Tuesday, 12 April 2011


Once again, homophobia has ruined someone's night and made it into the news. This seemingly keeps happening, and it invariably leads to the tired debate about lifestyle choice/religious views/political correctness and all that. It's ridiculous but inevitable, like Boris Johnsons rise to power. But why is it so common? In my experience, you do have to be careful about talking about homosexuality in a public forum, no matter what the context. The majority of people I've encountered aren't homophobic, and perhaps more importantly, seemingly even more people don't want to be thought of as homophobic, even if they probably are. This leads to some strange outcomes.

You know how people say 'I've got lots of gay friends!' after saying something blatantly homophobic? I don't do that. It's another variation of the classic get-out-of-jail-free card when expressing derogatory or unacceptable views about groups of people that they don't actually belong to. The typical formula is "I think [group x] are all a bunch of [offensive comment or term]. But I'm not [prejudiced against group x], a lot of my friends are [belonging to group x]". With people who use this argument, I would question their definition of 'friend'. I'd wager they define it, in this scenario, as 'someone [from group x] I met who I didn't like due to my views but who I remember I've encountered when making offensive comments about [group x]'. This is just my opinion, though.

But like I said, in the case of homosexuals, I don't do that. Partly because it would be superfluous (I don't have any issue with homosexuals, nor do I make offensive jokes about them), but mostly because it would be inaccurate. Truth be told, I don't have many gay friends. Gay male friends, at least. I do know a statistically unlikely number of lesbians. Not sure why, I don't actively go out of my way to meet lesbians, I get the impression that I probably wouldn't be too welcome in the places they allegedly hang out. Worryingly, the only thing these lesbians I know have in common is that, at some point in their lives, they all met me. But to make any conclusions based on this would be confusing correlation with causation (sort of), and that would never do.

Admittedly, I do have a habit of unintentionally upsetting the gay men I do meet via the medium of social faux pas. For example, I got a lift back from a wedding with a friend of my then girlfriend (now wife) who, as it happens, is homosexual. We were listening to Radio 1 (I was much younger then, don't judge me!), and Sarah Cox was on. I like Sarah Cox, unlike most of my mates. I like to see if my fondness for the nice gobby northern lady is considered weird by other people as well, so I asked my generous driver friend 'Do you like Cox?' The awkward pause that followed last just long enough for maximal embarrassment to kick in, which made the drive a lot more 'interesting' (meaning 'quieter'). Stuff like this happens with me alarmingly often, as anyone who's seen my stand-up set will know. But I'm telling you this to point out that, in the sociological context at least, I'm ill-qualified to make any comment on the matters I'm about to comment on extensively. Just letting you know in advance, so feel free to take all this with a pinch of salt, or whatever your preferred cliché.

Homosexuality, or maybe more accurately, homophobia, is an ever present issue in modern society. I don't 'get' homophobia. It's not as if homosexuality is a new thing; judging by what we see in the wild, it predates the concept of conscious prejudice by a significant margin. So if we're going to talk about 'unnatural behaviour'... And it's not as if homosexuality is an uncommon thing either. If it were, you can sort of see how people would be a bit afraid of this bizarre and unfamiliar practice. But no, lots of people are gay. The figure 'One in Ten men' get's bandied about a lot, but not sure how accurate that is. And women, they're even worse. There is extensive video evidence available from a variety of sources that show that two women who are left alone together will inevitably end up having sex with each other, within minutes, for no discernable reason other than boredom, or simply because the opportunity has presented itself. I know this sounds ridiculous, but trust me. I did extensive research into this during my teenage years. And then again when I first installed high-speed broadband. And every now and again when the wife is out.

But despite all this, homophobia is still rampant in pretty much all societies. And in my own personal view, I don't think it will ever be stamped out entirely. For example, men in a group of male friends in full on male-badinage mode, will invariably imply that one or more of their friends is gay in a joking yet derogatory manner. I don't think this will stop in the foreseeable future, but I don't think it's as bad as other forms of homophobia. Heterosexual men constantly evaluate their own sense of self worth and social standing by their masculinity, and one of the most common and powerful ways to demonstrate masculinity is via prowess with the opposite sex. Young boys will often describe other boys as 'girls' when they want to insult or offend them (or maybe that was just my school). I'm not sure if the opposite is true, that girls describe other girls as boys, as I was never a young girl. I'm pretty sure boys don't insult girls by calling them boys, children tend to struggle with reciprocal negative gender stereotyping, for some reason. Probably because I just made the term up a minute ago.

