Nature or nurture, it comes to the same thing. Photo: Piotr Lapinski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

August 26, 2020   6 mins

Are you asked probing questions about your sexuality on a regular basis? Do people want to know why are you that way inclined? Was there trauma during your childhood? Did your mother take too many tranquilisers during pregnancy?

If your answer is “no”, it’s probably because you’re straight.

It happens to homosexuals, though. What makes you gay? Even now, in these supposedly enlightened times, there is a body of scientists spending time and money trying to find out what it is that makes a minority of humans same-sex attracted. The latest study was published earlier this year, and I constantly wonder why it is a subject of such interest among the scientific community.

It’s the gay gene they’re after. It’s much like the search for the Loch Ness monster, as they cling on to the fantasy that a biological basis for sexual preference does exist.

The history of the search for the gay gene is not a comfortable one. One of the most controversial studies was conducted by gay neuroscientist Simon LeVay in 1991, who claimed that gay men’s brains were “more like women’s”. Then there was the study suggestion that boys with older brothers are 33% more likely to be gay because of occupying a womb where a male foetus has already been.

Appallingly, the then Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Immanuel Jakobovits reacted to news of LeVay’s research by saying: “If we could by some form of genetic engineering eliminate these trends, we should — so long as it is done for a therapeutic purpose.”

In 1993, American geneticist Dean Hamer was purported to have finally discovered what was nicknamed the “gay gene”. In a study of 40 gay brothers, Hamer found that two-thirds shared a distinctive pattern of DNA at a particular point on the X chromosome, which men inherit from their mothers. The gene was labelled by Hamer as “Xq28”.

The response to Hamer’s study was largely that of horror. Alarmists said the discovery would be used to try to “cure” homosexuality, ignoring the fact that Freudians, fascists and supporters of eugenics alike have been trying to eradicate homosexuality for decades on the assumption that it was something that could be “fixed”. Yet gay rights activists in the US and Britain were, on the whole, delighted at the discovery of the “gay gene”, seeing it as ammunition in the war against homophobia. To them, the gene proved that their sexuality was instinctive and inevitable, not perverse.

As a consequence of Hamer’s study, researchers at the National Cancer Institute in Washington DC said their findings would help prove that sexual orientation could be inherited, and that it would be possible to predict whether a baby would be gay and give the mother the option of a termination.  “Abortion hope after gay gene findings” read the headline in one newspaper — and yes, as recently as 1993.

But closer inspection showed that Hamer had not in fact identified a definite genetic basis to same-sex attraction. In 1999, researchers from the University of Western Ontario, who repeated the experiment with a larger group, failed to find the same link. The study, reported in the American journal Science, found there to be no more DNA match-ups than would have been expected by chance.

A further analyss in 2003 led researchers to say that they had found persuasive evidence to support the theory that a person’s sexuality is developed before birth. They had measured the “eye-blink reaction” of straight and gay test subjects who were subjected to sudden loud noises, finding significant differences in the response between male and female, heterosexual and homosexual participants which, they said, could be linked to the area of the brain which determined sexuality.

To many people this is more than dry scientific study. I came out aged 15 and was told I was a freak of nature, something I believed until I met other lesbians and gay men who had a sense of pride in their identity. This was the end of the 1970s and the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) were in full swing.

Both groups understood sexuality as a social construct, rather than something innate. For women it was about allowing ourselves to dare admit our attraction to other women and throwing off the shackles of what the lesbian writer Adrienne Rich  called “compulsory heterosexuality”. Rich argued that heterosexuality for women is a subtle yet forceful psychological prison from which most women could break free if they wanted.

The booklet Love Your Enemy? picked up on the debate in the UK, the central argument being that heterosexuality might well be enforced as a tool of patriarchy. “We think serious feminists have no choice but to abandon heterosexuality,” the manifesto reads. “Only in the system of oppression that is male supremacy does the oppressor actually invade and colonise the interior of the body of the oppressed.”

Many feminists considered sexuality purely a matter of innate desire, and the idea that lesbianism could be in any way a choice crazy. I understood that one did not “choose” to be gay or lesbian as such, more that if true choice for women existed, we may well be open to act upon our desires.

In her 1999 book Generations of Women Choosing to Become Lesbian: Questioning the Essentialist Link, Australian academic Lorene Gottschalk interviewed three different generations of lesbians, asking whether or not they believed in biology as the root cause of sexual attraction. Gottschalk found that those who became lesbians in the 1970s believed they chose their sexuality, but those who became lesbians in the 1990s thought it was biology.

I can see why today young lesbians are far more likely than their older counterparts to insist that being gay is biologically determined: feminism in its heyday provided women with the vision that it was possible to leave a miserable heterosexual existence, and many of them did. By the 1990s, however, the development of queer theory led many lesbians to identify more with gay men than with second wave feminists, and thereby adopt the “please tolerate us, we can’t help it” line.

The men of the 1970s-era Gay Liberation Front understood that homophobia came out of a desperation to maintain strict gender roles, and many believed that heterosexuality was oppressive to women and that all anti-sexist men worth their salt should be gay. But to say, as did the singer Tom Robinson in 1978, that we were “glad to be gay” invoked horror from many gays, and terror from straights. After all, many gay men wanted to be “tolerated” and believed they would illicit sympathy if they could convince people that they “could not help” how they were.

Heterosexuals on the other hand were comforted by the idea that we did not “recruit”, and therefore their offspring were safe — unless, of course, they happened to be born with the rogue gene.

Unfortunately, immutability has never helped black people, Jews or women escape bigotry and oppression, and it won’t save us, either. The determinist case is often used to argue against Christian gay conversion therapy, in which so-called therapists “pray away the gay”, the logic being that if we have no control over our sexuality, what’s the point of trying to change it?

But as I know only too well from my undercover investigation into the practice, which goes on in Britain as well as the US< the bigots who promote conversion therapy neither know nor care whether we are born or choose to be gay — they just want us to live a heterosexual lifestyle, or failing that become celibate and remain in the closet.

It is also argued that some of us only “realise” we are gay later in life, while others remain in the closet through fear or shame. For instance, Sex And The City actor Cynthia Nixon came out as lesbian in her 40s, having previously been in a long-term relationship with a man, and she was vilified by a number of gay men. “I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better,” she said, invoking the wrath of the biological determinists.

Nixon, despite being an excellent role model for young lesbians, was accused of playing into the gay-hater’s hands. If you can choose to be gay, they said, homophobes will argue that we can choose not to be.

Most recently un 2019, the largest ever study of its kind examined data and DNA information of 500,000 people and found there were thousands of genetic variants linked to same-sex sexual behaviour, most of the them having a minor impact. There is no “gay gene” as such, but many different mutations might play a small role — yet the researchers said that non-genetic factors, including upbringing, personality and nurture, had far more influence on a person’s choice of sexual partner.

I appreciate that scientists have instinctive wonder as why things are as they are, and to seek answers. But I cannot deny that the incessant search for the gay gene offends me, because of the underlying and unspoken implications. My sexuality is not a problem waiting for a cure, and nor is it an oddity which needs explaining. Lesbians and gay men should not have to rely on (slim-to-non-existent) evidence that we “can’t help it” in order to be tolerated.

Knowing there are scientists spending huge amounts of time, money and effort in an attempt to ascribe a biological basis to our sexual orientation makes me, and countless others, feel like a specimen under a microscope as opposed to a person deserving of rights and respect. To the governments and other bodies funding such research I say this: pour that money into challenging anti-gay prejudice and support for young people struggling with life. As the Alix Dobkin song goes: Every woman can be a lesbian.

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.