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Reinventing the Male Homosexual: The Rhetoric and Power of the Gay Gene
Robert Alan Brookey
Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2002.
$27.95, 167 pages, ISBN: 0-253-34057-8 (hardback).

Guillaume Marche
Université de Paris 12


The ambition of this book is threefold. The author firstly intends to document the rise of what he terms the "gay gene discourse"--i.e. scientific discourse which regards male homosexuality as a function of biological determination--despite the emergence in the 1950s of sociopsychological theories of homosexuality, such as the ones developed by Alfred Kinsey and his followers. In so doing Robert Alan Brookey also purports to deconstruct this discourse, so as to highlight its political and ideological implications as regards the promotion and defense of gay rights. He thus finally draws conclusions as to the gay rights movement's attitude toward the gay gene discourse: many gay rights advocates have adopted this discourse; what gains is this strategy likely to yield, considering the actual implications the author has unveiled?

The book examines three types of gay gene discourse. Behavioral genetics offers one, which infers genetic determination from behavioral patterns: behavior is understood to be a symptom of a subject's genetic characteristics, without behavioral geneticists ever analyzing their subjects' actual genes or genetic make-up. A second main component of the gay gene discourse derives from a theory in neuroendocrinology known as the "organizational/activation model," which is premised upon the notion that hormones have both temporary and permanent effects: not only do hormones produce reactions in a fully-developed neural system, its proponents hold, they contribute to the long-lasting organization of the neural system during its early stages of development. Finally sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which respectively study animal and human social behaviors' evolutions, present the third type of gay gene discourse: this theory of social evolution in terms of biological determination and adaptation has led to studies of male homosexuality as either a positive, or a negative form of adaptation in humans or animals.

The author's thesis is that the gay gene discourse is informed by the belief that male homosexuality is linked to--whether caused by, or the cause of--effeminacy and pathology. This dual, more or less conscious, but at any rate rather explicit belief, Brookey argues, in turn springs from an implicit and largely ignored assumption that gender and sexual orientation are not only fixed, but also discrete, dichotomous categories. Brookey on the contrary adheres to the sociopsychological view of sexual orientation as a continuum--a "diffusion model" initiated by Kinsey's scale of sexual behavior and expanded by post-Kinsey theorists in such a way as to challenge the normal-abnormal boundary that usually goes along with the heterosexual-homosexual binary divide. Sociopsychological research was to that extent, Brookey claims, a major breakaway from the normative approaches to sexual orientation developed in the field of psychoanalysis, especially in the United States by such post-Freudians as Charles Socarides. Brookey thus considers the diffusion model to have participated in paving the way for sexual liberation.

In reading the book one firstly wonders about the consistency of its object. While some of the theories under scrutiny deal with, or refer to, actual genes, others examine behavioral patterns without necessarily ascribing a genetic cause to them; besides, some of these theories examine sexual orientation in the context of the development of the individual, whereas others adopt a broader view of homosexuality within the frame of the evolution of a whole species. But the author in effect demonstrates the unity of his object as he proceeds to evince the beliefs and assumptions which underlie this varied set of scientific endeavors, and the flaws pervading the experimental protocols and the scientists' reasoning when they draw conclusions from their observations.

The first type of flaw has to do with the very definition of homosexuality these studies adopt--whether intentionally or unintentionally. Gender nonconformity and effeminacy are the most common indices of homosexuality they rely on--as in the 1993 study by behavioral geneticists Whitam, Diamond and Martin. Conducting research on animals neuroendocrinologists Matuszczyck, Fernandez-Guasti and Larson claim to induce homosexuality in rats by castrating them, while such manipulation actually produces transsexual--not homosexual--subjects. Other neuroendocrinological studies, which involve quantitative data, present major sampling flaws: for instance, in their 1980 study to prove a link between babies' prenatal stress and their later development into homosexual adults, Günter Dörner and a team of his colleagues identified homosexual subjects on the basis of venerologists' reports on the mode of transmission of venereal disease; likewise in 1990 Swaab and Hofman, aiming to locate a sexual dimorphism between heterosexual and homosexual men's hypothalamuses, defined their homosexual subject group according to the mode of transmission of AIDS. Not only is it problematic to use venereal disease or AIDS as a marker of homosexuality, but these neuroendocrinologists in fact assumed subjects to be heterosexual when they had not established them to be homosexual--a highly unreliable way indeed to select one's homosexual subjects, regardless of how reliable one's index of homosexuality might be.

But these studies are also fraught with inconsistencies, as when in 1986 a team of behavioral geneticists led by Elke Eckert labeled "problematic" a pair of twins in their sample, whose behavior did not fully confirm their hypothesis about the biological determination of sexual orientation. Several scientists studied by Brookey even go so far as to fail to realize that their findings actually disown their premises. In their 1991 attempt to prove the genetic determination of homosexuality, Bailey and Pillard rely on gender nonconformity as an index of homosexuality's heritability (since gender nonconformity was to be noticed very early in homosexual subjects' lives, it was an indication that sexual orientation was determined even prior to the stage in child development when gender conformity or nonconformity becomes noticeable-presumably before birth); meanwhile their research data happened to challenge the notion that gender nonconformity should be inherited; nevertheless the two behavioral geneticists went on to conclude that homosexuality was inherited.

