Homosexuality and bio


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Homosexuality and bio

  1. 1. Atlantic monthly OnlineMarch 93Homosexuality and biology by Chandler Burr An introduction to a muddled and sometimes contentious world of scientificresearch -- one whose findings, now as tentative as they are suggestive, may someday shed light on the sexual orientation of everyoneby Chandler BurrTHE issue of homosexuality has arrived at the forefront of Americas politicalconsciousness. The nation is embroiled in debate over the acceptance of openly gaysoldiers in the U.S. military. It confronts a growing number of cases in the courts overthe legal rights of gay people with respect to marriage, adoption, insurance, andinheritance.It has seen referenda opposing gay rights reach the ballot in two states and becomeenacted in one of them -- Colorado, where local ordinances banning discriminationagainst homosexuals were repealed. The issue of homosexuality has always beenvolatile, and it is sure to continue to inflame political passions.It is timely and appropriate that at this juncture a scientific discipline, biology, hasbegun to ask the fundamental question What is homosexuality? And it has begun toprovide glimmers of answers that may in turn not only enhance our self-knowledge ashuman beings but also have some influence, however indirect, on our politics.What makes the science in this case so problematic, quite apart from the usual technicaldifficulties inherent in biological research -- particularly neurobiological research,which accounts for much of the present investigation -- is the ineffable nature of ourpsychosexual selves.This encompasses a vast universe of stimulation and response, of aesthetic and eroticsensibilities. There are those who see an element of hubris in the quest to explain suchthings in biological terms. Others see not so much hubris as hype: certain well-publicized findings, they fear, could turn out to be milestones on the road to anintellectual dead end.It is undeniably true that neurobiological research is often pursued in a contextof great ignorance. The brain remains an organ of mystery even in general, notto mention with regard to specific functions. "We dont know" may be the mostfrequently used words in neurobiology, and they seem to be used with specialfrequency when the subject of sexual orientation comes up. Once, I mentionedto a researcher how often I heard these words on the lips of her colleagues, andshe replied, "Good -- then theyre saying the right thing." In this context, andalso considering that the subject matter is politically charged, professionalrivalries are inevitable and occasionally bitter. Some of those involved in theresearch are motivated not only by scientific but also by personal concerns.Many of the scientists who have been studying homosexuality are gay, as am I.