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. (See, among many other examples, here and here.) Yet it seems to me that this assertion of "myth" is likely itself something of a myth, or at least quite incomplete.

I rather doubt that many gays and lesbians harbor hopes that many heterosexuals will "become homosexual." That just isn't likely to happen, and I doubt that gays or lesbians make plans around it. Moreover, it may well be that you can't really change a person's sexual orientation, in the sense of whom the person is attracted to. (I'm not sure whether that's right, but I'm willing to assume it for purposes of this post.)

But sexual orientation is not the same as sexual behavior. In particular, people who are at least in some measure attracted to both sexes may be seen as having a bisexual sexual orientation, but they may choose to behave heterosexually, homosexually, or bisexually. And in fact, it appears that the majority of men — and nearly all women — who are at least in some measure attracted to the same sex are also at least in some measure attracted to the opposite sex:

Sexual attractionAmong menAmong women
Only opposite gender93.8%95.6%
Mostly opposite gender2.6%2.7%
Both genders0.6%0.8%
Mostly same gender0.7%0.6%
Only same gender2.4%0.3%
(Source: Laumann et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality 311 (1994), which I also noted — with the suitable warnings about the limits of even well-conducted random studies of small sexual minorities — here.) Here is the data from Laumann et al. about reported sexual practices (not just attraction) of people who have had some same-sex partners in particular time frames (numbers rounded):
Time frame in which the person has had some same-sex partnersFraction of male respondents (the ones who had some same-sex partners) who had partners of both sexesFraction of female respondents (the ones who had some same-sex partners) who had partners of both sexes
In the last year25%25%
In the last 5 years50%60%
Since age 1880%90%
(As best I can tell, the time frame in the numerator is the same as in the denominator — the 50% number, for instance, means that 50% of the men who have had a same-sex partner in the last 5 years have also had an opposite-sex partner in the last 5 years.) I did read a recent news report of a study that claimed that ostensibly bisexual men actually had the same physical arousal patterns, when shown potentially stimulating pictures of men and women, as either homosexuals or heterosexuals: "[I]n men there's no hint that true bisexual arousal exists." But as others pointed out in that news story, "the technique used in the study to measure genital arousal is too crude to capture the richness — erotic sensations, affection, admiration — that constitutes sexual attraction," especially given the consistent self-reports of men who claim to be bisexual. And the story reports that true bisexual physical arousal in women has indeed been documented.

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.

To further illustrate this, ask yourself: How would most gays or lesbians who believe that homosexuality is perfectly proper respond to these questions?

(1) A person who has had only heterosexual experiences is feeling some homosexual attraction. Should he or she experiment with homosexual relations to see if he or she finds them more rewarding, or at least a valuable facet of his or her future sex life (assuming this wouldn't constitute infidelity, that it's done with the proper protection against disease, that it's done with the right person, and so on)?

(2) Should gay rights groups try to change society so that such experimentation is less stigmatized?

(3) Should gay and lesbian friends of this person urge the person (of course, sensitively and without browbeating) to experiment, and to see if — given that he or she feels at least some same-sex attraction — he or she might indeed find same-sex relationships more rewarding?

(4) If this were a friend of yours to whom you were attracted, you knew that he or she felt at least some same-sex attraction, and you weren't worried about the emotional risk to yourself, would you consider having you be the person with whom the friend experiments? (Again, assume that neither of you is otherwise committed, the approach would be suitably sensitive, and so on; naturally, even sexual behavior that's perfectly proper in the abstract can be made wrong if done under the wrong circumstances.)

(5) Do you think that older teenagers (say, 16 and above) should have out-of-the-closet gay, lesbian, and bisexual role models so that those of the teenagers who feel some same-sex attraction would feel more open to experimenting to see if same-sex relationships will be more rewarding to them than opposite-sex relationships? (I'm not asking about sexual experimentation with the role models, but rather about the role models' presence making the teenagers more comfortable with their same-sex attractions.)

