Gay Politics

What lies beneath 'gay' and 'straight'?

There’s an article I’d very much like to write about in the Guardian today, except that it seems to be one of the only articles in the damn magazine not posted up online. And worse still, I wanted to take it to task by colliding it with another article that I read sometime earlier this year in New Scientist. Unfortunately, I can’t find that article online either. The web has failed me. Or more specifically, The Guardian and New Scientist have failed themselves.

The article in the Guardian concerns itself with the question “What really makes us gay or straight?” and talks about the biological research into gay genes, the shape of the brain, the influence of sex hormones in utero and childhood behaviour. I read extensively around this subject a few years ago and was relatively convinced by the argument that there is a biological rather than sociological basis to gay sexuality. This wasn’t a shock, of course. No one seems to think it’s even a legitimate question to ask whether heterosexual sexuality has a biological basis, after all. Perhaps we should start…

The Guardian’s retelling of this research is a bit suspect to me, though – and has opened up a bit of a troubling problem for me. The article – much like many others I’ve read recently – seems to be rife with stereotype, innuendo, conflation of categories and misunderstandings of the complexity and variety of people in the world. It implies a world where societal prejudice seems to govern the terms and limits of the scientific research. It suggests to me a form of science which has taken the labels and political allegiances that individuals been labelled (or have used to self-describe) and reified them to undeniable facts of nature. Imagine a western culture where all non-whites have claimed an identity of ‘black’ or ‘people of colour’, and now imagine a science organised around determining what it is that makes all these people non-white. That’s what the science that the Guardian reports feels like to me…

Which presents me with a problem. Is the science itself deformed and collapsing? Are the categories actually useful and legitimate but unsupported in the discourse of the press? Or is the press simply misunderstanding or recasting the science in clichéd, prejudicial terms it thinks that its readership can understand? It’s led me to think about all kinds of questions – from the role of the press as an intermediary, through to the number of gay people working in these fields. It’s all very troubling.

Let me give you some examples. The structuring principle of the whole article is the case of twin boys ‘Thomas’ and ‘Patrick’. They are both seven. The article states:

Patrick is social, thoughtful, attentive. He repeatedly addresses me by name. Thomas is physical, spontaneous, a bit distracted. Just minutes after meeting me outside a coffee shop, he punches me in the upper arm. It’s a hard punch. They horse around like typical brothers, but Patrick’s punches are less forceful and his voice is higher. Thomas charges at his brother, arms flexed in front of him like a mini-bodybuilder. The differences are subtle – they’re seven-year old boys, after all – but they are there.

When the twins were two, Patrick found his mother’s shoes. He liked wearing them. Thomas tried on his father’s once but didn’t see the point. When they were three, Thomas blurted out that toy guns were his favourite things. Patrick piped up that his were the Barbie dolls he discovered at nursery school.

Their mother was concerned. She wanted Patrick to be himself, but she worried that his feminine behaviour would expose him to ridicule and pain. She decided to allow him free expression at home while setting some limits in public. That worked until last year, when a school official called to say that Patrick was making his classmates uncomfortable. He kept insisting that he was a girl.

When you get to the end of this particular chunk of stuff, you’re left with a few questions. First you’re left with a sense that the little boy in question clearly exhibits some ‘feminine’ traits. After that, my immediate impression was that the child in question was exhibiting some form of transgender behaviour. He even said that he wanted to be a girl. But there’s no mention of this in the article. Instead it launched straight into a discussion of the incidence of homo- versus hetero- sexuality in children that exhibit ‘Childhood Gender Nonconformity’:

Not all homosexual men show this extremely feminine behaviour as young boys. But the research indicates that, of the boys who do exhibit CGN, about 75% of them turn out to be gay or bisexual.

