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15 Feb 2008

no place for scientific illiterates in the gay debate

Are gay people unwilling to believe the science surrounding homosexuality, instead preferring simple cut-and-dried answers? Alex Au looks at current scientific consensus which say that multiple genes do play a part and urges scientific literacy.

I have yet to attend a gay-related conference that has a session devoted to science. It really begs the question, why do gay people not assign as much importance to biological and psychological research as it deserves?

A study of 944 homosexual and heterosexual men by Anthony F Bogaert found that the larger number of biological older brothers a man has, the more likely he would be gay. Older sisters had no such effect nor did growing up with non-biological older brothers had no such effect. Image from 60 Minutes, an investigative television newsmagazine which runs on CBS News in the US, has featured some scientific research in its programme ''Gay or Straight?''.

Our opponents, even as we dismiss them as Christian loonies, have organisations such as National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) that track scientific findings and spin them to serve their cause. I can't think of similar efforts by LGBT groups.

My experience in gay activism has shown me that whenever we speak to the public, science-related questions invariably pop up. It's important to ordinary people when they try to grasp the issue, so it should be important to gay people to keep ourselves abreast of the subject. Yet, I fear there's a tendency to ignore it.

Are we unsure whether science is friend or foe? Are we afraid that research might debunk some of our pet myths? Even if so, there's still no reason to ignore it the way we do. It would just be burying our heads in the sand.

Another possibility is that we're all vaguely aware that discussing the science would only expose the fault lines within the LGBT movement. Our much-cherished solidarity would fall apart in an instant. There are those who would cheer the science on as it marches towards the biological holy grail: "See, we're born like this, how can you discriminate against us?"

No doubt, there are just as many others who shudder at the thought that biological determinism would surely open to door to test-tube manipulation of the next generation of children. They might strenuously oppose those among us who would employ such research findings in our cause.

That's if you're even prepared to believe the science. Large numbers of LGBT people still refuse to believe it, whatever the findings may be, mostly because it doesn't seem to gel with their own personal experience of their sexuality. For example, many women have a sense that they can choose whether to go gay or straight. "What has biology to do with it?" they ask.

Yet, they forget that even this is a scientific question. What is it about the neuro-biological make-up of people like you that confer upon you choice, while others don't seem to enjoy it? Science may not yet have embarked on this question, but it is no reason to say it cannot answer it.

However, the most likely reason why LGBT activists tend to avoid the science, in my opinion, is that most of us are scientific illiterates. This failing is becoming ever more obvious as science progresses. The research findings get more and more technical, and we end up feeling more and more bewildered.

In addition, we too may be victims of the mindset - just like our religious opponents - that want simple cut-and-dried answers. We find it frustrating that science provides nothing of the sort. Discoveries are incremental, subject to a zillion possible interpretations and caveats, and quickly countered by another study.

But that's how science proceeds, and it is wondrous to behold.

Let me review some of the more recent reports. As expected, none of the new findings provide any definitive answer to social and political questions, but empirical facts still have a role to play. They render certain kinds of questions invalid, and they shift the debate away from a contest of dogma to a more nuanced discussion of just what social and political choices remain within the limits set by the realities of the natural world.

Take for example, the question: Is homosexuality genetically determined? Too much of the public debate seems to revolve around Yes and No. This is what I call a contest of dogma, because the people who want a Yes answer want it for social and political ends, not because they care very much about science. Ditto for those who hope for a No.

It may surprise some gay people, but far from being a totally open question, it is now recognised as a more or less settled one, at least with respect to male homosexuality. The scientific consensus now is that it is not genetically determined in the classical Mendelian way, but it is likely that multiple genes do play a part. Moreover, it is almost surely the mother's genes that matter, not the father's.

