It's not in the genes, it's in the culture

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The Independent Online
HAVING published their evidence connecting Xq28, an area of the X chromosome, with homosexuality, the team led by Dean Hamer of the US National Cancer Institute returned to their microscopes and began surveying the contiguous Xq29. Only this time their microscopes were even more powerful than before, and what they saw made them gasp with amazement.

What they saw, in perfect minuscule detail, was as follows:

a complete set of well-used Judy Garland LPs;

a complete season of Bette Davis films;

Barbara Cartland's complete pink outfit as featured recently on the front page of the Daily Telegraph;

a feather boa;

the complete religious opinions of Charles Moore.

The team realised that what they had stumbled upon was utter dynamite. They had located the genetic determinant of High Camp. From now on, if scientists were allowed their way, they could, by taking samples of genetic material from foetuses, arrange for the suppression of any future human being with tendencies in the camp direction. But what was camp, and what was high camp?

It was at this point that the enormity of their discovery became fully apparent, since it was clear that:

the Queen Mother of the United Kingdom was camp;

the Episcopalian Church in America was camp;

the entire readership of the Spectator was camp;

the entire membership of the House of Lords was camp;

all white supremacists in South Africa were very high camp indeed.

What human treasures would be lost, what cultural triumphs would be foregone if camp were to be stamped out ab ovo. No more of Jessye Norman's evening gowns, Lord Rees-

Mogg's columns or Lord St John of Fawsley's reassurances on matters royal. We should be so much the poorer, as people have been saying about the potential genetic suppression of homosexuals.

Oh yes, we should be so much the poorer.

Um, but it's absurd, isn't it? this notion that homosexuality, or the predisposition thereto, has been genetically located, or that the groundwork has been laid for such a discovery. As absurd as announcing that a taste for Ronald Firbank's novels, or a predisposition thereto, has been located in the chromosomes.

For a start, homosexuality is an abstract noun, a cultural construct with a short historical life, as was famously pointed out by Foucault. Neither the ancient Greeks nor the ancient Romans had a word for homosexuality. They didn't know about it.

They knew about love between men and men, and women and women. They knew about overt sexual acts. They might write condemningly of people who habitually engaged in certain demeaning sexual activities. But the idea of innate homosexual predisposition they did not have.

There are still some cultures like that today, where they do not really understand what homosexuality is supposed to be. They will confuse it with androgyny or transexuality in men. But it is easy to imagine a society in which the transvestite male is considered something of a freak or special case, while the man who has sexual favours from him is deemed normal and fundamentally 'heterosexual' (if they knew the word). Indeed, that was rather the picture of modern Rome painted, in a recent television documentary film, by South American transvestites.

And that was the charm of The Crying Game, in which the character played by Stephen Rea could hardly be said to have turned homosexual by the end of the film. Rather he appeared to have entered a heterosexual relationship with a man.

At all events, when it comes to compiling statistical analyses of homosexuality, decisions have to be made about inclusions and exclusions. Passionate, undeclared, unconsummated relationships between men will tend to get excluded for lack of any overt sexual act (even though the emotions involved might have dominated two lives). A casual fling with a transvestite gets logged simply because of its overtness. It is apparently loggable. But the meaning of the fling might have been heterosexual.

Imagine Dean Hamer and his team working in ancient Greece, having made their way thither by time travel. They consult the male citizens of Athens, respectable married men of good repute. They ask them whether they have ever loved a young man. All the men in the sample say, yes, they have indeed loved a young man. But do they have sexual relations with their wives? Yes, they all have sexual relations with their wives, thank you very much. They love their wives, and they procreate as normal men. So after a while the team has to decide by what criteria their sample can be divided: are those who love young men without any hanky-panky to be classed as 'heterosexual', even though their relationships with women differ in no respect from those of the rest of the sample. Or what?

The team decides that research must be carried out into what precisely the citizens do with their boyfriends (when there is hanky-panky) since it is perhaps there that the definition of homosexuality is to be found. Unfortunately, the citizens begin to lose patience with these inquiries, which seem to be implying something dishonourable. And so the team is thrown out, long before they have taken a single genetic sample or measured a single 'gay hypothalamus'.

Genes decide this. Genes decide that. Genes affect this. Genes affect that.

It would be extremely odd if they didn't affect sexuality, since that would rather imply that our sexuality had no basis in our physical being. But it is cultures that decide what constitutes homosexual behaviour or a homosexual disposition. Indeed, one could argue that our own culture has yet to make its own decision on this point. Nor is it hard to imagine that the word homosexual might one day be dropped, as getting in the way of clear thought.