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Gayspotting & the Gaga Doctrine

Mark Simpson feels the gay bumps and lumps that betray the ‘gay brain’

Everyone loves Spotting The Gay. It’s a fun game the whole family can play.

Scientists seem to love it too. There have been a number of studies in the last decade or so that claim to demonstrate that ‘gaydar’ – the name implying microwave-accuracy we like to give to gut-instinct gayspotting – exists.

Though the results are not exactly stunning: only a bit better than chance, even after excluding bisexuality and pretending the world is neatly and helpfully divided half and half into heteros and homos. 10% more than chance is certainly ‘statistically significant’ in a laboratory, but not really the kind of accuracy you would trust to land your jumbo jet.

In fact, a series of intriguing recent studies by William Cox and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have suggested that even that accuracy, modest as it is, has been massively overestimated because a major flaw in the mathematics of previous research. Given the low incidence of homosexuality in the general population, 60% accuracy in the laboratory where subjects are 50% gay/straight translates into 93% inaccuracy in a real world in which 95% of the population are straight.

You really wouldn’t want ‘gaydar’ anywhere near Air Traffic Control.

Moreover, their research claims to debunk the whole concept of gaydar as nothing more than a legitimising myth for stereotyping. They argue that stereotyping is not, in general, an accurate way to judge sexuality and showed the more you validate the stereotyping the more people jump to conclusions.

Participants in one of their studies were asked to judge whether men were gay or straight based on whether they had interests that related to gay stereotypes, like fashion, shopping or theatre. Others had interests related to straight stereotypes, like sports, hunting or cars. Those who were told gaydar is real stereotyped much more than the control group and participants stereotyped much less when they had been told that gaydar is just another term for stereotyping.

I’d add here that in a sense inaccuracy is the point of ‘gaydar’. The ‘false positives’ are what it’s really targeting – it’s a system of surveillance. Gay stereotypes, particularly in regard to male homosexuality, are not so much aimed at gays, as at men in general – gayspotting is actually about spotting and discouraging male gender non-conformity. That 60% ‘accuracy’ claimed in previous studies means that for every 100 people, there will be 38 straight men incorrectly labelled gay, but only three gay people correctly labelled. Result!

Cox et al conducted another, slightly hair-raising experiment to show how stereotypes work. They had participants administer electric shocks to a male subject in the other room: ‘Participants learned only one thing about this other person, either that he was gay or simply liked shopping.’

Prejudiced people tended to refrain from shocking the man who was confirmed as gay, but delivered extremely high levels of shocks to the man who liked shopping. The researchers conclude that this experiment shows how stereotyping can give people opportunities to express prejudices without fear of reprisal. You can imagine them explaining: But, but… I didn’t electrocute The Gay!.

I would go further. I would say that it indicates how non-gay men who like things that are ‘gay’ are nowadays frequently safer targets for prejudice than (out) gay men – and as I say, homophobia, while particularly bad of course for gay men, is mostly about controlling the behaviour of non-homo men, of which there are a much larger number. So Cox et al’s shocking experiment was in effect a study in (American) metrophobia – I’m gonna fry that metrosexual faggot!

It’s not just straight people who like stereotypes, however. Gays can be even keener on gayspotting, and even more convinced of their unerring accuracy. Especially if the subject is hot or famous. And if they’re both then, my dear, there’s no question. Sometimes it almost looks like a re-enactment of their own childhood – though this time around they’re the ones shouting GAY!! (See much of Perez Hilton’s career.) Though in tests, les-gays, for all their skill at reading ‘gayness’ are only marginally better than straight people at gayspotting. Which is to say, only slightly less rubbish.

I know my gaydar’s rubbish – and I’m always the last to know. But even that knowledge doesn’t stop me from making snap judgements about strangers that are: a) entirely subjective, and b) really none of my fucking business. I can’t help but wonder if the fascination with spotting something is directly related to one’s actual incompetence. After all, if you were any good you would probably get bored with the game very quickly indeed.

And people are anything but bored with gaydar. My good chum Martin Karaffa first drew my attention to the flurry of publicity surrounding the recent paper, ‘Deep Neural Networks Can Detect Sexual Orientation From Faces’ (Yilun Wang, Michal Kosinski). The attention the paper received was not surprising, bringing together as it did dating profiles, Artificial Intelligence and ‘gaydar’. COOL!

