Good Faith book by Jane Smiley reviewed by Tom Isler

You can learn a lot about the gay gene discourse from the title of Robert Alan Brookey’s new book. Specifically, two things deserve note: “invention” as the recurring process by which various groups of people interpret homosexuality, and “the male homosexual” as a kind of scientific, sociological specimen. The title indicates the curious paradox that being gay is somehow a fiction—a creation so elusive and ephemeral that it withstands and demands frequent re-creation—while at the same time precise and pin-pointable. Magic and science all at once. In Reinventing the Male Homosexual, Brookey himself does not invent any new understandings of homosexuality, but rather sums up the history of how science has done the inventing. He then explores the impact of this history on current gay rights advocacy. His writing is less about whether homosexuality can be reduced to a gene and more about whether it should be. Given the cultural biases that influence scientific inquiry into homosexual etiology, he argues, gay rights advocates would be better served if they abandoned scientific arguments altogether and instead confronted the roots of political and social discrimination against homosexuals.

Prior to Reinventing the Male Homosexual, Brookey wrote primarily for journals on gender and culture, and this book reads like a lengthier version of the academic writing such journals attract. Despite his dry style, however, Brookey thoroughly traces the popular attitudes toward homosexuality and the tendency for science to reproduce such attitudes. Science has often affirmed the prejudices that homosexuals are pathological, chronically effeminate, inevitably promiscuous, or the abnormal alternative to heterosexuals in a rigid binary understanding of sexual orientation. In one anecdotal study of twins, for instance, Brookey cites how gay twins were observed to be more prone to alcohol abuse than their straight counterparts. The incidental link between sexual orientation and substance abuse was interpreted as the natural behavior of pathological individuals.

Such dubious conclusions are reached because the object and means of studying homosexuality are vague and inconsistent. Most studies, for instance, concern only male homosexuals but produce ostensibly authoritative statements regarding same-sex attraction for both men and women. Even within the male community, because only gay men who are comfortable with themselves volunteer to be subjects, an unrepresentative sampling of men constitutes the research pool. And because homosexuality is such an evolving topic—biologically, socially, politically—scientists’ tendency to generalize from discrete samplings of gay men is hardly scientific. Then, too, there is the inconsistency in defining homosexuality: is it diagnosed by sexual practice or sexual orientation? “Married men who participate in homosexual acts but do not identify themselves as homosexual” are just one of many groups that evade convenient categorization and study.

With such an elusive object of study, Brookey shows how the range of scientific approaches to understanding homosexuality exacerbates the ambiguity. Thirty years ago the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. It was a triumph for gay rights advocates, but the removal had the curious effect of weakening psychiatric authority on the matter. No longer considered a disease of the psyche, homosexuality could be reinvented by biologists as well as evolutionary theorists. Depending on who does the research, homosexuality might be a genetic mishap, a hormonal imbalance, or an altruistic evolutionary strategy. The range of methodologies and definitions and their respective theories amount to a disconcerting agglomeration of inventions—all of which can nevertheless be considered scientific and true, and all of which compete with each other for authority.

Among these contenders for authority is the idea of the gay gene. Proponents of this idea argue that a certain portion of DNA is correlated with homosexuality. The major research was done by Dean Hamer in 1993 at the National Cancer Institute’s Laboratory of Biochemistry (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland. Hamer studied the DNA from 40 pairs of homosexual brothers and found that the DNA from 33 pairs shared five areas of genetic material centered around one noteworthy region of the X chromosome, named Xq28. The region is located on the tip of the long arm of the X chromosome and contains several hundred genes. Much work remains, however, before anyone can claim that homosexuality (or heterosexuality) lies in a discrete twist of DNA.

On one hand, it seems that such research would lend support to the biological legitimacy of homosexuality, and as a result, gay rights advocates could point to evidence that being gay is as natural as being straight. Additionally, proof of homosexuality as an immutable characteristic could weaken the anti-gay rights argument that homosexuality is a choice and therefore does not merit legal recognition in marriage or employment. Brookey, however, is wary that such conclusive information would provoke the opposite response: “by focusing on the X chromosome, Hamer has theorized the gay gene as a female gene,” writes Brookey. Such a theory implicitly affirms the popular conception that gay men are less manly than straight men. Additionally, alleged innateness of sexual orientation does not counter the right-wing argument that the choice to indulge one’s same-sex desires is immoral.

Brookey’s talent for raising doubts about scientific motives and methods furnishes the reader with reasons why, scientifically, the gay gene is a suspect tool for gay rights advocacy. Yet, while he painstakingly recounts various research experiments, he also presumes certain basic points that weaken his objections to scientific theories. For instance, he never bothers to explain why the correlation of homosexuality and effeminacy is oversimplistic, nor why the “assumption that there are only two discrete categories of sexual orientation” might be a false one. Brookey displays much sensitivity to the male homosexual’s varied experiences, yet he seems to ignore those who do have faith in the predominant paradigms—i.e. that one is exclusively gay or straight, or that to be gay is indeed to be less masculine (or “butch”) than straight men. Homosexuals can be just as dependent as heterosexuals on the binaries that govern perceptions of sexuality. From his gay rights advocacy stance, however, Brookey assumes his readers share common attitudes, which prevents him from complicating his arguments as thoroughly as he might.

Brookey saves his most compelling argument for the end of his book, although he little more than hints at it: aside from the problematic history of scientific understandings of homosexuality, these understandings (the gay gene included) provide minimal assistance to the cause of gay rights. To assess the potential use of the gay gene as a political and social tool, we must consider its history within those fields. Yet in only one instance does Brookey show that, as a political tool, the alleged immutability of sexual orientation is a weak and even irrelevant political argument. In the Supreme Court case Romer vs Evans, a Colorado law was determined unconstitutional for discriminating according to sexuality—not due to the innateness of anyone’s orientation, but rather on the grounds of discrimination itself.

The gay gene discourse distracts us from the issues at hand. If the objective of gay rights advocacy is to diminish the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudice towards homosexuality that permeates American society (to say nothing of the rest of the world), why not confront those prejudices directly? Since when have scientific facts uprooted deep-seated cultural values? Brookey acknowledges that the search for the cause of homosexuality, as much as it might signify an evolving openness and curiosity about the sexually “aberrant,” still affirms binaries that privilege some over others. But he fails to articulate fully the problem with such thinking. The need for a cause is inherently suspect; it implies that certain identities need justification to exist in the company of others. A truly innovative approach to understanding the male homosexual and advancing gay rights would be to abandon invention altogether and examine homosexuality in its own light, a nonfiction as complex as any other object of scientific, cultural or political interest.