The President of the United States,
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
For decades now, I have followed closely the debate regarding gays in the military, same-sex unions and marriage, and homosexuals in society, in general. Recently, at your end-of-year press conference (last week), you used the curious but hopeful word, “evolving,” to describe your attitude regarding these complex issues. If I may, I would like to suggest another window that could provide the clearest view yet of a resolution to the debate that swirls around this intricate storm of biology, morals, attitude and culture. Our research group and many other colleagues of ours have studied the intricate processes that produce a male or a female. I want to suggest to you an avenue of argument that incorporates science and neuroscience into the debate, that I hope will enlighten the debate. It comes to a simple argument: how does one define “male” and “female?” Allow me to provide some background.
My (and many others') research for years has been on the actions of hormones in the brain, including sexual differentiation (viz., the processes by which males become male, females, female). Our recent work examines the Maternal Brain, and its construction via pregnancy hormones. There is a large and replicable literature on the mechanics of brain development in mammals, all of which points to the profound and permanent influence that hormones exert on the neurobiology of the individual. Although these "normal" events are well documented, likewise there are many examples of variations in both genetic and hormonal substrates that lead to variation in sexual differentiation, sexual orientation, and hence, what we call behavior. Nature is nothing if not diverse. And Nature gives not a darn about the means to the end: the strategy either works or it does not. By the way: conservative critics always trot-out the careworn argument that homosexuality is unnatural. I hate to disillusion them (but then, they could read these data if old prejudices and the comfort of ignorance did not prevent them), but homosexuality is the most normal thing in the world: it is rampant and well-described in every species from invertebrates (insects) up to non-human primates. Several recent books document these behaviors. It is merely passing-on one’s genes in a different way (in this case, through kin selection, meaning no direct investment in offspring, [like one’s own children], but rather in relatives and relatives’ offspring who share their genes in common). It would be like one helping one’s brother’s children to thrive, thereby passing along the genes that each share in the process. The mathematics and models show that you can leave behind just as many of your genes in this way as you can by doing it the “Octo-mom” way. Homosexuality is just another strategy, not some insidious plan to undermine heterosexuality or that paragon of monogamy, heterosexual marriage.
In a recent book of ours (Clinical Neuroscience: Psychopathology and the Brain, Lambert, K.G. and Kinsley, C.H.; Oxford University Press, 2011) we argue that understanding the neural causes of behavior in humans, and their legal definitions, will bring about a sea change in the Law. The point I am making here has to do with definitions, as well. The arguments that are advanced for the preservation of marriage is that it should be exclusively "between a man and a woman." Therein lays the problem for me and any other scientist with a modicum of skepticism. Lost in the debate regarding gay marriages is the definition of “man” and “woman,” terms that biology and nature do not recognize as easily as we would be led to believe, and certainly nowhere near as clear as the critics of such policies who routinely use those terms would have you believe. Some examples from the endocrinological clinical literature may help to illustrate the point.
To begin, males look the way they do, as do females, because of the manner in which prenatal and early postnatal hormones act on the body’s tissues. Testosterone (T), the main male hormone, targets specific tissues, including the brain, and exerts powerful and permanent changes to the tissues, the culmination of which is the apparent sex difference we state as male versus female. Females, which lack the male hormones, look the way do because of the relative lack of male hormones.
But, is gender a matter of simple genetics, in which marriage is an XX pairing-up with an XY? If so, what do we do with individuals who are genetically XY, but whose bodies lack the receptors for male hormones, so called “testicular-feminized males.” These individuals have testes, and they secrete T, but the T cannot act on the target tissues because of a genetic fault in the formation of the proper landing sites for the hormones. That is, there are lots of “keys” floating around in the blood stream (the T), but no “locks” (the receptors) to which the T can attach. Hence, the folks look and act just like typical females, but they are male down to their DNA and look like females simply because of lifetime exogenous estrogen and other female hormone treatments.