‘AI Can Tell If You’re Gay From a Photo, And It’s Terrifying’, screamed one typical headline.  Typically false, that is. AI can’t tell from a photo whether you’re gay or not, and the authors of the paper don’t really claim to have achieved that. Additionally – and I know this will come as a terrible disappointment to many – they are very sceptical about the very concept of ‘gaydar’ as most people understand it, and in fact provide further evidence of its rather severe wonkiness (more on that later).

For their study they seem to have harvested profile photos of (white) men and women from an (unnamed) dating website, labelled them ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ according to the gender of the partner they said they were looking for, and then taught a computer to Spot The Gay – or rather, choose from pairs of photos of men or women where one was ‘gay’ and one was ‘straight’, which one was more likely to be ‘gay’. (I’m using scare quotes here because by the authors’ own admission, they themselves assigned the sexuality of the people in those photos – and, naturally, excluded bisexuality as a category.)

Under these carefully controlled conditions the AI guessed right 81% of the time for men and 71% of the time for women. Which sounds impressive, and is certainly significantly better than previous human judges studies, but it’s important however to remember again that the starting point for each pair of photos is 50% – the probability of guessing correctly by chance.

Some have critiqued the reporting of the paper and the paper itself  – particularly the way it seems to resurrect the once-fashionable 19th Century pseudoscience of physiognomy and phrenology, where an individual’s character is supposedly ‘written’ into someone’s appearance – the size of their nose, the bumps on their head.  The equally old-fashioned (but recently re-fashioned) biological theory it calls on, in this case the theory that homosexuality is the result of endrocrinal abnormalities in the womb, has also been questioned.

According to prenatal hormonal theory (PHT), gay men are gay because they didn’t get enough testosterone in utero and are thus ‘feminine’ or improperly masculinised. Lesbians are lesbian because they got too much and have thus been butched. In a sense, homosexuality doesn’t really exist – just hormonally-confused heterosexuality: masculine goes for feminine and that universally. (Though it seems to me this theory fails to account for how gay men can be attracted to other gay men – who would have to have the same ‘feminine’ orientation, psychology and appearance and thus be doubly or triply unsuitable love-objects.)

The paper’s authors Wang & Kosinski describe PHT as ‘widely-accepted’, which seems like something of an overstatement. Besides, the most recent PHT study rather embarrassingly failed to find that gay men were exposed to less testosterone than straight men – falling back on speculation that gay men might be ‘less sensitive’ to testosterone. (It did claim to find however that lesbians were exposed to more testosterone than straight women.)

What Wang & Kosinski say they did for their study was train their AI to look for ‘feminine’ features and behaviours in men and ‘masculine’ features and behaviours in women. Hence their claim that their findings help confirm the PHT theory of sexual orientation – and obviously they believe that this is a ‘good thing’.

Our results provide strong support for the [prenatal hormone theory], which argues that same-gender sexual orientation stems from the underexposure of male fetuses and overexposure of female fetuses to prenatal androgens responsible for the sexual differentiation of faces, preferences, and behavior

As a lay person it appears to me that for a number of reasons they’re wrong to claim confirmation of PHT, but were absolutely right to imagine they would be thanked for this claim in an era when essentialist ideas about sexuality are in vogue – as much as, paradoxically, essentialist ideas about gender are not. You can apparently choose your gender now, but your sexuality absolutely has to choose you.

So Kosinski himself, responding to criticisms of his study from GLAAD and others who described it as ‘junk science’ claimed it supported LGBT rights:

“It’s a great argument against all of those religious groups and other demagogues who say, ‘Why don’t you just change or just conform?’ You can’t stop, because you’re born this way,”

And he has a point, though perhaps not the one he thought he was making. In the US, where this study was conducted and where the culture wars rage (and thanks largely to social media are increasingly being exported to the UK, whether we want them or not) the God/Darwin made me this way tendency – what we might call the Gaga Doctrine – has dominated liberal and ‘progressive’ discourse for some time. Largely because it seems to represent an irrefutable and ‘immutable’ answer to the religious right moralism of ‘it’s a choice!’

