So why *is* John Barrowman gay?

Well, as I wrote last week, The Making of Me attempted to find out. If you haven’t seen it yet, click on this link to watch it in the BBC iplayer.

What did I think? Well all in all it was very good and a brilliant introduction to the whole nature/nurture debate. If I had two quibbles, they would be these:

  • The male twins in the USA, one who liked action man and the other into his Barbie, were used by Barrowman to suggest that environment couldn’t have been a factor in their difference, given they have always lived together. The problem with this account is that firstly given that they are both prepubescent, we don’t know that the "girly" one (sorry, couldn’t think of a better way to put it) will actually turn out to be gay. Secondly, environmental factors can be present even in one of an identical twin, as even though the twins share the same genetic makeup, other factors like hormonal influence in the womb and external biological influences post-womb (i.e. illness) could be varied. These varied biological influences might make one twin more pre-disposed to the identical environmental factors that might influence sexual identity.
  • The data right at the end on likelihood of being homosexual based upon number of older brothers *might* very well be linked to hormonal influences in the womb, but might also simply be due to the younger boy having to share time with his older brothers when bonding with his father (i.e. so each successive brother has less time overall with their father).

Those two points aside, I didn’t have any other complaints and thought that the conclusion – that there was a complicated mix of nature and nurture – was a fair summary of the available data.

Andrew Lilico over at Centre Right, has a fascinating article connected to this programme asking, "So why do we need to know anyway?"  Here’s an excerpt:

What is it that the advocate of the "gay gene" or more generally "being gay is biological" view really wants to show?  John Barrowman finished his show with what seemed to me a rather sad shot to camera in which he said that he had shown that his being gay was biological, so he couldn’t "control" it, so he would instead embrace it.  Does that illustrate the ambition?  Is the idea that the advocate of the "gay gene" theory wants to proclaim "It’s not my fault!"?  But that seems to me the cry of the deeply insecure, the person who thinks that if there were anything he could do to "control" himself (meaning what?  Meaning not becoming aroused by attractive men?  Meaning not having sex with them?  The former seems obviously beyond control by any but a Zen Bhuddist master of his passions, whilst the latter seems patently something that could be controlled, virtually regardless of one’s biology) – the cry of the person who thinks that if he could "control himself" then he should.

Is that the thought – that it is okay for "gay" people to have sex with men because they are "gay"?  But what if someone else – someone who isn’t "gay" – decides to try out same-sex sex?  Let’s suppose that this is a man who would give brain responses of much greater arousal to the images of women than of men, but happens to be very keen on a particular male friend, and wants, as an expression of his affection for his friend, to have sex with him.  What does the advocate of the "gay gene" view say about this?  Does the fact that this person lacks a gay gene mean that it would be wrong for him to have sex with his friend?  For if it is only our biology that "excuses" us for our homosexual actions, then if we lack that biology we lack that excuse.

Read the comments thread there if you want to see the people, on both sides of the debate, who still don’t get that the issue is far more complicated than either/or.

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10 Comments on “So why *is* John Barrowman gay?

  1. I don’t quite get why that nature/nurture thing is such a big debate. Try applying the same kind of dichotomy to music for example – did Beethoven compose the 5th Symphony because he was born to write it, or because people around him made him? It’s just not the postmodern way of dealing with things. It’s all about discursive frameworks, nature, nurture and the guy himself all coming together and constructing his identity. 

    I think the reason it sticks so much here is because of the vested interests in taking the whole thing one way or another, we really should have got past it.

  2. Hold on, if the two identical (monozygotic) twins behave differently despite sharing 100% of their genetic makeup doesn’t that point to the *lack* of genetic influence? Also, no two siblings are treated the same or are in the same environment 100% of the time. Shared environment is known to contribute little to personality traits for instance (except in early childhood), it seems that the variance lies in the unique environment and the genes. Alternatively, we are just not very good at knowing how exactly these things work and have to keep looking and studying.

