Monday, 30 June 2008

Homosexuality: Nature or nurture?

This is an article which I read in Sunday times of pune edition yesterday, so felt like sharing with you guys.

Does homosexuality arise from nature or nurture? It's an argument that has raged around the world for a long time. But scientific research increasingly seems to be tilting the debate in favour of nature.

In case of male conjoined twins, if one is homosexual, the other is likely to show similar tendencies, although the same may not hold true in case of females. In 1991, Boston University psychiatrist Richard Pillard and Northwestern University psychologist J Michael Bailey found that in identical twins, if one twin was gay, the other had about a 50% chance of also being gay.

In 1993, Harvard-trained researcher Dean Hamer found that gay brothers shared a specific region of the X chromosome, called Xq28, at a higher rate than gay men shared with their straight brothers.

Shortly thereafter, Newsweek ran a cover story on the subject, 'Gay Gene?'. Then, in the midst of a landmark legislation battle in the state of Colorado which raised the question of whether homosexuality was normal, innate and unchangeable, a prominent researcher testified, "I am 99.5% certain that homosexuality is genetic."

In 1994, two Canadian researchers discovered a statistical relationship between the number of ridges on men's fingertips and homosexuality, contributing additional evidence to the theory that sexual orientation can be influenced by biological events that occur at conception or early in fetal life.

J A Y Hall and D Kimura of the University of Western Ontario examined the fingerprints of 66 homosexual and 182 heterosexual men, comparing the number of ridges on the index finger and thumb of the left hand with the number of ridges on the index finger and thumb of the right hand.

If the number of ridges on the index finger and thumb of the left hand exceeds the number of ridges on the index finger and thumb of the right hand, one's fingerprints are said to exhibit leftward directional asymmetry. Hall and Kimura found such leftward directional asymmetry in the fingerprints of 30% of their homosexual subjects versus 14% of their heterosexuals.

"Some may refute such theories but they essentially point to the fact that homosexuality is, to some extent, determined even before a child is born," says gay activist Ashok R Kavi, who runs Humsafar Trust.

"Another study has found that in case of males, if there is less testosterone (male hormone) secretion during the development stage, they may have some girlish traits, and could even be attracted to boys. Daryl Bemm, a psychology professor at New York's Cornell University, had propounded a theory that hormonal levels are the causes of homosexuality," adds Kavi.

Interestingly, zoologists have discovered that homosexual and bisexual activity is not unknown within the animal kingdom. Experts say that all in all, as many as 1,500 different species of birds and animals are known to have displayed homosexual behavior.

Researcher and author Bruce Bagemihl documented such characteristics among birds, mammals and insects in his book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, published in 1999.

"No species has been found in which homosexual behavior has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphis. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom ishermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue."

That was the verdict of Petter Beckman, academic adviser for the 'AgainstNature?' exhibit - an exhibition on homosexuality in animals in The Natural History Museum, University of Oslo, Norway to illustrate that it is not unnatural.

So, if homosexuality can be the result of genetics, and if it exists throughout the animal kingdom, logically it cannot be unnatural. But the Indian legal system thinks otherwise. As per section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, any intercourse which goes against the "law of nature" is illegal.

But what exactly does the term mean? Some would argue that it is adapted from the religious belief that intercourse that doesn't lead to procreation is unnatural.

But by that definition, apart from homosexuality, all other forms of non-reproductive sexual activities become unnatural, including contraception.

Says gay activist Lesley Esteves, "We are born this way, we are not perverts. People have to understand that it's not a matter of choice to get attracted to someone from the same sex or from the opposite sex. And it doesn't have only sexual connotations. The relationship between two people from the same sex could be equally romantic as that between a man and a woman. So classifying us as criminals and penalizing us under section 377 is very unfair to us."

An 18-year-old, who has "just discovered" his sexuality and found out that he gets attracted to "his types" more than to girls, says: "I am feeling very apprehensive about my future. If society and laws don't penalize someone born a eunuch, why are people like us singled out?"