Some latest findings that add to the growing volume of research in support of this view include Sven Bocklandt's of the University of California. He sampled 97 mothers of gay sons (42 of them had two gay sons) and 103 mothers whose sons were not gay, and found significant differences in the X-chromosomes of mothers of gay sons. Women have two X-chromosomes, of which one has to be inactivated in each cell of her body. Normally, which of the two X-chromosomes is inactivated vary from cell to cell quite randomly. However Bocklandt found that some women inactivate exactly the same X-chromosome throughout their bodies and this pattern is more commonly seen among women with gay sons than women without. Women with two gay sons exhibit this pattern most commonly of all.

A study by Andrea Camperio-Ciani from the University of Padua, Italy, sampled the families of 98 gay and 100 straight men. He found that the mothers of gay men tended to have more children. They averaged 2.7 offspring compared to 2.3 for mothers of straight men. Camperio-Ciani hypothesised that a women carrying the trait for homosexuality may gain a reproductive advantage from it.

The homosexual trait, therefore, far from being an evolutionary handicap, may in fact be an asset.

At the same time, one should not assume that a "fixed trait" which many tend to argue sexual orientation to be, must necessarily be due to genes, maternal or otherwise.

Anthony F Bogaert studied 944 homosexual and heterosexual men, inquiring into their sibling histories. He found that the larger number of biological older brothers a man has, the more likely he would be gay. Older sisters had no such effect. Growing up with non-biological older brothers had no such effect.

The pattern points clearly to something going on in the mother's womb, and how many times she has previously carried a male foetus. This does not look consistent with any genetic explanation, and yet appears to be a prenatally-fixed trait.

Once again, you are left with a frustratingly complex picture. Once again, you may say there is no clear-cut answer.

But that's the beauty of it. Our opponents tend to be the simpletons, who prefer to ignore the complexity of nature in pursuit of unrealistic and sweeping dicta. Many of these rest on archaic, unscientific assumptions about choice, about (bad) social influences or evolutionary dead-ends. Against such opposition, our ability to command the facts can be an important asset in a debate, establishing credibility for ourselves and effectively demolishing the assumptions behind their simple assertions.

It's time to put scientific illiteracy behind us.

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of gay advocacy group People Like Us. He is also the author of the well-known Yawning Bread web site.


1. 2008-02-15 19:56  
Hear hear ..good article . Why the gay generally not into scientific basis of their orgins? Simply brought into a gay culture of quick gratiification - they would rather bury their "heads" in someone's butt or mouth and just plead ignorance..thats why..and thats the sad fact..go no further and just see the HIV dead charts..
2. 2008-02-15 20:06  
madfoxx, you are an ignorant ass.

Firstly, do you know the ramifications of trying to explain what makes people gay? What if there really is a gay gene so soon to be parents can have a choice to abort the child because he/she is determined to be gay by gene analysis?

Personally, I think gay is mother nature's way of controlling human population. Can you imagine what would be the world's population if everyone was straight!?

And lastly, I don't know where you've been hiding, but AIDS doesn't discriminate between gays or straights. I think you really need to be educated.

3. 2008-02-15 23:33  
no matter our gayhood can be explained by scientific or not, we r what/who we r, and its completely natural thing, so just be urself/ourselves ;)
4. 2008-02-15 23:53  
Just to follow up on rider26's comment on what would be the point of gay people from the perspective of "mother nature". That is are gay individuals (and gay genes) there for a reason? Do they make our species more likely to survive?
An interesting study for both the scientific literates and illiterates:
5. 2008-02-15 23:57  
There are also a number of very interesting scientific studies into theories of social constructionism that postulate while genetics may play a part, what also is increasingly seen as an important factor in determining certain sexual predilections is parenting/care during the key formative years 0-6. I think this nature/nurture debate needs to be encouraged, as we are too often told to merely accept the frequently rather black and white rhetoric of the more politicised wing of the gay community rather than examine our sexualities more critically and empirically. Bravo, boffins, though genetics doesn't yet hold all the answers...
6. 2008-02-16 00:15  
Great article and good to see discussion of the natural link between our community and a science and secular based society. They obviously go hand in hand.

