In their August issue, DIVA magazine included a great article by Louise Carolin about recent questioning of the idea that being gay is ‘all in the genes’. This followed a debate on the matter that DIVA were involved with back in July. Louise interviewed me for the article but I thought I’d include the full interview here because it goes into a bit more depth. You can read more about these ideas in my book The Psychology of Sex.
Why is the notion that genetics might be responsible for our sexual orientations so popular with some LGBTQ people?
I think a big part of the reason is that wider culture tends to regard things that are genetic, or biological in any way, as more real. The idea that we are ‘born gay’ and that it is in our genes is tempting because it contradicts the homophobic notion that people choose to be gay, or are socialised into it, and could (and should) therefore be otherwise. Gay rights activism has often been based on trying to prove that lesbian and gay people are just as legitimate as heterosexual people and therefore deserving of equal treatment. So you can see why the idea that being gay is genetic might be popular.
However there are some big problems with this approach:
- It buys into the idea that things that are ‘natural’ are more legitimate than things that are chosen or social. That presents a problem, for example, for those feminists who chose to be lesbian as a political point, or for anybody whose experience of being gay is not something they’ve always known from as young as they can remember.
- We know that sexuality – like most aspects of human experience – is both fluid (changing over time) and biopsychosocial. That means that our sexualities are the result of an array of biological, psychological and social factors, all mixed together in a complex way. There aren’t single genes for even very simple things like height or eye colour, so it is very unlikely that there would be for sexuality. Also epigenetics shows us that genes interact with our environment: life experiences can determine whether genes are ‘switched off’ or ‘switched on’. It may well be that our genetic make-up tilts us in certain directions in all kinds of ways, but as soon as we are born, our biology interacts with the culture we’re born into – the social messages we receive, our experiences, and the ways we make sense of them – in all kinds of ways. This make it impossible to tease out what is ‘nature’ and what is ‘nurture’. It leaves each individual with a unique constellation that makes up their own particularly sexuality.
- The Surrey psychologist Peter Hegarty has found that believing in a biological basis of sexuality does not make people less homophobic, so arguing for LGBT rights on this basis is unlikely to work.
Being LGBT is not only okay if it is ‘natural’ or genetic to be so, it is okay regardless of why a person is LGBT, and to suggest otherwise is to buy into some pretty troubling assumptions.
Why does the focus on the search for the “gay gene” let down bi people in particular?
A lot of the people who argue for a gay gene do so on the basis that sexuality is binary (people are either gay or they are straight). For example the authors of the book Born Gay made exactly this point, and it is part of the reason that there has been a lot of research suggesting that bisexual people don’t really exist (which even the researchers who conducted that research now dispute).
So the search for a gay gene is implicated in bisexual erasure, which we know to be a big part of why bisexual people experience even higher levels of mental health problems than lesbian and gay people.
An alternative model of human sexuality is that, as with most aspects of human experience, it is on more of a continuum. The Kinsey scale is one (albeit over-simplified) example of such a model.
The idea that sexuality and gender are diverse and fluid has a lot more room in it for bisexuality and for all the other people who don’t experience themselves in a binary manner, or don’t experience their sexuality as being all about the gender they’re attracted to. Suddenly instead of there being a small percentage of LGBT people, we can see that people as a whole are gender and sexually diverse, and that at least a third of people experience their sexual and/or gender as somehow beyond the binary.
Might there be such thing as a “bi gene”? Would looking for that too make things more fair?
As with the gay gene it would be very unlikely that there was a single gene for bisexuality, and also given the biopsychosocial nature of sexuality, I would see it as rather problematic to just focus on the biological part. There’s something political about all this research which focuses on genes and on brains (most of which is far more funded than other kinds of research). It seems to be based on the assumption that we need to prove that we are real in order to be treated fairly. And it is based on the assumption that we need to explain why people are gay or bisexual, in a way that we never do in relation to heterosexuality.
I’m not saying that we should never research the biological elements of human experience. It is certainly part of the picture. But we do need to consider why we focus on it to the exclusion of other elements.
Sexuality is diverse thing. We are attracted to all different kinds of people (not just on the basis of gender), we enjoy a wide variety of sexual practices, we take on different roles, we have different fantasies. Perhaps instead of focusing on how to explain one small aspect of human sexuality, we could expand out to capture the full diversity of it in a way that might really let people know that their sexuality was just as acceptable as anybody else’s.