Now it’s difficult to know where to start unpicking this one. Firstly we’re given no sense of what proportion of people born male who end up being gay exhibit this ‘Childhood Gender Nonconformity’, so it’s incredibly difficult to tell whether or not it’s in any way representative of the wider category or not. Secondly, ‘Childhood Gender Nonconformity’ seems rather woolly – particularly when you consider that most people don’t remember their childhood behaviour terribly well, and many parents will be probably pretty prone after the fact to try and make sense of it all with, “well he did choose that pink piece of candy once in that shop rather than the blue one”-post-hoc rationalisation. But most importantly, what if these children are transgendered? What if they’re not actually ‘homosexual’ at all – but consider themselves biologically the wrong gender? Then they could grow up as ‘straight’ in their minds and only ostensibly gay because of an accident of biology. Fundamentally, what if the behaviour of finding (say) men attractive had many disparate manfestations with different roots? Is the homosexuality of an apparently male, but self-identified female, man-fancier really the same as the homosexuality of someone who identifies as male and still fancies men – whether they be drag queen, leather queen, dom or sub, top or bottom, bear or cub, versatile or polymorphously perverse?

I’m afraid I don’t think they’re the same thing at all – I think that sexuality and gender are much more varied and complex than most of these bits of reporting and ‘science’ indicate. “Homosexuality” is a descriptive label for a whole range of behaviours, sex acts and attitudes, just as “Homosexual” is a clumsy label for a much wider variety of people – just as “Heterosexual” in turn. And the articles own statistics suggest problems with the theory. If the children did grow up to be transgendered in some way, even then it’s not completely clear that they’d be end up attracted to people of their born-gender. There are many reported cases of male-to-female transexuals, for example, who still report being attracted to women – much to the consternation of a lot of the general public who can’t seem to grasp that there are a lot of gay men who do not want to be women, just as there are a lot of transexuals who do not see a direct correlation between their gender identity and their sexual preference.

Fundamentally, the whole problem for me in the article – and perhaps in the science – is that these simple correlations are swallowed whole. Men fancy women, women fancy men. The map of divergent sexualities is presented as map of miscegenated genders. And homosexuals are all the same, created by the same processes, through simple changes or errors producing an identical class of deviations from the norm – a group of people who are the same because they share a name, whether or not there is any ontological similarity in their sexualities. It’s clumsy and – I think – a little stupid.

This is kind of where I wanted to bring in the article from New Scientist, which I just can’t find. The article basically talked about this idea of ‘male’ versus ‘female’ brains and what that entailed. I’m writing about it from memory, so you’ll have to forgive me if I get some details incorrect. Fundamentally, the argument has gone like this – men and women are fundamentally different in many ways in the brain. If you do comparative studies of men and women you can map these differences – the example that everyone knows is that men are better at spacial reasoning. So, in fact, it is possible to bluntly look at a man or a woman and say that statistically he/she’s likely to be good at some things and worse at others.

Now, the interesting thing comes when you actually look past the gender of the subject and start to categorise the responses and the brain organisational patterns. And it turns out that you can loosely categorise the brains into three categories – a brain pattern traditionally associated with the male, one with the female and one that seems ‘balanced’ between the two. But that’s not the most interesting bit. The most interesting bit is that people who are biologically male are mostly split between the ‘male’ and ‘balanced’ brain patterns, where biologically female people are split between ‘female’, ‘balanced’ and ‘male’ brain patterns.

So yeah – in aggregate you can start making bland claims about biological and profound differences between genders, but in the end it turns out that these are only aggregate changes. There aren’t two brain patterns, there are three (on this metric), and they’re not split between the genders, they’re distributed differently among them.

I want to make the same claims about sexuality – that it is quite possible to make aggregate claims about ‘heterosexual’ & ‘homosexual’ behaviours in men and women, but that until these are all shown to be consistent and to have congruent explanations, we must assume that there are deeper patterns of organisation to be uncovered. These may represent entirely different ways of categorising, exploring and unpacking concepts of gender and sexuality – generating different maps of our selves and different ways for us to gain purchase on our identity.

