Gays and Genes

Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude

by Amy Bloom
Random House, 140 pp., $23.95


It sometimes seems that as much attention is given to the causes of homosexuality as to the causes of any other aspect of human variation. Heterosexuals are fascinated by this minority in their midst, and homosexuals seem equally curious about themselves. Indeed, almost everyone feels free to float ideas on homosexuality, many of which figure in Robert Alan Brookey’s acute study Reinventing the Male Homosexual. Thus one theory posits that homosexuality is “an altruistic behavior in which one sibling foregoes reproduction in order to better the survival odds for the offspring of other siblings.” Another surmises that men who identify themselves as gay have “failed in the masculine competition for female partners,” and must endure “the frustration of unrealized heterosexual intercourse.” These speculations, like many others, are based on the premise that heterosexuality is nature’s norm, with the corollary that homosexuality is a deviation.

But not all inquiries occur in armchairs. In 1991 and 1993, the results of two laboratory studies were published in Science, a rigorous and reputable journal.1 The first was based on autopsies conducted on nineteen gay men, sixteen straight men, and six heterosexual women at seven hospitals in New York and California. Dissections of their forebrain hypothalamus found that the glands in both the women and the gay men were less than half the size of those in the straight men. “This finding,” the author concluded, “…suggests that sexual orientation has a biological substrate.” The second study examined forty families which had two gay brothers. It found that in thirty-three of the pairs, their other gay relatives—uncles and cousins—were mainly on their maternal side, pointing to “a correlation between homosexual orientation and the inheritance of polymorphic markers on the X chromosome,” which gay men receive from their mothers.

Hence there has been an ongoing debate over whether there is a “gay gene.” Part of this debate has centered on the scope and reliability of the empirical studies, with some scientists expressing doubts about their methods and assumptions. Science has since published the results of one attempt to replicate the earlier studies, which reported its inability to find “a gene of large effect influencing sexual orientation.”2 Still, Brookey seems to believe that time will bring such a discovery, and this prospect worries him. He is particularly concerned by the findings that the hypothalamus of gay men is close in size to women’s, and that the supposed gay marker is transmitted through mothers. These findings, he feels, will promote not only “the belief that male homosexuals are effeminate,” but that they are “physically feminized as well.”

As befits a democracy, members of the public feel free to form opinions, even if they have no knowledge of scientific studies. Not only that, their views are solicited in polls and published in the media. On this subject, as on others, ideology looms large. The Gallup Poll responses in Table A show that while two thirds of Democrats take the innate view, most Republicans cluster on…

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