Big Think Interview with Lisa Diamond

Question: What has the study taught you about sexual identity in women?

Lisa Diamond: I think it's a moving target. I think one of the major findings is that there is no single definition of identity. Probably the most surprising finding of the study was how often women changed the way that they thought about their sexual identity over time. When I began the study, the conventional wisdom in the field was that the main development path for a sexual minority individual is to figure out what their identity is, to embrace it, to accept it, eventually to disclose it to others, and to just sort of integrate it into your sense of self. And that once you complete that process you're pretty much done. What I found instead was that between two waves of data collection, so I collected data about every two years. And every wave I would find that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of the sample had changed their identity label, from lesbian to bisexual, from bisexual to lesbian, from lesbian to unlabeled. Some folks switched to heterosexual, and then they switched back to bisexual or unlabeled.

So I found an unbelievably common experience of variability and transition that certainly ran directly counter to a lot of the conventional wisdom in the field at the time. And even I was unsure of whether it was, you know, absolute. Every time I would collect data I would think, surely things will settle down at this point. But they have continued to show that sort of variability. Even 10 years out, the proportion of women changing identity labels between waves of data collection still is between 20 and 30 percent. And at this point, 13 years into the study, about 70 percent of the sample has changed their identity label at least once since that first interview. So that we used to think that change was really freaky and that stability was the norm. And now we know that we had it upside down. Stability is actually pretty uncommon, and transition and change are actually the norm.

Question: Why has this instability become the norm?

Lisa Diamond: I think there are a couple of things that account for it. I've found that on the individual level the only thing that consistently predicted a woman's likelihood of changing her identity was the degree to which her attractions were actually more in a bisexual range than in an exclusively sort of same-sex range, which makes a lot of sense, right? If you're attracted to both women and men, that creates just more possibilities for your relationships and for how you're going to see yourself. And certainly there were women who would describe themselves as being, for example, you know, 75 percent attracted to women. And some of them would say, well, that makes me a bisexual, because I'm still somewhat attracted to men. And other women would say, well, I'm mainly attracted to women, so I'll call myself lesbian. So women with similar patterns of attraction could actually find that different labels would comfortably fit the way that they saw their identity, but because of that wiggle room, that interpretive wiggle room, that created a lot of space for change and transition over time.

Some of the women that I interviewed would perhaps identify as lesbian if they were involved in a long-term relationship with a woman, but if that relationship ended, and because they were still 25 percent attracted to men, then would identify as bisexual. So that the simple existence of nonexclusive attractions I think created a context in which change was possible and was actually adaptive to the degree that it allowed women to find an identity label that fit her particular circumstance at a period of time.

The only group of women who showed extreme stability in their identity labels over time were the women who basically described themselves as being 100 percent attracted to women from the very beginning. They showed almost no identity change. So it was very clearly connected to this understanding of your own capacity for different types of attractions and behaviors over time. I think coupled with that, there is more visibility and awareness, I think, of the fact that sexuality is a complicated phenomenon, that it's not just black and white. Certainly even the label bisexual is more common now than it was, you know, 15 years ago, when I first started reading this research literature.

And even now if I do programming at gay and lesbian youth groups or other sort of community centers, there's far more kids who don't want to identify as anything at all, who just want to experience sexuality. So we do have more cultural permission now, I think, for the notion that you can sort of know that you're not heterosexual, but not necessarily feel that you have to put yourself into a particular box. And that was certainly a sense that I got from a lot of my participants, that you know, it took so long to escape from the heterosexual box; why would I want to put myself into another restrictive box? Why can't I just experience my sexuality as it unfolds, get involved with who I want to get involved with, and not be worried about some sort of standard of behavior that I'm supposed to conform to?

Question: Do men trend towards sexual fluidity?

Lisa Diamond: That's a great question. And for a long time there was no research, you know, that really asked the sort of questions that would speak to that. But the research has gotten better. There are more large-scale representative studies of adolescents and adults in America and in other countries that ask a broader range of questions about attractions and behavior and identity. And all of those studies consistently show that there is more diversity and variability in the sexual minority population that we used to think. And that in the same way that you find far more women reporting that they're attracted to women than who report that they identify as lesbian or bisexual.

The same is true of men. In every study that's been done you find far more individuals reporting that they're somewhat attracted to the same sex, you know, but not exclusively, and maybe not even in a 50/50, you know, bisexual range, than who identify as gay or lesbian. That shows that there's this sort of wiggle room. There's this space for variability that some people will define as gay, some people will define as bisexual, some people won't even define it, you know, at all. But that experience definitely applies to men as well as women. And there have been some studies, short-term longitudinal studies of men, that have found that men are just as likely as women to change their identity label, you know, over, say, 18-month to two-year spans of time. So I think right now probably it's safe to say that there is that capacity for fluidity in both men and women. It does appear to be a stronger capacity for women.

Question: Is bisexuality a phase?

Lisa Diamond: Well, it's interesting, because the vast majority of the identity transitions that I observed in my study were transitions to bisexual and unlabeled identities rather than toward lesbian identities. In other words, if there was one big trend, it was toward labels that permitted attractions to both sexes. And the longer a woman had been out and living her life, the more likely she was to acknowledge attractions to both sexes. So that directly contradicts the notion that bisexuality is a phase, because if it was a phase you would find women gradually moving either into a lesbian identity or to a heterosexual identity. And in fact we find the opposite. Eighty percent of the identity transitions that I've observed in the 13 years of the study have been transitions to either bisexual or unlabeled identities, from lesbian or heterosexual identities.

So clearly there's more of a sense of movement toward non-exclusivity than away from it. And again, it also fits the cross-cultural data that we've collected. In every large-scale representative study that's been done, the single largest group of non-heterosexual individuals are individuals who describe themselves as mainly heterosexual, but not completely. So that bisexual range of the scale is in fact the most heavily populated sort of section of the Kinsey scale. For years we assumed that the vast majority of non-heterosexual individuals were exclusively gay and lesbian individuals, and those other categories were really, really small. We had it as wrong as you could have it. The exclusive categories are actually the smallest categories, and those bisexual ranges are actually the largest ranges.

Question: What do women want?

Lisa Diamond: I think women want self-determination. One thing that I've really found in following these women over time is what they want, what makes women happy, is the freedom and the safety and security to define themselves in whatever way that they see fit, not according to the standard from mainstream heterosexual society; but also not necessarily according to the standard of their local, say, lesbian or gay community. And I do think we're sort of reaching a level of societal maturity that we're closer to that sort autonomy and that goal. A lot of the women that I've talked to have managed to really create the sort of lives that they've wanted for themselves, even in relatively conservative environments. Some of the women in my sample are living in the Deep South; some of them are living in the middle of Midwest corn-fed America. And yet almost all of them have managed to create a life for themselves that they're pretty happy with.

Recorded on November 4, 2009


A conversation with the Professor of Psychology in Gender Studies at the University of Utah.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
  • The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Supreme Court to hear 3 cases on LGBT workplace discrimination

In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
  • The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
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