Saturday, April 14, 2012

Weekend Post - Straight or gay? Why?

I was asked recently, as someone who firstly has an interest in science, but also had a brief academic background in psychology, why some people are gay. I confessed that I wasn’t entirely sure but the answer can probably be found by also asking why other people are straight.

It’s a bit like asking why some people are left-handed. You can’t separate the question from it’s sibling, why are most people right-handed?

The problem with the question is that there are many influential bodies and belief systems who think they know the answer, not from a scientific point of view, but from a “so-called” moral one. Unfortunately that’s not good enough for a scientist. A scientist is interested in evidence, not pre-formed opinions based on faith, ancient texts or something instructed by someone in pretended authority. A scientist, and indeed anyone interested in the truth, will actually be interested in facts, not opinions, whoever they come from.

The first fact that has to be faced when considering homosexuality is that it’s by no means a new phenomenon. There are records of same sex attraction and activity as far back as historical records go. It existed on every continent, including Africa, and certainly before colonialism reared it’s ugly head. There are historical records of established same-sex relationships and also more fluid attitudes towards marriage in countries as far apart as Egypt, Nigeria and Lesotho. It’s certainly NOT something new, and certainly not something introduced to Africa any more than colonialism gave us left-handedness.

Africa is no exception. Similar histories can be found in every other continent. What’s more it’s not even just humans that do it. Same-sex behavior has been recorded in species as varied as penguins, giraffe, dolphins, lions and elephants. However the most enthusiastically homosexual of our animal relatives are the Bonobo chimpanzees. Bonobos are renowned for being incredibly sexually active. They also don’t seem to care terribly what sex their partner is and use sexual behavior for a variety of social purposes, not the least of which is having some fun. Bonobos are also, whether people like it or not, our closest animal relatives. They’re not much more than a very distant cousin.

Given all of this it’s reasonable to assume that homosexuality isn’t a recent invention, not a product of colonialism and not foreign to Africa. It’s remarkably similar to being left-handed.

So why are most people straight and some gay? The simple answer is that nobody knows but what is well accepted is that it’s certainly not a choice that people make. A person’s sexual orientation seems to be a core part of their identity, again just like being left-handed. I remember a teacher in my primary school beating a child with a ruler on the back of her left hand every time she wrote or drew with that hand in a feeble effort to make her right-handed. That was just as unsuccessful as the efforts by certain evangelical church groups to “correct” or “reform” homosexuals. It simply doesn’t work. All the evidence suggests that this just causes nothing but unnecessary hardship and guilt to the recipients of the efforts made to change them.

The common question in psychology about the origins of any personal attribute is “nature versus nurture”. What in your environment or in your body’s development brought about that attribute? Much as the political left would like us to believe that all things are environmental and the right’s feeling that it’s all fate, life isn’t that simple. A small number of things are wholly environmental, such a boy’s preference for blue and a girl’s for pink, others are purely innate like eye color or handedness. Everything else seems to be a complex mixture. Despite this the current evidence is that sexual orientation is almost entirely innate. You’re simply born that way. That’s known, but the exact mechanism isn’t. It might be genetic, something you inherit, but where the evolutionary advantage comes from we don’t know. It’s certainly no advantage not to be able to have children although almost every gay man or lesbian I know has children from an earlier heterosexual relationship. They've certainly passed on their genes.

It might instead be a group genetic phenomenon where the genes of the group have to be considered. One study showed that the female relatives of homosexuals, the ones connected to the person's mother were more likely to have lots of children, but that was just one study.

A lot of current research is looking at the hormonal influences on babies as they develop in their mother’s womb. One fascinating observation is that gay men are more likely to have older brothers than straight men. This doesn’t mean that big brothers turn their little brothers gay but that as a mother gestates more and more boys something might be changing slightly in her body as time goes by. The most bizarre element of this is that this effect is only apparent when the younger brother is right-handed.

So in short we don’t currently know exactly how it works. But we do know this. Being gay or straight isn’t a choice. No normal, sane person decides what sexual orientation to have. It’s just the way they are.

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