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It's not natural

New research claims to prove that homosexuals are born and not made. Peter Ray thinks that idea is unscientific, irrational - and very dangerous

Old chestnuts don't come much older than the question 'what causes homosexuality?'. In recent months, while the Western right has launched a 'cultural war' against lesbians and gay men, this issue has been receiving renewed attention as a result of the efforts of California-based neurobiologist and gay campaigner Simon LeVay.

LeVay claims that research carried about by himself and other scientists demonstrates that the cause of homosexuality is biological. The media like what they hear. In America LeVay's results were greeted by Newsweek magazine with a front cover picture of a baby and the question 'Is this child gay?', while LeVay himself has been interviewed by everybody from Oprah to Donahue.

In Britain too LeVay's results have received an enthusiastic press reception, and in October he presented a Channel 4 documentary about his ideas. More recent research done by LeVay's colleagues, Laura Allen and Richard Gorski of the University of California Medical School, was reported by the Guardian as seeming 'to confirm what the gay community has maintained for decades: that homosexuals are born not made' (3 August 1992).

All in INAH3?

The truth is that none of the work LeVay has drawn attention to tells us very much about homosexuality. However, the enthusiastic reception he has received provides striking confirmation of the conservative and defensive approach to the right's attacks on homosexuals which is now being adopted by liberal opinion.

In an attempt to test for differences between heterosexuals and homosexuals, LeVay measured the size of certain cell nuclei known as INAH3 found in the hypothalamus area of the brain. The hypothalamus is closely linked to the pituitary gland which is one of the regulators of hormones involved in the human reproductive system. The results were described by Newsweek as showing 'that [this] tiny area believed to control sexual activity was less than half the size in gay men than in the heterosexuals' (24 February 1992).

In fact, LeVay's results are not so clear cut; are based on a dubious sample; and cannot demonstrate that homosexuals are 'born different'.

The cells which LeVay measured varied massively in size even among the male homosexuals. Although the cells of a third of the gay men clustered around the lower end of the range, some of them had large nuclei when compared with the straights. If some homosexuals also have large nuclei then, as leading science journal Nature commented, this means that 'nuclear size...is neither a unique nor an unambiguous determinant of homosexual behaviour' (J Maddox, 'Is homosexuality hard-wired?', 5 September 1991).

Sample size

The sample that LeVay tested was very small. The cells of just 19 homosexual men were compared to those of only 16 heterosexual men and six heterosexual women. And the validity of the tests depended on the presumption that the individuals who reported themselves as straight were in fact exclusively heterosexual; a less than reliable source of information.

To the very limited extent that LeVay's results demonstrate a correlation between the size of the INAH3 nucleus and sexual orientation, that is all they demonstrate, as LeVay himself has cautioned. A correlation is not a cause; it could be that rather than the size of the nucleus determining sexual orientation, sexuality is the determinant of the size of the nucleus, or that both are a consequence of a third factor.

It should not be surprising that LeVay and his fellow researchers are having difficulties coming up with convincing results. As science, their whole approach is misconceived.

In the first place, since Alfred Kinsey researched the sexual experience of American men in the 1940s, it has been known that human sexual behaviour is more varied and complex than suggested by the simple concepts of hetero and homosexuality. How would LeVay's cells account for bisexuality? Do the nuclei change in size according to mood? Can they change suddenly and once and for all when a middle-aged married man 'comes out' as gay? Or do bisexuals fall in the middle of the size range?

And what about people who've got a thing for sheep, or men who like to have cream cakes thrown at them by prostitutes wearing Nazi uniforms? What will their INAH3 look like? You don't have to go to the wilder shores of desire, either. Apparently there are heterosexuals who get off on pretending to be football players during copulation, and why not? But exactly which gene is it that accounts for that?

Sex and society

These questions cannot be answered because the things that turn us on are not the product of unchanging, natural processes. Everything to do with sex is continually shaped and reshaped by social pressures and developments. Even the question of which physical characteristics are regarded as sexy is more influenced by society than it is by biology. Consider for a moment such standard contemporary fantasy objects as the Chippendales or page three girls, and ask yourself where the boys got those muscles or how anatomically well-suited the girls are for child-bearing. Nature has nothing to do with why people find them attractive.

What people consider to be desirable changes with society, both over time and between countries. A European woman who epitomised beauty a couple of centuries ago would today be regarded as almost obese. Where just a century ago, a glimpse of a woman's ankle was regarded as sexually provocative, today Madonna's posturing borders on the conventional. Things that might drive the English into a sexual frenzy would mean nothing to a native Amazonian.

It is difficult to see how nature could provide genes, cells and hormones able to distinguish, let alone determine preferences, between qualities that are the product of human history and social development. Indeed LeVay and his colleagues have hardly tried to come up with an explanation. As he admits, 'we do not....understand what makes people straight or gay' (Guardian, 9 October).

So why the disproportionate reaction of the press to the meagre and inconclusive results and the non-explanations that this research has produced? This is a particularly interesting question in the light of what is known about sexuality.

