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August 18, 2003

It's Queer Thang!

Dr. David Halperin is teaching a course titled How to be Gay. My first reaction was, "Hey man, you're born that way," but read the course description, and it sounds like a high-brown version of Queer Eye for the Gay Man. See here for an article slanted against the course and here for one favoring it.

Posted by razib at 10:24 AM

Queer Eye is one of the funnier shows I've seen this summer. It's refreshing to see people embracing stereotypes and having fun.

Posted by: eric f at August 18, 2003 12:18 PM

I read both articles and I donīt see how a course like that can be taught seriously at a university!
Really ridiculous!

Posted by: eufrenio at August 18, 2003 01:37 PM

By the way, has anybody read Steve Sailerīs latest piece? He echoes a theory by Gregory M. Cochran that the cause of homosexuality might be in fact a virus (coupled with genetic predisposition).


Posted by: eufrenio at August 18, 2003 02:28 PM

I think homosexuality, in the sense we're trying to explain it, is a modern, mostly Western/European, cultural identity that appeals to people who have certain patterns of life-experiences (e.g. older brothers) as well as certain genetic predispositions (e.g. "girly")* that make that cultural niche (special to Western societies) easier to fall into.

If we're merely trying to explain why some men have a desire to have sex with other men, then the "problem" of hypothetical homosexuality genes getting selected away is no longer a problem because most men through history and today that have sex with other men had sex with women as well (think the Taliban, prison, Alexander the Great, New Guinea). Consider how "homosexuality" is done far more often in the black community - self-defined as heterosexual. This, I think, is the more historical version of homosexuality.

The pair-bonding, mutual affection, and "men-only" part of Western homosexuality (not to mention the campiness, the artiness, the sassiness, the lisp, etc.) seem to be cultural additions to me. Just something that some white people came up with.

*whatever quality this predisposition may take, it is real. Behavioral geneticists show that those who share genes are more likely to share sexuality as well.

Posted by: Jason M. at August 18, 2003 05:07 PM

Being a cultural thing, it's fairly easy for homosexual men to get get bored with it and turn heterosexual, or to change with just a wee bit of
encouragement, say aversion therapy using electric shock.


Posted by: gcochran at August 18, 2003 05:52 PM

Sarcasm aside, you haven't answered GC's question re transmission. I've understood the "germ theory" of disease to depend on that as one of its prerequisites.

BTW, I like your theory very much and have since the Atlantic article a few years ago -- it 'feels' good; however I'm still waiting for the empirical evidence.

I also hope somewhere along the line you've credited Zinsser who came up with much the same idea toward the end of _Rats, Lice and History_.

Posted by: jim at August 18, 2003 06:52 PM

Regarding the germ theory, I immediately thought of the analogy to schizophrenia & saw that Sailer mentioned this...well, it should be easily testable. Just go into a bar and see whether a statistically significant group was born in February/March/early April.

Posted by: Diana at August 18, 2003 07:48 PM

"The pair-bonding, mutual affection, and "men-only" part of Western homosexuality (not to mention the campiness, the artiness, the sassiness, the lisp, etc.) seem to be cultural additions to me. Just something that some white people came up with." -- Jason M.

I just don't know ... I'd be interesting in hearing about Southeast Asia, like Bali and Malaya, which could be the beautiful transvestite capital of the world. Are these guys exclusively homosexual?

Posted by: Steve Sailer at August 18, 2003 09:19 PM

"Being a cultural thing, it's fairly easy for homosexual men to get get bored with it and turn heterosexual"

Same goes for religion, political values, aesthetic preferences, the substantial non-genetic portion of personality formation/intelligence, (imprinted) sexual revulsion towards siblings, etc., etc. Seriously though, the idea that genes (or germs ;)) = fixed, environment = fluid is wrongheaded and simplistic. Also check this out:

