BOOK REVIEW: The X in sexuality

Click to follow
A Separate Creation (How Biology Makes us Gay)

Bantam Press, pounds 16.99

"My mother made me a homosexual" ... "Oh good; if I gave her the wool, would she make me one too?" may be a weak joke but it neatly summarises gay men's mockery of crude attempts to explain their orientation. Devotees of the dominant mother theory can, however, take heart; scientific studies in America now suggest that mothers are responsible, after all, via a specific genetic variant on the X chromosome that they pass on to their sons.

In 1991 the neuroscientist Simon LeVay claimed to have discovered a small cluster of cells in the hypothalamus of the human brain that was larger in straight men than in gay men ... thus science makes size queens of us all. From then on, the race was on in institutes across America to isolate the "gay gene". Chandler Burr charts the race with considerable skill. His elucidation of complex scientific theories is admirably clear, although he betrays his journalistic training in cheap descriptions (nearly all the scientists are defined by their hairstyles) and groundless gush ("They worked nights. They worked weekends").

Despite paying lip service to the opposition, Burr clearly accepts the view of the geneticists. To them, sexual orientation is part of our DNA and no more a matter of individual choice than right or left handedness. This will come as little surprise to gay people themselves who, with the exception of the political lesbians of the Sixties and Seventies, have rarely considered their sexuality a matter of choice. More contentious is whether it is so uniquely determined by genes.

Experience shows that sexuality is subject to many forces beyond genetic determination, notably psychological influence and social construction, both of which Burr and his scientific sources ignore, dismissing Freud and failing even to mention Foucault. Instead they suggest that there has been a constant number of homosexuals throughout history. This, as any student of classical Greece or other gay-friendly culture knows, is patently untrue.

Burr claims that "an interiorly heterosexual person is not homosexual even in the midst of homosexual experience". He crucially ignores the vast amount of same-sex experience from those who identify as heterosexual and grossly underestimates bisexuality. Indeed, two of the scientists quoted independently exclude acknowledged bisexuals from their studies. There are constant attempts to identify human sexuality with that of animals. Human beings do not just have consciousness but self-consciousness; our behaviour cannot be equated with the "mount or be mounted" reaction of rats. There are major biochemical as well as social, emotional and intellectual distinctions.

The problem with the current theory is not that it is offensive but that it is unconvincing. Moreover, even should it prove to be true, it has no bearing whatsoever on individual morality or the exercise of free will.

Many gays in America are seizing on the idea of a gay gene as if it somehow legitimises them. This, as Burr remarks, is absurd and even dangerous ... after all, cancer is genetic; does that make it good? Unlike the search for the gene for cystic fibrosis or Alzheimer's, there is no medical benefit to be gained from discovery. Homosexuality is no longer classed as a disease, except in the diseased minds of religious fundamentalists. Indeed, one might ask why there has been no attempt to locate the gene for religious fanaticism, which poses a far greater threat to society.

The suspicion that, for all their disavowals, the scientists are working to a political agenda is confirmed by the interest that the American army is taking in the gene's isolation. The irresponsibility of many of the scientists who consciously leave it to others to deal with the moral implications of their work is horrifying. Will the gays who now welcome the gene theory be so keen in a few years' time if it becomes possible to abort "gay" foetuses? And where does that leave the religious right who are both violently anti-abortion and virulently anti-gay?

Soon it will be possible for growth, skin tone, eye colour and weight all to be engineered in a process of unnatural deselection that leaves humankind literally and metaphorically working to a Californian blueprint. If the gene theory turns out to be true, such a homogenised, heterosexual future will be the inevitable conclusion. "O brave new world, that has such people in't."