As we grow though, the rational world tends to shape our consciousness more and more, and we are expected to be smarter and more accurate when it general interaction with others. If he wished to imply that a friend was not masculine, he could still call him 'a girl/woman', but that would be demonstrably not true, so would be something of a hollow insult. The insulter would also look stupid/childish, so the insult would have to opposite effect to that intended. However, now the concept of homosexuality has been introduced into their lives, and accusing a mate of being a gay man is far more effective way of questioning his masculinity; it's physically possible, potentially true, and the only way the accused to completely disprove it is to have enthusiastic sex with a woman in front of the accuser while demonstrating genuine revulsion in response to a naked man. And that sort of behaviour will get you thrown out of the pub. As will homosexual activity, apparently. When it comes to sexuality and socialising, it might be easier to just not bother, just buy a 4-pack and stay in.

But I don't think the 'gay' insult in the context of friends trying to undermine masculinity is such a bad thing, as it's (usually) more to do with the 'activities' associated with being gay, rather than a slur on homosexuals themselves. But the use of the term 'gay' as a general derogatory one, that's not good. The use of the term 'gay' to describe something stupid, or physically weak/incapable, that's just crap. Of course, no gay person has ever been considered
intelligent, or physically adept at sports or combat. What a ludicrous notion! Especially since every straight person is an intellectual beefcake.

I'm not sure if this applies to lesbians and lesbianism to the same extent. Obviously in a patriarchal society where the desire to prove 'manliness' seems to be an overarching necessity to pretty much everything, homosexual activity between women is both non-threatening to the masculinity of, and erotically stimulating to, heterosexual men. I don't have any proof of this of course, it's just speculation on my part. The only thing I can call on to back up my supposition is the fact that the term 'lesbian' itself is an emotively-neutral term which specifically describes a homosexual woman. I don't know of any equivalent for homosexual men. Lesbian is, as we all know, derived from the island of Lesbos, where the ancient Greek female poet Sappho resided. If only the ancient Greeks had shown any interest or appreciation for male homosexuality, what might have been!

Anyway, to the point. Whenever any homosexuals get in the news for having the audacity to expect to be treated like normal humans, it generally kicks off with the right-wing posse. The Daily Mail columnists, the fundamentalist Christians, the deeply conservative, and so on, complaining about the Gay agenda and marginalising of 'normal' people. But invariably, we'll get some argument about homosexuality being a 'lifestyle choice'. And this then leads to the argument about whether homosexuality is a choice. Homosexuals almost unanimously say it isn't. But skeptics and the like have a saying; the plural of anecdote is not evidence. Even if every homosexual person in the country stated flat out that they did not choose to be homosexual, this would not constitute reliable evidence as it wouldn't be free from bias, personal interpretation, objective measurements etc. So this begs the question, is Homosexuality actually a choice or not?

I mean, obviously it's not. Logic alone dictates that much. If it were a choice, then logically it's a choice made when an individual is old and mature enough to recognise sexual attraction and physical intimacy as something they'll end up doing (hopefully). So until the time of 'choosing', they'd logically either be heterosexual or some sort of 'asexual' with no preference. If they're heterosexual originally, why change that? Does the thought process go "I know I'm heterosexual, but life is too easy so I will spend my life pursuing relationships with my own gender (who I'm not actually attracted too), engaging in sexual actions that don't appeal to me, in order to endure a lifetime of prejudice, judgement, persecution and legal challenges to my efforts to lead a normal life". Stereotypically, Gay people do tend to have more interesting and varied wardrobes, but that seems like a paltry conciliation. And if people start of as asexual and make a choice comparing after comparing the options and opportunities presented to heterosexual and homosexual people respectively, anyone who chooses the latter is going to seem quite masochistic. And I know some people are masochistic and there are clubs for just that sort of thing, but I do believe they're not limited to the homosexual communities.

But I've always been concerned by the extent to which the 'choice or not' argument rarely brings up any scientific or quantifiable information. Is there actually any? Turns out, there is.

One of the earliest findings I could uncover is from about 20 years ago, which, based on post-mortem studies of brain tissue of heterosexual men, heterosexual women and homosexual men, revealed that heterosexual men have a much bigger Interstitial Nuclei in region 3 of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH3), being almost twice as those found in women women and, more tellingly, homosexual men. The cells that make up INAH3 are widely believed to be the Sexually Dimorphic nucleus in humans, i.e. the bit of the brain that controls sexual behaviour, found in many in many animals (including rats and sheep, for example). Development of this region is highly sensitive to sex hormones during gestation and neonatal phases, particularly testosterone, the bad boy of the sex hormones. Why should some male foetuses receive less than 'normal' testosterone and some female foetuses receive more?

