Gay? It’s All in Your Mind.

Or, according to a new study, it’s all in your brain.

Lesbians’ brains react differently to sex hormones than those of heterosexual women.

An earlier study of gay men also showed their brain response was different from straight men — an even stronger difference than has now been found in lesbians.

Lesbians’ brains reacted somewhat, though not completely, like those of heterosexual men, a team of Swedish researchers said in Tuesday’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A year ago, the same group reported findings for gay men that showed their brain response to hormones was similar to that of heterosexual women.

In both cases the findings add weight to the idea that homosexuality has a physical basis and is not learned behavior.

I can’t say one way or another just how significant studies like these are, but my personal experience and reading makes me think there must be something to it.

Like I’ve said before, even growing up I realized that I was not a normal boy. After watching the PBS special , I decided to read Raising Cain : Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. Besides convincing me that nobody writes books about boys like me, it confirmed my previous experience that I can’t recognize myself in most descriptions of “typical boys” or “most men.” In this case at least the authors are honest about not addressing “atypical boys,” whose characteristics don’t fit within their definition of “boy behavior.”

We know, too, that there are boys whose talents or temperaments make them exceptions, but if we’re going to talk about the ways in which boys’ life experiences complicate their emotional development or compromise it, we have to talk about the hidden hurt that the early school years inflict on so many boys.

… There are boys, of course, probably at least 2 percent, who aren’t attracted to girls and never will be. For them, coming of age in a homophobic environment is still a confusing and painful journey, despite today’s greater sexual candor. As therapists, we haven’t had a lot of experience with issues of homosexuality. So our discussion of love, sexuality, and romance is limited to a heterosexual framework. But we recognize that many of the issues in this chapter apply equally to all boys, and that all boys can find their way to a satisfying romantic relationship.

Like I said, at least they’re honest. And they may be right about that last bit on satisfying romantic relationships (after all, if happened in my case, though somewhat belatedly). But in general it’s more of the same. Reading about “how boys are” or “how men are” for me is like trying to see my reflection in a cloudy mirror. Again, I was not a typical boy.

We define gender variance as a behavioral pattern of intense, pervasive, and persistent interests and behaviors characterized as typical of the opposite gender. A striking similarity in interests and behaviors favored by these children is seen across history, in different families with various cultural backgrounds.

These gender-variant behaviors include play activities, toys and hobbies, clothing and external appearance, identification with role models, preference for other-gender playmates, and statements indicating a wish to be of the other sex. Avoidance of rough play is typically observed in boys, and aversion to female-typed clothing and appearance is often seen in girls.

Playing with dolls? Check. Preferred to play with girls? Check. Avoidance of rough play? Check. About the only thing I can’t check off on that list is expressing a desire to be the opposite sex. I’ve always been quite happy with my anatomical sex. It was the constricting definition of appropriate gender behavior that I always found chafing. As for the characteristics above, as far as I can tell, I was hardwired for them. I always had them, and no amount of time spent tossing a football or being compelled to engage in more “masculine” pursuits would have changed that. And they were probably foreshadowing my future as an adult gay man.

In the 1970s and 1980s, parents of gender-variant children had even fewer chances to connect with other parents. They were more likely to try to change their children than to learn to accept them. Back then, some mental health professionals theorized that children with persistent and multiple gender-variant interests–which for boys include pretending to be female characters such as Snow White, dressing up in girls’ clothing or expressing the desire to be a girl–were likely to develop gender identity disorder (GID) and seek to become transsexuals as adults.

But in 1987, psychiatrist Richard Green, MD, published a seminal study later corroborated by other researchers that found that extreme boyhood gender nonconformity was associated with a homosexual or bisexual identity in adulthood–neither of which are disorders.

In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition) states that “only a very small number of children” with GID behaviors will continue to meet the criteria for GID in later adolescence or adulthood, and only a small minority change their gender as adults. “That means we can really see that sexual orientation is set very early in life,” says Lehne, pointing out that about 75 to 80 percent of gender-variant boys become gay. “Unfortunately, in spite of some progress, many of these kids are still tormented and teased.”

Fortunately, at least now there’s a support group for boys like I was. And though nobody writes books about us that go on to make the New York Times bestseller list, there are at least a few titles out there. If only the Raisin Cain authors had looked. Frustrating though it was at times, their book did get me started questioning just how much of sexual orientation and gender is hardwired and how much is socially constructed.

Back to nature vs. nurture, I guess. But it has led to some interesting reading. I just finished The Riddle of Gender and am currently working my way through Evolution’s Rainbow : Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People and Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs.

I’m no expert — at least not in anything but my own life — but everything I’ve read leads me to believe that characteristics as complex as sexual orientation and gender-related behavior are probably too complicated to be controlled completely by one gene or a single area of the brain, or “caused” by a specific combination of events and conditions. In both cases there maybe a genetic influence here, a brain difference there, and various environmental situations all over the place.

It’s interesting to pick up clues from studies like this, but at the end of the day I go back to thinking that it doesn’t matter why some people are gay and others not. What matters is how people are treated. Equality shouldn’t be based on whether the combination of your genes and your childhood environment “made” you gay. It should simply being born a human being and a citizen in a country that’s supposed to value equality under the law.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
This entry was posted in Books, Current Events, Gay Rights, Gender, Science, Sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Gay? It’s All in Your Mind.

  1. Steve Boese says:

    I suspect that, 50 years down the road, there will be evidence of multiple distinct etiologies which impact where people land in terms of gender and orientation as adults.

    I was gender-atypical in some ways as a kid (sensitive, bookish, not interested in rough-and-tumble play, rearranging furniture and playing interior designer at age 6). Luckily, none of that was an issue or concern to my family. Similarly, none of my 3 younger brothers fit in fiercely alpha-male molds, and they’re straight.

    It’s great that much better resources are available to parents these days. And yet, there are such scary resources available at the same time, as Christine has described and good ol’ Dr. Dobson’s blame-Dad approach to gender-variant sons.

  2. M A F says:

    I can see why the religious right (Dobson etc.) is so interested destroying science in favor of the pseudo science of Intelligent Design. People are born gay. What does is say about the religious rights idea of predetermination and the will of an omnipotent god?

    As someone who is left-handed I know that I didn’t decide to be left-handed anymore than a gay person decided to be gay.

  3. You said it Terence:

    “…….but at the end of the day I go back to thinking that it doesn’t matter why some people are gay and others not. What matters is how people are treated. Equality shouldn’t be based on whether the combination of your genes and your childhood environment “made” you gay. It should simply being born a human being and a citizen in a country that’s supposed to value equality under the law…..”

    Your post raises the question, “Why the hell are we so preoccupied with sexual orientation, homosexual?” Straights don’t think twice about theirs, so why should we?

  4. Kai says:

    In answer to Tony’s question above:

    It should go without saying, but I don’t see anyone else saying it, so I might as well. Once we have a definitive “cause” of homosexuality–“x” environmental factor or “y” gene–then experts can begin effective “interventions”: prenatal genetic tests (for abortion or prenatal hormone/gene therapy) and new child rearing guides that can make specific reccomendations to counter the possibility of raising a homosexual child.

  5. Terrance says:

    Actually, I think what we’ll probalby end up finding out is that there’s no single gene or environment that “causes” homosexuality, but that the development of sexual orientation is too complex to be driven by any single factor or any group of factors that can be completely known and manipulated.

    So, no “cause” and no “cure.”

  6. didi says:

    Something about these research results bother me. It seems like some researchers are constructing studies whose results affirm their commonly-held beliefs about gay people. Many people already equate gay male behavior/desire with straight women and lesbian behavior/desire with that of straight men. Now those people have scientific support for that assumption. Many people discount bisexuality as a valid sexual orientation and a well-publicized study released several months ago supports that notion as well (I think the results showed more women identifying as bi than men).

  7. I know what Kai is saying, but my point is the obessession by the heterosexual majority/ researchers et al, regarding homosexuality..for what purposes? It serves none, other than to do what Didi’s post….. it does not benefit us Gays and Lesbians! If prejudice is entrenched, then no amount of scientific research is gonna change it…. esp. with the advent of Intelligent Design [hoo boy, can anyone see the irony inherent in that movement]?

  8. Jack Yan says:

    Beautifully written last paragraph, Terrance.

Comments are closed.