A Separate Creation by Chandler Burr

INDEPENDENT       12 July 1996

(How Biology Makes Us Gay)
Bantam Press £16.99

‘My mother made me a homosexual’… ‘Oh good;  if I gave her the wool, would she make me one too?’ may be a weak. joke but it neatly summarises gay men’s mockery of crude attempts to explain their orientation.  Devotees of the dominant mother theory can, however, take heart;   the latest scientific studies in America suggest that mothers are responsible, after all, via a specific genetic variant on the X chromosome that they pass to their sons.

In 1991,  the neuroscientist Simon LeVay claimed to have discovered a small cluster of cells in the hypothalamus of the human brain that was larger in straight men than in gay men… thus science makes size queens of us all.   From then, the race was on in institutes across America to isolate the ‘gay gene’. Chandler Burr charts this race with considerable skill.   His elucidation of complex scientific theories is admirably clear, although  he  betrays  his  journalistic training in cheap descriptions (nearly all the scientists are defined by their hairstyles)  and groundless gush  (‘They worked nights.  They worked weekends’).

Despite paying lip service to the opposition, Burr clearly accepts the views of the geneticists who, unsurprisingly, stress the predominant importance of genes.  To them, sexual orientation is part of our DNA and no more a matter of individual choice than right- or left-handedness.  This will come as little surprise to gay people themselves who, with the exception of the political lesbians of the 60s and 70s, have rarely considered their sexuality a matter of personal choice and certainly not in the limiting ‘lifestyle’ terminology of the tabloids.  More contentious is whether it is so uniquely determined by genes.

Sexuality involves our most intimate human relationships outside the familial.   Experience shows that it is subject to many forces beyond genetic determination, notably psychological influence and social construction, both of which Burr and his scientific sources ignore, dismissing Freud and failing even to mention Foucault.  Instead, they suggest that, although behaviour may have changed, there has been a constant number of homosexuals throughout history.  This, as any student of classical Greece or other gay-friendly culture knows, is patently untrue.

Burr claims that ‘an interiorly heterosexual person is not homosexual even in the midst of homosexual experience’, setting up a dichotomy between feelings and conduct that many would not recognise.   He crucially ignores the vast amount of same-sex experience from those who identify as heterosexual and grossly underestimates bisexuality.  Indeed, two of the scientists quoted independently exclude acknowledged bisexuals from their studies, one admitting that ‘simply as a matter of good methodology and effective research, we have to study people most likely to have a genetic influence,’ and the other that exclusion was ‘for simplicity’.   Perhaps they think that bisexuality is simply a stage that our hypothalamuses go through?

Less persuasive even than the methodology are the constant attempts to identify human sexuality with that of animals.  Human beings do not just have consciousness but self-consciousness; our behaviour cannot be equated with the ‘mount or be mounted’ reactions of rats.   There are major biochemical as well as social, emotional and intellectual distinctions.  To stress our animal nature is misleading.  Much that is considered natural in animals (eating one’s faeces, biting off the head of one’s mate during sex) would hardly be acceptable in us.

Burr, however, likens those who oppose the genetic theory of homosexuality with those who lampooned Darwin’s earlier relation of humans and animals.  This is simplistic, for the problem with the current theory is not that it is offensive but that it is unconvincing.  Moreover, even should it prove to be true, it has no bearing whatsoever on individual morality or the exercise of free will.   Being gay (like being straight) is morally neutral.  Pace the fundamentalists, one exercises one’s moral choice not in determining one’s orientation but in one’s treatment of one’s partners.

Many gays in America are seizing on the idea of a gay gene as if it somehow legitimises them.   This, as Burr remarks is absurd and even dangerous… after all cancer is genetic;  does that make it good?  Homosexuality is – and the book provides a fascinating explanation of how it has been encouraged by natural selection – and it should be acknowledged and respected.   The argument over origins is as irrelevant as the perennial canard of whether Bacon wrote Shakespeare;  what counts are the plays.

This is evidently not the conclusion of the many scientists currently working in the field.  And yet, unlike the search for the gene for cystic fibrosis or Alzheimer’s, there is no medical benefit to be gained from discovery.  Homosexuality is no longer classed as a disease, except in the diseased minds of religious fundamentalists.   Indeed, one might ask why there has been no attempt to locate the gene for religious fanaticism, which poses a far greater threat to society than sexual dissidence.

The suspicion that, for all their disavowals, the scientists are working to a political agenda, is confirmed by the interest that the American army is taking in the gene’s isolation.  The irresponsibility of many of the scientists who consciously leave it to others to deal with the moral implications of their work is horrifying.  Will the gays who now welcome the gene theory be so keen in a few years time if it becomes possible to abort ‘qay’ foetuses?  And where does that leave the religious right who are both violently anti-abortion and virulently anti-gay?

The  dangers  of  tampering  with our genetic balance are greater even than those of tampering with the ecological balance of the earth.  Soon it will be possible for growth, skin tone, eye colour and weight all to be engineered in a process of unnatural deselection that leaves humankind literally and metaphorically working to a Californian blueprint.  If the gene theory turns out to be true, such a homogenised, heterosexual future will be the inevitable conclusion. ‘0 brave new world,
that has such people in’t.’