Reposted from Tufts Observer.
By Seth Stein
When does a man become straight or gay? Is it a choice or is it predetermined? If it is a choice, as certain groups claim, then the issue is further complicated: why would a person willingly join an oppressed minority? Perhaps the discussion should start on a more personal, albeit admittedly non-scientific, note.
I grew up in downtown Chicago. One of my best friends grew up about four blocks away from me. We come from similar socioeconomic strata; both of our parents are professionals. He has an older sister; I have an older half-brother and half-sister. We attended the same day camp as children and the same high school as adolescents. We both attend prestigious top-tier universities now. Yet he recently came out as a gay man and is very active in the LGBT community at his school, while I’m a heterosexual with a girlfriend. What “makes” him gay and me straight?
Before examining what in his life led him to be gay, it is important to understand what a gay man is. Homosexual behavior, as in same-sex sexual parings, is as old as the human species. The Greeks, the Romans, and Samurai all practiced pederasty; various other kinds of homosexual behavior have been the norm in societies across the globe. But a gay man—a man who has exclusively same-sex relations with romantic attachments—is a modern phenomenon. The Greek who has a boy lover that he trains to be a warrior, but also has his wife to maintain the home, is not a homosexual. A man who self-identifies as gay, has strong attraction for same-sex relations, and chooses not to adhere to the norms of straight society, certainly is a homosexual.
The Gay Community
To understand homosexual behavior, not identity, we can use the animal world as a guide. Homosexual behavior is commonplace among other primates. The most popular theory used to describe this behavior is called the “alliance formation hypothesis.” Simply put, homosexual behavior allows lower-ranking males to cement alliances with higher-ranked males or other lower-ranked males; this allows them access to resources they either would not have had before or would have had limited access too. The main resource, ironically enough, is access to females. Homosexual behavior, just like heterosexual behavior, is used to cement social bonds. In this light, the ancient Greeks and Romans aren’t outliers—they are the norm.
But where did the modern gay community come from? Around the 19th century there were fundamental changes taking place in Western Europe that would transform the face of the world—industrialization, nationalism, and the modern nation-state. It should not be surprising that the first homosexual community—who looked to men exclusively for romantic and sexual relations—emerged in the most advanced state of the time, Great Britain. Freed from traditional family arrangements and social constraints, as well as the ability to lead independent lives with relative autonomy and anonymity, they embraced their sexual desires towards members of the same sex.
The division of the world into gay and straight quickly followed the creation of the first gay communities. Up until the early 18th century, it was not uncommon for married Englishmen to engage in homosexual intercourse on occasion. However, the burgeoning field of biological science quickly ended the fluid sexuality that had been the norm in Western civilization from ancient times. Rapid advances in medicine spurred doctors to classify homosexuality as a deviant behavior and therefore an illness or defect. This was instrumental in further separating those who chose to engage in homosexual behavior and those who did not. People now began to self-identify as either gay or straight.
The tendency for both the homosexual and the heterosexual worlds to practice exclusively same-or opposite-sex relations caused gay men to develop an alternative community to the predominantly heterosexual world. Before the community came out of the closet in the 1960s, it was maintained by secretive bars and meeting places. There were clearly established ways of suggesting to possible partners that a man was gay. This is where the stereotype of the effeminate gay man originates; gay men would commonly act more effeminate to signal to other men that they were gay.
As studies of human sexuality in the United States were almost nonexistent before the 1960’s, little was known about this underground community. Alfred Kinsey, in his famous report on human sexuality, opened the doors to this world and may have laid the basis for the gay civil rights movement. He challenged the common misconception that one is either gay or straight, positing that human sexuality exists on a continuum, and, throughout their lives, people can and will engage in both homosexual and heterosexual behavior. That being said, Kinsey did allow that most men engaged in predominantly opposite-or same-sex relations, not a combination of the two.
This caused a sea of changes in the homosexual world. Kinsey allowed that homosexual behavior was not deviant but in fact perfectly normal. As the community came out of the closet in the 1960’s, fundamental cultural changes took place that allowed gay men to express themselves in new ways. Being gay changed from being a dark secret to being alternative; gay scientists and activists sought to end the discrimination they experienced from mainstream society.
At this point the gay community shifted from an underground, largely self-contained community into a political unit. As black Americans demanded that they not be discriminated against on the basis of their genetic skin color, so gay men demanded that they not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. Scientists sought to find the “cause” for homosexuality–if orientation was indeed genetic or biological, then it was senseless to discriminate on that basis. However, more conservative scientists and religious groups sought to prove that homosexuality was a choice and therefore not protected by civil rights legislation. And thus inquiry into the biological basis of homosexuality took on politically charged tones that skewed our understanding of homosexuality for decades.
