I don’t know if you occupy yourself with the scientific press, but there’s been big news in the last couple weeks in homosexuality research. There was a new “gay brain” study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) that looked at differences in primitive brain structures that are fixed after birth showing that these structures in gay men resembled the same structures in straight women. Similarly, these structures in gay women resembled straight men. For those of you who love neuroanatomy, Hetero Male cerebral hemispheres tend to be lateralized or larger on the right side, mostly due to increased frontal and temporal lobes. Women’s cerebral hemispheres tend to be more similar on both sides. The Homo Male cerebral hemispheres tend to be the same size on each side, more like straight women’s. The opposite is true for gay women. More striking were changes in connectivity between the amygdala (reactions to external stimuli) and subcallosum and anterior cingulate (regulation of mood and anxiety-linked processes). The authors make a supposition that this could explain the increased prevalence in mood disorders amongst women and the increased depression and suicide rate among gay men. I think both statements are questionable because frankly there are a lot of external factors for both women and gay men that profoundly influence mental health. The authors also show that connections between the sensorimotor cortex and striatum are more robust in Hetero men and Homo women. These connections are more involved with attending to the external environment via fight or flight responses. All interesting stuff indeed.
This week, a paper in PLoS One (Public Library of Sciences) did some crazy genetics studies that I can’t even begin to fully understand, but their conclusions were pretty interesting. The authors were puzzled by the notion of a genetic source of homosexuality because in the simplest sense, if homosexuality is genetic and most homosexuals don’t reproduce, homosexuality should become extinct in the population. They show that homosexuality is equally present in cultures throughout the world and stable in incidence through recent history, indicating that a downslide in homosexuality prevalence or homosexual extinction is probably not happening. Then they use the theory of sexually antagonistic selection (the genes of one sex favor the other sex somehow) to come up with the hypothesis that homosexual men would have female relatives who are more fecund, or reproductively active. The theory being that some of the same genes involved in reproductive potential in women are somehow linked to homosexuality in men within the same maternal blood line. They relate this then to their empirical studies which showed asymmetries in the pedigrees of families with gay men showing that the maternal female relatives (maternal aunts and cousins for example) of gay men do in fact have statistically more children. Interesting stuff as well. So now it’s a matter of doing the genetic linkage studies to identify the genes involved.
All of this research is interesting to me as a gay scientist. I always try to read the introductions and discussions of these papers carefully because the meaning and intent behind this research is perhaps more important than the research data itself. Most of the time, these studies are interpreted to say, “See I told you, being gay is not a lifestyle choice.” However, there are a lot of powerful people out there who would love to see these biological explanations for homosexuality turn into medical solutions to cure homosexuality. Check this quote from Rev. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use.” It’s interesting and scary how the position of an anti-gay individual can shift so smoothly from “homosexuality is a choice” to “if it’s not a choice, then let’s fix it with medicine.” And believe you me, if these movers and shakers find ways to fund this sort of gay cure medicine (however far-off and ridiculous it may seem right now), people will want it and use it. Millions of people in China already selectively abort female fetuses to make sure they have a male baby.
All of this comes full circle for me every semester when I teach the pelvis in anatomy. The main message of the pelvis in my class is “having babies is magic, let’s see how much we can learn about how to make, grow and deliver a baby just by studying the anatomy.” It’s really fun, the students seem to absolutely love it, and we are able to talk through all of the anatomy of the male and female by linking it into one cohesive story . I’ve given a lot of thought to whether my approach is too hetero-centric, but you know, the story just isn’t that different for me or any other gay person. The parts all work the same, you just put them in different places. I could talk about gay sexual health issues, but that just goes so far outside the realm of anatomy. Maybe it would be more appropriate for an undergraduate anatomy/physiology class. I feel that my role in doing service to the gay community through my teaching is just being my big bad gay self in the classroom, so my students can see that gay people can be scientists and teachers (and really good ones at that) because they might not get the chance to meet many out role models in their medical education.