Conference marks U of L as leader in sexuality studies

It was billed as one of the highest-profile conferences to ever grace the University of Lethbridge, and yet it was intentionally given no profile in advance.

Conference co-organizer Dr. Paul Vasey says what draws researchers to Lethbridge is the U of L’s solid support for sexual orientation research. PHOTO by Mary Kavanagh

The Puzzle of Sexual Orientation conference that ran July 20-23 at the U of L attracted more than 50 of the world’s leading authorities on sexual orientation to campus. Experts from throughout the United States, Canada and even as far off as Europe and Brazil made their way to the University, attending on an invite-only basis, to discuss a broad range of topics related to sexual orientation.

“The Puzzle conference is renowned as the venue worldwide at which a group of preeminent sexual orientation researchers convene once every five years to assess the state of our science and talk about the way forward. Not surprisingly, invitations are highly coveted,” says Dr. Paul Vasey (professor & Board of Governor’s Research Chair in Psychology), one of the conference co-organizers.

What draws them here is the U of L’s solid support for sexual orientation research and the groundbreaking work that Vasey and his students have been conducting for the past 15 years.

“Conference attendees were extremely impressed that understanding the genesis of sexual orientation is embedded in the U of L's Strategic Research Plan,” says Vasey. “Many attendees were blown away that the Vice-Provost & Associate VP (Academic), Dr. Lesley Brown, took time out of her busy schedule to open the meeting and declared that "understanding sexual orientation is key to understanding human nature".”

Among those who were favorably impressed was Dr. Michael Bailey from Chicago’s Northwestern University, a world-renowned researcher who spoke about his work on male bisexuality.

“We have many cities that are much (larger) than Lethbridge but none of them are as high profile as the University of Lethbridge for the studying of sexual orientation,” Bailey told the Lethbridge Herald upon completion of the conference. “It’s really an international treasure.”

The conference did not allow media access prior to or during the event as Vasey wanted to ensure that researchers could openly discuss their findings, some of which might be considered controversial or taboo. Select researchers were made available to media once the event wrapped up and garnered significant interest.

“There is an enormous amount of public debate about the nature of sexual diversity. All too often these discussions occur in an information vacuum that is driven by personal politics and morality, but divorced from any evidence," says Vasey. "The Puzzle of Sexual Orientation conference is a key event at which evidence is brought to the table, which helps inform these public debates.”

One exception to the no media rule was an invitation to Boston Globe writer Neil Swidey who was given exclusive access to the researchers and their presentations throughout the conference. A respected journalist who 10 years ago created one of the most-read Boston Globe stories in its web history (What makes people gay?), Swidey chose the conference as an opportunity to revisit and update his seminal piece. It has just now been released on the Globe website.

“Going forward, I believe that all of the conference attendees will sing the praises of the U of L, thereby contributing to my goal of promoting our University as a destination research institution for sexuality studies,” adds Vasey.

The next conference is scheduled to take place at the University of Lethbridge in 2020.