  3. This all reminds me of when I was a paper-boy in the early 90s, and I remember reading a tabloid on the morning of the ‘gay gene’ discovery. What was interesting to me as a 16(?)-year old were the responses of the gay activists. The American ones said ‘if it’s natural – they must accept us!’, while the British ones said ‘if it’s natural – they’ll now abort us…’

  4. As an identical twin (who has taken part in twin studies) the one thing that I do have to say about any twin study is that they ignore the fact that although identical twins may be brought up together and ‘share an environment’, by being identical they are in a totally different situation from fraternal siblings, and that in itself has an impact on your behaviour, your social choices etc.   Identical twins often fight to be different, by choosing different social groups etc.   Yes they may live in the same house, but their influences can be very different, and twin studies don’t tend to ask that.  

    As an identical twin, a concordance of 52% for homosexuality in identical twins is like tossing a coin… it’s not, for m anyway, scientific evidence of nature rather than nurture. 

  5. With rampant discrimination, especially in the United States, the reason to find out why is really quite simple, to dispel the notion of being gay as a “lifestyle CHOICE.”  

    Ten years ago, there was a boy in my daughter’s pre-school class, with one twin and one older brother. From the very first day we new him it was overwhelmingly obvious he was going to announce someday that he was gay. I just found out two weeks ago, that he came out to his friends at the end of middle school.  Simple rational thought is all it takes to know he was NOT making a “lifestyle choice” at the age of four. 

    As long as the irrational conservatives in power seek to constitutionalize discrimination, spawn hatred, and divide the country, I’d argue it’s VITALLY important to find out WHY. . . and it’s just common sense that Nature has the biggest role to play. 

  6. Buzz,

    Very good point. My twin brother and myself had a lot of the “fight to be different” stuff going on during our childhood. It was only finally when we went off to University and didn’t have to compete in the same place that that all finished (and of course us both meeting Jesus).

  7. Nina,

    I think the “environment” camp would say that the factors involved in that boy’s sexual development were already well in place by four years old. And no, no-one chooses their sexuality (or at least very few do), but when they talk about “life-style choice” they are not talking about the choice to experience same-sex attraction but rather the choice about how to live one’s life. I think that’s an important distinction to make (and one which you are blurring).
    I’m it’s not “common sense that Nature has the biggest role to play”. You would need to demonstrate that evidentially and at the moment the jury is still out (though it is swinging more and more towards a complicated nature/nurture mix).

  8. In the context of Nina’s comments about the schoolboy and the thing in the post about the Barbie-playing twin, it occurs to me it would be helpful if more could be found out about OTHER aspects of “gayness”, apart from the matter of sexual attraction. It might help us to get a better understanding of what is involved, which I am quite sure is a whole complex of factors whose interrelationship is very difficult to pin down – how (for example) is the ability to tell the difference between eau de nil and aquamarine (in men) related to same-sex preference (insofar as it really is related)? In my own case, with hindsight I can see all sorts of things in my early (pre-puberty) life which would have let me know what I was in for if I hadn’t been too ignorant then to understand their significance. To take just one example: I loved Thunderbirds when I was little [still do], and although I had nothing against the Tracy lads, the character I most identified with (e.g. as role model) and found most fascinating was Lady Penelope. [Alas! The one I actually resemble most is Brains. NB Please don’t laugh TOO much, I’m baring my soul here.] My main point is that if “gayness” or whatever it should be called can manifest itself in so many ways before puberty, as well as in apparently non-sexual ways afterwards, it can’t be just a sexual-attraction thing but something more wide-ranging.  If we could understand more about that and how it all fits together it would surely help us to understand better what it is that God wants for us?
    NB I never played with Barbie at any age (my mother wouldn’t let her in the house, not even for my sister to play with) but after a certain point I did start getting very interested in Action Man!  Perhaps those twins could surprise us yet …

  9. So Peter,
    Sorry, I didn’t get it before. You’re on of those blinded by religion folks that says a gay person could be really be straight. All they’d have to do is deny their innate sexuality, live a lie and assimilate into your world of irrational thought. For the possibility that homosexuality is the way people are born, they way they were MEANT to be, their GOD given trait, if you will,  like left handed-ness and or green eyed would challenge the credibility of that book that has brought more war, pain and suffering to this world than any other source.

    Actually, the majority of SCIENTIFIC, not anecdotal or conservative spun evidence falls on the side of Nature.  But then, I see you’re a McBush supporter, so you can’t be expected to get the facts straight OR tell the whole truth if it doesn’t fit into your religious world view.

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