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
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).
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992