Unlike many other people I have met, I want to know why I am the way I am – I want to understand what it means to be gay (whatever version of gay I am). I think there are straight people in the world as well who would like to feel the edges of their preferences, to understand how things fit together and where the intersections are between their identities and what they get up to (or don’t) in bed. I want a science in the world that is prepared to explore all aspects of our lives and shine light in the darker places, but that is open-minded enough to not try to simply prove or disprove the prejudices of society but to reach some greater understanding. It’s a shame that I find myself so often disappointed.

Addendum: Thanks to MacDara for pointing out that the Guardian article in question is a reprint of a piece from The Boston Globe and is available here: What Makes People Gay?

16 replies on “What lies beneath 'gay' and 'straight'?”

By the way, in defense of The Guardian, the article in question was licensed from the Boston Globe/New York Times, so I’m sure there were copyright issued involved re: adding it to Guardian Unlimited.

Is the homosexuality of an apparently male, but self-identified female, man-fancier really the same as the homosexuality of someone who identifies as male and still fancies men – whether they be drag queen, leather queen, dom or sub, top or bottom, bear or cub, versatile or polymorphously perverse?

I don’t think they’re the same either ó and I’ve always found the apparent confusion between homosexuality and femininity somewhat bizarre. Sure, gay guys can be effeminate, and have female-like characteristics, but then so too can straight guys.
I’d rather not open a whole new kettle of fish ó but thought it would be worth drawing on some personal experience and highlighting the problem faced by university (and probably other) LBG groups, who are finding themselves becoming LBGT groups; this has certainly been the case in Cambridge, and the NUS has recently adopted the LBGT moniker.
The problem, of course, is that in many respects the needs of transgender students are very different from the needs of gay students; should they be ‘lumped together’?
@ MacDara ó Thanks for the link to the article!

Hm. That in itself is kind of interesting. I wonder whether that will make any sense at all in the future, when you can get the original without all the hassle. Thanks for that though!

This strikes me as a problem of mixing social science with physical science without recognizing the differences between the two. In social science, we have male and female, because that’s what people perceive in society. In physical science we have three different brain types because that’s what is physically there (as far as we currently know). But it will be a long time before any questionnaire asks you whether you have a male, female, or balanced brain. Social categories are only loosely and unclearly related to physical reality, as any African American from Jamaica can tell us.

I think it’s more the parents problem than the kids, I don’t know who pigeon holes their children at such an early age…

I read that article earlier and was going to comment to tell you its location but somebody beat me to it 🙂
This subject is very strange, because I (and some people I know) sometimes behave ‘like a woman would’ as opposed to a man, but I do not consider myself effeminate. I think there is a lot of truth that gay people share some part of the female brain, but then there are some gay people who act very straight and watch football and guzzle beer…
Its all very strange! Every person is different I guess!

Where does bisexuality fit into all this? Bisexuality is often ignored by these “difference” scientists because it doesn’t fit in with the hard binary difference of homosexual/heterosexual. Yet even in the 1940s, Kinsey was finding that sexuality lies on a continuum with most people having some degree of bisexuality.

Dear Tom
As a transgendered person who is utterly sick of this metaphysical nonsense about what makes a man or a woman… a gay or a straight, I agree with almost every word you say ….. except that, if you actually go to sources and read up on the real scientific research which is being done in this area right now, you will find science is not in fact telling you the things you seem to think it is.
Please start here with Eric Vilain of UCLA. A basic understanding of intersex conditions will blow away the certaintiesfrom your mind and clear it for a betterunderstanding:
I suggest also a study of genetics …. Matt Ridley’s books are good. ..and neuroscience … VS Ramachandran is excellent. Also, for an overview of the biology, read Evolution’s Rainbow by Joan Rougharden.
The simple fact is that most people who write in newspapers have not one single clue about the revolution that has taken place in biology in the last five years.
All best