The Guardian's history is a little selective when it states that the 'gay community' has always maintained a natural view of homosexuality. The modern gay scene emerged in the wake of the militant self-assertion of the gay liberation movement in the early 1970s. Many gay liberationists explicitly rejected the idea that sexuality and even gender itself were natural. They believed that sexual liberation demanded the transcending of these categories.

Since the seventies, historical research has demonstrated that the entire project of trying to find biological factors that determine whether an individual will be homosexual or heterosexual is illogical because such categories of people were unknown before the nineteenth century.

Of course, from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare's Elizabethans, there were always some people enjoying sex with others of the same sex. But the modern idea of homosexuality, as characteristic of a particular type of person (rather than just a sinful act that anybody might engage in) did not exist. This was because the possibility of living a modern homosexual lifestyle did not exist for any significant section of the population before the emergence of industrial capitalism.

In the backward, rural-dominated societies which predated capitalism, the traditional family was the institution through which economic production and survival were organised. While the odd sexual act was possible outside of the family's confines, there was no other way of life available for most people.

The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries broke down the traditional bonds and constraints of a society which had been tied to the land by economic necessity. Millions began to work in the cities for money wages, and for some at least the possibility arose of living outside the traditional family arrangements. Heterosexuality and homosexuality were concepts developed by the medical, moral and legal authorities at that time, in order to police the new society by demarcating acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Male homosexuality was not specifically outlawed in Britain until 1885.

If the modern characteristics of hetero and homosexuality did not exist a couple of centuries ago, what sense can it make to project them backwards and try to discover their origins in humanity's biological make-up? In the 1990s, the attempt to do so marks a step backwards in our understanding. The fact that it is widely accepted as plausible is symptomatic of the profound conservatism that predominates in discussions of sex and sexuality today.

Faced with the right-wing attacks on lesbians and gay men, many liberals are welcoming the new 'scientific' proof that homosexuality is natural, since it appears to offer a way of getting around the right without having to fight its arguments. Liberal opinion hopes that by endowing the sexual patterns of today with the unchanging, eternal validity of a natural scientific discovery, the fears of the fundamentalists can be assuaged. They can be told that, since homosexuality is inborn, persecution is doomed to fail and is also unnecessary if nobody can 'adopt' or be 'converted' to the homosexual lifestyle.

Naive and dangerous

LeVay himself has a clear political agenda, believing that 'a better understanding of the innate differences between gay and straight people' may produce 'a rejection of homophobia based on religious or moral arguments' (Guardian, 9 October 1992). American gay activists like Randy Shilts welcomed the research because 'it would reduce being gay to something like being left-handed, which is in fact all it is' (Guardian, 3 August 1992). They hope that a demonstration of the 'immutability' of homosexuality will afford lesbians and gays constitutional protection against discrimination as a sort of ethnic minority.

The naivety of this idea is astonishing. In the first place, how have anti-discrimination laws prevented the continuing oppression of America's blacks? More dangerously, to argue that straight and gay are 'innately different' in a society where prejudice remains powerful can only reinforce the idea that one is innately superior and the other inferior.

Of course, LeVay or Shilts will argue that they are using the new research to ask for mutual toleration and respect between those who are 'different but equal'. But the hard fact is that difference will always mean inequality in a social order as fundamentally oppressive and exploitative as capitalism.

In case there is any doubt about this, the experience of the very first representatives of the Guardian's 'gay community' should be borne in mind. The world's first homosexual law reform campaign was started in Germany in 1897 by a doctor called Magnus Hirschfeld, who went on to found the prestigious Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin. Hirschfeld and his colleagues firmly believed that the route to justice was natural science. The demonstration of the naturalness of homosexuality, they thought, would destroy any rational argument for oppression.

'It's nobody's fault'

In the event, it was Hirschfeld's campaign and institute, not to mention many thousands of German homosexuals, which were destroyed by those most fervent believers in natural differences between people, the Nazis. History may not repeat itself, but it is certainly the case that turning social distinctions into natural ones can only ever reinforce existing divisions and antagonisms.

LeVay and Shilts accept the conservative agenda that the cause of homosexuality is the problem to be dealt with. The Newsweek article caught the defensive character of the discussion among liberals. One sympathetic researcher observed that:

'There is a tendency for people when told that homosexuality is biological, to heave a sigh of relief. It relieves the families and homosexuals of guilt. It also means that society doesn't have to worry about things like gay teachers.' (24 February 1992)

In other words, the important thing is to reassure bigots that while there is, naturally, something wrong with a fag, it's nobody's fault and it's not contagious.

This is some way down a slippery slope. To turn things around will require the recognition that the real problems to be identified and dealt with are not the origins of homosexuality, but the causes of bigotry and oppression. Those problems cannot be avoided with talk about natural difference. They have to be challenged through the struggle for a society in which lesbians and gay men have the right to live on exactly the same terms as everybody else.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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