CONSTRUCTING AND DECONSTRUCTING THE ‘GAY GENE’:
MEDIA REPORTING OF GENETICS, SEXUAL DIVERSITY AND ‘DEVIANCE’
Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University
[In: Ellison, G & Goodman, A (eds) (2005):
Diversity without Deviance: Human Biology,
Science and Society.
Taylor and Francis. Chapter 6 pp 100-117]
“My mother made me a Lesbian”
“If I give her the wool will she make me one too?” (Graffiti)
The graffiti cited above plays with, and subverts, psychological theories about the causes
of lesbianism. It refuses to blame mothers for causing their daughters’ homosexuality.
Indeed, it inverts the assumption that being a lesbian is a problem to be ‘explained’ and
refuses the very premise which justifies enquires about the aetiology of homosexuality.
The joke is on the experts who seek to pathologies sexual diversity. This graffiti reflects a
long history of lesbian and gay men’s engagement with, and resistance to, attempts to
account for our ‘deviance’.
Sexual deviance is often presented as not only a psychological malfunction. It is also (or
instead) seen as being written on the body itself. Just as criminal tendencies used to be
read off from primitive physical features (see Dingwall et al. this volume) so homosexual
inclinations have been detected by careful attention to the physique and physical
development of the suspect.
Such ideas are not just imposed on ‘deviants’ by a
heterosexual majority; gay scientists, social theorists and writers have actively promoted
ideas about the biological origin of (or elements in) homosexuality. Karl Ulrich, for
example, the mid 19
century lawyer, amateur scientist and gay activist, campaigned to
reform the laws on sodomy. He argued that gay men had male bodies, but female minds
due to faulty foetal development (cited in Rose, 1996)
. Similarly, in the 1920s, Radclyff
Hall’s pioneering and, at the time, highly controversial book, ‘
The Well of Loneliness
appealed for tolerance on the grounds that lesbians were an intermediate sex ‘flawed in
the making’. Hall’s book was endorsed as “scientifically accurate” by the leading sexologist
of the day, Havelock Ellis (Kitzinger, C. 1987: 120).
In the past it was the enlarged clitoris or strong, masculine hands of the invert which
betrayed her as a lover of her own sex, the high-pitched voice, wide hips and limp wrist of
the gay man which revealed his true nature. Today, ideas about the role of biology in
homosexuality are likely to be explored through more subtle associations between
behavioural tendencies and prenatal hormone exposure, brain chemistry or genetics.
Recent research into the gay body includes, for example, various work with animals such
as genetically engineered ‘gay’ fruit flies (Ryner et al., 1996). It also extends to