Entitled The Science of Gaydar, this particular article serves as a highly informative (and at times humorous) survey of the latest thinking and research on the biological origins of sexual orientation.
It’s a fascinating read and one that is a timely reminder of just how complex and wondrous the realities of human sexuality and gender are. For instance, as one researcher notes, “It might be that there is no single thing called homosexuality—that there are instead dozens of homosexualities, scores of potential outcomes in terms of personality, and endless potentials for describing them.”
Of course, I look forward to the day when Catholic teaching on human sexuality acknowledges and reflects the complexities of gender and sexual orientation. As internationally-renowned researcher and lifelong Catholic Simon Rosser has noted: “Church teaching is at its most progressive when it engages in genuine dialogue, especially with experts and those most affected, to advance its theology. In turn, theology is like life - it’s liberating when it is healthy, challenging, and based in reality. . . . I think the first step is for the scientists and the bishops to sit down at the same table and talk.”
Following are excerpts from David France’s “The Science of Gaydar.” (Note: I’ve added the headings within the text.)
“Gaydar, “Gendermaps,” and the “Fundamentally Social Purpose” of Homosexuality
Excerpts from “The Science of Gaydar”
By David France
June 25, 2007
I once placed a personal ad in which I described myself as “gay-acting/gay-appearing,” partly as a jab at my peers who prefer to be thought of as “str8” but mostly because it’s just who I am. Maybe a better way to phrase it would have been “third-sexer,” the category advanced by the gay German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld 100 years ago. The label fell into disrepute, but lately a number of well-known researchers in the field of sexual orientation have been reviving it based on an extensive new body of research showing that most of us, whether top or bottom, butch or femme, or somewhere in between, share a kind of physical otherness that locates us in our own quadrant of the gender matrix, more like one another than not. Whatever that otherness is seems to come from somewhere deep within us. It mostly defies our efforts to disguise it. That’s what we mean by gaydar—not the skill of the viewer so much as the telltale signs most gay people project, the set of traits that make us unmistakably one.
The late psychologist and sexologist John Money famously called these the details of our “gendermaps,” which he believed are drawn primarily by life’s experience and social conditioning. Money planted some of the earliest flags in the nature-versus-nurture war by claiming that dysfunctional parents, not inborn biology, is what produced “sissy boys,” tomboys, and other gender variants. But today, the pendulum has swung just about as far in the other direction as possible. A small constellation of researchers is specifically analyzing the traits and characteristics that, though more pronounced in some than in others, not only make us gay but also make us appear gay.
At first read, their findings seem like a string of unlinked, esoteric observations. Statistically, for instance, gay men and lesbians have about a 50 percent greater chance of being left-handed or ambidextrous than straight men or women. The relative lengths of our fingers offer another hint: The index fingers of most straight men are shorter than their ring fingers, while for most women they are closer in length, or even reversed in ratio. But some researchers have noted that gay men are likely to have finger-length ratios more in line with those of straight women, and a study of self-described “butch” lesbians showed significantly masculinized ratios. The same goes for the way we hear, the way we process spatial reasoning, and even the ring of our voices. One study, involving tape-recordings of gay and straight men, found that 75 percent of gay men sounded gay to a general audience. It’s unclear what the listeners responded to, whether there is a recognized gay “accent” or vocal quality. And there is no hint as to whether this idiosyncrasy is owed to biology or cultural influences—only that it’s unmistakable. What is there in Rufus Wainwright’s “uninhibited, yearning, ugly-duckling voice,” as the Los Angeles Times wrote a few weeks ago, that we recognize as uniquely gay? Does biology account for Rosie O’Donnell’s crisp trumpet and Charles Nelson Reilly’s gnyuck-gnyuck-gnyuck?
“These are all part and parcel of the idea that being gay is different—that we are different animals to some extent,” says Simon LeVay, the British-born neuroscientist who has dedicated himself to studying these issues. “Hirschfeld was right. I support the idea that we’re a third sex—or a third sex and a fourth sex, gay men and lesbians. Today, there’s scientific documentation behind this.” . . .
“Something we’re born with”
[T]he cumulative findings support the belief now widely held in the scientific community that sexual orientation—perhaps along with the characteristics we typically associate with gayness—is biological. “We’re reaching a consensus on a broad question,” says J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University. Is sexual orientation “something we’re born with or something we largely acquire through social experience? The answer is clear. It’s something we’re born with.”