I suspect that most gays and lesbians who think homosexuality is proper would say "yes" to most or all of these questions. I know that if I were a heterosexual in some hypothetical future overwhelmingly homosexual society, and I were asked similar questions about "converting" people who were open to heterosexuality but had so far had only engaged in homosexual behavior into practicing bisexuals or heterosexuals, I'd say "yes." If you think some behavior can be proper and, for some group, very rewarding, you would naturally want people who aren't sure whether they fall into that group to try it out.

And if that's true, then gays and lesbians (though not necessarily each gay and lesbian) are trying to get others who have been behaviorally heterosexual, but who might be open to homosexual behavior, to try homosexual behavior. They almost certainly don't see all heterosexuals as likely converts. But they probably do think (with good reason) that some fraction — a substantial fraction compared to the number of pure homosexuals — might well be willing to change behaviors, especially if they are made to feel right and welcome in doing so. And, yes, that would include teenagers as well as fully grown adults. If most people think the age of sexual consent should be around 16 (the legal norm in the country), then I doubt that most gays and lesbians would think that it's wrong to encourage 16-year-old boys and girls who have some same-sex attraction to experiment with that attraction.

Now, as I've suggested, I don't think there's anything inherently immoral about such attempt to convert people away from purely heterosexual behavior, if they are interested in homosexual behavior, and of course if the "conversion" is done without force, imposition on those who are genuinely too young to decide, and so on. If it weren't for the disproportionate and grave health danger from male homosexual activity, I'd think such encouragement to explore which relationships give people the most happiness would be positively quite good. (Yes, I realize that the danger can be reduced by not engaging in anal sex, always using a condom, not having sex with a partner unless he's been tested and had not had sex for some months before the test, and so on. But most people are not nearly this cautious, and the reality thus remains that, given the vastly disproportionate prevalence of HIV among gays in America today, the greater risk from anal sex, a practice that for understandable reasons many male homosexuals do not want to forego, and the notorious difficulty with getting people to actually practice safe practices — whether aimed at preventing disease or conception — the fact remains that experimenting with male homosexuality is dangerous activity.) Given this danger, I'd prefer that men with bisexual orientations who can be happy with women not experiment with men; but that's a judgment about medical risk, not about the inherent morality of "conversion" attempts, and in any event it doesn't apply to lesbianism.

Nonetheless, if I'm right, then I don't think we should deny that the gay and lesbian movement does aim in part at "converting" people who have a wholly or partly bisexual orientation from a purely heterosexual behavior pattern to one that involves at least some (initially experimental) homosexual behavior.

UPDATE: A bunch of commenters think I shouldn't use the word "convert," for various reasons. The reason I'm using it is that I'm responding to an alleged "myth": People claim that it's a "myth" that gays and lesbians try to convert or recruit others, and I am arguing that this "myth" claim is "likely itself something of a myth, or at least quite incomplete." If you prefer to describe this not as "converting," but as something else (e.g., "influencing the person to change his practices"), that's fine. But if my analysis above is right, then one still shouldn't deride claims of conversion as "myth," even if one thinks that the word is slightly imprecise or has a bad connotation.

But in any event, it seems to me that the term is fine. It is hardly inherently pejorative: Changes in religious beliefs and practices are called conversions, and if people view them negatively, they do so because they disapprove of the new belief or practice, not because they disapprove of "conversion."

And it's also quite sensibly applied to changes in behavior (especially behavior that many people find important to their felt identity) and not just changes in some supposed inherent nature. If you persuade someone to become a vegetarian, you can be said to have converted him to vegetarianism. He's still biologically an omnivore, but his practices are now different. Likewise, changing someone from (a) being an orientational bisexual who engages solely in heterosexual relationships to (b) someone who is an orientational bisexual who engages solely in homosexual relationships, or to (c) someone who is bisexual both by orientation and practice strikes me as quite rightly called a "conversion."