What causes it?

Interesting documentary on BBC3 last night about a young man who had a stroke and “woke up gay” afterwards. It was both interesting and perplexing. That there has been a huge shift in his character and personality is clear. That he once dated women and now is attracted to men is easily shown. That he once played rugby and now is a hair-dresser is easy to demonstrate.

Oh, but hang on a minute where exactly do actions, ethics, stereotypes and genetic determinism intersect? How much weight to give any of them and how much weight to give his claim that it was the stroke that “made him gay”. After all, there are gay rugby players and straight hairdressers in this world and there are plenty of people who have shown evidence of being attracted to very different people at different times in their lives. There are also plenty of people whose character, appearance, employment choices and family relationships have changed profoundly after coming out.

I don’t really have a problem with the idea that a stroke can change behaviour and character. It can. It doesn’t seem to me to be entirely beyond the bounds of possibility that this might include elements of attraction. What I had a greater problem with in last night’s programme was the entirely unexplained research into “gay” and “straight” people’s brain patterns that was being undertaken at Queen Mary College in London. Here the programme was pretty deficient – as though filling in a few questionnaire questions could determine what you were born with.

I tend to have rather odd views on this. I’m fully aware of the notion that is almost an accepted orthodoxy that gay people are simply born that way – that it is natural, for heavens sake. That accepted orthodoxy suits my politics. However, I don’t quite feel so sure that it is precisely true. It seems to me that it feels as though one was born that way for a lot of people but that doesn’t really prove anything. It is common, that’s for sure, and same-sex activity and relationship exist in diverse societies at, so far as we can tell, all times in history. That seems to me not to be a genetic argument that is worth taking seriously.

What I’m more interested in is whether people have the right to make informed choices about what to do with their affections and I’m interested in building a society in which the choices that have hitherto been available most commonly to opposite-sex couples are available to same-sex couples. I think that is a moral choice. Indeed, I think that to stand in the way of that is an immoral one. I don’t think such a change is that hard to conceive and what’s going on in society at the moment, with huge numbers of straight allies at last coming out in favour of equality seems to show that I’m onto something.

In summary, I’m interested in genetic determinism but suspicious of it. Meanwhile, allowing the ethics of relationship to evolve to a point where those who identity as gay can live upright, moral, public lives that harm no-one is holy business and something I believe in rather a lot.

It does not matter a bean to me what causes it.



  1. There was a good commentary of the BBC documentary about this in the Guardian, which focuses on the use of the word “turning”. It points out that anyone coming out is in fact “turning”, but it’s a social rather than medical turning.


  2. Michael says

    I think Kelvin is right to be suspicious of genetic determinism. Not enough is known about personality to tell what role genetics has in determining any aspect of it.
    To not care a bean about the reasons why some people are LGBT is a different matter.
    As long as some people can legitimately say that there is no cause for being gay those people can can continue to assert that it is a lifestyle choice and if they so wish label it aberrant or sinful. In short they can proclaim that being gay is immoral.
    The ethical evolution kelvin wishes for will always be resisted by some on those moral grounds.
    Many of them will never be convinced whatever evidence is found but their case will be undermined and that is not a bad thing.

    • Thanks for your comment, Michael.

      If it is any help, I’m equally agnostic about what causes people to be straight.

  3. Steven says

    Interesting post Kelvin, but should homosexuality be identified as genetic then, with advances in science, this would allow those identified unborn babies to then be aborted and, irony of ironies for liberals, with the RCC their only defenders.

  4. I didn’t see the programme, but ISTM that the idea of orientation being a hardware-“wiring” thing that can be changed through a stroke is at least neutral, and arguably strengthens the argument that one’s orientation is determined in the first instance by nature (starting with one’s genes but also including medical happenings outwith one’s control) and only maybe potentially by subsequent nurture.

    Fortunately ethics will also get in the way of retrophrenology, as well as it being a long way off in several senses.

    And yes, even so, equal rights for all, whether one’s been straight since a stroke or gay since birth or whatever.

