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.

This ideological nexus between a biological gay identity and the claim for civil rights was first made in the 1860s by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who coined the term Urning (English ‘Uranian’, after Plato’s eros uranos) as the first word to denote the modem gay minority. From 1864 to 1879 Ulrichs published a series of booklets under the general title: Forschungen über das Rätsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (Investigations on the Puzzle of Love Between Men), at first under the pseudonym Numa Numantius, but from 1868 under his own name. The first of these, with the short title Vindex, already sets out the cornerstone of his argument: the Urning has a distinct inborn nature; despite having the body of a man, he has the soul of a woman.footnote4 This inborn nature, Ulrichs argues, does not apply only to feelings of sexual love; the Urning is feminine in his entire non-physical organism, and makes up ‘a special sexual class of people, a third sex coordinate with that of men and that of women’.footnote5 Being thus innate, homosexuality is as natural to the gay minority as is heterosexuality to the majority, and its social and legal condemnation is accordingly unjust.

Ulrichs’s assertion of a biologically distinct ‘third sex’, though drawing on the spontaneous consciousness described above, was not yet supported by any positive science. Yet it has been so influential that Simon LeVay, the biologist who became a leading light in the American gay movement on the strength of his research on the ‘gay brain’, can write: ‘Ulrichs’s ideas have formed the basis for most subsequent thinking and biological research on the topic.’footnote6 Certainly, the account of the gay condition Ulrichs offered appealed sufficiently to large numbers of gay men to serve as the rallying point for a political movement. Like many pioneers, Ulrichs generalized too hastily from his own boldness when he wrote in 1864: ‘The class of Urnings is perhaps strong enough now to assert its right to equality and equal treatment. . .Fortified with the shield of the justice of their cause, they must bravely dare to come out of their previous reserve and isolation’.footnote7 Himself isolated and disheartened, Ulrichs spent his last years in poverty in Italy. Yet within two years of his death in 1895, the modern gay movement came into being on the explicit basis of Ulrichs’s doctrines.