The relationship between science and sexual orientation began long before Lady Gaga released her identity-affirming anthem and “Born This Way” became a mainstay at pride parades and rallies. For some activists, increased research around the “gay gene” brings us one step closer to “naturalizing” homosexuality, making it seem like no more of a choice than our eye color. Interestingly enough, anti-queer opponents also embraced genetic and neurological explanations of sexual orientation as proof of its pathological nature and ability to be “fixed” or “cured.” While both sides differ in their interpretation of this research, their use of science to legitimize their views is based on a shared assumption: that science is an apolitical, objective source of “pure” knowledge and facts.
History, however, has shown otherwise. The science of human behavior and human differences has time and time again been marked by numerous forms of biased pseudo-science. When scientific explanations of social issues rose in popularity in the nineteenth century, researchers used these theories to naturalize social differences in an increasingly unequal society. For the white, male, upper-middle class bourgeoisie, who primarily produced (i.e. controlled) scientific knowledge, biology provided a justification for their socially dominant status and proof of the “natural” inferiority of oppressed members of society. Eugenics, for example, was an entire scientific field dedicated to the view that minorities, most notably people of color, were genetically weaker and unfavored by evolution. Biology was no longer simply a way to understand “natural” phenomena; it became a means of legitimizing domination and a channel for social control.
As these examples have shown, scientific knowledge is not merely “discovered”; it is actively produced by people with preexisting views and values that enter their work in conscious and unconscious ways. These values usually manifest themselves as unanswered assumptions that guide research questions. While most current research may not have the same blatantly racist/sexist assumptions as the eugenics age, values still present themselves in subtle ways. One area where assumptions enter research is in the research question itself. In other words, the specific things that scientists chose to study or investigate, and what they exclude from questioning, can be telling of underlying cultural norms. For one, instead of questioning sexual desire or sexual orientation as a whole, most scientific papers single out homosexuality as a biological curiosity. (I use the term homosexual here not from personal preference, but because it follows the language used in scientific research) The exclusion of heterosexuality from scientific questioning signifies a major paradigm in sexuality research: that heterosexuality is the natural form of human sexual desire, and thus not in need of any explanations. The attention placed on homosexuality, however, shows that it is considered “deviant” from the heterosexual norm and therefore deserving of the scientific gaze.
Another example of cultural values in sexuality research is the assumption that science is the best way to explain social phenomena. In our society today, authority is placed on scientific evidence to explain and legitimize many aspects of human nature that may not be solely biologically determined. Researchers of sexual orientation usually focus on a particular gene or hormonal mechanism that “organizes the brain…to support a homosexual orientation.” While it is true that all behavioral traits are biologically based in some cognitive or neurological structure, it is difficult to prove that all behavior is biologically determined. By saying that sexual orientation is “determined,” we erase cultural limits and contexts that are vital in defining and label sexual identities.
So how exactly does this assumption show up in the research itself? A large part of biological study is classifying and categorizing living things and their traits. Some traits, like eye color, fall into tidy, discrete categories. Gender and sexuality, however, are fluid spectra/matrixes that encompass a wide variety of identities. Sexologists such as Alfred Kinsey and Dr. Fritz Klein have supported this view, creating their own continuous scales of sexual identity based factors such as desire and experience. Furthermore, sexual identities and labels are strongly influenced by societal standards. What someone defines as “straight” or “gay” behavior is usually informed by what their culture defines as “straight” or “gay” behavior.
However, in order for scientists to easily measure and quantify sexuality in their studies, they must define sexual orientation as a discrete category, thus ignoring this fluidity. In fact, most scientific papers adopt a very binaried view of sexuality that establishes a false dichotomy between heterosexual/homosexual as the only two variables. Maintaining these categories not only erases other sexual identities from scientific study, such as bisexual and queer, but also forces people into categories that may alter the course of the study. This is apparent in the work of Simon LeVay, who authored one of the most well-known studies on neuroanatomy and sexuality. LeVay’s sample consisted of 41 subjects- 19 of whom were men who died from AIDS via “homosexual behavior,” 16 of whom were men who were presumed heterosexual, and 6 of whom were women who were presumed heterosexual. LeVay appeared to have labelled his sample on the basis of “straight until proven gay,” as it was never made explicit if the straight men had had non-straight relationships or desires. The sampling also shows how scientific studies simplify sexuality by defining orientation only based on behavior and not on the variety of desires, fantasies, and social contexts that also influence someone’s sexual identity. This oversimplification has been implicated as one of the many reasons why LeVay’s (and other researchers’) studies may not be wholly accurate and haven’t been replicated.
There are many more ways in which values can integrate themselves into scientific work. For example, cultural values around the social stigma of homosexuality can prevent people from reporting their sexual identity, creating sampling biases. Additionally, as we’ve seen before, people’s cultural beliefs affect the ways in which they interpret these results, using them for both identity empowerment and erasure. If producers of scientific knowledge are not aware of these assumptions, then prejudiced information will likely be unconsciously used to justify “facts.”
In the end, it is important to remember that science is a venture that is actively produced by knowers in a social context. Science does not only have rules and procedures, it also has a history, a context, and a philosophy, all of which are essential to understanding how it produces truth and knowledge. In order for us to better understand our own nature, we must be willing to accept the inevitability of biases in science. Values have their place: they can guide us into knowing what is right, but it’s when those values go unchecked that we can create unfair depictions of people’s bodies, histories, and experiences.
-By: Kristy Choi, Contributor