  5. We must be wary of being sucked into the discourse being constructed by social conservatives, whereby one’s sexuality is either innate (whether genetic or determined by environmental factors in utero) and therefore ‘natural’ and thus acceptable, or it is ‘chosen’ and therefore ‘unnatural’, immoral, et cetera. Conservatives argue the latter, but I don’t think it does us any favours at all to try to argue the former, because when we do so we have already accepted the thesis that innateness and naturalness are coextensive.

    The division of people (as opposed to behaviours) into ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ is socially constructed; it is no less real for that, but it seems like much of the scientific endeavour to find an aetiology is predicated on the assumption that these are discrete and objective categories. The other unexamined assumption that I can see is that being gay requires an explanation, while straightness is ‘normal’ and needs none.

    We, as queer people, need to be more assertive about our right to exist, I think. We should stop playing the conservatives’ game. The way we are is natural and it is still natural even if it’s not fixed from birth, even (Heaven forfend) if it should be freely and deliberately chosen.

  6. Rosemary Hannah says

    Yes, I totally agree with Seph’s comments. ‘Natural’ and ‘innate’ tells one nothing. A desire to physically attack others is perfectly natural for many people. However beating other people up is not perfectly moral. Violence is wrong because it damages people; those hurt and those doing the hurting. Whereas loving partnerships build people up, in the very best of ways, and are good. Here we are all on very sound ground.

    I very strongly suspect we will not actually see how nuanced sexuality often is while the discourse is about ‘born [straight/gay/bi]’.

  7. Brother David says

    This also seems to buy into the fact that folks are either straight or gay and from what I have seen and experienced it is not so black and white, but a spectrum of shades of gay.

    I have met folks in my life’s journey who were primarily attracted to just one primary gender, in my case, among my acquaintances, usually a person of the opposite gender to them. But then they met someone of the same gender who awakened feelings they had never experienced prior to that. They experienced a strong physical attraction to a person of a gender for which they had never previously felt an attraction and developed a deep abiding love for this person. A love so strong that it opened them to searching for ways to physically express that love, which in turn opened them to forms of physical expression they would not have considered with a person of the opposite gender. All very natural when confronted with the issue, but perhaps considered unnatural when not confronted.

  8. Blair Robertson says

    The element of choice has also been seen as important in some lesbian feminist discourse, where the choice to be lesbian is a rejection of patriarchy and traditional social constructs of womanhood. My eyes were opened to this when I read the late Adrienne Rich’s small book ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.’ It fair blew the mind of a Scottish Presbyterian studying in the USA in the late 80s!

  9. “It does not matter a bean to me what causes it.”

    Here here!

    I think that I probably feel the exact same thing about most things (assuming that these ‘things’ are not harmful to others…in that case, I’m curious as to what causes it, so that we might be able to stop it in the future…but since being gay doesn’t hurt anyway, who cares what causes it!).

  10. I am interested in what causes anti-gay sentiments and actions however. That seems to me much more fruitful of our study.

    • For all the recent progress we’ve made, our society is still deeply heterocentrist. The idea that heterosexual behaviour is natural and normal and homosexual behaviour abnormal and aberrant is very deeply rooted and it will take more than a few bits of (admittedly welcome) legislation to change that. I don’t think it’s any mystery where anti-gay sentiments come from in an immediate sense. How this power relation came to be in the first place is far from obvious, though.

  11. Craig Nelson says

    The key thing to remember is that while genetics and other biological determining factors or indeed markers do exist, their translation into sexual orientation is not simplistic. Identity is always a matter of interaction and negociation.

    Equally to align rights with forms of determinism is clearly wrong. What causes a person to be a Christian or an atheist or a trade unionist? Not likely genetics (though in some way they may play a role) but nobody is saying that discrimination or human rights abuses against (for example) Christians is OK because a person’s Christianity is a freely chosen set of beliefs and behaviours.

    That is all true and very important. However, whether genetic or otherwise, however identity comes about it is core to as person’s life so that harming people on account of their idenity becomes a deep harm to that person and group (one can cite Jews being forced into baptism or people forced to abjure their political views).

