Let’s Get Something Straight

LGBT people shouldn’t be the only ones questioning their identities. Learn how the history of heterosexuality (and homosexuality) still influences fields like scientific research and medicine today and why it’s still causing problems.

If someone were to tell you they could look at your genes and identify your sexual orientation, how would you respond? I would be skeptical for many reasons: identities are complex and sexual orientation presents in many different ways, some observable and some not. This is essentially the heart of the scientific research that has been taking place around the issue of sexuality and sexual orientation: trying to pin down a gene or set of genes that encodes whether or not someone is gay.

For most of our time as a human species, we have not been occupied with such a thing called “heterosexuality.” Up until 150 years ago, it was impossible to identify as heterosexual or homosexual (or any type of sexual) in most parts of the world. Of course that’s not to say that sexuality, love, and sexual behaviors were nonexistent; society just never labeled this part of identity or even recognized that this was something people could form identities around. It wasn’t until 1869 that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were coined, primarily for legislative purposes [1]. Rather, heterosexuality was created and exists today to juxtapose the pathologization of homosexuality. Hanne Blank, the author of Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, says that historically, heterosexuality has been used simply as a synonym for “sexually normal.” This description is particularly useful for two reasons: 1) being “straight” has a very privileged and normative place in our society, meaning that when we think of sexuality, the default is hetero and anything else is a deviation from this norm (or even viewed as abnormal, which is a problem that we will discuss later); and 2) the common conception that heterosexuality means being attracted to members of the opposite sex falls apart very quickly.

For there to be a solid definition of heterosexuality, we must first define sex and gender and think a little bit about what goes into attraction. The western scientific tradition has described only two sexes, male (XY) and female (XX). This was backed up with an understanding that sex and gender were interchangeable, that they were essentially the same thing. However, this is not true: there are people who are transgender [2], intersex [3], gender nonconforming [4], and other identities that do not rely on the male-female binary. Sex is, simply put, something that people are assigned at birth based on the presence or absence of certain shapes of genitalia. For most people, their assigned sex and gender do line up, and we would describe this identity as “cisgender.” However, for those that do not align, it’s a little more complicated. The reason why heterosexuality falls apart in its most literal definition is because for there to even be an “opposite sex,” there is a false assumption that there are only two sexes [5] that oppose, or as some might suggest, complement each other. We are raised to assume that not only does everyone identify as either a cisgender man or woman, but that they will also present in such a way that shows it (that is, that men will present as masculine and women, feminine). Based on these assumptions and appearances, only then may we safely identify and proceed to be attracted to potential partners or mates in a truly heterosexual fashion.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that sexuality as a concept is not rooted in “biology” or any pretense of objectivity, but was socially constructed to categorize and pathologize certain identities. For decades, scientists have been searching for ways to better understand the origins of sexuality. Many studies have shown that sexuality is a heritable trait, although  more complex than originally thought. Although scientists are  no longer naive enough to believe that there is a singular “gay gene, there is still research trying to find chromosomal regions [6] or epigenetic markers [7] that might give a clue on how some are predisposed to one sexuality over another. While sexuality is indeed complicated and can be better understood, using science as a means to understand sexual orientation has unethical and harmful origins with potentially serious implications for the future. From the criminalization of homosexual acts in Europe and America until the nineteenth century to the decriminalization and codified pathologization of homosexuality in the 1800s, the ripples of the history behind sexual orientation can still be felt today in the forms of more recent “scientific interventions” such as reparative therapy and writing transphobia into medicine.

Sexuality was invented by people for the purposes of categorization, or as Blank would put it, “Heterosexuals and homosexuals are considered different because they can be divided into two groups on the basis of the belief that they can be divided into two groups.” It’s like developing an identity around whether or not people like french fries, and what kind of fried potatoes they prefer. Some people may only like straight fries, others may strongly prefer curly fries, not to mention the many other types of fries: waffle fries, shoestring fries, crinkle cut fries, sweet potato fries, steak fries, truffle fries, potato wedges, tater tots, or any other variation of deep fried tuberous root. Some people might like all fries equally while some may not like fries at all. I use this analogy not to trivialize sexual identity, but to illustrate how silly it might seem to try to categorize people based on what kinds of fries they like, figure out whether they were born liking fries or had become a waffle fries-lover by choice, if they’ve become strict crisscut fries only because of what school they went to or their family upbringing, and how we can put this argument to bed as soon as we find that fry gene. But just because sexuality and the words to describe it are socially constructed and relatively new ideas, doesn’t make it any less important or an inherent part of who we are–we just are more aware of this aspect of our identities and have more to say about it.

Studying the way traits are passed on from generation to generation can explain something as benign as brown eyes to revealing life-changing interventions that can detect and even prevent serious genetic disorders (although this too is complicated with a disability justice lens). But when considering the origins of the “gay gene” myth, one must understand that homosexuality is viewed as something that went wrong, like a disease we must find the roots of. After all, where are all the research studies speculating about and looking for the “straight gene”? This pathologization of homosexuality undermines the biodiversity of the human species and implies that if we can find the gene that determines one’s sexual orientation, that there may also be ways to “fix” the problem. Not only that, but this kind of science can also be very damaging to many people who are questioning or unsure of their identities, as well as people who identify one way and discover they don’t have the genes to back it up. A so-called gene could invalidate many people’s experiences and identities.

The problem isn’t just the science behind this issue, but also the validity and authority we give to these studies. Why should respect and humanity for LGBT people come with a qualifier? Why should we treat all people equally only under the circumstances that they were “born this way,” had no choice, or can’t help who they are and not simply because they are human? Is there anything inherently wrong with choosing to be queer? Or is it still seen as something abnormal and less than optimal, something that should only be tolerated or permissible if it were predetermined by our DNA? Science should not be a crux or requirement for human rights to extend to all people, nor should it have the power to validate or invalidate someone’s identity. If someone tells you they love curly fries, believe them–don’t go looking for the fry gene.

[1] Blank, Hanne. Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. Boston: Beacon, 2012. Print.

[2] People who have a mismatch between their assigned sex at birth and their self-identified gender; this includes people who identify as male or female as well as those who identify as neither, both, or some combination of different genders

[3] A variety of conditions that refers to a person born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not fit the typical definitions for male or female

[4] People who don’t follow society’s typical roles and stereotypes (such as how they look or act) based on the sex they were assigned at birth

[5] There are actually more than 6 “biological sexes”

[6] Chromosomes are thread-like structures located inside the nucleus of animal and plant cells. Each chromosome is made of protein and a single molecule of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Passed from parents to offspring, DNA contains the specific instructions that make each type of living creature unique

[7] The term epigenetics refers to heritable changes in gene expression (active vs. inactive genes) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence; a change in phenotype without a change in genotype. This in turn affects how cells read the genes. Epigenetic change is a regular and natural occurrence but can also be influenced by several factors including age, the environment/lifestyle, and disease state

Taylin Im Taylin Im is a queer Korean American from Southern California with a soft spot for New England currently in medical school with a strong interest in LGBT+ health and reproductive justice. She holds a bachelor's degree in Health and Human Biology and will almost always take a picture of food before eating it. In between writing about food, playing the piano, and looking for the next Netflix series to finish, she spends a lot of time thinking about baby humans and animals.