PETER TATCHELL says biology is not destiny. One-sided genetic
explanations of homosexuality are crude, simplistic and doomed to
A few years ago, Dr James Watson, the Noble Prize winner who
co-discovered DNA, reopened the controversy over the so-called gay
gene when he defended a woman’s right to abortion. He was quoted in
The Sunday Telegraph as saying: “If you could find the gene which
determines sexuality, and a woman decides she doesn’t want a
homosexual child, well, let her (abort the foetus)”.
Much of the reaction to Dr Watson’s statement focused on its
homophobic versus freedom of choice implications. Largely overlooked
was the fact that such an esteemed scientist was giving credibility to
the flawed theories which claim a genetic causation of homosexuality.
These theories have been given a recent boost by research suggesting
differences in the brain structures of gay and straight people.
According to gay gene theory, genetic factors are responsible for
sexual orientation, with our genetic inheritance programming us to
desire one sex rather than the other. This is a very simple,
deterministic thesis: A causes B.
I don’t disagree that genes (and hormonal exposure in the womb)
influence sexual orientation. The scientific evidence for these
biological influences is presented in the book, Born Gay (2005),
written by Glenn Wilson of the Institute of Psychiatry in London and
Qazi Rahman, a lecturer in psychobiology at the University of East
But contrary to what the authors seem to suggest, an influence is not
the same as a cause. GeneSeand hormones may predispose a person to one
sexuality rather than another. But that’s all. Predisposition and
determination are two different things.
There is a major problem with gay gene theory, and with all theories
that posit the biological programming of sexual orientation. If
heterosexuality and homosexuality are, indeed, genetically
predetermined (and therefore mutually exclusive and unchangeable), how
do we explain bisexuality or people who, suddenly in mid-life, switch
from heterosexuality to homosexuality (or vice versa)? We can’t.
The reality is that queer and straight desires are far more ambiguous,
blurred and overlapping than any theory of genetic causality can
After studying the sexual experiences of thousands of men, Dr Alfred
Kinsey presented evidence, in Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male
(1948), that “many males combine in their single histories, and very
often in exactly the same period of time, or even simultaneously in
the same moment, reactions to both heterosexual and homosexual
Some years later, the Kinsey researchers famously reported the case of
a happily married young woman who, ten years into her marriage,
unexpectedly fell in love with a female friend. Divorcing her husband,
she set up house with this woman. Many years later, despite a
fulfilling on-going lesbian relationship, she had an equally
satisfying affair with a man. Examples of sexual flexibility, like
that of this woman, don’t square with genetic theories of rigid erotic
One of the main original proponents of gay gene theory, Dr Dean Hamer,
now concedes that it is unlikely that something as complex as human
sexuality can be explained solely in terms of genetic inheritance. He
seems to accept that while genetic factors may establish a
predisposition towards homosexuality a predisposition is not the same
as a causation.
Many studies suggest social factors are also important influences in
the formation of sexual orientation. These include the relationship
between a child and its parents, formative childhood experiences,
family expectations, cultural moreSeand peer pressure.
By about the age of five or six, a combination of biological and
social influences seem to lay the basis of an individual’s sexual
orientation. Because our sexuality is fixed at such an early age, many
lesbianSeand gay men feel they have been homosexual all their lives
and therefore mistakenly conclude that it must be genetic and that
they were born queer.
They also see the gay gene explanation as a useful defence against the
arguments of the religious right, which dismisses same-sex
relationships as a lifestyle choice. But no one sits down one day and
chooses to be gay (or straight). Sexual orientation is not a choice
like choosing which biscuits to buy in a supermarket. We don’t have
free will concerning the determination our sexual orientation. Our
only free will is whether we accept or repress our true inner sexual
and emotional desires.
The relative influence of biological versus social factors with regard
to sexual orientation is still uncertain. What is, however, certain is
that if gayness was primarily explainable in genetic terms we would
expect it to appear in the same proportions, and in similar forms, in
all cultureSeand all epochs. As the anthropologists Clellan Ford and
Frank Beach demonstrated in Patterns Of Sexual Behaviour (1965), far
from being cross-culturally uniform and stable, both the incidence and
expressions of same-sex desire vary vastly between different
They found, for example, that young men in some tribes (the Aranda of
Australia, Siwan of Egypt, Batak of Sumatra, Anga of Melanesia and
others) had relationships with boys or older male warriors, usually
lasting several years, often as part of manhood initiation rituals.