One theory was to do with the fecundity of and number of previous children from the mother. A study did discover that homosexual males do tend to have more homosexuals in their family in the maternal line, suggesting an X-chromosome genetic factor that leads to homosexuality. There's also a possibly affect of having more older brothers; the 3rd, 4th etc. brother from one mother is potentially more likely to be homosexual as the mother has built up an immunity to testosterone due to repeated exposure. As far as I'm aware, most mothers are women, so testosterone isn't as prevalent in their systems as it is in, let's say, a mans, so they become desensitised to it when repeatedly carrying male foetuses. As previously stated, testosterone greatly influences how INAH3 develops. Hence, homosexuality.

Before any macho dads jump on the 'it's all the woman's fault! Ain't no gays in my mighty seed!' argument, these effects only account for, at most, 20% of homosexual males, so maternal genetics and testosterone insensitivity are contributing factors at best, not deciding factors. Also, the study I'm referring to only focussed on homosexual males, so not sure how much (if at all) lesbianism is influenced by these factors. You could argue that having more daughters means a mother becomes more sensitive to testosterone, thus the testosterone present has a more potent effect? Or maybe having older brothers means the mothers testosterone insensitivity results in more testosterone being released in order to compensate. Both outcomes could influence the sexual development of the daughter, but this is just speculation on my part.

Whatever the underlying cause (I'm no embryologist, but it's a fantastically complex process, and the interplay of hormones and chemicals involved probably means there are countless things that can influence the overall outcome i.e. sexuality), it could be argued by opponents of homosexuality that just one slightly over/undersized brain region suggests that homosexuality is less a natural occurrence than a biological 'glitch'. Leaving aside the fact that this completely ignores the 'choice' argument, it's more complex than that. Research has revealed that there is also significant variation in the brain structures and connections between them between heterosexual and homosexual members of the same gender. Men typically show greater hemispherical asymmetry than woman (in lay terms, they use one half of the brain more than the other, which might underlie the whole 'single minded/multitasking' gender disparity). Interestingly, this asymmetry is also present in homosexual women. Contrastingly, women and gay men share a more balanced hemispherical usage. There are also noticeable differences in functional connections between the brain regions, such as gay men and straight women having more widespread connections from the left amygdala to

the contralateral amygdala and the anterior cingulate. Contrastingly, straight men and gay women have more connections from the right amygdala to the caudate, putamen, and prefrontal cortex. The brain is quite an incredibly impressive organ (I would say that, given my background), but this persistent and regularly occurring extensive wiring difference between the sexual preferences of the same gender is far too common and complex to simply be a recurring 'glitch'.

Long story short, homosexuals seemingly show brains structure and development that is more commonly associated with the opposite sex, which is sort of what you'd expect to see. And if some angry priest or right-winger tells you that someone from one gender having features associated with another is sick, wrong or unnatural, remember that his argument is entirely void if he has nipples.

Clearly, homosexuality has a use, otherwise gay people wouldn't still be around in such numbers. There are many evolutionary psychology theories as to the roles homosexuality plays/played in our developing culture and societies. Social bonding, better interaction between same-sex groups, a means of keeping population rates down in times of scarcity, inter-gender relationship building, and so on. I don't know how many, if any, of these theories have any validity, but there's a certain logic to all of them.

I sincerely doubt that there's one underlying aspect that underpins all homosexuality, and attempts to find one are likely to be misguided. I've discussed this 'complex behaviour must have a simple source' in relation to neuroscience in some depth previously. I read 'The Eternal Child' by Clive Bromhall. An interesting, if somewhat flawed, account of how everything about human society can be explained by paedomorphosis (which isn't as bad as it sounds, it means evolution takes 'short cuts' by exploiting the features and properties of children, such as humans having the smooth skin and upright stance of pre-adolescent chimps). He argues that homosexuals are the result of the same-sex bonding phase we experience in childhood, but achieving sexual maturity without going beyond that. This must be why all gay men despise women and never go near them. And all lesbians clearly despise men… actually, scratch that last one.

So clearly there are evolved neurobiological properties that give rise to homosexuality. And the research suggests that these are the result of variations in hormones and other developmental factors that occur during pregnancy or during the neonatal phases. Even if we could somehow consciously choose to drastically alter our biological features to support a sexual preference that comes encumbered with relentless persecution from psychotic idiots, that idea that we do it before birth, or before we develop the ability to sit up straight, or before we gain the ability to not have to spend long periods sat in our own copious bodily waste, seems to me to reaaaallllly stretch the definition of 'informed decision', to the point where it's not a choice at all.