On why genetics may favor homosexuality, there are some studies that do suggest it is a way to reduce competition for female partners (example the study that shows strong correlation with increased propensity for homosexuality with every successive male child).

But all that aside, it seems fairly obvious that outside of procreation and without the stringent artificial edicts of religion, man like most primates (indeed most animals) would be largely a bisexual animal.

In nature it seems that strict heterosexuality is the anomaly, rather than the norm
7. 2008-02-16 00:29  
Kinsey was right - as far back as the 1950's irrespective of country or culture. Straight is at one end of the ruler, and gay is at the other - most of us are somewhere inbetween (ie, like about 80% of the population). It's both nature and nurture. But how much of this is how we identify/label ourselves? Let's just do away with the labels and realise we are "sexual beings"
8. 2008-02-16 00:37  
wow great article on science and nature vs. nurture . . . I am gay and I too have kids and wonder if they will be impacted genetically . . . interesting evidence on the mother passing along the genetic code for gayness . . . so we should all blame or thank mommy?
9. 2008-02-16 04:29  
I agree it is wonderful that research is going into the sources of sexuality is happening, if even for no other reason that discovering how things work in nature is always exciting.

However, conservative Christians manage to deny the whole vast field of the Theory of Evolution just because it doesn't match their preferred reading of the Bible.

Even if a rock-solid scientific explanation of the cause of homosexuality were found, it would never be accepted by conservatives who feel the need to be morally superior. They'd just throw it out with the rest of what they see as the "bathwater", ie most of biology, genetics, geology and paleontology.

Still, that's no reason for us to be lazy. The causes of sexuality is one issue that fascinates many GLTBs and if the information is out there, you'd expect us to be up-to-the-minute with what's happening.
10. 2008-02-16 06:52  
We definitely need to keep abreast of what's happening out there in terms of sexuality research. Just so that we're not caught unawares. We need the skills to to question research methodology, if necessary, and understand the type and quality of data used to make the claims and conclusions published. Sometimes different conclusions can be drawn about the same data.
11. 2008-02-16 07:19  
I think a lot of gay people already know the contents of this article. A reason some gay people might choose to remain "ignorant" of the science is the lack of a need to justify why they are the way they are. Let's say science did definitively prove that gay people are born that way--will this make narrow-minded conservatives any more likely to accept us? I doubt it.

The science on nature vs. nurture is so muddled I wouldn't be surprised if someone did a study as to the possibility of an "intolerance" gene. We could then have all those radical conservatives genetically engineered to be less nasty and self-righteous and more loving.

If and when full acceptance from repressive heterosexuals ever comes, it will NOT be because of science. It will happen because of a change in values, a change in spirit and heart. We in the 21st century have a proclivity to believe that science will solve all our problems. The record shows that science creates just as many problems as it solves. The question we should be asking ourselves is NOT "Why are some people gay?" but rather "Why can't we all just care about each other unconditionally?"
12. 2008-02-16 07:28  
Great article as usual by Alex Au. I find this type of subject facinating, regardless of my sexual orientation, because science is facinating.

In response to 'BaddDD' "lets just do away with the labels" ... why ? People like labels, helps give them an identity. When I was young, I didnt know what gay was, but i knew i was different, hence causing much confusion and pain, until I learned about 'gay'.
I had 'label' for it, and an idetification, I wasnt alone anymore.
If you really want to do away with 'labels' then modify your profile, and remove your identification as 'gay male' .. and ' caucasian'. You could always put 'others' or 'prefer not to say' But I suspect you also like labels.
13. 2008-02-17 01:17  
not everything can be explained scientifically and that's the beauty of nature. only a simpleton would believe otherwise.
16. 2008-02-17 03:15  
My issue with scientific explanations of homosexuality is that they continue to posit being gay as an aberration that needs to be scrutinized and explained. That somehow, homosexuality can be isolated to some cluster of basic DNA-units in the body that can somehow explain our desires or our behavior in some more "essential" way that comes closer to "truth."

