Being Gay: Nature Vs Nurture

Illustration: Carline Tromp

Are homosexuals made in heaven or designed on Earth?

One of society’s most tantalizing questions is whether sexual orientation is embedded in our nature or is it a choice we nurture. Does homosexuality originate in the womb or the kindergarten? The common perception, shared by social behaviorists and Freudians, is that homosexuality is a choice molded by life experiences. However recent scientific evidence suggests that the roots of our sexuality might lie in our biology. But is it as black and white as it seems?

Why does it matter?

Although proving that homosexuality is inborn wouldn’t completely erase prejudice against homosexuals, it would however make it easier to frame the debate as a matter of civil rights. This is vital as homosexuality is yet to shed its status as a social taboo and is still considered a crime in 75 out of 195 countries, often punishable by death. If homosexuality is indeed a product of our biology,and hence uncontrollable then the very notion of it being punishable is unnatural.

Identical Twins: the perfect test

@txt: The quest to solve this nature versus nurture enigma has led researchers to the perfect control group: identical twins. Borne of the same fertilized egg (which eventually splits into two), twins enter the world carrying an identical genetic blueprint. Moreover, being siblings they share the same environment at a crucial time in their personal development. In a general population the chances of an individual being homosexual is less than five percent. However studies based on twins displaying opposite sexual orientations have revealed that if you have a homosexual twin, then the chances of you being homosexual are much higher. If you’re a fraternal twin, sharing half your genes, there’s nearly a twenty-five percent chance that you will be homosexual. And if you’re identical and hence share all your genes, then the chances double to fifty percent. This clearly suggests that there must be some key genetic component(s), which determines our sexual fate.

Tomboys and Pink Boys

@txt: Interestingly, despite being genetic clones, twins who grow up to have opposite sexual identities show very distinctive childhood behavior even though they’re raised quite similarly. The homosexual twin might have tried on his mother’s pearls more often than usual, and perhaps even had a doll in his collection of toys. This behavior is termed childhood gender nonconformity (CGN) and is a phenomenon that extends beyond the preference of dolls and the color pink amongst boys. It describes the condition in which children do not follow expected gender-related patterns. Research indicates that of the boys who exhibit CGN, almost 75% or more grow up to be homosexuals. Daryl. J. Bem, a Professor of Psychology at Cornwell University explains that biological factors such as prenatal (before birth) hormones, genes and brain-anatomy prompt children to behave in ways that do not match their assigned sex at birth. These biological factors are strong focal points for researchers investigating the causes of homosexuality.

From identical to opposite: What happened in transit?

@txt: Some scientists believe that the process of shaping ones sexuality starts even before we enter this world, and the environment we face inside our mother’s womb is in fact crucial in shaping our sexual identity. In the first few weeks all fetuses develop along similar lines and the human fetus is in fact a female by default. Around week six, fetuses with the male Y chromosome will develop male sexual organs, which will eventually produce testosterone – the male sex hormone. Testosterone not only masculinizes the body but also the brain, including the hypothalamus, which partially controls our sexual orientation. Scientists believe that the more the hypothalamus is exposed to testosterone, the more it sets the stage for a sexual inclination towards women. However, occasionally a male fetus fails to produce enough testosterone, or its brain doesn’t absorb enough to shape it along heterosexual lines. In short, homosexuals absorb enough testosterone to masculinize their bodies but not enough to differentiate their brains.

It’s a mother-son thing

@txt: Another theory linking homosexuality to the womb is the ‘fraternal birth order effect’. It predicts that with each elder brother a man’s odds of being homosexual increases by almost 33 percent. According to this hypothesis, the mother’s immune system becomes increasingly aggressive towards the male fetuses with each succeeding male birth. Because the ‘male’ tissue is foreign in a woman’s body, her immune system may ‘remember’ male fetuses and hence produce antibodies attacking them. This can shape sexual development of the male fetal brain in a feminizing direction, leading to homosexuality. Surprisingly no such effect has been observed in females. However, this theory remains questionable as studies performed in 2008 failed to find any association between same sex attraction and the number of older brothers.

The ‘Gay gene´

@txt: Clearly a lot of our biology goes into shaping our sexual preferences, but is there a single gene at the heart of these biological triggers? Does the mythical ‘gay gene’ exist? A sensational breakthrough came in 1993 when Dr. Hamar from the National Cancer Institute revealed the results of a study based on maternal X-chromosomes from 40 pairs of gay brothers. He found that gay brothers shared a specific region of their X-chromosome more often than with their straight brothers. This region could contain up to several hundred genes and be vital in influencing sexual orientation in men. The study resulted in a media storm with headlines blazing with the find of the definitive ‘gay gene’. However between 1995 and 1999 the optimism quickly gave way to controversy when various studies contradicted Hamar’s results. He was subsequently charged for research improprieties and put under investigation for excluding results that contradicted his findings.

Or genetic after all

@txt: Despite the setback, the hunt for the genetic link continued. In December 2012 researchers proclaimed that although homosexuality isn’t strictly genetic, it is passed from parent to child by the help of genetic factors called epi-marks. They control how genes are expressed in our bodies and also reveal why, if homosexuality is hereditary, it has not yet been lost to the forces of natural selection.
According to biologist William Rice sex-specific epi-marks are normally not passed between generations, and are thus erased, but sometimes escape deletion and are transferred from parent to offspring. Epi-marks are vital in maintaining a correct balance of testosterone in the parents, but as a side effect may cause homosexuality in opposite-sex offspring. However exciting, this theory is based solely on biological and mathematical models and remains to be tested. And so, the hunt for the elusive gay gene continues.

What Freud had to say

@txt: While the biological argument claims that humans’ sexuality is pre-wired by nature and cannot be modified, behavioral theories argue that it is in fact sculpted by our environment. Followers of Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, believe that apart from inherited traits, a person’s personality is mainly shaped by events in early childhood. Freudians believe that all human beings are innately bisexual but diverge into homosexuals as a result of their interactions with their parents and other adults. The central point is that what we see around us reinforces the notion of typical male and female behavior. If the positive reinforcement does not occur these behaviors cease to exist. We adapt. During childhood, we learn to avoid behaviors that bring us pain, and grow fonder of experiences that bring us joy. Hence our sexual identities as adults could be shaped by positive and negative reinforcements we experience during our lifetime, especially during our childhood.

A cocktail of diverse factors

@txt: In this nature versus nurture argument, there exists a middle ground, namely the interactional theory that merges biology with sociology. It proposes that homosexuality results from a cocktail of biological, psychological and social factors. According to the infamous sexologist and psychologist John Money, the exposure to hormones inside a mother’s womb predisposes a child towards a particular sexual orientation. Then, during early childhood, various social-learning factors will either propel or inhibit him or her towards the predisposition. While the biological argument has gained strength over recent years, the factors that put together our sexual identities still remain murky. Studies from various ends of the spectrum have been unable to pinpoint an exclusive element that single-handedly molds our sexual preferences. However it seems like our biology does play a part in shaping our sexuality and this is a huge blow to the many rigid social and religious stances, which spread prejudice against homosexuals. Research efforts must be continued and only an open-minded approach can lead us to answers.



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