report what is accurate, which is there have been longitudinal studies that have followed boys like him, and the best study in that field said the vast majority of those boys grew up to be gay men." She added it was possible that because being transgender is more accepted today than it used to be, a study that began today might show that more children with gender non-conformity would turn out to be transgender.

Finkelstein was in Puerto Rico when I spoke to her, so she has not had a chance to look at much of the response to her story. She has kindly agreed to make herself available to discuss any criticisms that emerge in the coming days. In the meantime, I spoke to "60 Minutes" spokesman Kevin Tedesco about the response he's seen so far.

"It's been the normal amount of feedback…There wasn't really a blip," he said, adding that the feedback has been across the board, as opposed to a deluge of emails from one side. "Perhaps homosexuality is not as controversial as some people think, and the origin of it is not as controversial as some people think."
  • Vaughn Ververs

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