Born Or Bred?
Science And Psychiatry Are Struggling To Make Sense Of New Research That Suggests That Homosexuality May Be A Matter Of Genetics, Not Parenting
Until the age of 28, Doug Barnett was a practicing heterosexual. He was vaguely attracted to men, but with nurturing parents, a lively interest in sports and appropriate relations with women, he had littlereason to question his proclivities. Then an astonishing thing happened: his identical twin brother "came out" to him, revealing he was gay. Barnett, who believed sexual orientation is genetic, was bewildered. He recalls thinking, "If this is inherited and we're identical twins-what's going on here?" To find out, he thought he should try sex with men. When he did, he says, "The bells went off, forthe first time. Those homosexual encounters were more fulfilling." A year later both twins told their parents they were gay.
Simon LeVay knew he was homosexual by the time he was 12. Growing up bookish, in England, he fit the "sissy boy" profile limned by psychologists: an aversion to rough sports, a strong attachment to his mother, a hostile relationship with his father. It was, LeVayacknowledges, the perfect Freudian recipe for homosexuality-only he was convinced Freud had cause and effect backward: hostile fathers didn't make sons gay; fathers turned hostile because the sons were "unmasculine" to begin with.
Last year, LeVay, now a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., got a chance to examine his hunch up close. What he found is still reverberating amongscientists and may have a profound impact on how the rest of us think about homosexuality. Scanning the brains of 41 cadavers, including 19 homosexual males, LeVay determined that a tiny area believed to control sexual activity was less than half the size in the gay men than in the heterosexuals. It was perhaps the first direct evidence of what some gays have long contended-that whether or not theychoose to be different, they are born different.
Doug Barnett, meanwhile, got an opportunity to make his own contribution to the case. Two years ago he was recruited for an ambitious study of homosexuality in twins, undertaken by psychologist Michael Bailey, of Northwestern University, and psychiatrist Richard Pillard, of the Boston University School of Medicine. Published last December, onlymonths after LeVay's work, the results showed that if one identical twin is gay, the other is almost three times more likely to be gay than if the twins are fraternal-suggesting that something in the identical twins' shared genetic makeup affected their sexual orientation.
In both studies, the implications are potentially huge. For decades, scientists and the public at large have debated whetherhomosexuals are born or made-whether their sexual orientation is the result of a genetic roll of the dice or a combination of formative factors in their upbringing. If it turns out, indeed, that homosexuals are born that way, it could undercut the animosity gays have had to contend with for centuries. "It would reduce being gay to something like being left-handed, which is in fact all that it is,"says gay San Francisco journalist and author Randy Shilts.
But instead of resolving the debate, the studies may well have intensified it. Some scientists profess not to be surprised at all by LeVay's finding of brain differences. "Of course it [sexual orientation] is in the brain," says Johns Hopkins University psychologist John Money, sometimes called the dean of American sexologists. "Thereal question is, when did it get there? Was it prenatal, neonatal, during childhood, puberty? That we do not know."
Others are sharply critical of the Bailey-Pillard study. Instead of proving the genetics argument, they think it only confirms the obvious: that twins are apt to have the same sort of shaping influences. "In order for such a study to be at all meaningful, you'd have to look at...