Toronto
2 min

Boo, you’re queer

Nervous nellies shouldn't be subjected to this test

Credit: Xtra files

Remember a few years ago, somebody discovered that gay folks tend to have some fingers that are longer than others? For a week or so, everybody was checking out their own and everybody else’s fingers.



Now apparently some researchers have discovered another “real” difference between gay and straight people. Blinking.



British researchers investigated what’s called our startle response, “the strength of eye blink reaction to sudden loud noises.” (Gosh, that sounds like a fun experiment to participate in – I love being terrified by sudden loud noises.) They wanted to see if there was any correlation between the startle response and sexual orientation.



The answer is yes – gay and lesbian people blink differently.



“So what?” you might rightly ask.



Well, according to British researcher Dr Qazi Rahman, the startle response is pre-conscious and cannot be learned. So he studied blinking as part of the quest to find evidence of a non-learned neurological basis for sexual orientation. Rahman and his team found there is a big difference in our startle responses. Lesbians had much stronger startle responses than straight women. Gay men had slightly lower startle responses than straight men.



Just when it seemed like the chase for the gay gene was subsiding (several studies, including a Canadian one published a few years ago, refuted many of the claims about a gay gene), here comes another tidbit of scientific research that’s going to fire up those debates about whether gayness is biologically hardwired or chosen.



You gotta wonder who’s leading this obsession with hardwired differences.



American rightwingers, it seems. The insistence on the idea that homosexuality is not hardwired gives them fuel for their idea that homosexuality can be chosen – and therefore can be unchosen. Their conclusion is that social incentives can and should be put in place so folks choose to be straight.



Many gay activists, particularly in the US, have in turn invested a lot of effort in arguments that say sexual orientation is hardwired. If we can’t choose it, then it’s not fair to discriminate against us.



Frankly, I don’t have any particularly strong views on the nature/nurture argument (I used to, but being a parent has blown them all to hell). Many folks claim to have known they were lesbian or gay from the time they could think. But many others believe they choose to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, and the idea of choice is important to them.



Whether science ever resolves the debate or not, I believe that proving that same-sex attraction is hardwired isn’t going to disarm rabidly anti-gay folks. Social conservatives will argue anything to defeat the homosexual agenda. Religion, morality, science – whatever.



Let’s assume there is a gay gene. Admittedly, they would have a hard time arguing in favour of the abortion of gay fetuses. But they could argue that lesbian and gay people shouldn’t have children. They could argue that there is a moral and health imperative not to pass it along, just like Tay-Sachs or other genetically inherited diseases.



What might social conservatives do with the blinking study? The researchers say the startle response is mediated by an ancient region of the brain called the limbic system which also controls sexual behaviour. This suggests that female sexual orientation at least may be hardwired in this region. From there, social conservative could argue that lesbians are neurological defectives, who blink like men, not women. And they want to have sex like men, not women.



Sounds just like the old-fashioned Freudian homophobic psychiatric speak that was removed from medical literature in the 1970s. That’s the thing about social conservatives. They’ll use whatever outrageous theories they can to attack us.



As for blinking, I hope that testing the theory doesn’t become a trend at gay hotspots. Sudden loud noises at the Starbucks to test our startle responses just isn’t as much fun as comparing our fingers.



* Brenda Cossman is a member of the board of directors of Pink Triangle Press.