"Although Western medievalist, John Boswell, who legitimated lesbian and gay history as a field of study in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980) famously advanced the theory that "Gay people" have always and everywhere existed, this has not been widely accepted by scholars. Since 1980 a very specific theory the history of sexuality as it applies to homosexuals, has come to be accepted by the majority of historians working in the field. The model now is this:
  • Homosexual behaviors exist in most societies, and in most, including European society until about 1700, homosexuality falls into two main patterns (at least for men.) One pattern is based on age-dissonant sexual dominance; an older man (not always very much older by the way) will take a conventionally "male" role in a sexual relationship with a younger male, but will not, in doing so, be regarded as any different from other "male" men in general society. The second common pattern is based on gender-dissonant sexual dominance; this means that in a number of societies there were "biological" males who lived as "non-males" throughout their lives, and these people can also be the sexual partners of "male" men without the "men" loosing any status. The Native American berdache is perhaps the most famous example of a widespread phenomenon.
  • Around 1700, in Western Europe a change took place. A subculture of effeminate men arose in major cities, men who identified themselves as different. The word "molly" was used in London and other words elsewhere. Although they were prepared to have sex with "male" men these "mollies" were also prepared to have sex with each other. This is not, it seems, common across various societies. Some historians have called this the emergence of a "third gender".
  • Since "a third gender" is not the model of modern homosexuality in the West, there has been a question of when the "modern homosexual" emerged. Many writers have argued that that the medicalization of homosexuality in the late nineteenth century resulted in the creation of a new creature - the "modern homosexual" (and the "modern heterosexual"!) What distinguishes "homo-" and "heterosexuals" from earlier models of sexuality is that they are in strict opposition to each other, and are defined not by gender role, or even sexual role, but by "sexual orientation". Certainly in Germany in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century there was a clear notion of homosexuality, and a political movement based on it.
  • A major recent readjustment of this theory, resulting from the work of George Chauncey in his recent Gay New York. Chauncey has called into question the last part of the traditional formulation. He argues that elite terminology and labels (also known as "medicalization") had no immediate effect on the mass of working class New Yorkers (with the suggestion that this was probably true elsewhere.) That although there were, eventually, some self-identified "queers", until as late 1940 [!] it was common for working-class men to have "male role" sex with other men ["fairies"] without in any way feeling that they were "homosexual". What happened around 1940, the Chauncey-amended model says is that, first, more and more of the mass of the population began to identify as "heterosexual" and see any homosexual behavior as transgressive; and secondly among self-identified "queers" a shift in desired sexual partner took place. Previously "queers" had tended to prefer "male" men but now "queers" began to prefer other "queers" as sexual partners.
  • It was this emergence of a social identity of "homosexual" which enabled lesbian and gay people to come together, recognize each other, and begin a social movement for legal, political and social equality. "
Posted by: Jason M. at August 18, 2003 09:52 PM

to Jason M: you're crazy. Naturally, I could go on and on at great length about how and why, but why would I want to argue with a crazy person? Parenthetically, I have read deeply in the kind of nonsensical literature you cite, and there are times that I think I'll _never_ be clean again.

to jim: I suspect that what is happening is similar to narcolepsy, in which a particular brain function is trashed while leaving everything else substantially intact. Narcolepsy happens when the neuron subpopulation making a particular neurotransmitter, orexin, disappears. This happens almost only in people with a particular HLA type, so one suspects an autoimmune reaction. A viral trigger is reasonable and possible.

As for where this is going - I don't believe it'd be hard to find out the cause, since we have a good experimental animal, sheep. 5-10% of male sheep in some herds are totally uninterested in females: you can tie a female in heat to the fence in front of them and they don't do a thing. Males they hump. As far as I know, the only two mammals with a few-percent of males with this kind of preferential homosexual behavior are humans and sheep. The two species have often been seen together, and I doubt if this is entirely a coincidence. I'd bet money that the cause is the same, and that we contracted it from sheep. That's thought to be the case for a lot of infectious agents - acquired from domesticated animals.

Gee, so now we have to look for the gay sheep gene! Actually we already did: the condition doesn't show noticeable heritability. They do show funny endocrinologivcal patterns in the amygdala ( we get to dissect homosexual sheeo), but I'm sure you need to think more about neurotransmitters than they have so far. And about some infective agent, because of course that's what it is.

Well, though, one should be fair. Maybe sheep homosexuality is a variant genetic strategy - maybe the gay sheep show increased creativity. Maybe they help raise their nephews and nieces., even though no male sheep do zip for their kids, like most mammals.

Maybe this sheep behavior was recently socially constructed! I could take this and run with it - but it would be wrong.