I would be less skeptical about scientific research into the origins of human sexuality if there was equal attention paid to the origins of HETEROsexuality (is there a gene cluster for str8 people?). Why are some people only turned on by men/women of other races? What about some of our predisposition toward monogamy/non-monogamy, or for tall people rather than short? Etc. etc.

Until then, while there seems to be a major obsession with discovering the genetic roots of homosexuality (rather than heterosexuality), I do not believe that the motivations behind these studies are un-biased or benign.
17. 2008-02-17 05:09  
I believe in science and I applaude the effort taken by scientist in the area of genetics & homosexuality. But after talking so much about scientific literacy, the few reports you quoted just seem laughable. It seems to be generalizing some common characteristics about homosexuality and proving it by using certain statistics. Perhaps like you said, it is this bit by bit effort that count, but i can't help but laugh.
18. 2008-02-17 09:49  
Alex, once again your article has generated much thought and debate amongst my friends.

The Scientific Method is a vital component in improving human lives. Even those who try to debunk the Theory of Evolution cannot live without antibiotics, computers or forsake modern transportation - all products of Scientists' rigorous experiments and exploration.

While Science may not answer everything about life or homosexuality, it is responsible for observations about natural homosexual behavior in other living things, in some twins and amongst relatives.

While Science may not answer questions about our soul, it is also an aspect that is not fully explored in our quest to be recognised as equals.

Thanks Alex for raising this!
19. 2008-02-17 09:59  
I know this does not pertain to the issue of sexuality, but it is timely that Alex raised the importance of Science that speaks to our community. Also, the only way to get people to integrate us is that we look beyond our own community to the larger community. We must take the first steps.

In Singapore, and many parts of Asia, we took Science as a subject as a means to engineering, chemistry and medicine. The real passion for Science is absent in the majority of students taking the subject. We - esp the Science teachers - need to approach Science with genuine love, such that we can ask our future generations to aim for higher goals such as scientists and researchers. In time, we will have our own Einsteins, Newtons and Mendeleevs.
20. 2008-02-17 11:17  
When I read the article, I had to wonder if it was only Fridae readers who might be ignorant of the science until I read the majority of the comments. Dysk-tonic sums things up, from my point of view, very well, so I won't repeat.
21. 2008-02-17 19:33  
GEZZ ppl, you make it sound as if its a choice to believe or not to believe. Its not religion ppl, you dont need faith, if u dont think its right, repeat the experiment. I mean whether it turns out to be true that its generic or not, The simple truth is we have to accept the science ( unless u want to be a backward looking simpleton) since the whole point of science is the search for truth. MIND U the current data sample is far far too small to be depended apon....i mean a total population sample of .~1000...thats hardly conclusive.... SO if we are to follow the authors advice and use the current science to fight our battles, just be careful not to over strech and look like a fool .......
22. 2008-02-17 19:36  
Far more intersting question:
23. 2008-02-18 17:30  
being gay is copyrights
24. 2008-02-18 17:31  
hmmm COMMON GROUND movie so inspired QUERR AS FOLKS too

25. 2008-02-18 17:34  
ow this site ,discussing like this ?lol,,,,,,,,,,,,hmmmmmmmm
26. 2008-02-18 17:36  
but u keeping ur LESBIAN mind?allowed?
27. 2008-02-18 17:37  
hows lesbian copyrights? any answer ?

28. 2008-02-18 17:42  
I agree with the idea that the Christian Right is not interested in science per se. Even with much scientific evidence, as well as rational philosophy, the religious will still believe whatever he chooses to. For those who have already made up their minds about what to believe, 'science' is usually only summoned whenever it is convenient.

This means that even if there is a real debate between the church and the gay community, no amount of scientific evidence will put either camp at ease. This debate has little to do with science, really.

