Friday, July 25, 2008

Searching For The (Gay) Hero Inside Yourself

The Making of Me (BBC1) had John Barrowman on that ancient debate: are people born gay, do they become gay through environmental influences or is it a choice?
The scientific consensus today is that sexual orientation is determined before birth. But there is no certainty about whether it is genetic or caused by something that happens in the womb - for example, levels of testosterone.

Whilst at one level the cause is an irrelevance, like most gay people Barrowman was delighted to find that he was 'born gay'. This is partly because it accords with a gay person's own experience, with some knowledge of their orientation pre-dating puberty, and partly because it spikes the guns of those who assert it is a wilful and sinful lifestyle choice.

But (you knew there was a 'but' coming), like all popular science programmes this was a mish-mash of gross generalisations, half-baked science, conceptual confusions and hypotheses presented as fact.

If you're going to examine the nature and behaviour of a minority of the population, it's not a bad idea to look at the the nature and behaviour of the majority. If you look at what causes the majority of people to be heterosexual, it might provide some clues as to why a minority are homosexual. In the same way, to ask why most of us are not criminals is as interesting a question as why some people do break the law. I'm sure this forms part of the scientific approach and might have been mentioned in the programme.

A more serious criticism is that the programme perpetuated the gay/straight dichotomy. It totally ignored bisexuality - defined as an equal physical and emotional attraction to both sexes. Or indeed the possibility of a spectrum of sexual orientation with some people predominantly but not exclusively straight or gay.
If scientists are searching for a 'gay gene', are they also looking for a 'bisexual gene' or for that matter a 'heterosexual gene'?

Actually, I'm pretty certain that most geneticists would dismiss the idea of a 'gay gene' as highly improbable. Genetics is an incredibly complex science that has the misfortune to be rendered in popular discussion as something absurdly simple. It's rendered even more complex by 'epigenetics' which studies the interaction of genes and the environment and includes the possibility of some genes having the capacity to be 'switched on' or 'switched off'.

More worryingly, the 'gay gene' hypothesis has been seized on by those would like to be able to either prevent or 'cure' homosexuality. Not so long ago, one of our lovely tabloids was crowing over the fact that mothers might be able to abort a foetus with the 'gay gene'.

Most of the theories presented in the programme were no more than 'lines of enquiry'. Some of them seemed highly dubious and relied on very small research samples.
I say this as a non-scientist with an interest in science and a great admiration for the Guardian's Ben Goldacre who exposes the fallacies and absurdities of so many science stories that appear in the media.

We saw a psychologist who studied the play patterns of children who turned out to be gay based on home movie footage and asserted that the gay children manifested gender non-conformist styles of play. The problem, it seems to me, is that this research was based solely on children whose parents had taken either old 8mm or camcorder footage of their children, a relatively small sample of the population.
Another problem is that the act of filming can change the behaviour of the subject. Was the little girl smashing a cup on the ground because she was a lesbian or because she was doing something for the camera? (I leave aside the question of whether smashing crockery is typical lesbian behaviour).
The psychologist may have been on to something. On the other hand, do the clips on 'You've Been Framed!' prove that most young children fall off the trampoline into the swimming pool or that your auntie's knickers will always fall down on the dance floor at your sister's wedding?

Then there was the theory that your chances of being gay are vastly increased if you have an older brother. If you have several older brothers you might as well book a holiday in Ibiza and stick your profile on Gaydar immediately.
I lay in bed last night thinking of all the gay friends I've had and a high proportion of them, like me, had no brothers. Which proves absolutely nothing, of course. Small sample, no control group, etc, etc. Nevertheless, it made me reluctant to accept this theory at face value.

The most infuriating thing in the programme was the confusion of sexual orientation with gender or gender characteristics. The worst case was the example of two small boys who were twins. One played with cars and soldiers, the other with dolls. The latter had told his mother he wanted to be a girl. Unless this was something insignificant and transitory, it sounded like someone with a transgender condition rather than homosexuality.

There is no necessary correlation between feminine characteristics and homosexuality in men. Some gay men are camp or effeminate. The majority are not. Some are terrifyingly macho or butch. Conversely, some straight men can be very camp. Indeed, the programme opened with Barrowman being asked to guess the sexuality of ten men. One who was as camp as Christmas turned out to be straight. It was a pity then that the programme later made such an issue of gay male children playing with dolls and having girls rather than boys as their friends. Some, including Barrowman, may well do so. I doubt that it is true of the majority.

I certainly never played with dolls or had girls as friends. I climbed trees and played football and hung around street corners with other boys. It's true that I never liked 'fun fighting' or what my mother called 'horseplay'. Forgive my arrogance, but I attribute this to intelligence rather than gayness.
I do remember sometimes wrestling in the playground with another boy at secondary school. "I've got an erection!" he would say. "So have I", I'd reply. (It was a Grammar School so we used the correct terms. No 'stiffies' or 'hard-ons' for us). Another boy was forever groping me which was very disconcerting because I fancied him like hell.
Both these boys, I see from Friends Reunited, are now married with several children. I think straight boys are actually more likely to engage in sexual behaviour with other males at puberty than gay boys simply because they know they are straight and so attach little importance to it. But if you know that you are gay and it's part of a more general attraction then, like Coke, It's The Real Thing and all the more scary for that. Of course, I'm talking of over 40 years ago when the term 'gay' didn't even exist and 'homo' was only used as a good-natured jibe rather than a serious insult.

In interviews about last night's programme, Barrowman revealed that he gets several letters or emails a week from young people who are worried about being gay or about telling their families. It's incredible that still today young gay boys are reduced to seeking help and advice from high-profile gay celebrities. We have almost total legal equality. We have gay characters in soap operas and we have Civil Partnerships. Yet a gay actor like John Barrowman is required to give solace and hope to young people wracked by misery and confusion.

Most schools are still not providing adequate sex education nor support for gay students. And imagine you are a gay teenager with strict Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim or Jewish parents. Or parents with deep-seated non-religious bigotry. What kind of living hell must that be? What degree of fortitude must you summon up just to cope with being you?
There was a period in my early teens when I cried myself to sleep every night. Maybe that's why I rarely cry now. A lifetime's tears drenched my adolescence.
But I'm fighting back the tears now. Thinking of young kids today unable to talk to anyone, least of all their close family, or bullied at school. Thinking of all that needless suffering and the shocking complacency about it.

So, despite my criticisms of last night's programme, I think its overall impact was positive. It may have helped some people and educated others. John Barrowman deserves credit for making it and for using his celebrity in a more constructive way than going on some crass reality show.


At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Fixator said...

Yes this is a difficult issue. Many men, like myself, still struggle with that inner peace of who you really are though you have accepted your sexuality. You highlighted perfectly the confusion you as a school boy go through when you are quite aware that you are gay.
Great post...moving.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

fixator: thanks. I no longer struggle for inner peace - at least, not on account of my sexuality.
If I'd been born later, I would have felt less isolated, if only because of the internet and the structure of support groups - here in Western Europe, anyway. On the other hand, one wrong move and I might have been bullied at school. Gay bullying didn't exist in my day, not at my schools anyway.
So it's better in some ways, much worse in others.
And I could have mentioned all the gay teenagers who kill themselves, even today. But I didn't want to depress either myself or my readers even more.


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