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New Left Review I/228, March-April 1998


David Fernbach

Biology and Gay Identity

The last two decades have seen accelerated progress in the life sciences, especially molecular biology. On the back of this advance in knowledge, a wave of ideologists have hitched a free ride, claiming that social phenomena from alcoholism to homelessness can be explained in biological, even genetic, terms. The most stubborn proponents of these overweening claims are scientists themselves, when they step outside the laboratory and appear on the public stage. It is scarcely surprising that as part of this reductionist wave, notions of the ‘gay brain’ and ‘gay gene’ have been bruited in recent years, with immense attendant publicity. What appears paradoxical, however, is that the biologists most associated with these purported discoveries are themselves gay men, and have met such an enthusiastic reception in the gay community. Haven’t claims of narural difference been generally associated with a reactionary purpose, from Plato’s souls of gold, bronze and iron through to supposed differences in iq between ethnic groups today? The paradox continues in the stark alternative commonly assumed in public discussion, especially in the United States, that if homosexuality is not biologically innate, it must be a freely chosen lifestyle. And the polarization of debate is such that the biological notion is ipso facto labelled ‘pro-gay’ by the media, while free choice is the ‘antigay’ position. [1] I write here of course as a gay man, and my subject is gay male identity. Some themes discussed will bear also on the lesbian situation, but most inevitably will not.

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