Hi Tom
Just a few more thoughts.
It is clear that the development of gender and sexuality are long and complex processes. It would be very much more surprising if variations did not occur than that they do. I am sure you are aware that all foetuses, male and female, start out with identical organs which can develop either as male or female. It is only after certain triggers, which are poorly understood that, for a male, testes develop instead of ovaries, that the labia fuse to form the scrotum, that a penis emerges instead of a clitoris. The opposite occurs for a female with ovaries developing instead of testes etc.. Of course further changes then occur at puberty.
Physical intersex conditions are much more common than might be supposed and can obviously be seen. Seeing what goes on in the brain is only now becoming conceivable with advanced brain scanning.
More variation occurs on the x and y chromosomes than on any other chromosomes … almost literally an evolutionary gender war is fought out at the genetic level … constantly. Variation truly is the norm and this obviously includes physically based variation in the brain.
This is what cutting edge genetics is telling us. We are none of us fixed, labelled entities who fit neatly into one box or another. We may follow the same outline genetic recipe for male or female … although even that can quite often get muddled …. but the way our ingredients are put together is never the same. Moreover it doesn’t even remain the same. Our genes are constantly subject to environmental influence. There is no Nature/Nurture debate. There is a constant Nature and Nurture interraction. Genes have no function without environmental input. Environmental input is meaningless without responsive genes.
Neuroscience is telling us exactly the same. The pathways in our brain may be similar but they also vary a great deal among individuals and the messages that pass down them are always unique. Have you ever noticed how neurologists become fascinated by individual differences whereas old-fashioned psychologists do nothing but try to identify similarities?
Yes, we may look for similarities and they can undoubtedly be useful but, when we find them we will always find differences which lead on from them. We are all moving targets. This is what so few people including large numbers of scientists and notably psychologists have not yet taken on board. Psychology in the past has always taken the side of society which hates variety. Nature loves variety and we must not be surprised we are different.
Baron-Cohen’s so-called male [systematizing] and female [empathizing] brains is an interesting, if rather obvious, observation but how much influence it actually has on gender identity is questionable. Most of us know very empathetic men and autistic spectrum women. Obviously gender identity goes much deeper than this and sexuality seems to have no compulsory connection with it at all. Nobody can yet truly say how gender or sexuality are arrived at but what we can say without question is that quite often the wires get crossed in anomalous ways. We should approach these variations with an open mind and listen to how individuals tell us they feel.
At the cellular level men and women have a trillion times more similarities than differences. A very small variation can make an apparently huge difference.
If you liked the interview with Eric Vilain, this article may also interest you:
and you should be reading this book:
“This brilliant and accessible work of biological criticism has the potential to revolutionize the way readers conceive of gender and sexuality in the natural world. “–Publishers Weekly

Hiya Tom
I’m sorry to keep adding to your blog ad nauseam. I think it is a terrible shame that all people with gender issues … GBLT and Intersex are not pooling information.
The Gay community united to fight for Gay rights, which was the only thing to do but in a way this is a retrogressive situation because we now need to be talking about diversity.
J. Michael Bailey, quoted at length in the Boston Globe piece, has been hugely discredited by almost every specialist in Transgender conditions for his book, The Man who would be Queen, an incredibly shoddy and subjective piece of work.
Bailey has only one starting point which is that men are men and women are women … which on the face of it seems common sense but, if you have read the interview with Eric Vilain, you may start to question how watertight this assumption is.
You will note this is said about Sven Blocklandt, Vilain’s colleague in the Boston Globe article:
“Instead of looking for a gay gene, they stress that they are looking for several genes that cause either attraction to men or attraction to women. Those same genes would work one way in heterosexual women and another way in homosexual men. The UCLA lab is examining how these genes might be turned “up” or “down.” It’s not a question of what genes you have, but rather which ones you use, says Bocklandt. “I have the genes in my body to make a vagina and carry a baby, but I don’t use them, because I am a man.” In studying the genes of gay sheep, for example, he’s found some that are turned “way up” compared with the straight rams.”
The situation is just not so black and white and perhaps we should be concentrating on how we differ individuallly … not on whether we fit into the Gay box or the Sissy box or the transsexual box etc.. It is highly unlikely that a ‘Gay gene’ will be found. There may be combinations of genes which under certain conditions can lead to a predisposition. The more that is learnt about genetics, the more geneticists realise how little they yet know and how much more there is to know.
With regard to Male/Female brains, this debate may be of interest to you:
I have to say I think Elizabeth Spelke makes some very strong points which I hope Pinker, who has in the past supported Bailey without actually knowing what he’s talking about, may have taken on board. This is dubious however as ‘scientific’ egos as big as Pinker’s too often stand in the way of progress for no other reason than that they must appear to be right.