Because many of these newly identified “gay” traits and characteristics are known to be influenced in utero, researchers think they may be narrowing in on when gayness is set—and identifying its possible triggers. They believe that homosexuality may be the result of some interaction between a pregnant mother and her fetus. Several hypothetical mechanisms have been identified, most pointing to an alteration in the flow of male hormones in the formation of boys and female hormones in the gestation of girls. What causes this? Nobody has any direct evidence one way or another, but a list of suspects includes germs, genes, maternal stress, and even allergy—maybe the mother mounts some immunological response to the fetal hormones.
Immunological response is the ascendant theory, in fact. We know from a string of surveys that in any family, the second-born son is 33 percent more likely than the first to be gay, and the third is 33 percent more likely than the second, and so on, as though there is some sort of “maternal memory,” similar to the way antibodies are memories of an infection. Perhaps she mounts a more effective immunological response to fetal hormones with each new male fetus. To determine whether the fraternal birth order might also suggest that baby brothers are treated differently in a way that impacts their sexual expression, researchers have studied boys who weren’t raised in their biological families, or who may have been firstborn but grew up as the youngest in Brady Bunch–type homes. In every permutation, the results were the same: What mattered was only how many boys had occupied your mother’s uterus before you.
The history of sexual orientation research
At the dawn of gay politics a half-century ago, the government treated gay people as a menace to national security, and much of the public, kept from any ordinary depictions of gay life, lived in terror of encountering one of us. It was routine, and reliably successful, for defendants in murder cases to prevail by alleging they were fending off a gay assault. (If confronted by the pathology of homosexuality, jurors believed, force was not only appropriate but utterly forgivable.) Back then, many psychiatrists treated homosexuality with shock therapy, detention, or a mind-twisting intervention called “aversion therapy”—a practice that was still in vogue in the late seventies, when a lumpy-faced psychiatrist put me through a regimen of staring at Playboy centerfolds.
The groundwork for change began when Evelyn Hooker, a UCLA psychologist, was approached by a gay former student in the fifties. He had noticed that all research on homosexuals looked at men and women who were imprisoned or institutionalized, thereby advancing the belief that homosexuals were abnormal. He proposed that she study men like him as a counterpoint. Over the next two decades, she did just that, proving that none of the known psychological screens could detect a healthy gay person—that there was no clinical pathology to sexual orientation. Of necessity, research at the time was focused on demonstrating how unremarkable gay men and lesbians are: indistinguishable on all personality inventories, equally good at all jobs, benign as parents, unthreatening as neighbors, and so on. On the strength of Hooker’s findings, and a Gandhian effort by activists, the APA changed its view on homosexuals 34 years ago.
Thereafter, the field of sexual-orientation research fell dormant until 1991, when Simon LeVay conducted the very first study of homosexual biological uniqueness. . . . If LeVay’s research suggested that biology—not environment, vice, or sinfulness—was likely responsible for male homosexuality, the geneticist Dean Hamer, an author and molecular biologist at the National Institutes of Health, hoped to pinpoint the exact biological mechanism responsible. He scanned gene groups in pairs of gay siblings looking for sites where the relatives had inherited the same DNA more frequently than would be expected on the basis of chance. In 1993, he located a region in the human genome, called Xq28, that appeared to be associated with gayness, a finding that has generated some controversy among researchers who have not fully confirmed the results.
A large-scale study within the next year is expected to determine more conclusively if a gene (or genes) is linked to sexual orientation. Alan R. Sanders, a psychiatrist from Northwestern University, is enrolling 1,000 pairs of gay brothers in one of the largest sexual-orientation studies ever undertaken. With the experiment, funded by an NIH grant of over $1 million, Sanders will attempt to map genes that influence sexual orientation. . . .
[E]very discovery in this field ignites a new discussion of morality. Politically, there is something very powerful about the notion that sexual orientation is a matter of biology, not choice. In poll after poll, of the one third of Americans who believe homosexuality is socially influenced, in other words “a choice,” about 70 percent think being gay is “not acceptable.” But for those who believe it is biologically mandated, the statistic reverses, and four out of five Americans find gayness “acceptable.” . . .