But in addition to being, as Kosinski’s deployment of the argument demonstrates, not actually very progressive (‘I can’t help myself!’) but rather a reaction to reactionary ideas, this determinist approach is anyway very likely also doomed to failure. Establishing a predisposition for same sexiness – the most you could reasonably hope for, and even then not in all cases – is not enough for the Gaga Doctrine. Because with predisposition, as the word suggests, experience is decisive. The whole point of being ‘born that way’ is to get rid of all of that messy stuff called ‘life’.

And Kosinski isn’t the one resurrecting dodgy physiognomy, it’s already been galvanised Dr Frankenstein style – by ‘progressive’ scientists who want to in effect Spot The Gay in the womb in order to prove that homosexuality is congenital – a ‘third sex’. Often scientists who are themselves gay and on a quest to prove they were ‘born that way’, baby. (Kosinski has just had more publicity than most – and possibly been more clumsy than most; and since he is not gay himself is easier to attack.)

So tenuous claims about gay hair whorls, gay drivers, gay index fingers, gay genes and gay brains are to be welcomed because they reveal God’s amniotic plan for sodomy – a kind of gay creationism. Likewise ‘gaydar’ studies that ‘out’ the inborn gay essence in gay faces. Hence the public support for the study provided by a prominent gay scientist, fervent believer in ‘gay brains’ and author of a book called ‘Born Gay’.

To a non-believer like me – it offends my amour propre to think my sexuality is in effect nothing to do with me – probably the most interesting aspect of the ‘AI gaydar’ study is that it goes out of its way to point out how poor actual humans are at gayspotting, despite the allegedly decisive effect of that allegedly faulty amniotic fluid. In other words, the AI gaydar study torpedoes gaydar as it is understood by pretty much everyone.

They point out that the ‘gender atypical’ nature of gay men and lesbian faces they claim to have shown are only an average aggregation of ‘subtle’ differences – and not applicable to all gay men and lesbians. Most relevantly, and most disappointingly for many, they state: ‘Our results in no way indicate that sexual orientation can be determined from faces by humans.’

They even ran their own large human judges study – asking men and women from the US to choose between two photos of two men (and two women), one gay/lesbian and one straight – selecting the one more likely to be gay/lesbian. 50,000 pairs were used for each gender. They achieved an accuracy of 61% for men and 54% for women – ‘comparable with the accuracy obtained in the previous studies, which range from approximately 55 to 65%’.

They conclude that this ‘confirms that humans are rather inaccurate when distinguishing between facial images of gay and homosexual [sic] individuals.’

Regarding their own AI study, which of course had significantly better results, they allow this criticism:

‘It is possible, however, that facial images posted on a dating website are particularly revealing of sexual orientation. Perhaps the users selected the photos that their desired partners might find the most appealing.’

No shit, Sherlock.

In fact, part of the reason why they ran the human judges study was to try and prove that there was nothing especially ‘revealing’ about those pics – the fact that the human viewers scored similar (poor) rates to earlier studies demonstrates this, they believe.

Along with many other critics, I’m not so sure. Photos posted for a same-sex date/hook-up on a (presumably mostly hetero) dating site are almost by definition presenting you in a certain way, even if the human eye wasn’t (consciously) picking it up. Otherwise, why post them? They are self-selected photos uploaded by self-selecting homos: out enough to put their faces on a dating website, and one used by mostly straight people. And also by ‘gaydar’ researchers who may or may not have been breaching the dating site’s confidentiality rules.

It does seem to be the case however that the AI here successfully picked up what the human eye didn’t. Though exactly what the AI was doing seems to be a bit of a mystery, as apparently is the case with AI and algorithms generally. What’s evident though is that the data processed was not just ‘fixed’ or inborn facial features, as much as these can anyway be reliably measured from self-posted photos on a dating website, but also what the report calls ‘expressions’ and ‘grooming styles’. (Interestingly, Cox’s studies debunking gaydar – strangely unmentioned in this paper – found that ‘gaydar’ was largely an artefact of the happenstance that gay and lesbian self-selected photos tended to be of better quality than ones used by heteros: once this was eliminated there was no ‘gaydar’ effect.)

The authors cover themselves here however by claiming that they weighted facial features more heavily (something currently impossible for anyone else to verify), and postulating that anyway the ‘gender atypical’ expressions and grooming of their ‘gay’ subjects was probably also down to the fact they weren’t exposed to enough/too much testosterone in utero. Gay grooming is, in other words, also a product of faulty prenatal grooming. PHT theory is almost womb-like in its all-enveloping-ness.

