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?