In a similar fashion neuroendocrinologists Glaude, Green and Hellman in 1984 tested estrogen response in order to evince the hormonal dissimilarity between heterosexual men and homosexual men--and the similarity between the latter and heterosexual women. To that end they constituted a polarized sample of heterosexuals and homosexuals by intentionally choosing male subjects at either end of the Kinsey scale. However their experiment produced results that were not as polarized as their sample in terms of sexual orientation, since a significant number of male homosexual subjects displayed estrogen responses that were similar to those of heterosexual men. Glaude, Green and Hellman concluded that there was indeed an overall correlation between sexual orientation and hormonal response, therefore sexual orientation was biologically determined: not only did they fail to realize that correlation does not necessarily amount to causation, but their findings should in fact have led them to the conclusion that their data challenged the view of sexual orientation as a dichotomy.

As for sociobiology/evolutionary psychology its underdetermination--i.e. its lack of empirical support--leads various researchers to opposite conclusions based on similar premises and methods: while Gallup and Suarez [1983] consider male homosexuality to be the maladaptive result of "heterosexual frustration" at not succeeding in finding female mates, Weinrich [1976] and his followers (such as Ruse in 1981), who also conceptualize sexual behavior as competition among males for females, regard male homosexuality as an adaptive behavior resulting from "homosexual altruism"--i.e. relinquishing one's claim to female partners when competition is too tight.

The book is organized in six chapters: first an introduction, then a positive assessment of sociopsychology's contribution to the field of sexuality, and an analysis of the institutional circumstances in which it has recently come to be supplanted by the gay gene discourse. Here Brookey resorts to a somewhat straightforward Foucauldian account of scholars' instrumental interests, as if they literally produced specific hypotheses and conclusions in order to defend their jobs, budgets and influence: Brookey does not even contemplate the possibility that they might have a high symbolical interest in securing their expertise so as to promote theoretical views to which they are strongly committed for intellectual, rather than material, reasons. In chapters three, four and five, the author successively reviews behavioral genetics, neuroendocrinology and sociobiology/evolutionary psychology's attempts to prove the biological determination of sexual orientation. Finally in chapter six he discusses the relevance of the gay gene discourse for the gay rights movement. This structure makes for a clear exposition of the assumptions and methodological flaws underlying the gay gene discourse, and allows the author to offer in-depth understanding of each of the studies he examines. Nevertheless the succession creates some repetition and does not allow the author to move beyond hammering down his main point until the very last chapter. In other words as readers proceed through the book they get a clear sense of the questionable reliability of these studies, but the author's specific argument against using the gay gene discourse to advocate for gay rights does not get developed until the final thirty pages (out of a 148-page text).

Because he treats the scientific and political aspects of the gay gene discourse separately Brookey is not totally successful at exposing the political shortcomings inherent in the very flaws he expertly analyzes. His most forceful arguments against the use of the gay gene discourse in gay rights advocacy revolve around the stereotypical, pathological image of male homosexuality they convey. Furthermore, as they propose a somewhat mechanistic conception of the advent of homosexuality, these studies--despite most of their authors' disclaimers--provide justifications for developing "cures" for homosexuality, a possibility Brookey deems rather likely in the current climate of heavy reliance on biomedical "quick fixes" to relieve a wide array of social anguishes--men's anguish about their masculinity and sexual orientation not the least of them.

In effect Brookey does not fully argue his potentially extremely forceful point that a discrete, dichotomous conception of sexual orientation is in itself conservative and detrimental to gay rights. The closest he comes to a demonstration is when he states that the dichotomy cannot but be unbalanced, with one term being negatively compared with the other, whereas sociobiology's representation of sexual orientation as a continuum challenges the validity of the normal-abnormal boundary. This notion surfaces in various instances along the book, but readers in fact have to piece the demonstration together, as the author seems to assume this point instead of making a case for it. In one instance Brookey's political conclusions seem partly flawed by the conflation of two very different arguments: in pages 137 to 142, Brookey debunks the gay assimilationists' use of the gay gene discourse by going back and forth between a fundamental claim that the gay gene discourse is inherently detrimental to gay rights as it pathologizes homosexuality, and a tactical argument that the gay gene discourse is not strategically efficient in the current judicial climate of Supreme Court decisions.

But the book is an extremely valid contribution to the sociology of sexuality, in that it provides a strongly documented study of scientific fields with which most social science scholars are not usually familiar, despite their undeniable importance: these scientific endeavors enjoy wide institutional recognition in the United States--their scientism notwithstanding--and thus have a strong potential for influencing the views of homosexuality which prevail in the American public sphere. The author's most forceful proposition is indeed an epistemological one--that unlike social and psychological sciences, biological sciences do not have proper tools to study what homosexuality is, and therefore rely on received ideas about it: "Biological research on male homosexuality seems plausible because the studies reaffirm what is already believed to be true--that male homosexuals are effeminate and sick" [p. 122].


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