In a statement that for me draws perhaps the biggest question mark over their whole study they also claim that they found that gay men were less likely to have facial hair than straight men. And again wonder whether this might be down to, you guessed it, insufficient pre-natal man-horms.

I don’t know about you, but now I really want to know now what this dating site was where they found all these clean-shaven horny gay men. For the last decade or so – and long before straight men started growing beards en masse, following in fact gay men’s example – it has been practically impossible for a gay man to get laid in metropolitan areas without face-fur.

They also offer this ‘revealing’ nugget about baseball caps:

‘consistent with the association between baseball caps and masculinity in American culture…, heterosexual men and lesbians tended to wear baseball caps (see the shadow on their foreheads)’

So now we know their AI was definitely measuring things that are not ‘inborn’. No one is delivered wearing a New York Yankees cap – not even a lesbian positively marinated in amniotic androgens.

It may be true that out gay men generally don’t seem to be terribly fond of wearing baseball caps – especially when trying to get laid on a straight dating site. But perhaps this has less to do with any underexposure to testosterone than an overexposure to fashion sense.

Traditional Masculinity Has a Stroke – ‘Burly Rugby Player’ Transforms Into ‘Gay Hairdresser’

My friend Michelle, formerly the male stripper known as ‘Stud-U-Like’, alerted me to this ‘freaky’ tale of transformation reported in this week’s freaky Daily Mail with this priceless headline:

Burly rugby player has a stroke after freak gym accident… wakes up gay and becomes a hairdresser

It then teases us with a couple of ‘shocking’ bullet-pointed facts

Chris Birch loses eight stone and transforms himself from skinhead to ‘preened man’

Gives up job in bank and retrains as a hairdresser

 

Cutting to the chase:

Mr Birch recalled: ‘I was gay when I woke up and I still am. It sounds strange but when I came round I immediately felt different.

“I wasn’t interested in women any more. I was definitely gay. I had never been attracted to a man before – I’d never even had any gay friends.

‘But I didn’t care about who I was before, I had to be true to my feelings.’

Before the accident Mr Birch, of Ystrad Mynach, South Wales, had spent his weekends watching sport and drinking with his mates.

But he said: ‘Suddenly, I hated everything about my old life. I didn’t get on with my friends, I hated sport and found my job boring.

‘I started to take more pride in my appearance, bleached my hair and started working out. I went from a 19-stone skinhead to an 11-stone preened man.

‘People I used to know barely recognised me and with my new look I became even more confident.’

The copy and a supportive quote from a neuroscientist seems to suggest only two explanations: ‘he was gay all along but didn’t know it before the stroke’; or ‘his stroke made him gay and good with colours’.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems to me that there are more than two possible explanations here.

Maybe Mr Birch was just fed up with being the big Welsh boyo everyone wanted him to be and when it almost killed him he decided: ‘Sod THAT for a game of soldiers! Life’s too short. I’m gonna be a FLAMER!!’

Maybe Mr Birch simply resolved, albeit unconsciously, to be about Mr Birch from now on, not what his family, friends and fiancée expected of him. Maybe he chose to reject heterosexuality because it made too many demands on him. And what better way to escape its demands in a small Welsh town by waking up from a near death experience as the only gay in the village?

Being a bloke’s bloke isn’t always as much fun as it looks. And being honest, it usually doesn’t look that much fun anyway. You don’t have to be a ‘secret gay’ to find it miserable and oppressive. And more often than not you’ll be punished if you try to escape. Look at what happened to Shane Warne, whose own transformation from beer-bellied Aussie stereotype to flaming metrosexual has been regularly pilloried in the papers, including the one in which this latest sporting transformation story appeared.

Though of course nowadays it’s sometimes possible to be a rugby-playing Welshman and something of a flamer too. Maybe Mr Birch should have taken a leaf out of fellow Welshman Gavin Henson’s bachelor book and continued playing with odd-shaped balls but as a ‘preened’ rugby player. But then again, perhaps he didn’t have the legs for it.

And as for Mr Birch’s new-found interest in chaps. Well, I’m sorry but I don’t think it very surprising when males find other males sexually interesting. Or something that needs to be explained by a stroke. At least not the kind the Daily Mail reports.