This stuff is so damn silly. A boy with ‘CGN’ is one who consistently exhibits a host of strongly feminine traits and interests while avoiding boy-typical behavior like rough-and-tumble play – but is the kid transgendered or does he just not happen to like what he has been presented with as ‘boy-typical behavior’? (I bloody hated ‘rough-and-tumble play’ from an early age.) And what about girls who do like fighting and climbing trees – presumably they’re not a problem deserving of clinical study and therapeutic intervention (I’d pity the psychologist who said they were), and yet our namby-pamby doll-dressing boys are. Macho, macho man… (And what does any of this have to do with sexual orientation? Jan Morris’s partner was James Morris’s, IIRC.)

I have a question
First lets look at the meaning of gay: Of, relating to, or having a sexual orientation to persons of the same sex.
Now, i want to remind you something, which i never see when someone researches “what causes being gay” issue
There are actually three types of gays: a) Active Gays b) Passive Gays c) Active-Passive Gays
Active Gays love to be in the males position in sex, while passive gays love to be in female position; and active-passive loves both.
Think about an active gay who is very masculine and macho, even more than a heterosexual. But he is NOT attracted to females and he only likes to have sex with passive gays and he only falls in love with them.
People always care about what causes passive gayness. I have never seen anyone trying to answer what causes active gayness.
Do you have any idea on this issue? Have you ever researched?

I have often observed how virtually all men in the Middle East that engage in sex with “Western men” manifest “active” gay behavior. Could active gayness therefore be due to cultural differences? I look forward to your kind response.

Clitus – I’d actually want to argue with you here. Again, there’s no denying that there are men in the world who like to be in an active role in sex, no doubt that there are men in the world who like to be in a passive or receptive role in sex and no doubt there are men in the world who like a bit of both. What’s interesting is there’s no shortage of S&M relationships in heterosexual people in which dominant or submissive characteristics also manifest. Straight men, in short, can be submissive. Moreover, it’s not necessarily that easy to correlate masculine or feminine behaviour to these categories. In fact sometimes you’ll find extremely ‘butch’ acting men chosing to be be with even more butch men.
Truth of the matter is, there are so many evident exceptions to these rules of thumb that at a certain point it only seems reasonable to start divorcing them from one another. The genes that cause a highly masculinised frame may have nothing whatsoever to do with sexuality, gender identity, preferred role in sex or masculine/feminine behaviours. Conceivably there might be every possible biological combination of these elements with only some forms of those relationships considered socially acceptable. Some of these things may befollowing John Smithdifferent cultures ways of making sense of these relationships, phrasing biology through culture.
The thing is, these studies just don’t seem to be exploring these things enormously well. They’re just taking social categories, treating them as if they represented biological categories and trying to determine causality on the basis of this distinction. An extreme example – I can’t help thinking that this search for the homosexual gene is actually sort of similar to looking for a single gene for ‘being gifted’ or ‘being disabled’. There are so many ways to be gifted. There are near-infinite ways in which your genes could mutate to your biological detriment. The categories of ‘gifted’ or ‘disabled’ are too blunt and clumsy to generate much insight, and to study them in this way would deform the political discourse – people would assume that someone who could play the piano well should be expert at maths. And someone who was terrible at maths would be written off forever.

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