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.footnote1

The modern gay movement has in fact had a special relationship with biology throughout its first hundred years. A biological definition of gay identity, in the sense of an ideology that presses biology into its service, presided over the very naming of homosexuals as a social group in modem society, and after a period of retreat in the mid twentieth century, this has re-emerged once again in surprisingly similar form. In this article I explore the biological gay identity at a number of levels, from a preideological spontaneous consciousness, through its social function as ideology, to the implications of contemporary scientific research. I then discuss two alternative identities that have competed with it for homosexual allegiance, and some broader implications of this contention.

The slogan that sums up the biological gay identity is ‘we were born that way’. This translates into the public discourse of ideology a spontaneous consciousness that is widespread among gay men, but is voiced first of all as a private and individual sentiment. Unlike most other groups facing a structural oppression in modern society, gay people have spent their formative years isolated from one another in the very cell of heterosexual hegemony. It is here in earliest childhood that the norms of the gender system are inculcated. And a common experience of many children who grow up to be gay is an awkwardness with their ascribed gender at a stage long before any notion of ‘sexual orientation’ might be applied. This difference, the sense of ‘not being a proper boy’, being ‘girlish’, ‘sissy’, or in some way effeminate, can be felt at five, four, even three yearsof age, before the words to articulate it become available, and it is on this spontaneous consciousness that the ideological notion of being born homosexual subsequently supervenes.footnote2

Even among those who experience this consciousness most strongly, however, the biological identity that appeals to it does a double violence to their feeling. First, the difference spontaneously perceived is unambiguously psychological, a difference in mentality, no matter that it goes back to the very origins of memory. However integral the difference may be to one’s subjective being, it is only ideological interpretation that presents this as biology. Second, the biological identity elides childhood gender difference and adult sexual orientation. Yet it is the former not the latter that the sense of being ‘born that way’ refers to. There is certainly no one-to-one correspondence between the two things, though the ideology of biological identity seeks to maintain this, and wins much support by doing so.

The background against which the gay movement was formed in Western society is the biblical proscription against sodomy as a particularly heinous form of non-procreative sex, enforced by the Christian state. At least from the Renaissance, individual thinkers began to oppose religious doctrine with reason and science, but only in the nineteenth century did it become possible to challenge the taboo on homosexuality in the public arena. Still today, it is the zealots of religion who especially perceive homosexuality as wilful misconduct, and while their influence in Europe continues to decline, in the United States they are still a major adversary for the gay movement and other progressive forces. It is unsurprising that the biological identity is asserted most dogmatically where religion is still a power in the land.footnote3 Yet even a secularized bourgeois society based on the ,heterosexual family offers no legitimate place for homosexuality unless ~uch a place is carved out by gay people themselves. This is the particular function of the biological identity, as a means to accommodate the needs of the gay minority into an otherwise unchanged social order. If homosexuality is restricted to a small and identifiable group, it presents no further challenge to the status quo. Gay people can be schoolteachers, without the danger of their students being corrupted. They can even be parents. As a biological difference, the threat posed by gayness is defused, and it can take its place as a minor disability, alongside left-handedness, dyslexia, albinism, and other conditions that a pluralistic society can happily live with, though it might still rather live without.