There is though yet another possible explanation for all this. That this story is complete twaddle. It did after all appear in the Daily Mail. And the writer is the same one who reported pretty much every important fact about this infamous ‘gay orgy in the bushes’ story incorrectly, apparently pandering to the imagined Daily Mail reader’s worst fantasies.

Also, the stroke that ‘turned him gay’ (instantly, apparently), happened in 2005. Why wait six years to tell the national press? Especially if you told your parents and fiancée when you came round in the hospital.

And I seem to recall that when I first read this story about Mr Birch online yesterday it mentioned that he and his fiancé/girlfriend were ‘taking a break’ before the accident. The piece was ‘updated’ today and this detail is nowhere to be found.

And then we have the banner headline which talks about a ‘freak gym accident’ causing his injuries but the copy talks instead about ‘him attempting a backflip in front of friends on a field when he fell down a grass bank, breaking his neck and suffering the stroke.’ Or the way the ‘before’ picture appears to have been manipulated/squashed to make him look burlier.

But my favourite dodgy passage is this one:

‘He was taken to hospital where his fiancée and family spent days waiting anxiously at his bedside before he delivered the shocking news.’

What? More shocking than breaking his neck, suffering a stroke and nearly dying?

UPDATE 18/04/12

Last night BBC3 aired ‘I Woke Up Gay’, a documentary about Mr Birch. It was an hour long, but apart from some local Welsh colour, some more snaps of Birch pre-stroke when he was straight and very chunky (“Oh! That’s AWFUL!!'” was today’s slimline Birch’s horrified response to them) and more close-ups of Birch’s remarkable hairdo, which looks like a badly ironed dead badger, the doc didn’t really add anything to the Mail’s story. Or really clarify the ‘confusions’. (Birch says he ‘can’t remember’ much of his pre-stroke past.)

It did however leave you feeling that the whole thing wasn’t just cooked up by the Mail, and that Mr Birch seems to believe his own story. Or perhaps needs to believe it. Though it’s still not entirely clear when exactly he decided on it. His family were notable by their absence in the doc – apparently he has become estranged from most of the people he used to know before the stroke.

I don’t wish to suggest as many have done that Birch is ‘lying’, or was a ‘closet queen’ before the stroke. Or that he’s simply attention-seeking (though he certainly doesn’t seem to mind it). I do think though that he may be deceiving himself – but then, we all do that. To some extent probably most coming out stories are fictional if necessary narratives. What’s interesting is not what his story says not about dubious ‘brain science’ but about how difficult it can still be for some to accept themselves in places like the Valleys as gay, or just not a boozy rugger bugger.

In that kind of situation a stroke might even be a stroke of luck. At least in the sense of giving you a chance to reinvent yourself.

The ‘highlight’ of the doc was when Birch travels up to London to see the Wizard of Oz – or rather, a highly controversial scientist called Quazi Rahman who believes that gay men’s brains are innately different to straight men’s (this in turn is based on dubious assumptions about ‘men’ and ‘women’ that are increasingly being questioned). The narrator told us that Rahman has tested “hundreds of lesbian, gay and straight volunteers” (no bisexuals, note – and for the purposes of this entire documentary they simply don’t exist) and “can tell if a person was born gay or straight, despite their current lifestyle”.

In other words, Rahman is God.

The narration continues, cheerfully telling us:

“Though controversial, some scientists believe that our genes and hormones may determine sexuality before birth and personality traits too. These traits can be tested and this means that Dr Rahman can work out whether or not a person was truly born gay.”

Truly born gay.

In other words, Rahman is even bigger than God. He’s Jeremy Kyle.

(Note how BBC3 throws in a reluctant ‘controversial’ at the beginning of the first sentence but by the end of the second, knowing most BBC3 viewers have already long forgotten it, seems to be expressing nothing short of a divine revelation.)

So it was touching to see two people who both fervently believe in ‘gay brains’ come together – but unfortunately for Birch, it wasn’t a marriage made in heaven. Rahman talks to Birch about testing him to find out “how gay your brain is” (no, really, that’s actually what he says), but was clearly disappointed with his own results, which showed that half Birch’s responses fell within the ‘normal range’ for a gay man and the other half within the ‘normal range’ of a straight man. Whatever that means.

