Gay by nature: Part two

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

In part one, published yesterday, Dr Qazi Rahman of Queen Mary University London discussed the impact of genes and hormones on homosexuality. Here, he addresses the isse of gay stereotypes and refutes psychoanalytic theories of why some people are gay. He also suggests that research into gay brains may help combat homophobia. Adrian Tippetts reports.

On the subject of gay stereotypes, Dr Rahman said: “[These] might originate from the observation that as children, gay men tend to be gender non-conforming; they are more feminine on average, and that is seen across cultures. These preferences may have their basis in neurobiology during early development (gender roles are partly organised by prenatal sex hormones and develop even before children can label the sexes and ascribe gender roles to them).”

He added: “But don’t get too carried away with unrealistic stereotypes, as there is a great deal of variation within that range of gay men. Plenty of gay men are interested in competitive sport and other spheres traditionally thought of as ‘male’ domains. And scientists need to explain that variation too. This is an area where we need more research.”

How does this explain bisexuality, and reports of people changing sexuality?

“We know very little about bisexuality but early work suggests that while bisexual behaviour exists, a bisexual orientation (sexual responsivity to both sexes) is rare in males. In females, there appears to be clearer evidence of bisexual responsivity. This suggests that researchers need to measure sexuality differently in women than in men.”

So, your studies can be useful beyond saying how someone turns out gay?

“We know there are big sex differences in certain mental health problems. Women have three times higher anxiety rates than men, while males suffer more from autism, reading problems, an earlier onset of schizophrenia. Early evidence suggests gay men show similar levels of anxiety and eating disorders as women do, incidences of drug addiction and personality problems in lesbians are similar to those reported in men.

“If there is any truth in these brain differences, we can attempt to understand why certain conditions arise, and then offer tailored, instead of generic treatment. This would be major progress in mental health, because people respond very differently according to their biological make-up. This does not exclude the important role of social factors (like stigma) in the development of mental health problems in sexual minorities (just like it impacts other minorities).

“Also, if we learn how people detect sexual orientation in others, we can explore whether someone detects it from a person’s speech or movement. We know from previous experiments, that people can detect sexual orientation within a couple of seconds. We can investigate whether homophobic people have a heightened sensitivity to others on the basis of their sexuality. If we know that we can go someway to develop psychosocial interventions to deal with sexuality-related prejudice.”

He added: “We welcome input from the gay and lesbian community, to find out what the important priorities are. ”

Some say that such research could lead to attempts to remove homosexuals from the gene pool. Isn’t there a danger of this?

Dr Rahman said: “Gays and lesbians can find this fascinating or scary and some can be downright against it. But humans have a fascination about their underlying human natures. Sexuality is a core part of who we are as human beings, and for this reason it should be cherished.

“This research has many benefits. It may provide us with clues about tackling homophobia effectively. It may help us understand mental illness better, or teach us more about the biological and psychological development of older gay and lesbian adults. On this latter topic, we currently know very little.

“In the UK, mine is the only group doing research in this area, but in the states, they have healthier funding, there are more groups. They have more money, but even in the USA there have been problems getting funds.”

There is a fringe group of psychoanalysts, such as NARTH, who claim that homosexuality is caused by dominant mothers. Dr Raham emphasises that there is no evidence for these claims.

He said: “Homosexuality is not due an overbearing mother and a distant father as some psychoanalytic nonsense has suggested. The crux of the theory predicts that gay men should come from homes where the father is absent – no demographic evidence supports this claim. Secondly, the notion that homosexuality is due to unresolved Oedipal complex (a core tenet of psychoanalytic theory) makes the prediction in the wrong way – it should explain heterosexuality and not homosexuality. If gay men are so fixated on their mothers as the theory claims then why do they end up fancying men? Psychoanalytic theory is best left in the land of warlock magic and elfin trickery. ”

Can exposure to information about homosexuality (for example through sex education classes) or childhood sexual experimentation make people more likely to turn out gay?

“All the biological and developmental evidence shows that homosexuality cannot be learned so teaching about same-sex relationships in schools cannot result in increases in homosexuality. You cannot learn homosexuality like you can learn maths! A certain amount of same-sex horseplay is common in adolescence but there is no evidence that is disproportionately results in adult homosexuality.”

Although there are frequent reports of kids who are abused, growing up to become gay, Dr Rahman dismisses this as anecdotal.

I ask about the religious right, who seem to be very good at their PR, with reparative therapists getting major news coverage when they visit the UK. Does the media seem to give their crackpot ideas far more attention than they deserve?

Dr Rahman replied: “Yes, and the media are to blame, for creating controversies where none exist. It’s vital to have heavyweights armed with the facts to demolish arguments of people who can claim, for example, to ‘cure’ homosexuals. But having the experts on doesn’t make ‘sexy’ enough TV for the media. Instead, they think, ‘let’s get a gay clergy member’ , which may be controversial but it doesn’t do justice to truth, or deal with the arguments sufficiently.”

He also commented on media representations of homosexual activity in the natural world: “There is a strong absence of any evidence of animals having homosexual behaviour in their programmes in the natural history documentaries. I don’t believe for an instant that they don’t see the behaviour. It seems just fine to put heterosexual activity in our faces left right and centre, but when it comes to homosexuality, it seems it’s a subject they are just not happy to touch. That is ironic because Britain is leaps and bounds ahead of most countries in terms of representation of gays and lesbians in the media now, before the watershed, but animal sexuality is somewhat inhibited. Maybe it is too animalistic I don’t know.”

As Dr Rahman shows, there remains much to learn about how sexual orientation is determined. But after nearly two decades of research, the evidence that nature has determined our sexuality is growing ever stronger.

To some, it may sound like we gays and lesbians are a genetic ‘mistake’. Not at all. Human civilisation owes its greatness to the ability to pass on ideas and override the genes. We should be thankful we have broken the savage rules of natural selection. Take inspiration from Richard Dawkins, who reminds us of our astronomically good fortune to be here at all, in ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

And if that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, nothing will.

Further reading

Evolution explains how we got here, and tells a lot about why we are who we are. To learn more about the topic, try some of these:

Mark Pallen ‘Rough Guide to Evolution’

Jerry Coyne ‘Why Evolution is True’

Richard Dawkins ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’; ‘The Selfish Gene’.

Steve Jones ‘Darwin’s Island’

Matt Ridley ‘the Red Queen’ and ‘Origins of Virtue’

Dr Raham has also co-authored a book. ‘Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation’, by Glenn Wilson and Qazi Rahman (published by Peter Owen)