Dirty Raincoats

Commentary by John Russell

Why are some people gay and lesbian? The short answer is, we don't know. But there are lots of theories.

In a nutshell, the debate is usually framed as Nature vs. Nurture. My preference is Discovery vs. Choice.

The Nature/Discovery side goes back to the late 1800's, when Magnus Hirschfeld, the founder of the first gay rights movement in Germany, said homosexuality had biological origins -- in other words, you are born gay. Various attempts have been made to prove this theory, most recently in two studies released in 1991.

In the first, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in California scanned the brains of 41 cadavers, including 19 gay men. He found that the hypothalamus, a part of the brain though to regulate sexual activity, was less than half the size in the gay men that it was in the heterosexuals. It was perhaps the first hard evidence of that some gays have long contended -- that they were born different.

In the second study, a psychologist and a psychiatrist at the Boston University School of Medicine published their findings regarding homosexuality in twins. The results showed that if one identical twin is gay, the other is almost three times more likely to be gay than if the twins are fraternal -- suggesting that it is something in the twins' shared genetic makeup, rather than their shared upbringing, that affected their sexual orientation.

There has been all kinds of response to these findings, some of it very critical. So while we can say it certainly indicates a strong genetic component, we can't say for sure.

The Nurture/Choice side grew out of Sigmund Freud's long-discredited psychiatric model -- the old dominant Mother, absent Father argument. Various cures based on this were tried, and still are: electroshock therapy, brain surgery, hormone injections, aversion therapy and castration. The notion that homosexuality is a curable, psychiatric condition was put to rest when the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the DSM3 in 1973. It is the official position of both these bodies that you cannot change a person's sexual orientation.

By the way, homosexuality has been observed in many other species, from mountain rams to seagulls to gorillas. Whenever you see it, you know that the seagull had a domineering mother and an absent father.

And, although it is a popular theory, there is no evidence at all to suggest that sexual abuse has ever changed a person's sexual orientation.

There are other theories on the Nurture/Choice side, but they don't stand up to a logical scrutiny very well. The first is that as young people, we were recruited, or seduced into homosexuality. You see this belief reflected now in parents who oppose any mention of homosexuality in school curricula, in the fear that their children will fall prey to this shameless proselytising, and somehow choose to be gay.

Picture it. I'm hanging around a schoolyard in my (designer) raincoat, and I spy the captain of the football team. A handsome lad, goes out with the head cheerleader, lionised (as athletes are wont to be) by the entire school. His parents are bursting with pride in him. I sidle up and whisper, "How would you like to be a member of a despised minority? Join us, and your parents will reject you, your friends will shun you, your boss will fire you, and complete strangers will yell obscenities at you from passing cars." To which they reply, of course, "WHERE DO I SIGN UP??!!"

If sexual orientation were the result of being recruited, or seduced, or convinced, there would be no homosexuals. The sheer weight of our overwhelmingly heterosexual culture would have crushed the orientation years ago. Virtually from the moment you're born, you are expected to be, and treated as, heterosexual. Schools, families, laws, churches, television, radio, movies, Hallmark Cards, music, opera, ballet, the Toronto Sun -- for every image of same-sex love, there are a million of heterosexual love. So if all this cannot turn gays straight, what supernatural forces would I have to marshal to turn a straight boy gay? What could I say to you, especially to you as you were when a teenager, with so much energy focused on "fitting in", that it would outweigh the entire rest of your life experience?

But the best response to the notion of choice is to ask: when did you choose your sexual orientation? I'd be very surprised if there was a single person reading this who could say that the gender to which they are primarily attracted was a choice. It was a discovery. And I guarantee you that for most lesbians and gay men, that initial discovery, that moment of realisation, is a very frightening one. That was the moment that most of us learned that "denial" is more than a river in Egypt. [Ed: groan!]

What it boils down to is that there is still much debate over the causes of homosexuality. But, frankly, finally, it really doesn't matter. Homosexuality is a fact of life, and has been for millennia. Our job is to figure out how to respond to it -- as individuals, as a society, and as a church.

John Russell is an educator for the AIDS Committee of Toronto. This article first appeared in the July 1995 issue of Integrator, the newsletter of Integrity/Toronto. Reprinted with permission.
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