This classic column originally appeared at the barbershop notebooks, where Sex with Timaree runs every Monday.
Question to the Sexpert:
“I’m having an ongoing debate with my brother about what causes homosexuality. I say it’s all nature: that people are born that way and no one would choose to have a life that is harder. He says that genetics plays a part but that it’s ultimately a choice. I have gay friends and they all say they’ve always known and that it’s been that way since they were little. I know there is scientific evidence of gay genes. So, what’s the deal?”
There are so many ways to answer this question and because we all know how fond I am of numbered lists, bullet points and bold subject headings, let’s get started. Shall we?
What’s the science?
Here are some of the more commonly known research findings from the last decades. Bear in mind that any study’s methods must be examined and that sometimes the accuracy of researchers’ interpretations are arguable but these studies are included because they are well designed and have held up to peer review.
–Swaab, Allen & LeVay found that the brain structures of gay men differ from those of straight men, especially in the hypothalamus. The area that connects the two hemispheres in gay men is more similar to that of women than of straight men.
-One study found that the inner ear of lesbians looks more like that of men than of straight women. Lesbians are more likely to have long ring fingers (as long as the middle finger) than straight women, possibly due to masculination while in utero.
–Bailey & Pillard performed a number of twin studies that found that monozygotic (identical) twins are more likely to both have the same sexual orientation than dizygotic (fraternal) twins. The difference between the two kinds of twins is their degree of genetic similiarity, identical twins being essentially clones.
–Hamer’s research on the family trees of gay men popularized the idea of a “gay gene.”
–Homosexuality is extremely common among non-human animals, indicating it’s a “natural” occurrence among living creatures
-Some studies find that fetal exposure to hormones is highly predictive of orientation
-The most convincing study (showing the strongest correlation) is that the higher number of older brothers a man has, the more likely he is to be gay. This phenomenon is suggested to be due to hormonal reactions in the mother’s body during pregnancy.
– A brand new study shows that a person’s spatial abilities and map reading skills are largely predictable by their gender and orientation. Results are on a continuum of straight men, bi men, gay men, gay women, bi women and straight women with decreasing average scores. The opposite effect is found with verbal skills to a lesser degree although intelligence is a higher predictor than gender or orientation.
Why can’t nature and nurture just get along?
There is still a question of your brother’s argument, that even if a person is genetically predisposed to homosexuality, they have a choice in their behavior. Obviously he’s correct in that anyone, regardless of orientation, can opt for celibacy or having sex with people to whom they are not attracted. Further, a person’s life experiences may encourage, discourage, force or impede their ability/willingness to live their lives in certain ways. So as far as genetics and homosexuality goes, we are more likely dealing with predisposition than outright determinants.
So let’s say someone actually identifies a “gay gene” that unfailingly predicts whether or not someone will grow up to identify as gay or lesbian. This has the potential to “exonerate” all people who’ve ever been in same-sex relationships by proving that their life choices have been entirely “natural” for them. But, by the same token, evidence of a specific gene may result in a movement to “cure” homosexuality via genetic treatments or even preventative measures like abortion of gay fetuses. Although, the alliance of the GLBT community and the anti-abortion movement has great potential for interestingness.
The REAL question
But you and your brother’s disagreement is missing a fundamental question: why the fuck does it matter? If Juan and Pete want to be in a romantic relationship or Sara and Lea want to hook up after a night at the bar merely because they choose to, whose business is it but theirs? People who think same-sex relationships are inherently immoral are unconcerned with the cause of gay attractions and the degree of choice involved is irrelevant. Proof that people don’t choose to be gay won’t persuade bigots to give human rights to those they consider sinful.
Ultimately, adults have the right to be attracted to, fall in love with, have sex with and marry any other consenting adult whether their attraction is based on chromosomal destiny or the exercise of free choice.
So, to succinctly answer your question: nature probably predisposes someone to same-sex attractions but socialization has an appreciable effect and people ultimately must decide how they live their lives.
Do you have a question or comment? Please email Timaree directly at sexpert@MarcLamontHill.com