Remember the time when bisexual queen of pop Lady Gaga dropped her ridiculously catchy lead single “Born This Way,” and it became a sort of anthem for queer kids everywhere? Fun moment, but according to a new study, there is no scientific evidence to show that people really are “born gay” or born with their sexual orientation pre-programmed into them.
Published as a ‘Special Report’ in The New Atlantis, and titled “Sexuality and Gender: Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences,” the study was led by Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer and Dr. Paul R. McHugh. It undertakes an overview of the scientific literature currently available, to show that a person’s sexual orientation is not rooted in biology.
While it doesn’t attempt to pathologize all non-heterosexual identities, it does seem to be taking a rather controversial standpoint counter to the claim that homosexuality, or other sexual orientations are “naturally” occurring conditions. In fact, RT reported that many of the study’s contributors requested to remain anonymous because of the anticipated backlash that this study might incur. And you can see why, when the “born gay” argument has been a huge talking point for LGBTQ rights.
When starting college in New Delhi, one of the most significant things I did with my newfound adult independence was to attend LGBT student group meetings in the city. During my first one, we talked about our identities, and a boy across the room remarked, “It’s not a choice, guys. We don’t get to choose this.” This is an oft-repeated sentiment in the queer community – a sort of reassurance that while our sexual or gender identities are outside of our personal control, they are perfectly normal and worth being proud of.
It was a time when pop-culture was solidifying the idea that people of all sexualities and gender alignments were “on the right track, baby,” but the science community was still debating the “gay gene.” This debate started when scientists (particularly psychologists) began to view homosexuality as a genetic disorder in dire need of treatment – an idea which still exists today, by the way, thanks a lot Patanjali!
Newer studies suggested that Xq28 (found in that little ol’ X chromosome we all have) could be responsible for same-sex attraction in men. The response to these findings was complicated – on the one hand, it affirmed the idea that our bodies and desires were not “against the order of nature,” but at the same time made it easy to point to queerness as a biological defect or disability. So is Mayer and McHugh’s report also balancing precariously between these two sides?
If there has been some resistance to the report, it might have to do with McHugh’s rather anti-transgender views, which have peppered his career over the last quarter of a century. Houston-based non-profit TransAdvocate has documented (among other things) his problematic linking of trans identities with mental illness, and let’s not even get into his usage of the term “transgendered.” McHugh has also opposed sex-reassignment surgery, suggesting that it doesn’t really help the individual, and could even make things worse for them.
Mayer’s views on reassignment and transition are somewhat less distressing. His chief concern in this study is gender-non-conforming youth, especially children. “This is a vulnerable population, and I want to focus on their vulnerabilities,” he says, but he also mentions how hormone-blockers or even surgery can negatively affect children, when most of them outgrow their earlier and fluid notions of gender. Mayer’s take is potentially problematic, because it goes against the idea that all people (no matter how old) tend to have an ‘innate’ knowledge of their gender. But at the same time, he also points out the risks that surgical interventions can have on children, a concern that cannot simply be written off.
We can continue to speculate on the positions and motivations of the lead authors of this report, but the report itself tries to maintain scientific impartiality, and focuses primarily on the “need to lead healthy, flourishing lives.” It does rejects the idea that neurobiological factors separate non-heterosexual or transgender persons from heterosexual and cisgender persons. And its greatest finding, perhaps, is that more research on human sexuality and gender is needed.
“Science is never settled,” says McHugh. “There’s always another and better experiment; a better study.” And if anything can be said about this New Atlantis report, it is that it wants to encourage more and more studies about our glittery rainbow spectrum of gender and sexuality.