On 22nd of April, Expanding Circles drew its attention to a rather controversial topic: Homosexuality: Are gays born or made?
Despite our advance on science and technology, trying to answer this question in a conclusive, definitive and absolute manner continues to be a mystery for many. Researchers and specialists have been unable to find a ‘gay gene’ or a particular variable that exclusively determines the sexual orientation of an individual. There are number of theories and hypotheses and that is why Expanding Circles wanted to host a debate about the different views people have in the matter. The objective of the evening was to open a debate around the different theories and hypothesis that aim to explain why an individual is or can become homosexual. We looked at the most popular social, biological and psychological explanations and we also had the privilege to have a scientist and researcher who offered some of the most interesting insights into the conversation. The theories and hypotheses that were discussed in the Circle came from mainly two fronts, are gays born or made? is it nature or nurture? If gays are made then the parenting, education and environment in which the individual grew up have a direct influence and impact on his/her sexuality. On the other hand, if the individuals was born gay, it does not matter the conditions or environment in which he or she was raised, the biological sexual preference will always prevail. Here’s a summary of some of the theories that initiated and triggered the debate from both fronts:
Psychological Theories (Nurture?)
Many theories from the psychological perspective argue that individuals with an absent father tend to develop homosexual traits in a way to compensate for the lack of masculine affection they did not have whilst growing up.
The idea that an over-protective mother is also what drives homosexual behaviour was also popularised during the 80s. Likewise, certain psychologists argued that when individuals have painful or traumatic experiences with their mother figures, they may associate women with pain and avoid women in the future as a way of avoiding pain. The type of pain they refer to is the abandonment of the mother or the behaviour of a very authoritarian mother.
According to some psychological studies, when we grow up, we unconsciously seek partners that resemble some of the key traits of our parents. A man for example would unconsciously look for his mother when choosing his partner; however, if the individual has associated pain with the mother figure, he may unconsciously avoid finding such figure and turn to the more caring figure, the man in this case.
Other hypotheses point at the conditions in which the individual was brought up. If an individual was brought up with lots of women at home, there could be a tendency for him to develop and show feminine traits. Links have also been established between early homosexual experiences amongst boys and their future sexual orientation as well as the link between rape in boys and their future sexual orientation.
These theories above are some of the most discussed hypotheses in the ‘nature or nurture’ debate. However, most of these psychological theories have been discredited in recent years because there are many exceptions and a direct link cannot be established between the cause and effect. Simultaneously, over the last two decades and thanks to advances in science, medicine and technology, scientists and researchers have been able to study in more depth the causes of homosexual behaviour from a biological perspective. These are some of the key theories and findings:
Biological Hypotheses (Nature?)
1. The Gay Gene: In 1993, a study published in the journal Science showed that families with two homosexual brothers were very likely to have certain genetic markers on a region of the X chromosome known as XQ28. This led to media headlines about the possibility of the existence of a “gay gene”. There have also been headlines about an “alcoholism gene”, which makes people become alcoholics, and a “warrior gene”, which makes people unusually aggressive. Thing is, genes cannot always control behaviour, what genes can do -in some cases- is to create a tendency to develop or display certain traits or behaviour, as with the case of alcoholism.
2. Size and Shape of the Brain: Several studies have been conducted amongst heterosexual and homosexual males and it has been determined that the shape and size of their brain differ slightly. In 1991, a study published in the journal Science seemed to show that the hypothalamus, (which controls the release of sex hormones from the pituitary gland) in gay men differs from the hypothalamus in straight men. The third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH3) was found to be more than twice as large in heterosexual men as in homosexual men. Also, PET and MRI studies performed in 2008 have shown that the two halves of the brain are more symmetrical in homosexual men and heterosexual women than in heterosexual men and homosexual women. These studies have also revealed that connections in the amygdalas of gay men resemble those of straight women; in gay women, connections in the amygdala resemble those of straight men. Some other studies have also shown that the corpus callosum – the main connection between the two halves of the brain- has a different structure in gay men than in straight men. However, other studies have found no difference.
3. Hormone Imbalance During Pregnancy: Other biological determinist models of gayness suggest that same-sex attraction is largely or entirely determined by hormonal influences in the womb. This was the central thesis of the recent book, Born Gay, by Glenn Wilson, a reader at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and Qazi Rahman, a lecturer in psychobiology at the University of East London. Their book is easily the best summary of evidence from dozens of biological studies into the causes and correlates of homosexuality. It is know that testosterone masculinises the foetal genitalia—and presumably also the brain. Without it, the foetus stays female. It may be that the brains of gay men don’t receive the full amounts of testosterone at the right time during foetal development, and so are insufficiently masculinised.
Other scientists have also carried out studies showing differences between gay and straight people with respect to a number of physiological traits that are associated with hormonal influences. These include: physique, hearing, brain structure, finger lengths, penis size (gay men tend to be better endowed than straight men), and the age of puberty (on average lesbians mature later than straight women, and gay men earlier than heterosexual men). There seems to be links between the level of hormone foetus have been exposed to and their sexual preference in the future.
4. Number of Pregnancies: Somehow related to the previous theory, and according to new research by Anthony Bogaert, a psychologist at Brock University in Canada, gay men tend to have older brothers. Indeed, the more biological older brothers a man has, the greater his likelihood of being gay. This leads Bogaert to conclude that a man’s sexual orientation is influenced by the conditions in his mother’s womb when he was a foetus.
These are the four most popular studies around the causes of homosexuality, which have been studied in depth amongst researchers and scientists. However, it is worth mentioning that that research have identified over 100 traits and theories that have direct effect on the sexual preference of an individual. This leaves the door open to an immense number of possibilities and hypotheses. This report, by no means, intends to become a summary or formal professional report or analysis of all these theories and hypotheses.
Now… The Confusing Part
Despite all of the above, there are a few things that still puzzle the mind of many people that study homosexuality:
- If we are all born either gay or straight, how can we explain people who switch in mid-life from fulfilled heterosexuality to fulfilled homosexuality (and vice versa)?
- Why is lesbianism less common that homosexual behaviour amongst males?
- What about bisexual people?
But more importantly, The Evolutionary Paradox of Homosexuality:
Evolution favours traits that aid reproduction, and being gay clearly doesn’t do that. The existence of homosexuality amounts to a profound evolutionary mystery. If gays normally do not reproduce, why is the gay biological composition still being passed on? As far as historians can tell, homosexuality has always been with us. So the question remains; if it’s such a disadvantage in the evolutionary rat race, why was it not eradicated by natural selection? An explanation for this may be that the allele – or group of genes – that sometimes codes for homosexual orientation may at other times have a strong reproductive benefit. This would compensate for gay people’s lack of reproduction and ensure the continuation of the trait, as non-gay carriers of the gene can also pass it down.
The special guest of the Circle, a scientist and researcher, shed some light into the discussion. He explained that sexuality is a spectrum of preferences that can be determined by over 200 different variables.
While genes and hormones may, like male birth order, predispose a person to a particular sexual orientation, they do not determine it. Other factors are also at work. Social expectations, cultural values and peer pressure, for instance, help push many of us towards a particular sexual preference in different degrees. This is why in research they do not even talk about ‘gay’ or ‘straight’, but about ‘men that have sex with men’ because there is a whole myriad of variables that influence their very own identity and identification with a particular sexual preference or group.
The researcher also explained that something as complex as human sexual life is bound to evolve from a multiplicity of factors. These factors; sociological, psychological and biological can ‘influence’ and/or ‘impact’ sexuality, but that does not mean that they cause or determine it. Something as complex and pivotal as human emotional and sexual life is bound to evolve from a multiplicity of factors, rather than from any single, simple origin. This is why in research sexuality is now considered a Biosocial Model that continues to intrigue scientists and researches alike.
[Circle hosted and report written by Ernesto Moreno]
Feel free to voice your comments and opinions on the space below and if you wish to explore on the topic further here are some links that offer further reading:
- Born gay or made gay? – Peter Tatchell – The Guardian
- The evolutionary puzzle of homosexuality – William Kremer – BBC
- If we wanted to be straight, we would be – Julie Bindel – The Guardian
- Homosexuality & Choice: Are gay people ‘born this way’? – Marcia Malory
- Genetics and Homosexuality: Are People Born Gay? – Rich Deem
- Scientists think they have found out why people are born gay – Joe Morgan
- Biology and Sexual Orientation – Wikipedia
- Proof that you can’t be ‘Born gay’ – Philip irvin – WND
- Finding the switch – Robert Kunzig – Psychology Today