The “fundamentally social purpose” of homosexuality
[H]omosexuality does not make a whole lot of sense biologically. It lacks an obvious purpose. That’s the reason evolution-theory scholars call it “maladaptive” and radio shock jock Laura Schlessinger labeled it a “biological error.” But Stanford biology professor Joan Roughgarden points out in her book Evolution’s Rainbow that most homosexual activity in the animal kingdom serves a fundamentally social purpose. Japanese macaques, for instance, live in female-only societies, arranged in rigid hierarchies. Power and cohesion are established through lesbian couplings, which can last up to four days and seem to prevent violence and aggression. Among many species, in fact, gayness seems to facilitate complex societies. One species of bird has males, females, and “marriage brokers” of a third gender, there to keep the species perpetuating. As adolescents, male bottlenose dolphins perform a kind of oral sex on one another—or in threesomes or foursomes—in rituals that create lifelong friendships and defense partnerships against sharks and other predators.
. . . Fewer studies have focused specifically on lesbians, perhaps because AIDS didn’t provide the same urgent impetus for studying female sexuality. But the research that has been conducted has yielded some interesting, though decidedly cloudy, results. According to some studies, lesbians are more likely to have homosexual relatives than nonlesbians. They also have notably longer bone growth in their arms, legs, and hands, hinting that they had greater androgen exposure during development, according to James Martin, a physiologist with Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. Another indicator comes in a 2003 study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience that measured something called “prepulse inhibition,” which is the part of our startle mechanism that’s believed to defy practice or training—something hardwired, in other words. Men tend to blink less than women in such experiments; gay and heterosexual men had similar responses, but lesbians, it turns out, were more like men than not.
In many other studies, though, lesbians have appeared less unique than gay men, leading some people to wonder if their sexual orientation is innate. Michael Bailey—who, as a heterosexual researcher, is a minority in this field—even doubts the existence of female sexual orientation, if by orientation we mean a fundamental drive that defies our conscious choices. He bases this provocative gambit on a sexual-arousal study he and his students conducted. When shown pornographic videos, men have an undeniable response either to gay or straight images but not both, according to sensitive gauges attached to their genitals—it’s that binary. Female sexual response is more democratic, opaque, and unpredictable: Arousal itself is harder to track, and there is evidence that it defies easy categorization. “I don’t yet understand female partner choices very well, and neither does anyone else,” Bailey wrote me in an e-mail. “What I do think it’s time to do is admit that female sexuality looks in some ways very different from male sexuality, and that there is no clear analog in women of men’s directed sexual-arousal pattern, which I think is their sexual orientation. I am not sure that women don’t have a sexual orientation, but it is certainly unclear that they do.”
He contends that what they have instead is sexual preference—they might prefer sex with women, but something in their brains can still sizzle at the thought of men. Many feminist scholars agree with this assessment, and consider sexuality more of a fluid than an either-or proposition, but some don’t. “I think women do have orientations, but they don’t circumscribe the range of desires that women can experience to the same degree as men,” says Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, who is writing a book on the subject. “For women, there’s more wiggle room. You can think of orientation as defining a range of possible responses, and for women, it’s much broader.” . . .
“The comfort of self-knowledge”
I suppose the main upside to this kind of work, besides any impact it might have on securing gay rights, is the comfort of self-knowledge. The secrets lurking in the hypothalamus (and the ring finger and the hair whorl) aren’t just about who we desire but about a more fundamental organization of our personalities, individually and collectively. Still, some have dismissed all this field-guide work as wrongheaded. Gaydar can no more be proved than a sixth sense, they say. What’s being classified as fundamentally gay is nothing more than cultural signals that vary so much from one part of the world to another that they’re worthless as clues to anything. It is surely true that gaydar has its blind spots. When I traveled through Nigeria a few years ago, I was unable after nearly a month to say with any conviction that I had encountered any gay people along my way. No knowing eye contact, no species recognition. (Then again, it’s not as if I was able to measure index-to-ring finger ratios.)
