Alex Blaze

Hair whorls? Is this what we've come to?

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 19, 2007 11:37 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: biology, New York Magazine, science, sexual freedom, Simon Levay

This article from New York Magazine has been floating around the LGBTQueer blogsphere. It's about some of the studies some scientists are doing to find other differences between gays and lesbians and straight men and women (sorry, everyone else, but New York doesn't think you exist). It's a lot of the same old, same old - finger length ratios, birth order, left-handedness - but the article starts out by describing a new one - hair whorls. This picture describes it better than I could (the gentleman on the left is the one who Dr. Lippa thinks is more likely to be gay):
gaydar070625_1_560.jpg
Of course, just like with all of these scientifesque studies, once you look a little closer you find that there really isn't much going on. This one dude took some pictures of around fifty guys' heads at Long Beach Pride. He labeled them as clockwise or counterclockwise (mind you, the scientist here even says: "It's like a kind of art," telling which way it goes), made a percentage of the people he found, and BAM, he's in New York magazine saying that another piece to the puzzle has been found.

My degree's in biology, so just as a science person I'd tell this guy to study a few more people from other places in the country and control for factors such as race and age before he makes such pronouncements. But as someone who follows these sorts of studies I'm not surprised that he's getting this sort of credence that he is. It reminds me of this article by J. Goodrich about how the media skew and promote studies that show differences between men and women and forget about those that don't.

Back in the early 90's, everyone got all excited about Simon LeVay's study that "proved" that gay men had smaller hypothalami than straight men. Forget the fact that the subjects he defined as gay were people who died of complications related to AIDS (and, yes, there are straight men who get HIV) and his definition of "straight" was society in general, which includes every form of sexual expression and serostatus, for that matter. But that didn't stop it from picking up a whole bunch of media attention. That same scientist is quoted as saying his results were supported by a recent study that showed that "gay" and "straight" rams had the same hypothalamus ratios. Forget that his study was bunk in the first place, forget the fact that sheep come from a very different line of mammalian evolution than humans do with many species in between sheep, humans, and our common ancestor don't display any exclusively same-sex love, we need to see these sorts of differences, so we blow these studies out of proportion whenever we see them.

Of course, while this scientist is looking at gay and straight hair whorls, whatever happened to the bisexual hair whorl? Such simple distinctions as "gay" and "straight" definitely do not encompass the full range of human sexuality, just as some dude going to Long Beach Pride and taking pictures of several dozen people's heads can't even capture the full diversity of hair whorls. And, to paraphrase Leslie Feinberg, what about the "I was really drunk that one night in college..." hair whorl? Is that different from the straight one?

But besides the lack of scientific value to these studies, I really have to wonder what the purpose is here. The author of the New York article is quick to point out that they're poorly funded and few scientists want to touch this subject with a ten-foot pole. And with good reason. There isn't much commercial application for this research, unless you count the multi-hundred-million dollar anti-gay industry as a possible customer. The only possible practical application of it is an assault on human diversity: the elimination non-heterosexuals. Even the author of the article is aware of the obvious subtext of homophobia and asserts his gay cred in the first paragraph and is quick to point out those of the scientists he interviews who are gay, either by relating how one lost his male partner to AIDS, or how one woman lives with her female partner. But that doesn't help to ignore the fact that such research is designed to limit sexual choice by reducing all sexual expression to biological factoids. There are many sexual choices people make that aren't determined by biology that are still legitimate choices, and a queer movement has such promise to empower a movement to sexual autonomy. Why are we trying to prove that our autonomy is in fact limited?

And shouldn't the accounts of queer people (and straight people, for that matter) be enough to know that sexuality isn't consciously mutable? One of the participants in the hair whorl "study" said:

If I could tell my mother it's a gene, she would be so happy.
It breaks my heart to read something like that from a man who so wants to please his parents (his last name was "Quesada", so I think I'm really feeling him on this one). Because "You're a sinner", "You can change", and "It's a choice" are the biggest insults that get lobbed at sexual minorities, I can understand the reason many gays and lesbians would want to find that biology proves our knowledge that sexuality isn't a whimsical decision we made at some point, waking up and stretching one morning and saying, "I think I'll be a homosexual today."

But finding a gay gene isn't the answer. A connection has been scientifically proven between genetics and sex, but that didn't end patriarchy. People have long known that no one chooses to have the features that denote a certain race, whether it be white or Native or Black or Asian, but that didn't prevent racism from happening. It's rather short-sighted to put our eggs in the biology basket since there's no evidence that it will end the heteroxual supremacy. (The article alludes to the fact that it might bring about same-sex marriage faster, but then also points out that one of the scientists thinks that a kid turning out gay is "wrong", and a biological link isn't going to change people's initial "ick").

These sorts of studies further pathologize sexuality. Remember all those gay zaps of the American Psychological Association in the late 60's and early 70's to get homosexuality removed from the DSM and no longer labeled as a psychological disorder? Well, it was there based on "studies" of gays, only gays in mental institutions and prisons, mind you. These studies of gays and lesbians as disordered individuals, or "biological errors" as Dr. Laura put it, put us back in the same position where we have to justify why we exist, why we should be allowed to love, and why we should be entitled to sexual autonomy. If someone can wear a patch for two weeks and turn straight, is firing a lesbian teacher still discrimination? If the only gays born are to those parents who couldn't afford whatever hormonal injections invented to turn babies straight, will that do anything to bridge the class divide in the LGBTQueer movement?