Eventually ceasing homosexual contact, they subsequently assumed
sexual desires for women.
If sexual orientation was genetically prefixed at conception, as the
proponents of the gay gene claim, these young men would never have
been able to switch between heterosexual and homosexual relations with
such apparent ease.
Likewise, a glance at history reveals huge disparities between
configurations of homosexuality in different eras down the ages.
Same-sex behaviour in Ancient Greece was very different, in both its
prevalence and particular manifestations, from homosexuality in
Confucian China, Renaissance Italy, Meiji Japan, Tudor England and
late twentieth century USA. Moral values, social ideologieSeand
cultural expectations – together with family patternSeand parent-child
interaction – seem the only credible explanation for these massive
Despite obvious theoretical and empirical weaknesses, the claims that
certain genes cause homosexuality have been seized upon and vigorously
promoted by many in the lesbian and gay rights movement (especially in
The haste with which these unproven, questionable theories have been
embraced suggests a terrible lack of self-confidence and a rather sad,
desperate need to justify queer desire. It’s almost as if those
pushing these theories believe we don’t deserve human rights unless we
can prove that we are born gay and that our homosexuality is beyond
our control: ‘We can’t help being fagSeand dykes, so please don’t
treat us badly’. This seems to be the pleading, defensive sub-text of
much of the pro-gay gene thesis.
Surely we merit human rights because we are human beings? The cause of
our homosexuality is irrelevant to our quest for justice. We are
entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of whether we are born
queer or made queer, and irrespective of whether our homosexuality is
something beyond our control or something freely chosen.
The corollary of the ‘born gay’ idea is the suggestion that no one can
be ‘made gay’. This defensive argument was used by some gay leaders
during the campaigns against Section 28, which banned the “promotion”
of homosexuality by local authorities, and again during the lobbying
of parliament for the equalisation of the age of consent.
Supporters of Section 28 and opponents of an equal age of consent
justified their stance with the claim that people need to be protected
against ‘pressure’ and ‘seduction’ into the homosexual lifestyle.
Some gay spokespeople responded by arguing that it’s impossible to
‘make’ someone gay, and that a same-sex experience at an early age
cannot ‘persuade’ a heterosexual person to become homosexual.
At one level, they are right. Sexual orientation appears to become
fixed in the first few years of life. For most of us, it is impossible
to subsequently change our sexual orientation.
However, what definitely can change as people grow older is their
ability to accept and express formerly repressed queer desires. A
person who is ostensibly heterosexual might, in their mid-30s, become
aware of a previously unrecognised same-sex attraction that had been
dormant and unconscious since childhood. Society’s positive
affirmation of homosexuality might help such a person discover and
explore those latent, hidden, suppressed feelings.
The homophobes are thus, paradoxically, closer to the truth than many
gay activists. Removing the social opprobrium and penalties from queer
relationships, and celebrating gay love and lust, would allow more
people to come to terms with presently inhibited homoerotic desires.
In this sense, it is perfectly feasible to ‘promote’ lesbian and gay
sexuality and ‘make’ someone queer. Individuals who have a homosexual
component in their character, but are inhibited by repression or
guilt, definitely can be encouraged to acknowledge their same-sex
attraction and act upon it.
Were future generations to grow up in a gay-positive, homo-friendly
culture, it’s likely that many more people would have same-sex
relationships, if not for all of their lives at least for significant
periods. With this boom in queer sex, the social basis of homophobia
would be radically undermined.
In this state of greater sexual freedom, where homosexuality becomes
commonplace and ceases to be disparaged or victimised, gayness would
no longer have to be defended and affirmed. Gay identity (and its
straight counterpart) would thus, at last, become redundant. Hurrah!
PETER TATCHELL says biology is not destiny. One-sided genetic