I refuse to take part in the archaic debate of 'nature vs nurture' and the search for an easy answer; and it is also out of a healthy interest in Science that I say this.

Evolution is BOTH 'nature' and 'nurture'. Currently, evolution, at best provides a meta-narrative for life - a logic for the diversity of life on earth - but is very far from being able to convincingly explain why I am gay and my younger brother is not.
29. 2008-02-18 18:04  
six feet under or queer as folks or common ground ?
30. 2008-02-18 18:08  
bait bait bait bait bait i said bait
31. 2008-02-19 04:44  
richard dawkin's books are essential reading for anyone with a layman's interest in the theory of natural selection and atheism. i cannot recommend 'the god delusion' and 'the selfish gene' more. pls check it out.
32. 2008-02-21 13:39  
In Post #11 seoulseeker writes:
"The science on nature vs. nurture is so muddled I wouldn't be surprised if someone did a study as to the possibility of an "intolerance" gene. "

Interestingly, a recent cover article in New Scientist suggests that political preferences for liberalism/conservatism and attitudes such as tolerance/intolerance may be genetically "hard-wired" after all (see New Scientist "Two Tribes" 2 Feb 2008).

Apparently whether you are "left-wing" or "right-wing" may ultimately be determined by your genetic make-up.

If this is true, than there is about as much hope of 'converting' a conservative right wing Evangelical to tolerance as there is of converting an exclusive homosexual to heterosexuality.
33. 2008-02-24 08:46  
I'm constantly fascinated by the genes vs. womb results that come from these studies. It seems that there is a clear pattern that the more a woman produces male foetuses, the more likely they will be gay. I'm the first born son of a woman who has had three (3) children. The second was a female and the third was a male. Neither the female nor the second male have any homosexual traits (ok, so my sister's a bit butch, but far from gay), but how does that make sense? If the woman should be more likely to produce gay sons as the number of male foetuses she has carried increases, shouldn't it be that if the first one is gay, the others must also be gay? Is it that the woman produced a female between the two males? Is it that the two males were born nine years apart?

I too would very much appreciate a cut and dry answer. I'm looking for sort of a guide book on how to have a gay son. It is frustrating that science still hasn't delivered us any clear answers. I wonder why science appears to be failing us. Is it that the samples in these studies simply aren't large enough to produce clear enough patterns to lead us in the right direction, or is it possible that there is actually more than one answer and that is what's causing us this problem? What if there are in fact more than one type of gay person? Perhaps there are several ways for a woman to produce a gay son, one by passing on genetic sequences and another hormonally. Perhaps there are even more combinations that produce many different types of gay people. Could combinations be the reasons for varying degrees of homosexual and even bisexual behaviour?

Whatever the answer, I think there are many reasons we tend not to focus enough on science and I believe that once science does find a way to map out all the right answers, we'll sit up, take note, and listen to what's happening. Until then, the whole thing is just a bit too much to fit our heads around. Personally, I'm not interested in hearing any study which tells me that I wasn't 'pre-programmed' to be gay. I do not believe I had any choice in the matter, so I'm less interested in listening to science that doesn't help me support my own feelings on the subject. I'm sure others feel the same.

So Alex, it's up to you to clear it all up for us. We may not be searching every scientific release, but we're all here week in, week out, waiting for your next article, so the best way to get us all excited about science is by slowly feeding it to us in your future stories here on Fridae!

34. 2008-02-25 21:16  
This article -and many of the comments below- show just how science, like religion,can be a double-edged sword We may like to think that logic triumphs over emotions/ philosophies any given time. Yet, it can be potentially catastrophic should one use such a logic- say, the proven conclusion by science that homosexuality, like one's eye color, is predetermined by birth - to justify his/ her own personal perceptions that it is some 'genetic defect' that needs 'correcting'.
35. 2008-03-03 10:35  
It was good reading it.






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