What about the female equivalent, congenital adrenal hyperplasic (CAH) individuals, whose genotype is female, but whose brains are masculinized by abnormally high levels of neonatal male-like hormones because of an adrenal malfunction leading to dysregulation of hormone exposure? These women(?) are XX-genotypes, but have a male-type brain. What does, or should, exert the greater pull? Who determines who they can marry?
What about those males whose brains, because of genetics or prenatal hormonal conditions, are less virilized by male hormones than the average male, thereby rendering their brain’s anatomy more female-like, with the structures that regulate sexual attraction similarly affected. Or what of “male-to-female transsexuals,” so-called “women trapped in a man’s body,” whose brains regulate their gender identity as “female,” but whose bodies are male and whose sexual attraction is toward other males?
Recently, it came to light that world 800-meter champion Caster Semenya, an Olympic-class athlete, is a hermaphrodite, neither completely female nor completely male. What do you do with an individual like her/him? Who tells these individuals what is normal and by what standard? Apparently some leaders believe –- simplistically and prejudicially, I am afraid – that they can do what nature cannot. Define for me what is meant by male and female. It cannot be done.
Do we say that males who look like males are, therefore, male? Same for females? This argument seems to be the major one advanced by critics of same-sex marriage and gay rights – a thin reed to grasp, indeed. Again, from a legal standpoint, precision counts. Do we deny basic human rights to a person, the right to marry, because the person does not fit a simplistic definition of gender?
As to the argument that sexuality is a choice, that is absolutely untrue. If homosexuality is a choice, then, ipso facto, so is heterosexuality. Do you remember waking-up one morning and saying, “You know, I’ll think I’ll have Cheerios and orange juice, and, oh yeah, be heterosexual.” As a corollary, the so-called “therapy” that claims to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals, has a success rate less than chance, if you’re lucky. Biology cannot be changed by something like a talking therapy. It would be like me trying to change your eye color by talking to you. It’s possible, but highly unlikely, as the data show.
And so it goes. Life is messy, with gray areas cascading into ever grayer ones. A simplistic and legalistic approach toward defining marriage runs the risk of penalizing many individuals for an accident of birth. As we learn more about the brain and the manner in which it controls every thought and behavior, we should develop a greater appreciation for the fact that nature produces variability in its organisms. A simple question then, from the standpoint of the Law and its demand that vagueness be vanquished, is this: What do we mean when we say "man" and what do we mean when we say "woman?" To my neuroscientific colleagues and me the constitutionality of these measures and their ilk, likely lie in that question. Answering that unanswerable question, which Nature merely accepts and does not judge, may occupy those who believe one can legislate that which one does not understand and fears. Ask your legal colleagues to define, as simply as they seem to think they can, woman and man. Like those who believed that the sun orbited the earth, or that the latter was flat, and whose conservative world views were challenged by Science, only the light of science can intrude into the deep dark of ignorance; here as in many other cases. Also, for those whose prejudices hide behind the comfortable veneer of religious thought, ask them why God would create millions of people (estimates place an historical percentage of ~10% of every culture on earth) who offend Him? (Including – oh horrors!! – many of our sports and military heroes.) Don’t ask, don’t tell, indeed.
When equal rights actually exist, then laws such as California’s Proposition 8 will be a dim memory. Its supporters claim to love our Democracy, but there are rights that are guaranteed for minorities, too. Unfortunately, the major quality on display most days is ignorance, sometimes militantly so. Again, broadening the beacon of Science will help advance a better understanding of how biology creates everybody, not just the straight folks. I wish you the best of luck with your struggle and in continuing to fight the good fight, in general. Please do not become disillusioned, Mr. President, with the tone in Washington and your hollow critics. There are many of out there who root for you each day and are impressed by your spirit and vision. Full speed ahead. Thank you for your time.
Craig Howard Kinsley, Ph.D.
MacEldin Trawick Professor of Neuroscience
Department of Psychology
Center for Neuroscience, B-326/328
Gottwald Science Center and Richmond Hall
University of Richmond
28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, Virginia 23173
[(804) 289-8132 (office)]
[(804) 289-8797 (laboratory)]
[(804) 287-1905 (FAX)]