In class this weekend we watched The Making of Me, a documentary by John Barrowman in which he goes on a quest to find the reasons why people in general, and himself in particular, might grow up to be gay. It’s not a bad film — Barrowman himself is charming, no surprise, and it’s fun to get to see some of the researchers and methods that are employed in elucidating this question. The scientific logic is horribly sloppy in some places, as is pretty common with mass-market presentations of scientific research, but it does give a good layperson’s overview of the biological causes researchers are looking at right now, and how they’re tested and examined.
Barrowman says at the outset that he wants to find an innate, biological gause for gayness rather than something that traces to social influences. His investigation is pretty heavily colored by this bias throughout, as he shows much more persistence in looking for a “nature” cause rather than a “nurture” one. The bias toward a biological cause is something I’ll discuss further at the end of this post.
Casting aside Barrowman’s cursory investigation of “nurture” causes, one thing I appreciate about the documentary is that it makes clear that there are likely multiple biological pathways to becoming gay, some genetic, some due to the in utero hormonal environment. From what we know so far, it seems that no single biological factor is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for gayness. (This is a good point to mention that the documentary doesn’t talk about lesbians at all. Since it’s very focused on Barrowman personally, it’s excusable here; the overall research gap between the study of gay men and the study of lesbians is less so.)
One thing that’s notable throughout the film is the conflation of male femininity with gayness. This is tricky and probably has a lot of sociopolitical folks up in arms. A lot of people see gay and transgender identities as existing on a continuum, with trans people just being “gayer than gay.” The documentary doesn’t do anything to forestall this misconception, so let me do it here: being a man who is attracted to men is very different from being a male-bodied person with a female gender identity. Even if the two have similar biological roots, the way they manifest in the conscious brain are quite different. Gay men, in general, have no desire to become women, and a female gender identity isn’t fulfilled by a gay male lifestyle.
That said, there is a strong link between childhood gender nonconformity and adult homosexuality. Of individuals who will be gay as adults (both male and female, although the effect is stronger for females), they are much more likely to be gender non-conforming as children than their peers. The gender non-conformity doesn’t necessarily persist into adulthood: Barrowman is hardly your stereotypical swishy gay, but he sure did love his Sonny and Cher dolls as a kid. My favorite hypothesis for the actual roots of sexual orientation draws on this correlation — but I’m going to leave that as a teaser for now.
Ultimately Barrowman claims that he’s found what makes him gay. What that actually means is that he’s found one biological trait in himself that’s been linked with a higher likelihood of being gay (I won’t spoil it here.) He goes home to his partner, happy because it’s been “proved” that he was born gay, that it wasn’t a choice. This would be one example of the ludicrous scientific logic I referred to, but my real objection is this: he lets the assumption go unquestioned that if being gay was a choice, people who condemn gays and lesbians would have a better case for their judgement.
There is no good case that preferring same-sex partners is an inferior trait. If underpopulation was a danger in our society, there might be an argument, but that is manfestly not the case. It is very hard to study the psychological health of gays and lesbians, and the families they create, without encountering the confounding factor of the psychological abuse and social counter-pressure that nearly all these individuals and families face through their lifetimes. But there is no evidence that a life with same-sex partners, in a socially supportive environment, is any less healthy than a life with other-sex partners.
Saying “I had no choice!” avoids addressing the argument that, if you did have a choice, it might have been a bad one. I’d have loved to see Barrowman stand next to his lovely partner and say, “I’m gay, I have a fantastic life, and even if it had been a choice, I wouldn’t have chosen any differently.”