As I said, probably not hard to solve, may even happen by accident, but almost completely unfundable. This is banned science: anyone who proved such a thing or even worked on it would likely never get any federal money ever again. Blanchard asked about HLA correlations - they wouldn't release the info. This is something man was not meant to know. I have even had one biologist who secretly came to a similar conclusion (Alan Grafen, who wishes I wouldn't mention his name) suggest if proven it should perhaps be kept secret forever. What a chickenshit.

On the other hand a lot of the smarter evolutionary biologists think it has a pretty good chance of being correct. Bill Hamilton thought so. Trivers thinks it is much more likely than any other model he has heard of (of course he _is_ crazy) . Mike Bailey thinks it is the only evolutionarily plausible model that has ever been proposed.

Posted by: gcochran at August 19, 2003 12:15 AM

you're crazy. Naturally, I could go on and on at great length about how and why, but why would I want to argue with a crazy person?

Lol. Well, it's probably best for me. Even if you are wrong, you no doubt have much more ammunition than I do for my perspective even if I happen to be right (always painful to admit). I certainly don't claim infallibility, but that's the direction my collective experience on the subject points me in. Perhaps, my mind will change when I get around to reading some Bailey.

Posted by: Jason M. at August 19, 2003 12:58 AM

Speaking of Bailey, the densely packed, calculated innuendo in this Chronicle of Higher Education profile of him is hilarious. And let this be a warning to any of you who want to propose controversial theories to politically sensitive topics. :D

Posted by: Jason M. at August 19, 2003 01:40 AM

geoff, this sheep transmissibility thing is interesting....but--wouldn't pop'ns that have had exposure to sheep be resistant? pop'ns that have not had exposure to sheep be esp. vulnerable? What kind of a virus would this be?

Perhaps we can expose bonobos to sheep and see what happens. But then, don't bonobos show a lot of bisexual behavior?

Posted by: Diana at August 19, 2003 07:21 AM

You have to think like an evolutionary biologist to realize how utterly _implausible_ preferential homosexuality is, if at all common.
It makes just as much sense as a compulsion to poke yourself in the eye with a sharp stick. From an intelligent evo-psych point of view, it simply should not exist. Such a personality type should not even be possible.
We're just used to it. Populations without any homosexuality react with incredulity when they hear about ir for the first time.
Compare it with this: in some parts of Africa, young men start showing blood in the urine. The locals call it male menstruation, consider it a rite of passage, make a big thing out of it, consider it normal. It's enfolded in their silly culture. But it's just a disease; they put the boys out working in the rice fields around that age, they contract schisotomiasis of the type that colonizes the bladder, and they get blood in the urine.
Things that have always been around don't seem to need causes: they can't seem anomalous. Same thing with beta-thalassemia - it was first recognized by a physician in _Detroit_ of all places. . In Sicily and Sardinia, it was common and therefore didn't need a cause - just was.

Posted by: gcochran at August 19, 2003 08:27 AM

one more thing to jim: where does Zinsser say this?

Posted by: gcochran at August 19, 2003 08:27 AM

No one is saying that a personality-type for preferential homosexuality is possible, but that a certain personality type interacting with certain cultural variables produces it.

At least, I think that is what Jason is saying.

I'm not sure how this virus theory would fit in with Sparta, or 16th century Florence. It doesn't seem to at all. Also, Rome had a modern-type gay male population.

And why would women be more resistant to this virus than men?

Posted by: Diana at August 19, 2003 08:41 AM

And why would women be more resistant to this virus than men?

Women are more resistant to most diseases than men, it comes from having a better immune system.

Posted by: rob at August 19, 2003 10:49 AM

OK, I just nexised it and it appears, according to an Australian study, that men are at least 1.7 times more likely to develop schizophrenia. The researcher thinks that estrogen helps protect...but still, it is possible I think for a certain constellation of personality characteristics to interact w/societal conditions and produce an effect that evolution never "intended."

Posted by: Diana at August 19, 2003 11:32 AM

It seems to be not that women are "more resistant" to it, but that the action of the virus, if that's what it is, takes place in utero by interfering with the development of the male fetus. Since we all start out female, and have to undergo several changes in order to become male, a virus which interfered with the process of "male-making" would presumalby have no effect on females...

Posted by: jimbo at August 19, 2003 11:57 AM

a trip down memory lane (from the ny times, 8/28/94):*

"though, interestingly, the incidence of gayness within the Deaf community is perhaps 15 percent higher than in the hearing world."

if true, why?