So yeah. Science strongly suggests that homosexuality is the result of natural biological process beyond our control. There's plenty more research than I've covered here, and maybe everything I've referenced was flawed in some way? That's always a danger though, and that way madness lies. But if you're still reading this, well done, and next time someone says that homosexuality is a choice you can hopefully provide some proper data as to why they're wrong. They probably won't listen, but you'll have done what you can.

Just remember, science says Homosexuality is not a choice, it's just a naturally occurring facet of the complex and varied gestalt that is humanity.

I'm not sure if this applies to bisexuals though. They're probably just slags*

* = bisexuals are obviously not slags. Any suggestion that they are is wrong and pig headed. My reference to it was a blatant joke regarding the fact that I'd spent so long in criticising and condemning homophobia in any form that the fact that I myself was prejudiced against a group of people with a specific sexual preference would be ridiculously ironic. But some people have reminded me that there is such a thing as Biphobia, a prejudice they encounter from both straight and gay people, hence this clarification; Bisexuality is just another form of sexual dimorphism, and they should not now or ever be subjected to criticism, abuse, prejudice, or anything else based on their sexuality.

Email: Humourology (at) live.co.uk

Twitter: @garwboy



HAJiME said...

I enjoyed reading this, thanks especially for the links.

Just a thought thought... Are those gay individuals who are flamboyant and camp really any more numerous than those who are not? Are those who are not just, well, not being noticed? I am gay, and I know plenty of others but it appears to be no more than a coincidence that I do, since I do not participate in any "gay lifestyle". I've never been to a gay bar or anywhere else to meet other homosexuals, nor do I participate in any obviously gay-ish activities or interests. I'd say that of those I know, around half of them are camp and around half of them are not and would "fit in" with straight males socially. I wouldn't say I'm the most masculine person in the world by a long shot, but I'm far from camp unless joking. None of the lesbians I know fit the stereotype or are particularly masculine in any way, but I can't say I know many.

Jessica said...

Interesting stuff, Dean! I would like to see some similar research about bisexual people. I know you were making a funny and didn't mean it, but that last line was a bit too close to biphobia for me... I've felt really unwelcome in LGBTQ company because of my appreciation of men as well as women (of course, I will be unable to resist the lure of the cock and break some poor lesbian's heart), and had the slut/greedy, or not-believing-I'd-really-fancy-women thing from heterosexuals.

The thing about jokes about any kind of oppressed group is that no matter how ironically they're made, recognition and repetition of negative stereotypes is the mortar between the bricks of the big injustices; because people who are really homophobic/misogynistic/ableist/etc, rather than merely unthinking, hear them and think it supports their prejudice. So I'd disagree that blokes using gay to mock each other is harmless; unless there's a gay man present who can point out that they've had more sexual conquests than the straight ones, making their penis the mightiest, it continues to suggest that homosexuality is "lesser" than heterosexuality. True, most of those lads won't go out gay bashing as a result; but it does make them more likely to be a bit less comfortable around someone they see as "other" (hence the fact that "gay panic" has been used as a defense in assault cases, where straight men were so uncomfortable with advances from gay men that they felt the need to beat them up.)

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Jessica there. Otherwise, really interesting and thanks for summarising the research!

fatmike182 said...

Refreshing way of writing about this topic in a scientific way! It was by far the longest collection of (nice) sentences I ever read ;-)

I was just wondering whether really no homophobic right wing came up with the idea of changing the hormone/antibody levels in the body of pregnant women. So, I have to work on how to get more intolerant & homophobic -- guess, I could earn Billions with this idea! (if anybody asks: will try with religion to achieve this)

Sad though, you did not mention all the finger-length-means-gay studies http://www.unl.edu/rhames/courses/readings/homofinger/homo_finger.html.
As far I as know they depict the hormone/development thingy in a good way.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...


I don't know mate, I've not seen any numbers about that, and I don't think anyone's done a survey. Would be hard to do, as it would require some objective 'campness - sedateness' scale, and that sounds very tricky. I'd guess it was a combination of exaggeration via TV or media formats (exaggeration and stereotyping is seemingly used for any group with recognisable characteristics, and your Norton/Carr/O'Grady types don't really help this), and like you said, 'flamboyant' gay people are just much more noticeable. It's like you only hear about people complaining when it comes to controversial issues like offensive TV programmes, it's never '98% of people didn't mind it'.