Birch though is delighted with the results because he sees it as an endorsement of his narrative of the stroke ‘turning his brain gay’. But Rahman seems set against the idea, despite his mixed findings. Perhaps this is because for the gay neuroscientist (who is the author of a book called ‘Born Gay’) the whole point of ‘gay brains’ seems to be that you’re born with them, rather than being something you can acquire, even by accident. Like I said, everyone has their own necessary coming out fiction.

Birch’s boyfriend, who accompanied him to the Gay Brain Detector’s lab, seemed to be the only one who had his head screwed on. He was gently sceptical of his partner’s belief that the stroke made him gay, but was patiently sympathetic to the psychology of it. “He’s based his whole life on the stroke making him gay,” he said whilst Birch’s brain was being ‘tested’ for ‘gayness’.

“If he wasn’t, it would almost be like having to start from scratch again.”

Gay Men As Bad As Women (But Not As Bad As Psychobiology)

by Mark Simpson

(Guardian CIF, Sunday January 6, 2008)

It’s official. The scientists have finally proved it. Gay men are as bad as women.

Or as the Daily Mail puts it in a somewhat unnecessarily long headline: “Gay men are as bad at navigating as women“.

The Daily Telegraph headline was a little more direct: “Women and gay men are ‘worst drivers‘”.

Actually, this wasn’t what the researchers into spatial learning and memory at Queen Mary’s (no, really, that’s actually their name) College claimed at all, but I say why allow the facts spoil a good headline? Or Jeremy Clarkson column?

What the researchers did actually claim however was that both gay men and women appear to “share the same poor sense of direction and rely on local landmarks to get around”.

That would be cottages and shoe shops, I suppose.

According to the Mail, a study of 140 straight and gay, male and female “volunteers” by Queen Mary College, London claims to have found that “gay men, straight women and lesbians navigated in much the same way and shared the same weaknesses.” For South American Chardonnay and men’s buns, perhaps?

But hang on a minute. And lesbians? What are they doing lumped together with gay men and straight women? I thought that if gay men are women trapped inside men’s bodies, lesbians were supposed to be trapped inside an articulated lorry cab with their feet on the dashboard smoking roll-ups.

But as you read on it dawns what this sophisticated psychological test was really assessing. “The Queen Mary team, led by Dr Qazi Rahman, used virtual reality simulations of two common tests of spatial learning and memory developed at Yale University.”

Ah, so they played computer games. Not very good computer games, by the sound of it:

In one, the Morris Water Maze (MWM) test, volunteers were placed in a “virtual pool” and had to “swim” through a maze to find hidden submerged platform … The other task, the Radial Arm Maze test (RAM), involved finding “rewards” by exploring eight “arms” radiating out from a circular central junction. Four arms contained a reward and four did not, and participants had to avoid traversing an arm more than once.

Well, maybe it’s because I’m gay and dizzy, but you’ve lost me already. I want to log on and hunt for meaningless sex for hours via my scores of online profiles. You can keep your rather tedious reject Xbox game.

There may well be generalised differences between men and women when it comes to driving or other spatial based activities, such as computer games (men seem to play them rather more than women, though often with straight men this appears to be a way of getting away from women). And these may well have some relationship to sexual orientation, though what we mean by sexual orientation is a question in itself – after all, bisexuals are not mentioned in this survey. But it doesn’t appear that this study has shown it – instead it has merely shown up some cultural prejudices (e.g. that Telegraph “worst drivers” misleading headline).

Even the findings of this study appear to confirm gay men’s role as confusers of assumptions about gender. The leader of the Queen Mary team is quoted as saying: ‘”Gay people appear to show a “mosaic” of performance, parts of which are male-like and other parts of which are female-like”‘. So in other words, gay men watch porn, leave toilet seats up but also do a spot of dusting.

Perhaps though the disoriented gay men in the study weren’t gay men at all, but pissed-up fruit flies escaped from another scientific study published this week, which claimed to show that alcohol produces “homosexual tendencies” in male fruit flies. The researchers claimed the amorousness the flies showed one another after repeated exposure to alcohol is a model for how alcohol lessens inhibitions in humans.

I suspect this is one claim that isn’t terribly controversial.


It has been pointed out to me since this piece appeared that Dr Quazi Rahman, the man behind the study which claimed to have ‘discovered’ similarities between gay men and women’s brains, is the author of a book called ‘Born Gay’. If only snarky commentators like me could learn to be as objective as psychobiologists.

