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The Science of Gaydar

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I can’t ignore Bocklandt’s use of the word wrong in relation to gay genetic codes. I don’t believe Bocklandt has any agenda in his work beyond scientific exploration, nor do I have any reason to believe he is anti-gay. Rather, Bocklandt is driven, as he likes to say, by a voracious curiosity about all sorts of sexual orientations. “This is not about a gay gene,” he says. “This is about sexual attraction, and about love. And about why crocodiles mate and why pigeons mate. It’s amazing to me that we don’t understand how that works. It’s so fundamental. Life on Earth would be very different if heterosexuality didn’t exist. That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

But every discovery in this field ignites a new discussion of morality. Politically, there is something very powerful about the notion that sexual orientation is a matter of biology, not choice. In poll after poll, of the one third of Americans who believe homosexuality is socially influenced, in other words “a choice,” about 70 percent think being gay is “not acceptable.” But for those who believe it is biologically mandated, the statistic reverses, and four out of five Americans find gayness “acceptable.”

As Bocklandt’s slip of the tongue illustrates, subtle judgments abound in the field. It is true that homosexuality does not make a whole lot of sense biologically. It lacks an obvious purpose. That’s the reason evolution-theory scholars call it “maladaptive” and radio shock jock Laura Schlessinger labeled it a “biological error.” But Stanford biology professor Joan Roughgarden points out in her book Evolution’s Rainbow that most homosexual activity in the animal kingdom serves a fundamentally social purpose. Japanese macaques, for instance, live in female-only societies, arranged in rigid hierarchies. Power and cohesion are established through lesbian couplings, which can last up to four days and seem to prevent violence and aggression. Among many species, in fact, gayness seems to facilitate complex societies. One species of bird has males, females, and “marriage brokers” of a third gender, there to keep the species perpetuating. As adolescents, male bottlenose dolphins perform a kind of oral sex on one another—or in threesomes or foursomes—in rituals that create lifelong friendships and defense partnerships against sharks and other predators.

If we identify how sexual orientation is set in utero, doesn’t that suggest a future in which gay people can be prevented?

But for most in the animal kingdom, same-sex pairing is either fleeting or situational. Even Silo and Roy, for six years the poster-penguins for same-sex love in the Central Park Zoo—they famously raised a daughter together—were not destined to last forever. Silo waddled off with a female named Scrappy in 2005, says zoo director Dan Wharton, adding that we shouldn’t worry about Roy’s hurt feelings. “Penguins are matter-of-fact about these things.”

That still leaves a million questions about those gay rams and humans like me, who fall on the far edge of Alfred Kinsey’s sexual-orientation scale, exclusively gay. In a universe in which we look for purpose in order to appoint value, what is the purpose of my gayness?

Dean Hamer sees one possible answer in the fraternal-birth-order studies. “In Polynesian cultures, where you’re talking about very big families, it was typical to have the last-born son be mahu, or gay,” he says. Explorers described young boys who looked after the family and sometimes dressed as girls. “They suspected that their families had made them that way. But you just can’t take a guy and make him clean up and have him become gay. He’s got to have some gayness inside. Maybe that’s the biological purpose to the mahu: taking care of Mom.”

He says this half in jest, I think, but some other evidence bolsters his argument, including the appearance of transgender younger sons among Native Americans (the so-called two-spirits) and in premodern corners of India, Samoa, and Indonesia. A survey published this year suggested that transgender fa’afafines in Samoa are more “avuncular” than heterosexuals—that is, more likely to care for kin. Another study says that female relatives of gay men may have more children; perhaps the very thing that makes their brothers and sons gay makes them more fertile, an ideal situation with extra babysitters on hand. You can slice this stuff any way you want.

Fewer studies have focused specifically on lesbians, perhaps because AIDS didn’t provide the same urgent impetus for studying female sexuality. But the research that has been conducted has yielded some interesting, though decidedly cloudy, results. According to some studies, lesbians are more likely to have homosexual relatives than nonlesbians. They also have notably longer bone growth in their arms, legs, and hands, hinting that they had greater androgen exposure during development, according to James Martin, a physiologist with Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California. Another indicator comes in a 2003 study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience that measured something called “prepulse inhibition,” which is the part of our startle mechanism that’s believed to defy practice or training—something hardwired, in other words. Men tend to blink less than women in such experiments; gay and heterosexual men had similar responses, but lesbians, it turns out, were more like men than not.


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