Thursday, April 06, 2006


So how does a person become homosexual? As the existence of intersexed people demonstrates, God's original template for humanity may have been male and female, but since then he's allowed genetic variance to create exceptions to that norm. And sexual identity has proven to be an even more complex issue, as there's no simple "gay gene" to answer the question for us. Recent research does increasingly suggest that genetics plays some role in the development of sexual orientation, but nothing has been found that definitively settles the matter.

On the other end of the spectrum, conservative Christians (at least the ones educated enough to understand that it's not a matter of choice) still generally hold to the idea that same-sex attractions are entirely psychological, most commonly through Elizabeth Moberly's theory of the "defensive detachment."

For my part I can fit my early life experiences into Moberly's model (poor relationship with same-sex parent) well enough that I accepted it without question when I first read it. But even aside from the fact that there are millions of people who don't conform to that stereotype - both gay individuals who had good relationships with their same-sex parent as children and straight people who didn't - there are things that no psychological theory can adequately account for.

Of course, the stock response to such criticism is that it's all in the child's perceptions, and that therefore a boy who's beaten daily by his father can still turn out straight, while one who's deeply loved and affirmed by his dad can still turn out gay, all because of some subconscious misunderstanding on the child's part. Which, of course, can conveniently never be disproven since it's pure speculation and completely untestable.

This utter disregard for the scientific method is one of the reasons that the APA and its sister organizations pay little attention to Moberly's theory and its variants, Exodus and NARTH's cries of "politics" notwithstanding. ("Hello, kettle? This is the pot. You're black.")

It is plausible that same-sex attractions are purely psychological for some individuals. Reparative therapy does reportedly work for a subset of those that have sexual abuse in their backgrounds. For the rest of us? Not so much. And if Moberly's theory was true for everybody (or even the majority), one would expect her solution to work for more than a tiny number of people.

But that still leaves questions unanswered. If I'm gay because I patterned myself after my mother instead of my father, why didn't I develop more effeminate mannerisms? Why have I never had the slightest desire to dress like (much less to actually be) a woman, if I wanted to be just like mom? And could that patterning really be adequate to explain why I've been largely non-aggressive from birth?

Interestingly enough, NARTH has provided an answer to these questions, though not all of its members would endorse my application of their own evidence. In the article Gender Differences Are Real by Frank York, Dr. York refutes the notion promoted by some radical feminists that the differences between male and female are purely societal constructs by arguing first from genetics (the most obvious difference) and then from hormonal differences. He demonstrates how gender-specific behaviors are determined by hormones – testosterone and other androgens in males, estrogen in females – as illustrated by the following example:

At the University of Wisconsin, researchers injected testosterone into unborn female monkeys. Monkeys engage in very sex-stereotyped behavior, according to Stossel; the males are aggressive and fight, while the female monkeys typically groom and nurture the young. When the testosterone-injected females were born, they didn't groom or nurture their children. They fought and behaved like males.

Although the article pays only passing lip service to the ramifications of this point, the conclusion is clear: if gender-normal behavior is dictated by prenatal hormone levels, then gender-abnormal behavior (effeminacy and lack of aggression in males, tomboyish behavior in females) logically has its roots in the same source.

It's a complicated line of study that scientists will no doubt need years to investigate fully, but it shows promise. Most perplexing, perhaps, is the fact that, while hormones have a direct impact on physical development as well as mental (as evidenced by the effects of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), most homosexuals are largely indistinguishable from their heterosexual counterparts in physical terms (with the possible exception of brain development).

Some ex-gay proponents have begun to acknowledge the likely role of hormones in the development of sexual orientation, though they would still argue that hormonal (and/or genetic) influences create, at most, an increased propensity toward homosexuality that is still fully dependent on a psychological element (and therefore curable). Whether or not they can come up with a testable theory that's worthy of mainstream consideration remains to be seen.

Ultimately, of course, the question of how people become homosexually oriented is a peripheral issue (albeit a very interesting one). Conservative Christians would continue to regard all gay relationships as unconditionally wrong even if a purely 'natural' (i.e. genetic) cause was found, just as you wouldn't see gay couples splitting up in droves to pursue celibate lifestyles if their attractions were proven to be purely psychological. And both sides would have a valid argument for maintaining their respective positions. In the end, the morality of acting on one's attractions is not dependent on how one came to have those attractions.

Despite that, the question of origin remains a muddy one. It's simple human nature to reach one's conclusions first and then work backwards to tailor the evidence to fit those conclusions, and people on both sides of the aisle are equally likely to do so. Christians, of course, are inclined to defend their bias by arguing that they're working backwards from God's conclusions, but in the end it's just the same old eisegesis in fancier packaging.

Someday, maybe, the picture will become clearer...


Brady said...

Hey Eugene. I've probably been slacking lately, explaining why I haven't found your blog until now (not that I recall at least). I really like it. I've been meaning to update my links list. I'll plan to do it within the next week, and I'll be sure to add you.

Jimbo said...

At first, the emotionally detached father stuff from Moberley seemed to strike a chord with me, but reparative therapists way overplay that - for a while it pushed me to imagine my relationship with my father to be much worse than it actually was.

And then it became apparent that Moberley's theories (regurgitated Freudianism, the parts that most other psychologists had moved on from) and 'therapy' didn't in fact turn folk straight. It made me question her assumptions, and it was all too easy to find others who disagreed with her theories, I'd just not opened myself to hear their points of view before.

Andrew Sullivan's 'Love Undetectable' lent support to a few of Moberley's theories, but also pointed out that fathers can sense their son's 'difference' at a very early age. He picked up on theories that fathers may retract from their sons because they sense that they are gay, and they don't know how to handle it. So the father's distance is a result of the son's orientation, rather than the cause. For me, reading that was like a light bulb turning on.

Recent surveys suggest that around 40% of men consider that their relationship with their father was poor, but 40% of men aren't gay.

As to causes, as a biologist my interests run deep. I settle on the multiple factors. People may be gay for different reasons, and there are some distinctly different factors involved between male and female homosexuality, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) even less research when it comes to women.

I find the two sets of studies on Australian twins to be one of the the most powerful supports for biological causes, and the twin studies altogether tend to suggest that it is perhaps 20% genes, 30% intra-uterine hormones, and 50% early environment, though those figures may shift a bit with more research.

In the end, what makes anyone (straight or gay) fall in love with someone in particular? I've given up being worried why, it just happens that way. I suppose the next step is knowing how to deal with love when it appears.

E said...

perhaps 20% genes, 30% intra-uterine hormones, and 50% early environment

I'd add the caveat that "environment" refers to a variety of things, not just psychological influences. A lot of people out there don't understand that distinction. Otherwise, your estimate sounds reasonable to me.

Brady: thanks for the link.

Rewfio said...

this is all stuff i've been thinking though a lot... thanks for laying a lot of it out here. peace and love.