Activist criticises gay gene obsession

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Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell hits out at the obsession with finding a gay gene and suggests sexual orientation is deemed by a variety of factors

Why are scientists so preoccupied with what causes homosexuality, to the near-total exclusion of the factors that lead to heterosexuality? I don’t object to research into sexual orientation. It is the one-sided obsession that bugs me.

The presumption seems to be that straightness is normal and therefore does not need explanation; whereas queerdom is a deviation from the norm and this requires investigation and answers.

The latest theory of why gays are gay suggests that birth order influences male sexual orientation. According to new research by Anthony Bogaert, a psychologist at Brock University in Canada, gay men tend to have older brothers. Indeed, the more biological older brothers a man has, the greater his likelihood of being gay.

This leads Bogaert to conclude that a man’s sexual orientation is influenced by the conditions in his mother’s womb when he was a foetus; with successive male children triggering changes in the mother’s body that increase the chances that subsequent male children will be gay. This so-called fraternal gay birth effect creates a prenatal environment that fosters homosexuality in younger sons.

Nice theory, shame about the exceptions. I hate to rain on Bogaert’s research, but I am a first born son and definitely capital GAY. Oh well, Never mind. There are bound to be exceptions. Just because I don’t personally fit his theory doesn’t automatically invalidate it.

If Bogaert is saying that birth order may be a factor that influences sexual orientation, I have no problem with that. His research does, indeed, suggest that the order of male birth may impact on whether a man is gay or not.

But impacting or influencing sexuality is not the same as causing or determining it. Something as complex and pivotal as human emotional and sexual life is bound to evolve from a multiplicity of factors, rather than from any single, simple origin.

Bogaert’s research is the latest in a long line of theses that argue people are ‘born gay’. They posit sexuality as being a biological given.

Other biological determinist models of gayness suggest that same-sex attraction is largely or entirely determined by our genes and hormonal influences in the womb. It is an innate desire, fixed at birth. Forget Freudian theory and all the other psycho babble. Biology is destiny.

This was the central thesis of the recent book, Born Gay, by Glenn Wilson, a Reader at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and Qazi Rahman, a lecturer in psychobiology at the University of East London. Their book is easily the best summary of evidence from dozens of biological studies into the causes and correlates of homosexuality.

They conclude that sexual orientation is overwhelmingly innate. Social or family influences have little or no impact. Blaming parents and childhood upbringing for a child’s gayness is mistaken and unfair. The idea that people become gay by seduction or choice is, they say, not supported by scientific research and empirical evidence.

I agree. No one sits down one day and decides to be gay – or straight. Most lesbians and gays say they felt “different” from a very young age, long before they had any awareness of sexual desire. While this suggests that sexuality is formed unconsciously by early childhood at the latest, it does not necessarily mean we are born with a pre-fixed

sexual orientation.

The authors are right to say that biological factors play a role. Studies of identical twin brothers show that in 52% of cases where one twin is gay the other twin is also gay. This is a much higher concordance than the 2% to 10% distribution of gay people in the

general population, as recorded by various sex surveys. It suggests a significant genetic component in the causality of homosexuality – and, presumably, in the origins of heterosexuality as well.

Wilson and Rahman argue the other determinant of sexual orientation is hormonal exposure during pregnancy. They document studies showing differences between gay and straight people with respect to a number of physiological traits that are associated with hormonal influences. These include physique, hearing, brain structure, finger lengths,

penis size (gay men tend to be better endowed than straight men), and the age of puberty (on average lesbians mature later than straight women, and gay men earlier than heterosexual men).

This is convincing stuff, but not entirely so. If genes determine our sexual orientation we would expect that in cases of identical twins where one was gay the other would be gay too – in every case. But, in fact, in only just over half the cases are both twins gay. The same lack of complete concordance is found in hormone-associated physical attributes. Not all gay men, for example, have a larger than average penis.

These exceptions lead me to conclude that while genes and hormones may, like male birth order, predispose a person to a particular sexual orientation, they do not determine it. They are significant influences, not the sole cause. Other factors are also at work.

Social expectations, cultural values and peer pressure, for instance, help push many of us towards heterosexuality. Without these pro-straight influences, more people might be lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Wilson’s and Rahman’s biological determinist thesis has another major flaw. If we are all born either gay or straight, how do they explain people who switch in mid-life from fulfilled heterosexuality to fulfilled homosexuality (and vice versa)?

The singer Tom Robinson was a happy, well-adjusted gay man who, to his own surprise, one day met and fell in love with a woman. He is now equally happy and well-adjusted in his straight relationship. If he was hard-wired at birth to desire men, how can he now desire women?

The authors have no credible explanation for bisexuality; claiming it barely exists. Some research measuring sexual arousal shows that men who claim to be bisexual are predominantly turned on by other men, not women. But this is highly suspect. Swapping gossip with the girlfriend of a man who was previously my long-term lover, we agree he was definitely aroused by both the male and female form; equally delighted and sexually voracious with a cock or a c*nt.

Much as I would love to go along with the fashionable ‘born gay’ consensus (it would be very politically convenient), I can’t. The evidence does not support the idea that sexuality is a fixed biological given.

Wilson and Rahman inadvertently reinforce my doubts. As evidence that people do not become gay by seduction, they cite the example of the Sambia tribe in New Guinea. Cultural expectations dictate that from puberty until their late teens all young boys have sex with an unmarried male warrior as part of their rite of passage to manhood.

Once their initiation into the manly arts of hunting and fishing is completed, they become warriors and initiate the next generation of male youths. Then they turn straight, find a bride and marry.

If sexuality was predetermined by genes and hormones (or by Bogaert’s male birth order effect), it would be impossible for young Sambian males to switch to homosexuality and then back to heterosexuality with such apparent ease. This suggests there is an element of flexibility in sexual orientation, and that cultural traditions and social mores are also influential factors. In an enlightened, gay-affirming society, more people might be inclined to explore same-sex desire.