Nature vs. Nurture
Fortunately, our understanding of homosexuality and human sexuality in general has advanced by leaps and bounds; homosexuality is no longer listed in the DSM-IV as a mental illness. The most extensive twin study on sexual orientation ever undertaken was recently published in Sweden. Comparing twins, the study demonstrated that human homosexuality has a genetic factor, an environmental factor, and a social factor. All of these factors play together to increase or decrease the probability that an individual will be a homosexual. The results of the study suggest that environmental factors account for about 60% of sexual orientation, while genes account for another 40% (refer to the sidebar for an analysis of this study).
The genetic basis of homosexuality is a puzzle to biologists—why would a trait that causes a person not to have offspring be preserved in the human species? This puzzle, however, is misleading; although homosexuals currently leave around 1/5th the offspring of their heterosexual counterparts, historically we have no evidence of how many offspring homosexuals could have produced as they were most likely not exclusively homosexual. The genes that contribute to male homosexuality have been postulated to be located on X chromosome and therefore passed down the mother’s line. In a tip of the hat to the elegance of evolution, one theory suggests these genes seem to make women more fertile while also contributing to male homosexuality. As such, the dearth of offspring produced by gay males is offset by greater numbers of offspring produced by women carrying the gene.
As previously stated, genetic factors are not the only determinant of homosexuality, and modern science shows they may have an even smaller effect than we think. Current theory is exploring unique environmental factors, i.e. the state of the fetus in the mother’s womb. The biggest determinant for homosexuality seems to be birth order; the successive sons after the first of a woman are the most likely to be gay. Why this is the case is still not clear, but it may have something to do with hormone levels in the womb. Testosterone plays a major role in sexual development in fetuses, and it is theorized that the first son, who produces testosterone in the mother’s womb, causes the mother’s body to become sensitized to the molecule. The mother will start producing testosterone antibodies that could change the hormone balance of her successive sons, which may increase the likelihood that he is a homosexual.
Regardless of the cause of homosexuality, there are some biological differences between a gay and straight person’s brain. Recent studies, which are considered controversial by some, show that gay men’s brains more closely resemble the brains of straight women. In other words, gay men have stronger vocalization skills and lower visuospatial intelligence than straight men. These differences are not drastic or universal, but they do shed light on a biological component of male homosexuality.
It is apparent that homosexuality has a biological basis, but few of the factors that contribute to homosexuality seem to predetermine it; in other words many different factors work together to make homosexuality more likely. Social factors are important as well. The process of “coming out” is actually a very ordered and regular socialization process, in which an individual chooses to self-identify as a gay man and pursue their sexual desires toward the same sex. This is part of the polarization of male sexuality—men who come out to be gay identify as strongly with exclusive homosexuality as your average straight man identifies with exclusive heterosexuality.
What is clear is that homosexuality certainly has its biological, social, and cultural elements. A fascinating confluence of these factors is the “gay ghetto.” Being a Chicagoan, this concept is hardly foreign to me. Northalsted, commonly known as “Boy’s Town” is an accepted part of the Chicago landscape, geographically positioned near other primarily young and progressive neighborhoods. In Boy’s Town shops fly the rainbow flag, men at bars expect other men to be gay and gay political organizations are organized from the community. Because of its tight-knit community spirit, Boy’s Town was one of the few urban neighborhoods to grow and gentrify throughout the entirety of the last four decades, even during the height of urban decline and white flight. As urban renewal became the order of the day in the last decade or so, Boy’s Town has been an essential mover in revitalizing Chicago’s north side.
What do all these facts mean when we look at them together? Gay men are actually different from straight men, both biologically and socially. So is that what makes my friend different from me?
The short answer is no. My friend and I are actually the same in every way that matters. He wants to find someone who he can love and who can love him back. He wants to be with someone he is attracted to who can offer new things in his life. He wants to be happy and satisfied. At the same time, his sexual orientation is not important at all in other large areas of his life—what he studies, what he likes to do, and who he chooses as his friends. I do not consider it too high a compliment to describe him as one of my most cherished friends—a role he filled even before he came out of the closet.
But why then is this the kind of person we are allowed to demonize in such horrible ways? Our cultural bias against homosexuals is so strong that the groups opposed to marriage in California didn’t even try to cover their motives. Instead they explicitly said they were anti-gay rights.
Fortunately times are changing much faster than the conservative forces in society can contain them. Americans our age are much more likely than even our parents, who were hippies, to be accepting of gay and lesbian individuals. Even young evangelicals are sick of beating the sodomy drum and would much rather focus on traditional progressive causes like poverty alleviation. I honestly believe that by the time I am my parents’ age my friend will be able to get married legally.
Even though things are changing quickly, that is not a license for inaction. While I enjoy the full range of rights and opportunities any society can provide, my friend does not. He is a second-class citizen. Gay rights is the civil rights issue of our generation. Liberty by gradations is not liberty, it is hierarchy. True liberty is all or nothing, and, until all people in the United States enjoy and practice their full rights, we will not be a free people—just mostly free.