Gay: Born this way?

The debate about what makes people gay has been raging for decades. Now scientists aim to settle it for good, says Jeremy Laurance

"Sexual orientation is not a matter of choice, it is primarily neurobiological at birth." So said Jerome Goldstein, director of the San Francisco Clinical Research Centre, addressing 3,000 neurologists from around the world at the 21st meeting of the European Neurological Society (ENS) in Lisbon last month.

In doing so he was attempting to settle a debate that has raged for decades: are gays born or made? It is a puzzle because homosexuality poses a biological conundrum. There is no obvious evolutionary advantage to same-sex relationships. So why are some people attracted to others of the same sex? Sexual attraction provides the drive to reproduction – sex is a means to an end not, in Darwinian terms, an end in itself. From an evolutionary perspective, same-sex relationships should be selected out.

Despite this, they are common in the animal kingdom. Birds do it, bees probably do it and fleas may do it, too. Among the many examples are penguins, who have been known to form lifelong same-sex bonds, dolphins and bonobos, which are fully bisexual apes. Various explanations have been advanced for the evolutionary advantage that such relationships might confer. For example, female Laysan albatrosses form same-sex pairs, which are more successful at rearing chicks than single females. Homosexuality may also help social bonding or ease conflict among males where there is a shortage of females. Gay couples will not preserve their own genes but they may help preserve those of the group to which they belong.

The existence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom has been cited to demonstrate that it is not a sin against nature. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of recognised mental disorders almost 40 years ago in 1973 and the World Health Organisation followed suit in 1992. The UK Royal College of Psychiatrists does not produce its own list of disorders but tends to follow the WHO.

Yet as recently as February 2010, the college felt compelled to issue a statement to "clarify that homsexuality is not a psychiatric disorder," adding: "There is no sound scientific evidence that sexual orientation can be changed. Furthermore, so-called treatments of homosexuality create a setting in which prejudice and discrimination flourish."

The move was prompted by a survey of 1,400 psychiatrists and therapists, which found more than one in six had offered to help turn gays straight, or reduce their gay or lesbian feelings. Moreover, the cases were not concentrated in the past, but spread across the decades up to the present.

Professor Michael King, of the University College Medical School, who led the study published in BMC Psychiatry, said at the time: "We didn't expect it to be happening at this rate and we are really rather concerned... It is distressing and harmful and there is absolutely no evidence it works."

One puzzle was that far fewer therapists said they would attempt to change someone's sexual orientation if asked to do so – one in 25 – than admitted having actually done so. They seemed uncomfortable with giving treatment, or admitting to it. Pressure from clients demanding help because of bullying or discrimination may have pushed the therapists into delivering it.

Professor King said: "If the therapist is not wise enough to say that this is a part of them and there is nothing pathological about it, they may get seduced into trying to change them. Instead, the therapist should be saying that it is very unfortunate they are being bullied and that they can try to help them come to terms with their situation."

Research in neurobiology, cited by Jerome Goldstein in Lisbon last month, has served to reinforce this view. If it can be shown that the brains of gay people are physiologically different from heterosexual people, the idea that they are "aberrant" and may be changed is harder to sustain.

Twin studies have revealed a probable genetic link with sexual orientation and Dr Goldstone plans to examine the brains of identical twins using MRI scanners for differences.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, using MRI scanners measuring blood flow to the brain have already found differences in the size of the amygdala in the brain, which plays a key role in emotional responses. The brains of homosexual men resembled those of heterosexual women and those of homosexual women resembled those of heterosexual men.

The research builds on other studies of neurological differences between gay and straight men and women. A study led by Qazi Rahman at Queen Mary, University of London, found gay men and heterosexual women share a poor sense of direction and are more likely to navigate using landmarks or by asking someone. It is heterosexual men who stick stubbornly to the map.

The right-hand side of the brain dominates spatial capabilities, so may be slightly more developed in heterosexual men and lesbians. An earlier study found gay men and heterosexual women outperformed lesbians and heterosexual men in verbal fluency.

These studies hark back to those by Simon LeVay, a gay neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California, who claimed to have found structural differences in the brains of homosexual and heterosexual men. Post-mortems studied by LeVay revealed that a region of the brain called the interstitial nuclei of the anterior hypothalamus is two or three times bigger in heterosexual men than it is in women. In gay men, however, this region is about the same size as in women.

This supported the notion that the brains of gay men were in some ways a bit like women. But LeVay acknowledged that it was impossible to say whether this made people gay or whether the differences in their brains were a consequence of being gay. To make a compelling case, it would be necessary to show that the neurological differences existed early in life and that it was possible to predict future sexual orientation from them.

But he was captivated by the idea that, if gays were "born that way" it could undermine the morality of homosexual discrimination. He believed that a lifestyle based on an innate propensity rather than a conscious choice is far more difficult to condemn.

Jerome Goldstein agrees. "We must continue to bring forward data that show the differences or similarities between the brains of homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender persons." He added: "The neurobiology of sexual orientation and the gay brain, matched with other hormonal, genetic, and structural studies, has far-reaching consequences beyond sexual orientation."

'Curing' homosexuality



The idea that homosexuality can be cured has a long and dubious history. For most of the last century it was thought to be an aberration from the norm that could be "corrected", rather than a natural state. Everyone was thought to be basically heterosexual and homosexuality was regarded as a deviation, the result of "faulty learning" in childhood.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when belief in psychological behaviourism was at its height, aversion therapy was used to "cure" homosexuals. Male patients were given a slide show which included pictures of sexually attractive men and women and a lever that allowed them to change the slides. If they lingered too long over the pictures of the men, and did not move on swiftly enough to the pictures of the women, they received an electric shock. A variation of this treatment involved a drug that would make them vomit.

Aversion therapy, famously employed in Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange to cure Alex of his obsession with violence, was used up to the 1980s, but has since been discredited.

Other treatments included advice to masturbate to a homosexual fantasy and then switch to a heterosexual one near orgasm. Covert sensitisation required patients to counter homosexual thoughts with shameful fantasies of arrest by the police or discovery by their family.

Although not uncommon, these treatments never became mainstream in Britain. In the US, however, the idea that homosexuality can be cured retains wide support.

Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick