What Makes People Gay?
The debate has always been that it was either all in the child’s upbringing or all in the genes. But what if it’s something else?
Researcher Alan Sanders signs up Daniel Velez Rivera on Boston Common for a study using gay brothers to search for the genetic basis for homosexuality. (Illustration / Chris Buzelli; Globe Staff Photo / David Kamerman)
By Neil Swidey | August 14, 2005
With crystal-blue eyes, wavy hair, and freshly scrubbed faces, the boys look as though they stepped out of a Pottery Barn Kids catalog. They are 7-year-old twins. I’ll call them Thomas and Patrick; their parents agreed to let me meet the boys as long as I didn’t use their real names.
Spend five seconds with them, and there can be no doubt that they are identical twins – so identical even they can’t tell each other apart in photographs. Spend five minutes with them, and their profound differences begin to emerge.
Patrick is social, thoughtful, attentive. He repeatedly addresses me by name. Thomas is physical, spontaneous, a bit distracted. Just minutes after meeting me outside a coffee shop, he punches me in the upper arm, yells, “Gray punch buggy!” and then points to a Volkswagen Beetle cruising past us. It’s a hard punch. They horse around like typical brothers, but Patrick’s punches are less forceful and his voice is higher. Thomas charges at his brother, arms flexed in front of him like a mini-bodybuilder. The differences are subtle – they’re 7-year-old boys, after all – but they are there.
When the twins were 2, Patrick found his mother’s shoes. He liked wearing them. Thomas tried on his father’s once but didn’t see the point.
When they were 3, Thomas blurted out that toy guns were his favorite things. Patrick piped up that his were the Barbie dolls he discovered at day care.
When the twins were 5, Thomas announced he was going to be a monster for Halloween. Patrick said he was going to be a princess. Thomas said he couldn’t do that, because other kids would laugh at him. Patrick seemed puzzled. “Then I’ll be Batman,” he said.
Their mother – intelligent, warm, and open-minded – found herself conflicted. She wanted Patrick – whose playmates have always been girls, never boys – to be himself, but she worried his feminine behavior would expose him to ridicule and pain. She decided to allow him free expression at home while setting some limits in public.
That worked until last year, when a school official called to say Patrick was making his classmates uncomfortable. He kept insisting that he was a girl.
Patrick exhibits behavior called childhood gender nonconformity, or CGN. This doesn’t describe a boy who has a doll somewhere in his toy collection or tried on his sister’s Snow White outfit once, but rather one who consistently exhibits a host of strongly feminine traits and interests while avoiding boy-typical behavior like rough-and-tumble play. There’s been considerable research into this phenomenon, particularly in males, including a study that followed boys from an early age into early adulthood. The data suggest there is a very good chance Patrick will grow up to be homosexual. Not all homosexual men show this extremely feminine behavior as young boys. But the research indicates that, of the boys who do exhibit CGN, about 75 percent of them – perhaps more – turn out to be gay or bisexual.
What makes the case of Patrick and Thomas so fascinating is that it calls into question both of the dominant theories in the long-running debate over what makes people gay: nature or nurture, genes or learned behavior. As identical twins, Patrick and Thomas began as genetic clones. From the moment they came out of their mother’s womb, their environment was about as close to identical as possible – being fed, changed, and plopped into their car seats the same way, having similar relationships with the same nurturing father and mother. Yet before either boy could talk, one showed highly feminine traits while the other appeared to be “all boy,” as the moms at the playgrounds say with apologetic shrugs.
“That my sons were different the second they were born, there is no question about it,” says the twins’ mother.
So what happened between their identical genetic starting point and their births? They spent nine months in utero. In the hunt for what causes people to be gay or straight, that’s now the most interesting and potentially enlightening frontier.