The Gay Brain

By Emily Dzurak

I was raised as a Lutheran in an ELCA church. I was taught that good Christians were compassionate, forgiving, accepting, and loving; not self-righteous or hateful. Yet I have met many members of the latter group of Christians–most of whom subscribe to the Christian Bible literally. I have always found these Bible literalists to be an interesting, yet misguided group. Specifically, I mean those who pick the couple of Bible verses that condemn homosexuality as a basis for persecuting the LGBTQA community. This seems incredibly hypocritical: how could these so-called Christians overlook the hundreds of verses about compassion and acceptance just to focus on less than ten verses that vaguely disapprove of homosexuality? If they were Bible literalists, didn’t they then also believe that women were inferior to men (according to the dozens of passages stating so) and that marriage ought to be between a man, a woman, and a couple of concubines? I guess you cannot rationalize irrational thinking.

I was confronted with some of these literalists early in my high school career. They were two of my friends, actually. Both of them believed that being gay was a sin and a choice. I was appalled. A choice? Really? Not quite yet tactful in my argumentative tactics, I simply responded that that was “the dumbest thing I have ever heard.” We aren’t friends anymore. But while my argument rested on my personal experience (I did not choose my own sexuality, so others surely could not choose theirs), I lacked scientific evidence to strengthen my point.

There has been a lot of evidence in recent years, however, that being gay is, indeed, not a choice. In 2008, the National Academy of Sciences journal published a study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden comparing 90 adults’ brain sizes in order to garner evidence that sexual orientation originates in the brain during fetal development. The research team focused on measuring brain parameters that were fixed at birth, and couldn’t be altered by learning or cognitive processes. The study was based on the relationship between hemispheric dominance in the brain and whether a person is gay or straight. Hemispheric dominance refers to an individual showing preference towards using one hemisphere, since the two hemispheres of the brain are specialized to perform certain tasks. In this Swedish study, a group consisting of healthy gay and heterosexual men and women underwent brain scans to measure the volume of their right and left hemispheres. The results of the study showed that heterosexual men and lesbians share a “particular asymmetry” in their hemisphere size, with the right hemisphere being slightly larger than the left. Heterosexual women and gay men had no significant difference in size between their hemispheres. This suggests that the brain structure of gay men are more similar to heterosexual women, and gay women’s brain structure are more similar to heterosexual men. Scientists, however, are still trying to find out what this data means.

Furthermore, studies of the amygdala show other significant differences in gender and the brain. In heterosexual men and gay women, the right side of the amygdala has more nerve connections than the left. The reverse was true in gay men and heterosexual women, with more neural connection in the left amygdala. The amygdala, known as the emotional center of the brain, plays a primary role in processing memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. The findings that gay men share connectivity patterns with heterosexual women and heterosexual men with lesbians could lead to a better understanding of how that brain is connected to sexuality and gender.

Time magazine reflected on the Karolinska Institute study in an article called “What Makes People Gay?” In the article, Dr. Eric Vilain, a professor of human genetics at UCLA, asks “if the brains of gay men are different, or feminized, are there regions other than those connected to sexual preference that are gender atypical in gay males?” Vilain hypothesizes that the brains of gay men “possess only some ‘feminized’ structures, while retaining some masculine ones,” which is “reflected in how they act in their sexuality.” He further explains that men, regardless of their sexual orientation, manifest “masculine” characteristics in their sexual behavior. For example, both straight and gay men tend to prefer younger partners, while women tend to prefer older partners. Vilain supports this example by saying that he expects “some regions of the brain [to] remain masculine even in gay men.” Well, duh. To summarize, scientists have found that an individual’s brain structure may determine and explain their gender and sexual preferences.

But why does that matter? Would this evidence really convince my Christian ex-friends that being gay wasn’t a choice, when they also rejected other scientific findings in lieu of their religion? Would the LGBTQA community feel empowered that the connection between their innate brain structures and their sexuality was legitimized or saddened that it needed to be legitimized in the first place while heterosexuality is fully accepted?

John Lauritsen has ridiculed scientific research trying to prove the relationship between the brain and homosexuality, writing that:

“Attempts have been made, at least since the beginnings of ‘sexology’ in the 19th century, to explain ‘homosexuality.’ Almost as soon as ‘homosexuality’ was coined in 1869, the term acquired a clinical character based on the false assumption that only a tiny minority of human males are erotically attracted to each other. Male love (comprising sex, love and friendship) does not need to be explained. When males have sex with each other, they are expressing an ordinary, healthy component of male sexuality — something phylogenetically inherent in the sexual repertoire of the human male, and thus a product of evolution.”

Lauritsen’s article reminds me of the argument I had with my friends many years ago. I remember trying so hard to come up with a counterargument to the claim that being gay was a choice. But maybe I didn’t need to. This does not mean that the findings of the studies previously mentioned are irrelevant. Simply that scientific evidence is less important than the human compassion and decency needed to understand that sexuality is not a choice. If the Christian community does not need scientific evidence to legitimize their beliefs in creationism and a talking snake, the LGBT community certainly doesn’t need scientific evidence to legitimize their sexual preferences. Sexuality doesn’t need to be explained. What does need to be explained, as Lauritsen notes, is sexuality’s condemnation.