What are gays? Why do they exist? What rights should they have?
These were the three questions being tackled Monday night at London Skeptics in the Pub by PhD student (and lesbian) Cerys Bradley with their talk "A Unifying Theory of Gay". More to the point they were asking do scientists have the right to ask such questions, not least scientists that do not belong to the LGBTQ+ community. Predominantly white, middle aged, heterosexual male scientists.
It was an interesting, occasionally contentious, occasionally discursive speech but Cerys made their points forcefully, funnily, and fairly and dealt with questions from the audience afterwards (including one rather bizarre one that began by asking about a 'spiritual' dimension to homosexuality and ended by quoting the lyrics to Nirvana's 'All Apologies'. I nearly spat my over priced but tasty veggie dog (no onions) in to my pint of Red Stripe.
Cerys's quest began when a couple of their same sex friends were looking to receive IVF and had what sounded like a nightmare with the NHS. This got them to wondering who makes these executive decisions and how policy regarding LesBiGay (their words, not mine) issues are shaped by scientific study and if, in fact, it isn't just a waste of time trying to understand why some people are gay and some aren't. Do we learn anything from this? Is there even a reason? Does there have to be? Is it also not more than a little intrusive?
They began by kicking around the many, often confusing, terms that gay people use to describe themselves. Personally, they weren't keen on the term 'homosexual' despite the fact that it came from a place of positivity but preferred to identify as 'lesbian' even though the popular use of that word stems from American librarian and surgeon John Shaw Billings and his ideas that lesbianism was a form of female hysteria. I'd always thought it'd had something to do with the Greek island of Lesbos, and the lyric poet Sappho, but it seems I'm either wrong or confused on that.
I probably should've asked about that in the Q&A but didn't. Whatever. Cerys went on to talk about how people's homosexuality was 'measured' in the past. An unnamed Chechen scientist developed tools to calculate stimuli. The penile plethysmograph measured the girth of the penis (not length, interestingly) and the vaginal photoplethysmograph involved a tube which was inserted into the vagina and used light to measure the amount of blood in the vaginal walls.
I bet you're either hard or wet right now reading that! If not, you won't be alone. For some reason many women didn't find having a tube inserted into them and then being shown somebody's else choice of pornography particularly arousing so the photoplethysmograph proved to be a somewhat inefficient tool and, yes, that pun is entirely intended.
More concerning should be that these devices were developed with the aim of keeping gay people out of the army, demonstrably not the last time that Russia, and Chechnya in particular, showed an alarming insensitivity to gay rights. Later on the scientist moved to Canada where he used his crude contraptions to help identify, and fire, homosexual civil servants. Nice guy.
Of course to label somebody as 100% gay or 100% straight has its own inherent problems. Like many things in life, especially those that are defined by physical arousal, emotions, self-identification, and societal identification, it works more on a sliding scale. The Kinsey Scale, aka the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, at least recognised this. Developed by sexologist (now there's a job title, where do I apply?) Alfred Kinsey it accepts there are a few people that are wholly hetero or homo but lumps most of us in a large spectrum somewhere in the middle.
It was a step in the right direction but it neglected to take into account anything other than relationships that people may have had in the past or were currently having. What of desires, either conscious or unconscious? What if people hadn't grown up in a society where their homosexuality could safely be expressed and lived either in denial or fear? What if they'd grown up in cultures that didn't even have the language to express these desires and therefore were unable to articulate their needs correctly and settled for what society deemed acceptable?
The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, developed by Fritz Klein (founder of the American Institute of Bisexuality), took a much more three dimensional look into our sexuality by asking questions about emotional preferences and ideal partners just as much as our sexual curriculum vitae. Furiously, for those who, probably correctly, suspect a hetero bias in life all its defaults are set to heterosexual!
Still, it's a big step away from some of the early theories of why homosexuality exists. Patently nonsense theories include the 'gay uncle theory' that posited it was advantageous for children to have a caring, supportive male in their lives who didn't directly threaten their father by wanting to procreate with their mother. Or what about the idea that younger male siblings were more subjective to homosexuality than older ones because their mother has used up all her testosterone on the older brothers? In researching this, scientists actually sewed testicles on to mice to see if it turned them gay. Not sure how that works but if I was a mouse I'd be most peeved to have a wrinkly bollock attached to me against my will. It's not a good look.
Further codswallop has been expounded with talk of a 'gay gene'. The gay gene can also, apparently, make you susceptible to both alcoholism and AIDS. Hmm. It just sounds silly but some of this stuff has informed policy. Policy regarding, for example, gay adoption.
If I should donate my sperm to a lesbian couple (and, let's face it, why not? I'm just wasting it these days) outside of an IVF clinic (which we've already established can be uncertain territory for gay couples) I'd, legally, have more say in that child's future than the non-biological mother would.
Concerns about gay parenting include promiscuousness, psychological problems, and the rather catch all term 'instability'. But, Cerys opined (and I agreed), these were based on scientific studies that were developed with pre-existing biases in mind. She felt the question, rather than the answer, was what was wrong.
It was unusual to be at a Skeptics evening and hear what wasn't too far away from an anti-science rant. But it wasn't a rant and it wasn't anti-science per se. It was anti science being done either in the wrong way or just for the sake of it. With the former I was with Cerys, with the latter less so (sometimes science for science's sake can reveal interesting, and even life saving, results, the Ig Nobel Prize was founded with just such improbable research in mind) but they made a very good point indeed when she suggested that if you're going to research what percentage of gay people are alcoholics or unstable then wouldn't it be a good idea to do the same to heterosexual people. I can't help thinking the differences, if compared, would be negligible.
Cerys ended with a story from Greek mythology that, despite seeming about as likely as a gay gene or a mum using up all her testosterone on the older siblings, at least had the benefit of being rather lovely. There was a belief that some men were born joined to men and that those men would love men all their life, some women were born joined to women and that those women would love women all their life, and some men and women were born joined together and they would remain heterosexual all their life. Those that were born not joined to anyone wandered the earth in eternal loneliness and created art, music, and wine to compensate. And the coupled up people don't even have the decency to say thanks.
I may not have agreed with everything Cerys said (although I did with most of it, and, anyway, it's not my story to tell so I shut up about it and then write a blog about it later) but I very much enjoyed an evening in their company and I laughed heartily along with their anecdote about coming out to her parents. Apparently, while driving along the motorway their mum told them, and I paraphrase, "I'm not that keen on your dad's penis but sometimes we have to make do".
And if that's not enough to 'turn' you....
*Cerys Bradley does not identify with the pronouns "she" or "her" and it has been requested by London Skeptics in the Pub that I amend these to "they", "their" etc; With some reservations I have done this.