*Defiantly Deaf, By Andrew Solomon

Posted by: Diana at August 19, 2003 12:06 PM

ummm... what's the lab fee for?

Posted by: scott at August 19, 2003 02:33 PM

If by 15% higher in the deaf community, they mean that homosexuality is 1.15 time more common among the deaf, then they are saying nothing at all, since the error bars on the prevalence of homosexuality in even the best surveys utterly swamp that.

If on the other hand it means that, say 17% of the deaf are homosexual, I'm interested. That would be time to wonder about rubella.

As for why a virus might have this effect on men and not women - well, I hate to reveal this secret, but men and women are not the same same. Nor are their brains. There are many easy-imagine-ways in which this might happen.

As for the idea that the hit causing homosexuality must be prenatal: although I cosnider it possible, I defy anyone to tell me why this must be the case. Note that when one of a pair of identical twins is homosexual, ~80% of the time his twin is not. Their genes are identical and their prebirth experiences very similar - there are more unshared experiences after birth than before. And narcoleptic MZ twins are also usually discordant, about 70% of the time.

Posted by: gcochran at August 19, 2003 03:26 PM

Well, it's not neccssarily caused by the intrauterine environment, but it might be an infection that occurs at a specific time (and not neccessarily in every current inhabitant of the womb), interfering with crucial development.

Although, if it is rather an infectious agent that sets up in the womb and piggybacks in the brain throughout the life of the host, might that not suggest that it could be reversible if the agent is removed? Hoo, boy - no wonder this can't get funding...

Posted by: jimbo at August 19, 2003 03:41 PM

so-is this going to go the way of the study of human biodiversity-politics interferring with science? i can't see that the gay community would be very pleased with greg's idea....

Posted by: razib at August 19, 2003 03:54 PM

I'm not sure what the 15% means, I just remembered reading it in the Times in 1994.

Um, I know that men and women's brains are different. It's not a secret. I was just puzzled as to why *this* particular difference would come up with such a pronouncedly different effect in men and women.

I also thought that the connection between deafness & gayness was interesting, given that some scientists think lesbians have less sensitive hearing than straight women:


The study suggests that lesbians were masculinized before birth. I find it interesting, because so much of the emphasis has been on men, and lesbians are thought to be a political category.

Why don't you elucidate exactly how the difference would come up with so many more gay men than women?

Regarding funding, lots of worthy projects don't get funded. If a noted physicist like Thomas Gold can't get funding for research into how oil is produced, then I doubt that some journalist with interesting but farfetched theories about how gay sheep make gay men will.

(Interesting aside about Gold: he came up with an alternate theory of how we hear:


Posted by: Diana at August 19, 2003 06:56 PM

Finally, someone else who's heard of Thomas Gold! I read
"The Deep Hot Biosphere", and every time I bring up his theories in polite company I get weird looks like I'm some kind of crank... (which may be true, mind you, but I think he makes a compelling case...)

Posted by: jimbo at August 19, 2003 07:29 PM

I'm not exactly a journalist.

As for Thomas Gold and abiotic hydrocarbons: I don't buy it. And money was spent - the Swedes spent tens of millions drilling the Siljian Ring, and came up empty.

Posted by: gcochran at August 19, 2003 10:11 PM

I found the stuff about hearing in the intro by Freeman Dyson as interesting as the stuff about the deep hot biosphere.

He may not be right about hydrocarbons but he was onto the deep hot biosphere before just about everyone else. That's how scientific progress is made: by these prods and pokes by heretics.

My overarching point is that human sexuality is much more complicated than simple responses to simple cues, although it may start out that way.

Nuff sed, at least from me, on this point, for now.

Posted by: Diana at August 20, 2003 08:03 AM

"As for the idea that the hit causing homosexuality must be prenatal: although I cosnider it possible, I defy anyone to tell me why this must be the case. Note that when one of a pair of identical twins is homosexual, ~80% of the time his twin is not."

What is the percentage of identical twins that share/do not share the same amniotic sac?

I have heard statements to the effect that twins can experience much different prenatal hormonal environments if they do not occupy the same amniotic sac.

Posted by: the alpha male at August 20, 2003 04:33 PM