‘Know thyself’ were the words inscribed above the temple of the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece and Plato says it’s this phrase that motivated Socrates in his dialogues.
So it’s natural that as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people we should be fascinated by why our sexuality or gender identity is different from the majority of the population.
But those questions also frustrate me for two reasons. Firstly, what difference can the answer possibly make? And, more importantly, is it a distraction from a more important question?
Plenty of scientists have secured wodges of research cash to investigate ‘what makes us gay’ but far fewer have bothered to investigate what turns people in to homophobes.
Lets assume that casual homophobia in the media, in schools and in the home play a part. If that was proved statistically through a proper psychological study, the effect would be revolutionary. It would mean governments and the media could be forced to take these issues much more seriously. And it wouldn’t be difficult to provide more scientific evidence about the harm that this does to LGBT people, society at large and the homophobes themselves, further powering a fundamental shift in attitudes.
Researchers could also do more to study and categorize the most effective strategies for tackling anti-gay hate. Armed with this information, campaigners could push for real investment in education, awareness building and more.
I am not arguing that research into why some people are gay is not interesting. As a psychology student turned journalist, I’m naturally inquisitive about it (as well as being pretty nosey about virtually everything).
But there is already ample evidence to demonstrate that we are born gay and that homosexuality is entirely natural – by which I also mean that it exists in virtually every kind of animal species studied to date.
These facts may have helped some people realize that being homophobic is just plain stupid – and for those who can rationalize in that way there is plenty of studies available to let them reach the right conclusion.
Despite this achievement, there is still a swathe of people around the world who either don’t know about this evidence, are unmoved by it or choose to reject it. And I would focus research money on how to change their hearts and minds.
I’m not an automaton about this. I know that no amount of evidence building and strategizing is going to change everyone in the world. It’s also clear that some work has been done in this field with positive effect. I only argue that homophobia and transphobia are two of the greatest human rights crises of the modern era and building the evidence base on how to resolve that is urgent.
I should also note my high degree of cynicism both about how science tackles the issue of ‘what makes us gay’ and how the media presents their answers. Too often it all smacks of reputation building by egotistical scientists and sensationalism by us journalists.
And that’s the least of my concerns. I particularly worry that scientific approaches often seem to ignore bisexuals (there are plenty around, after all!) or can be guilty of treating female and male sexuality as exactly alike. More generally they seek to define patterns where the real story is about individuality and difference. It’s worth noting that scientific research into sexuality – while often sound – is also littered with discredited studies, poor methodology and, as a result, u-turns and apologies from the scientists themselves.
To prove I’m not being hypocritical, I should point out my use of the phrase ‘what makes us gay’ in this article is both deliberate and piss-taking. It hasn’t escaped me, as noted above, that lesbianism and bisexuality are the poor cousins in this research or that nobody ever asks ‘what makes us straight’.
Obviously the biological questions about transgender and intersex people are very different to those related to sexual orientation and it’s clearer to me that greater scientific understanding here would be beneficial to trans and intersex people and society at large.
But that’s not to say that some research into how to reduce transphobia is at least as important – or actually more so.
Homophobia and transphobia are, by their very nature, irrational. As such science, statistical fact and education are silver bullets against these prejudices. Isn’t it logical to invest in the right armory for this war?