Friday, June 29, 2007

Biology and Bullshit

I read an article entitled The Science of Gaydar by David France which appeared in New York magazine. According to certain (mostly but not entirely gay researchers) gay men have certain biological distinctions from straight men (ditto for lesbians and straight women), everything from counterclockwise hair whorls to more defined ridges in the thumbs and pinkies of their left hands, differences in their brains, index fingers that are longer than their ring fingers (in straight guys it’s supposedly just the opposite), and even – and this is interesting – bigger penises. According to the article, yes it’s true that gay people are more likely to be left-handed. (For years "left-handed" was a code for homosexual, but that was primarily because left-handed people, like gays, were in the minority.)

What to make of this? Well, on one hand responsible and intelligent researchers have every right to investigate the origins of homosexuality and why (some) gay people definitely appear to be "gay" (supposedly creating "gaydar"). On the other hand, responsible and intelligent gays and gay activists have every right to be a little nervous – and even skeptical – about this research and to what ends it will ultimately be applied. If proof is ever supplied for the existence of a gay gene will parents have the ability to turn their child straight before he or she is even born? Will a homophobic society eradicate gays and the gay lifestyle for good?

I’m bothered by some of the researchers both straight and gay. France quotes one guy who talks about gene codes determining who’s gay or straight. "Pick the wrong code [italics mine]," he says, "and you’re gay." France deems this a "slip of the tongue." Perhaps the guy was referring to the fact that homosexuality is often considered wrong by society, but in any case his remark is troubling – and telling. Even worse is another straight researcher who has no moral problem with parents being able to eventually opt for a straight child over a gay one (as France puts it, it’s chilling to think of gayness being thought of as something along the lines of sickle cell anemia). But how many parents want a gay child? Given the still existing stigma against homosexuality will even gay-friendly – or gay – parents think it’s okay if their kid is gay? The thought of what may lie in the future is scary.

But some of the gay researchers give me the willies as well. Some of the stuff they say and come up with from their "studies" seems to support a lot of stereotypical blather that perhaps should have been done away with a long time ago (at least no one has yet suggested that gay men can’t whistle, a theory that was widely disseminated in the 1950's). I swear it makes me wonder – and I know this will sound terrible – if some of these guys are stereotypical gay men hoping to prove that yes, most gay men are just "big queens" like they are. If that’s the case – and be assured that I think there’s nothing wrong in being a "big queen" – so be it, but I know and have seen that the gay community is much more diverse than that. Understandably, gay men who most conform to a stereotype tend to see other gay men in stereotypical terms (there are exceptions however). Sometimes put down even by other gay men, femmes tend to believe that most gay men are femmes (safety in numbers) while non- stereotypical gay men tend to think just the opposite. Then again, femmes rarely go to bear or leather bars, and very butch guys avoid the bars frequented by femmes.

[Of course this begs the question that France barely touches upon. How wide a cross-section of the gay community was studied by these researchers looking at hair whirls, fingerprint ridges and dicks? Only Femmes? Femmes and Bears? Guys who fit certain stereotypes already, or non-stereotypical gay men (and women)? If you’re going to do a study of this nature, doesn’t it pay to be as thorough as possible?]

What do I think? I think that most gay men, like most straight men, are neither effeminate nor hyper-masculine but fall somewhere in between. Most are just "average joes" (although once you get to know them they may not be "average" anything). There are effeminate and very naturally butch gay men, of course, on either end of the spectrum. Ditto for lesbians. And since all of us -- "average" or "fabulous" -- are hated by the queer-bashers out there, we all should do our best to get along.

France covers a lot of territory in his article, which also goes into theories as to why gay people exist in the first place. One guy even sort of suggests that the reason for homosexuality is that the gay son can, well, stay home and take care of Mom (what -- straight guys never look after their elderly mothers and fathers?) Yes, he implies, maybe gay guys are born to be —get this! -- care givers! Gee, most of the gay guys I know are out cruising, spending time with their lovers, or both, out living life, not sitting home looking after their parents, although that job eventually falls to many children regardless of their sex or sexual orientation.

France also quotes a straight researcher who questions whether women truly have a sexual orientation; he finds their sexuality more fluid but scoffs at the notion of male bisexuality. (Has it always been true that there are more female bi’s than male, or is that a false perception?) This guy reminds me of a certain sadly misogynous gay activist who rants on his blog that lesbians don’t even exist but suffer from gender-identity confusion, failing to note that gay men were once accused of the very same thing. I know many out and proud lesbians who would tell this guy a thing or two. Both of these guys, in fact.

It’s this kind of silliness that makes me wonder about the quality of the research being done here. These people are not exactly looking for a new drug or a cure for AIDS so their work is not considered high priority and doesn’t get much funding. It’s a few people and their students doing all the work. The mind boggles at the thought of academics measuring penis size and looking at the backs of people’s heads to see in which direction their hair whorls. And since people rarely lie about being gay but lie about being straight all the time, how do they know who’s telling the truth when they do their comparison tests of straight versus gay? I suppose if a man says he’s straight we’ll now know he’s lying if his hair whorl goes counterclockwise and his penis is too big?

Besides, all of this stuff is certainly open to interpretation. France wisely offers alternative reasons for some of the conclusions the researchers have come to. While some could accuse him of being understandably biased, I think he’s trying to look at things from different perspectives.

Let the researchers do their thing. But let them get rid of their pre-conceived notions before they start, because I believe they are influenced by these notions before they examine their first gay brain, thumb or penis. (Considering the kinds of stuff they’re coming up with – "left-handed" indeed – no one can accuse them of political correctness, which is certainly odd in today’s climate.) Needless to say, the straight researchers in this field also need to get past their pre-conceptions, or their studies may be pointless.

But let’s get to the really important issue. Can it possibly be true that gay men have penises that are thicker and longer?

Well, I can only speak for myself – actually I can speak for a lot of people come to think of it – and the answer is yes.

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