Where were they all? In Lagos, the morning newspaper offered an answer. According to a tiny news squib, a court had just convicted a young man of sodomy and sentenced him to death by stoning. Two other death sentences were handed down to gay people in the few days before I boarded my airplane. I paid a visit to one of the top human-rights agencies in the country and asked why they weren’t protesting these cases. The director looked at me dumbstruck. “Because sodomy,” he said as if speaking to a child, “is illegal.” To survive, they were hiding, even from me—they had edited down their gendermaps to the barest minimum and disappeared.
Still, [one researcher] Dr. [Richard] Lippa [a psychologist from California State University at Fullerton] . . . is publishing a paper in the Archives of Sexual Behavior later this year that seems to prove the existence of gay-typical behavior across the globe. Lippa is looking at a 2005 BBC Internet survey, part of a BBC documentary project called Secrets of the Sexes, which included more than 200,000 respondents in 53 countries answering questions about everything from their occupational interests to their sexual histories and personalities. Lippa, a tall and slender man who came out to his parents in his thirties, analyzed the data first along gender lines, then compared straight people to gay people. What he found, he says, is a cross-cultural confirmation of what amount to stereotypes.
“It probably comes as no shock to you that on average men say they’re interested in being mechanics, or electrical engineers, or construction workers, whereas on average women are more interested in, say, being an interior decorator or a social worker or an artist,” he tells me. “Similarly, the differences between gay men and straight men are pretty large. On average, gay men are interested more in what you would consider female-typical occupations and hobbies than straight men. Same with women. It’s not universal. Some gay men like football games and like working on cars and are electrical engineers. But a large majority answer this way.”
It could be that his study says more about the limited number of vocations where gay men feel comfortable expressing themselves, and we might be equally drawn to construction sites if we thought we might be accepted there. It could be that the study says as much about the globalization of culture as the biological nature of gayness.
Even Lippa hesitates to say that gay people are essentially different from straight. “Essentialism,” he explains, “is the enemy of a lot of academics,” because it shuts down inquiry into all the possible influences. Perhaps there are a dozen possible routes to homosexuality, any combination of which might produce a number of the traits being catalogued now. It might be that there is no single thing called homosexuality—that there are instead dozens of homosexualities, scores of potential outcomes in terms of personality, and endless potentials for describing them. “For example, do gay men who have older brothers show more or less feminine? Do gay men with counterclockwise hair have more masculine traits? One cause might create a more feminine homosexuality than another.”
Of course, biology doesn’t determine everything. And some critics of sexual-orientation researchers blame them for minimizing the role of experience in determining our affectional course in life. The feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has waged a constant battle against their research, which she calls “a big house of cards” that ignores the power of environment in creating personality. Nurture, she argues, can and should be studied as a link to sexual orientation. The baby penguin raised by her two dads is a potential case study—though genetically unrelated to either parent, in the last few mating seasons she has mated with another female.
The rush to declare a biological mandate is motivated by a political agenda, says Fausto-Sterling, the author of Sexing the Body, who is married to a woman after a marriage to a man. “For me and for any feminist, I think it’s a pretty fragile way to argue for human rights. I want to see the claims for gay rights made on moral, ethical, legal, and constitutional bases that don’t rely on a particular scientific view of sexual development.”
Especially if that view invites the opponents of gay people to consider dramatic interventions meant to stop the development of homosexual orientation in a fetus. What if prenatal tests were able to show a predisposition to gayness? How long would it be before some pharmaceutical company develops a patch to regulate hormone flow and direct the baby’s orientation? Michael Bailey, for one, isn’t troubled by the moral implications any more than he would oppose fetal screens for potential birth defects, though he quickly adds his personal belief that homosexuality is “a good” on par with heterosexuality. “There’s no reason to ban, or become hysterical about, selecting for heterosexuality,” he says. “That’s precisely what parenting is about: shaping the children to have traits the parents value.”
It’s bizarre to think some value systems might lump gayness in with—say—sickle-cell anemia or Down syndrome. As Matt Foreman from the [National Gay and Lesbian] Task Force put it, “It’s not playing with the number of toes you have; it’s really manipulating your very essence. So many people see gay people only in terms of sexual behavior, as opposed to what sexual orientation is really about, which is how you fit into the world. I don’t want to get mushy, but it’s about your soul.”
To read “The Science of Gaydar” in its entirety, click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
One of These Boys Is Not Like the Others
A Lesson from Play School
Coadjutor Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”