It turns out that genetics is almost as complicated as love and sex. New research has shown that the long fabled “gay gene” does not exist; that a variety of different genes contribute to same-sex attraction, and that several other factors are in the mix too.
For many LGBTQ people – myself included – the very notion of this study sets off big queer alarm bells, though it should be noted researchers worked closely with LGBTQ groups. As early as 1993, the Daily Mail – and mock it all you like, it’s one of the country’s main newspapers – published an article under the headline “Abortion hope after ‘gay genes’ findings”. In the age of supposed “designer babies”, what if the hatefully inclined chose to make sure their unborn child wasn’t gay or bisexual?
Then there’s the old homophobic trope that people “choose” to be gay, and that falling in love with someone of the same gender is a “lifestyle choice” – a perverse myth long used to punish LGBTQ people and fuel the horror of so-called gay conversion therapy. It is reassuring, then, that the study isn’t suggesting that how children are raised by their parents determines their sexuality: one environmental factor that’s been previously researched is that foetal development in the womb may have a significant impact, for instance.
But while the research may be interesting, it is surely irrelevant. Believing that LGBTQ people choose their sexuality belongs in the same bin as flat-Earthism and climate emergency denial. All LGBTQ people grow up in homophobic societies, whether that bigotry is imposed by coercive social attitudes or by the state. Almost all of us endure agonising periods marked by fear and shame, and struggled to come out to ourselves, let alone our family, friends and society: the idea we opted out of heterosexuality for a bit of a laugh is clearly fantasy.
What is more interesting is that we will not know how fluid sexuality truly is until homophobia – and its parent, sexism, because it’s really about enforcing gender norms – is vanquished. Of course there are many who believe their sexuality is effectively fixed as straight or gay. Not so for bisexuals – and for others, their sexuality is more fluid still. The experiences of men and women differ markedly here. Although younger men are more comfortable showing feelings for each other, many men still fear that even expressing affection for another guy will have them pejoratively labelled as exclusively gay. Women who have attraction towards other women, meanwhile, are objectified and sexualised: it’s a crude sexual fantasy for men.
The polling shows that younger people are increasingly less likely to identify as heterosexual, a symptom of growing emancipation. According to YouGov survey this year, while 83% of 18 to 24-year-olds in Britain identified as heterosexual just four years ago, now only 75% do, with 16% now self-describing as bisexual, an astonishing 14 points higher than 2015.
Sexual and gender norms imprison us all, dictating our behaviour for fear of reprisal – abuse or even violence – and that extends to who we sleep with or fall in love with. When the struggle for freedom succeeds, those boundaries will finally be overcome.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist