Interview: Stereotypes of homosexuals

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Aug. 23, 2002 at 1:22 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Aug. 22 (UPI) -- To paraphrase Mark Twain, everybody talks about sexual orientation, but Michael Bailey is one of the few scientists who rigorously researches it. The Northwestern University psychology professor is among the most respected figures in the field of objectively investigating homosexuality.

Bailey paused to answer a few questions about what science has learned about sexual orientation.


United Press International: How did you get interested in researching homosexuality, especially since you are a heterosexual man who now has two kids?

Bailey: I wish I had a dramatic response to this one, but I don't. I was looking for a dissertation topic in clinical psychology. A study came out in the journal Science about male homosexuality that suggested a follow up study. I chose to do that for my dissertation.

For a couple of reasons, it was quite rewarding. First, I found working with gay people a lot more fun and interesting than working with crazy people.

Second, I found that there were lots of very interesting questions about homosexuality that had never been investigated. Scientists have tended to steer clear of this area.

Part of the reason is political.

Part of it is that most scientists are heterosexual men, and most straight men don't want to do anything that will make other people question their sexuality. I have come to find the assumption "because you study homosexuality, you are gay" to be at worst neutral and occasionally complimentary. (I wish people thought I was gay because of the way I dance or dress.)

Finally, part of it is that scientists have this irritating propensity to think of sex research as essentially unimportant and frivolous. This despite the fact that sex is one of the most important motivations of human existence. If people invested as much in sex research as they do in their sex lives, I'd have a huge lab!

Q: What are some stereotypes about homosexuals that you've found not to be true?

A: One of the embarrassing facts from social psychology is that most stereotypes are true, in the only sense that stereotypes are ever true: on average.

I can easily think of only one stereotype about gays/lesbians that is false: the idea that masculine and feminine gay men (or lesbians) pair up in couples, one "husband" and one "wife." There is no relation between the masculinity of partners. In fact, gay men almost all want masculine partners. Lesbians mostly want feminine partners. This is despite the fact that gay men tend on average to be feminine in certain ways, and lesbians masculine. So, that Robin Williams' movie "The Birdcage" (in which a conventionally masculine "husband" is matched with a flaming male "wife") is motivated by a false premise.

Q: What stereotypes have turned out to have some truth to them?

A: One big thing is occupational and recreational interests. In fact, hairdressers, professional dancers, actors and designers tend to be gay men, at least at much higher rates than their population rate, which is somewhere between 1 and 4 percent. And women who are in the armed services, or professional athletes (two of the three best all-time women's tennis players are lesbian), are disproportionately lesbian.

Children who are sex-atypical do tend to become homosexual. Especially males. Boys who want to be girls become men who want men. Most very masculine girls probably become heterosexual women, but their rate of homosexuality is probably still higher than would be expected given the population rate of female homosexuality, which is probably less than 1 percent.

Recently, we have shown that on average, gay men and lesbians are very different on average from straight people in the way they walk and speak. There is such a thing, evidently, as a gay voice. And lesbians tend to look different than straight women -- in particular, they have shorter hairstyles.

On the other hand, some stereotypes about homosexual people are due to the fact that they are in certain other ways psychologically like straight people of their own sex. For example, gay men have lots of sex partners compared with straight men. This is because they have a male-typical level of interest in casual sex, but because they are seeking other men with the same interest, they can have as many partners as they want. Straight men are constrained by the desires of women. I think that there is nothing intrinsically "gay" about having hundreds of sex partners. Lots of straight guys would if they could. But they can't, because they can't find female partners who'll have anonymous sex with them.

Q: Is it useful to investigate homosexuality in general, or do you need to focus separately on gay men and lesbians, because they tend to be different?

A: Gay men and lesbians are very different. In part, this is because in many gender-related traits, they have diverged in opposite directions. Gay men tend to be feminine compared with heterosexual men; lesbians tend to be masculine compared with heterosexual women. But they aren't even mirror images of each other. You can draw no conclusions about gay men from a study of lesbians, or vice versa.

Q: What do you see as the political implications of sexual orientation research?

A: The politics in this area are a real irritation. Any scientific hypothesis about the causes of sexual orientation has opponents on both sides of the political spectrum. This fact alone should lead to the realization that there is no simple correspondence between a scientific position and a political position. I can think of only one exception. Some on the far right believe that people become gay because they were "recruited" by other gay people. If true (and it is not true), this idea would have negative political implications. But mostly, causal hypotheses are politically neutral.

I don't have the time or patience right now to elaborate the ways that people make logical errors in deriving moral lessons from scientific findings. Personally, I am very pro-gay, but I have no problems discussing scientific hypotheses with anti-gay people, provided we stick to science.

The politicization of "gay science" is not just an irritation, but also a hindrance to scientific progress. Virtually everyone will admit that the causes of sexual orientation and gender are a fascinating subject. Most people will even admit that it's an important question, if not as important as how to cure cancer. But funding in this area is extremely difficult.

Q: For close to a decade, we've been hearing about a possible "gay gene." When one identical twin is homosexual, is the other one (whose genes are identical) usually homosexual, too?

A: We don't really know. I have done the best studies on this question, but they have necessary flaws. Unfortunately, you can't compel people to participate in research, much less to give honest answers. My best guess is that a gay man's identical twin has a probability of about 20-25 percent of also being gay. Which means that most are straight. Still, 20-25 percent is much higher than the population rate.

Also, people need to realize that differences between identical twins can be caused by biological environmental factors as well as social environmental factors. In fact, I strongly suspect that identical twins who differ in their sexual orientation usually do so for biological reasons (particularly among males).

Q: What is your take on maverick evolutionary theorist Gregory Cochran's "gay germ" that at least some instances of male homosexuality might be caused by infections?

A: Greg Cochran has convinced me that this theory is at least tenable, which puts it way above competing theories. Most of the evolutionary speculation about homosexuality has been quite lame, even speculation by respected thinkers. The persistence of homosexuality despite the fact that gay and lesbian people clearly reproduce less often than straight people is perhaps the most striking paradox in all of human evolution.

Q: What has Ray Blanchard discovered about younger brothers and homosexuality?

A: Blanchard has shown that without a doubt, gay men on average tend to have more older brothers than straight men. That is, they tend to be later born in a series of brothers (although many of course are first-borns). Blanchard has a very interesting biological hypothesis about pregnant mothers having an immune response to their unborn son's testosterone. I think it's very intriguing, and the birth order finding is one of the most interesting facts about male homosexuality. There is no birth order effect for lesbians.

Q: Overall, where do you see the evidence pointing for the cause or causes of male homosexuality?

A: Something happens in the womb to prevent the brains of gay men from fully masculinizing. If a typical male newborn is castrated in an accident, and is raised as a girl, he'll still be attracted to females. It's too late at birth to change sexual orientation.

Q: How about the causes of female homosexuality? Has that been studied as much?

A: Female homosexuality has been studied less, in part due to the fact that there are many fewer lesbians than gay men, and in part because many people find female homosexuality to be less problematic than male homosexuality.

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