    Having said that, the fact of the hard wiring of sexual orientation in many (both gay and straight) is a deep fact of human nature and I think is a factor which should influence our thinking. Heterosexuals for the most part are heterosexual by their nature – their heterosexuality is relatively straightforwardly innate, others likewise have been ‘gay as long as they can remember’ while others (probably a small minority) experience a greater degree of uncetainty, choice, flexibility – possibly with some degree of overlap with the concept of bisexuality (although bisexuality is often conceived as a stable sexual identity).

    A final thought is that we usually conceptualise sexual orientation as completely distinct from gender identity whereas they do often intersect, in addition to thinking about gender as going beyond the extreme binarism we are used to deploying as the basis of our thinking about both gender and sexual orientation.

    • Thanks, Craig, for your explanation of differentiation between sexual orientation and gender identity, which, as you say, often intersects but are not necessarily identical in one person. On reflection, how very complicated is our whole personality make-up. No wonder the empiricists get confused. The important point is not to attach blame to preference.

      • Craig Nelson says

        Yes, I agree. I think it’s quite complicated, or at least it can be when all possibilities are considered. Nevertheless I think there are a number of regularities also, so long as we don’t become trapped within them. This is perhaps where people can be very quickly ‘all at sea’, for example, when thinking about trans issues for the first time.

        In spite of the regularities it seems the human family display a glorious and riotous diversity.

  12. “I am interested in what causes anti-gay sentiments and actions however. That seems to me much more fruitful of our study.” – Kelvin –

    I agree, Kelvin, that this is a very important part of the conversation, and my feeling is that, for straight men, it might just be something about the perceived challenge to their own masculinity.

    However, for innately gay or lesbian persons. the very fact that they cannot engage in a sexual relationship – or even imagine such an activity – there remains the problem of ‘how to justify’, in their own mind, the reason for their ‘difference’ from most other people. This is one of the reasons why some GLBT persons – especially young ones – become suicidal.

  13. Oh dear!. I missed out a very important part of my argument – above – by omitting the qualifying preface ‘hetero-‘ to the words ‘sexual relationship’ in the second line of my last paragraph. This should read: ‘..they cannot engage in a hetero-sexual relationship’.

    mea culpa!

  14. Rosemary Hannah says

    Fear that if I/my child is gay they will have to choose between being a hairdresser and Quinten Crisp – both perfectly good things to be, but not a wide choice. This is now being effectively addressed by Eddi Mair, Neil MacGregor and others – but some are slow to catch up.
    Fear of the playfulness of queer culture – this does not just affect LGBT people but also any adult who likes to play at all, which is, I think, why so many of us love to be in queer company. Why people fear playfulness I have no idea, and I am obviously the wrong person to ask.
    There are still people who think gay men prefer children to men. Still, as I know from a VERY tedious afternoon, women who (while they never seem to have had a happy relationship with a man) think that their lesbian daughter is going to miss out on something precious by never going to bed with a man.
    A misunderstanding that the Bible is a tract which highly values monogamous marriage (despite OT polygamy, and NT scepticism that marriage is a good thing at all) and a mistaken belief that God wants everybody straight, instead of the perhaps 80% who are happily wholly heterosexual.
    And the common belief that if ‘I’ like something (chocolate ice-cream, Mills & Boon, cats) then there is something wrong with those who prefer something else (coffee parfait, Jorge Borges, dogs). The misunderstanding that ‘if everybody was to be a doctor, what would we do for patients’ which does not take on board the utter unwillingness and incapacity of the majority of the population to become doctors.

  15. Strangely enough, part of my honours thesis touched on this many years ago. I came to the conclusion that although I felt that the evidence for genetic determination of sexuality was virtually conclusive, there might exist somewhat of a transactional relationship between nature and nurture which allowed the possibility of an element of choice. Serious brain damaging incidents such as CVS can cause changes to the parts of the brain which are supposed to differ in gay and lesbian folks (as opposed to straight people). Maybe this might go some way to explaining the experience of the chap in the tv programme?

    Fascinating, either way…

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