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Pieces of the Puzzle

Researchers are finding tantalizing clues about what causes homosexuality and what signs may indicate its likelihood early in life.

May 21, 2001|MELISSA HEALY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is not the most cherished childhood photo in his mother's collection, but it may be the most prescient.

The little boy, not quite 2, is perched on a potty seat. A mop of brown hair frames a face with delicate features and big brown eyes. He is wearing a pretty white sundress purloined from his older sister's closet, a "very girly" frock, according to his mother, that is one of his two favorites. Secreted away elsewhere in the house are the little boy's other passions: his mother's fancy shoes and jewelry, his sister's Barbie doll. And behind the lens is mom, a college professor from Toronto, "collecting evidence" that she can take to the pediatrician.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 26, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Zones Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
"Blue babies"--A Monday Health section article about the science of homosexuality made reference to the term "blue babies." The lay term is used to refer to babies born with anemia because of a blood incompatibility with their mothers. But the term covers a wider range of newborns, including those with heart defects, who are born with low oxygen. This condition, also called hemolytic disease of the newborn, can affect babies of either sex.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday May 28, 2001 Home Edition Health Part S Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
Blue babies--A Health section article on May 21 about the science of homosexuality made reference to the term "blue babies." The lay term is used to refer to babies born with anemia due to a blood incompatibility with their mothers. But the term covers a wider range of newborns, including those with heart defects, who are born with low oxygen. This condition, also called hemolytic disease of the newborn, can affect babies of either gender--not only males, as the article appeared to imply.

The boy in the photo, now nearly 15, is contemplating his sexual orientation with the same secretiveness that he once used to hide his penchant for cross-dressing. On the phone, he gabs with his many girlfriends about their current crushes, adopting their incredulous, eye-rolling gestures and their distinctive, sing-song mode of speech. About his own crushes, however, he is mum.

His mother, who demanded anonymity in the interests of her son's privacy, has no doubt about the young man's future sexual orientation. "I'm sure he'll end up being gay," she says matter-of-factly. As a parent, she wishes it were otherwise; being straight is simply an easier life for a young adult, she said. But she loves her son, and it's clear to her that even before she and her husband adopted him 20 days after the child's birth, this, simply, was the way he was made.

While scientists have pondered the mystery of homosexuality for centuries, the secret of how homosexuals are made is only now beginning to yield to their inquiries. Long branded a mental illness, attraction to those of the same sex was expunged in 1973 from the list of psychiatric disorders recognized by practicing clinicians. And American society has fitfully followed suit, emboldening many in this long-closeted minority to declare and celebrate their sexual orientation openly.

The drive toward societal acceptance has not dampened many scientists' zeal to explain one of evolution's most curious mysteries: Why has a trait that inhibits sexual reproduction endured? To these researchers, homosexuality remains an evolutionary oddity that demands to be explained. Intriguing new research is finding there may be many different pathways to gayness. Those seeking to explain homosexuality traditionally looked for instances of early sexual abuse, emotionally distant parents and other socialization factors to explain a child's later same-sex attraction.

But researchers from unexpected disciplines such as brain science and audiology are bringing new perspectives to a field long dominated by Freudians, social workers and, more recently, by gay activists. They are uncovering a wide range of possible physical markers for homosexuality--from the way one's inner ear responds to sound to the shape of one's hand--that are evident from a child's first days. These insights not only point to the mechanisms at work in homosexuality: They offer the intriguing and controversial prospect that perhaps in the not-too-distant future, parents like the mother in Toronto could do more than brace for a child's sexual awakening; they could do something about it.

Still, the science of homosexuality remains in its infancy. For now, there exists only one childhood trait--often exhibited before a child can walk--that strongly predicts homosexuality later in life. It is early behavior that departs markedly and persistently from the boys-and-trucks, girls-and-dolls stereotypes of years past.

For the cross-dressing toddler in Toronto and other boys who show "pervasive and persistently" effeminate behavior, the odds of being gay lie at about 75%, according to J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist and sexuality researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. That is a probability of homosexuality 20 times as high as that in the broad population of boys; it is estimated (though hotly disputed) that 3% to 4% of males will grow up to be gay. Among girls, this so-called gender-atypical behavior also is a good predictor of later lesbianism, though the pattern is weaker.

That may disappoint those who hoped science would have disproved a painful stereotype. But strong and sustained gender-crossing behavior is, says Bailey, "about as strong a predictor as exists in the developmental literature."

Strong as the relationship may be, however, it has major limitations. Most important, researchers stress there is no evidence that early gender-bending behavior is the cause of later homosexuality: In fact, many argue, the early onset of such predictive behavior suggests that for many, sexual orientation may be fixed at birth. The fact that such behavior is more likely to be greeted with horror than encouragement by family and friends is seen as further evidence for that position.

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