I get your point.
r.e. homophobic banter. I didn't say it was good or harmless, just 'not as bad', but as someone who has engaged in regular blokey banter (you've got to if you're a comic) I have learned to tell the difference between friendly jibes and outright homophobia, and I think it's a bit patronising or sexist to assume that all men will be influenced by this in a negative way. And it's not about 'who's had most sex' for straight men, it's specifically about prowess with women, and whatever you think of it, accusations of homosexuality undermine this. Not saying this is essentially a good thing, it just is. Asking straight men to not seek self worth in prowess with the opposite sex is sort of like asking new mothers not to be proud of their children; it's an evolved mechanism, not necessarily an active conscious effort.
That said, 'The Lure of the Cock' would make an ideal title for some high-class dirty movie

As above

Interesting point. If you can find a way to interfere with the hormonal development during pregnancy with no unpleasant side effects, you should get the Nobel at the very least. And thanks for the finger-length link.

David Waldock said...

Graham Norton, Paul O'Grady and Alan Carr (which nicely illustrate the point), but Gareth Thomas, Stephen Fry and Dirk Bogarde all spring to mind on one side (not very camp but quite gay), whilst David Beckham, Prince and Jimmy Carr spring to mind on the other (camper than Christmas but waving their heterosexual credentials left/right/centre). The fact is, "it's a bit more complex than that".

My personal theory (which would probably make someone an interesting PhD thesis - my background is that of a gay, ex-social worker, degree in biology, studying for a masters in social science) is that campness is an expression of identity, and that the extreme campness (often seen in gay men just coming out) is a form of adapting to membership to a new group.

I think the process of coming out is very similar to other transitional identity events - joining the military or an emergency service (police, ambulance, fire) - and once the person has come to accept their own identity, they try to fit into the new community. In order to do so, they see the stereotype and try to conform to it - it's a conscious process in which the person is adapting their thoughts to reinforce their membership of the groups they're joining. However, as time goes on, the thoughts and behaviours are integrated into their personality and become unconscious, and therefore less forced and more (dare I say it!) natural.

Thus one would expect to see a peak of stereotypical behaviour in new members of a social group, and those which seek to use that aspect of their identity to relate to the rest of society (all three of the 'camp' entertainers mentioned use their sexuality as a key component of their public identity; the most violent gang members are the new ones with something to prove or those with something to prove for other reasons). And so far that's what I've observed (whilst accepting observations could perhaps be better explained by some alternative and better expressed model).

Garry Chick-Mackay said...

Interesting article, though i think you can go too far with biological determinism. If our sexual orientation was biologically programmed, we wouldn't have the free will to choose to act beyond that.

The increased incidence of homosexual behaviour in prisons, and people who re-identify themselves as bisexual while at university, suggest that people make sexual decisions, and feel attractions that are influenced by external social factors as well as biological imperatives.

Garry Chick-Mackay said...

Also, I've no idea if the athlete you have linked to in the article is lesbian or not, but I'm pretty sure she hasn't come out publicly.

David Waldock said...

"If our sexual orientation was biologically programmed, we wouldn't have the free will to choose to act beyond that."

What makes you think we have "free will"? If everything is caused, then what role does free will play?

What is "free will" about being sexually frustrated in an environment in which a) people won't find out what you've been doing and b) is exclusively male populated? What is "free will" about the opportunity to explore one's sexuality in a liberal and non-judgmental social environment - and then possibly settling either way in a more socially-acceptable way post-university?

(Indeed, this even reinforces what has already been highlighted about bisexuality.)

The fact is that the nature and nurture interact in complex ways and result in behaviours which, given the exact same set of circumstances, would give rise to exactly the same set of outcomes. Free will has nothing to do with.

(I appreciate, by the way, that this point of view raises other questions. However, as Ian Hislop said on Have I Got News For You the other day, it's just possible that people turn to crime (for example) as a result of the environment as they grew up. Of course, then jail becomes part of the environment (so there is still a role for punishment), but I rather think that society should take more responsibility for locking up so many young people than we actually do.)

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist said...


That's weird, I saw Kelly Holmes on the news after her gold medal wins and she was always shown with her female partner (wife) and it was quite casually stated that she was homosexual so I assumed it was common knowledge, but now I can't find any mention of that online anywhere. Either I've made a mistake or it was poor research by the news researchers etc. Will look into it to the extent it doesn't make my browsing history look too dodgy.

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