The Zombie Media’s Hunger for Gay Brains

“Brains! Give me gay brains!”

So the global media has been moaning this week, arms outstretched and flailing, sightless eyes staring fixedly ahead.

You can hardly have missed this story.

We’ve been here several times before, most recently with the story about ‘gay drivers being as bad as women’, but the press clearly can’t get enough of this kind of ‘gay science’. Especially when it appears to confirm the popular, consoling and time-honoured view of gay men as women’s souls trapped in men’s bodies.

The only intelligent piece I’ve read on this story was by Mark Liberman, kindly forwarded to me by my friend David Halperin. It debunks the headlines about ‘gay brains’ rather, er, brainily.

It’s also worth pointing out that, as is usually with this kind of brain research, these differences – if they exist rather than being an artefact of sampling – have not been shown to be innate. The brain is ‘plastic’ and the differences in size could have been in effect ‘learned’, or be the product of behaviour and not t’other way around. That’s to say, shopping for shoes and salad with gal pals might increase the part of your brain that ‘processes emotion and language’. If this rather important proviso was mentioned in the news reports at all, it was right at the end.

And of course, you only have to think for less than a minute about the claim that gay men and straight women have the ‘same brains’, especially when it comes to the area that ‘processes emotion’, to see a major flaw with this apparently ‘common sense’ finding. I mean, how many hetero women – or lesbians – have the same attitude towards emotion-free sex that gay men have?

Far more significant than the findings of the research was the way it was reported. As Liberman points out, none of the stories headlined with ‘Lesbian brains are the same as straight male brains’. Almost all of them were a variant of ‘Gay male brains the same as heterosexual women’s brains’

To be fair, most of the research in this area isn’t terribly interested in lesbians either. That’s because the problem that needs to be explained from a biological determinist point of view, is human males who don’t impregnate women – which is what ‘male’ means to such people – and instead, in their view, try to impregnate other men, or, worse, be impregnated by them. Women, on the other hand, only exist to be impregnated from a biological determinist point of view, so their ‘orientation’ is largely irrelevant.

Which should tell you all you need to know about biological determinism.

Gays who hope that this kind of research will deliver them from the ‘it’s a choice’ religious right and ‘it’s unnatural’ homophobes are possibly jumping out of the moralist frying pan into the eugenic fire. Of course, they wouldn’t be the first. Magnus Hirschfeld (and also Karl Ulrichs) the ‘father’ of the modern gay rights movement believed that homosexual men were women’s souls trapped inside men’s bodies. Homosexuals should not be persecuted and criminalised, in Hirschfeld’s view, because they couldn’t help themselves, and, more to the point, as women trapped inside men’s bodies, they weren’t really homosexual at all – they were congenitally confused heterosexuals with a hormonal imbalance. When they had sex with another male they were trying, in their own ‘crippled’ way, to be faithful to their heterosexual impulses.

Then along came the Nazis, who largely agreed with Hirschfeld about crippled, congenital homosexuals not being real men, but had a rather different view about what this meant – i.e. degeneracy – and, of course, what to do about this. Which, in addition to concentration camps, included operating on them to find the causes of their hereditary weakness, and injecting them with massive quantities of male hormones (though the latter of course is something many gays pay good money for these days).

Back to the possibly eugenic future: In the real world, as opposed to the one created by psychobiology, gay and straight men are more and more difficult to tell apart, both in terms of appearance, behaviour and even sexual practises. So I look forwards to the research into which part of the brain is responsible for straight men spending most of their sexual lives masturbating to online porn, or why so many of them favour anal or oral sex when confronted with an actual female – predilections which, from a biological determinist point of view, aren’t really so different from homosexuality.

Human sexuality is far more perverse and cunning and kinky than poor square old biological determinists can ever accept, because for them heterosexuality is necessarily the same thing as reproduction which is the same thing as sex. When much of human culture has been very energetically and ingeniously devoted to making sure that these things aren’t the same.

In a sense, homosexuality represents one of the crowning (over-) achievements of that energy. And perhaps that’s the very reason there remains such an intense, curious, and sometimes murderous, ambivalence about it.  As shown by the countless and continuing attempts to explain it away.

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