There are many reasons to refuse to participate in a system that pathologizes valid forms of sexual expression. Building science around the "biological error" idea, though, only serves to bolster a machine that believes that there's one "normal" or "natural" form of sexuality. It doesn't take long for an idea of what is "natural" to turn into what is "imperative", for what is labeled as "normal" to turn into what is labeled as "mandated".

It's impossible to ignore the simple fact that these studies are being done in a society where some of the most powerful political and religious leaders are directly and indirectly calling for the elimination of sexual diversity, so much so that one has to wonder how far these people would go to accomplish their goal. While it may be interesting to some people to find out why people are the way they are, this is no way to build a movement, this is no way to justify queer equality, and this serves no broader beneficial purpose for society. As long as we live in a culture and under a government that tries to limit people's self-expression, choice, and full potential, we have no reason to justify to anyone why we are the way we are, it's up to anyone who delegitimizes autonomy to prove why that's good for anyone but themselves.

And I'm still waiting for someone to find the biological origin of homophobia.


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A. J. Lopp | June 20, 2007 3:36 AM

There isn't much commercial application for this research, unless you count the multi-hundred-million dollar anti-gay industry as a possible customer.

Alex, I respectfully disagree.

If, for example, the U.S. Navy has, say, 130 male linguist experts who specialize in Arabic languages (I'm making up these numbers for sake of argument, they aren't intended to be real), and then discharges half of them because they turn out to be gay, wouldn't it be interesting to determine that "verbal fluency" (as mentioned in the NYT article) and a homosexual orientation have some type of connection?

Of course, there are many, many male heterosexual Arabic speakers in the world, many expertly articulate. But most of these learn Arabic as toddlers. Maybe there is a connection between gender/orientation and the ability to easily learn certain linguistic functions later in life? It's just a thought, but my point is that it is very early for concluding that these studies do not have "much commercial application" --- indeed, the practical applicability of such knowledge may be directly related to what exactly it is that these studies ascertain.

Lynn David | June 20, 2007 4:34 AM

Why should we fear reality? We know it, reality, we know what will come of the science. So what is the fear?

If the reason we queer men are here turns out to be nothing more than an evolutionary byproduct of the a propensity to produce females and increased fertility of women, then does that lessen our importance as human beings? Obviously, if Christians claim such biology to be a part of the "fall of mankind" then yes, they think we're less than human. Big deal, Christians have thought that for two millenia, despite their supposed 'love.'

What have we to fear from reality? Society has not faced our reality for ages. They are the ones who fear.... our reality.

Building science around the "biological error" idea, though, only serves to bolster a machine that believes that there's one "normal" or "natural" form of sexuality. It doesn't take long for an idea of what is "natural" to turn into what is "imperative", for what is labeled as "normal" to turn into what is labeled as "mandated".
I dunno, Alex. I think that "biological error" is in the eye of the beholder. I refuse to think of being gay as an error - but rather a natural occurance. Which I think is the opposite of what you're saying - that heterosexuality would be deemed "normal." If a biological link is found, wouldn't that prove that queerness is "normal" too?

What I'm saying is that it could have the exact opposite effect from your claim. Left-handed people were once considered afflicted by the devil until science proved it was just something that happened. Same with autism/mental retardation/mental illness. Perhaps if it's proven that homosexuality is just the ying to heterosexuality's yang, there will actually be more acceptance instead of those who think they can drive the demons out of us (think "ex-gay").

It's impossible to ignore the simple fact that these studies are being done in a society where some of the most powerful political and religious leaders are directly and indirectly calling for the elimination of sexual diversity, so much so that one has to wonder how far these people would go to accomplish their goal.
This is my worry too. I can't help but fear that as soon as a genetic marker comes out, some fool will devise a pregnancy test for queerness that will lead women to abort gay children. The gay sheep study made me uncomfortable just for that reason. But I wonder if anyone tracked the whorls on the sheep?

I think it's pretty strange to say that these studies have anything to do with reality. Going to a Pride in Long Beach and taking pics of several dozen men's heads does not constitute science. The other "studies" into the origin of sexuality have been similarly lame - trying to compare penis size of gay and straight men, but basing the data on self-reporting (because no one ever lies about that), studying the hypothalami of people with AIDS and equating that with gayness, etc.

But it's like, we already know reality - sexuality isn't consciously mutable. That's it. Does finding that I'm just a byproduct of women being able to produce more babies dehumanize me? Absolutely. It's reductive of humanity, both for women (what are they, baby-making machines now?) and for gay men (sorry, you're not really a human being, just the nasty side effect of what we're really after: reproduction).

Bil, I just don't see the evidence that this will reduce oppression. Like people have known for a long time that sex and race aren't someone's fault - but is there full racial or sex equality? No. Homophobes are just seeking out a reason to dislike us, and the want to believe that we can "change", but that doesn't mean that if a genetic link is found (and there's already a surplus of evidence to prove that we can't change our sexual attraction consciously, but hey, who cares about listening to that), they'll just disregard it and keep on going. Or just make up stereotypes of queers and keep on going.

And no one's told me yet why I have the responsibility of justifying my legitimate sexual autonomy or how such research actually encompasses bisexuals and other sexualities. I see way too much of our current biases imposed on this research to think that it will ever uncover "reality".