When, two years ago, American geneticist Dr Dean Hamer claimed that he had discovered a “gay gene” there was uproar. Some gay activists grabbed the findings with glee saying that they finally demolished the “morality” arguments put forward against us by our most implacable opponents on the religious Right.
At the same time the fundamentalists were fulminating about why money was being wasted on such research and that, anyway, it changed nothing. The ex-Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, even saw it as a God-given opportunity to rid the world of homosexuality by employing genetic manipulation.
Now the tables seem to have turned again. One of Dr Hamer’s research assistants has cast doubts on his methods and, according to The Independent, her accusations have resulted in the US Government ordering its Office of Research Integrity to investigate.
You can almost hear the whoops of joy from the born-agains and sighs of regret from the manufacturers of “Thanks for the genes, mom” T-shirts.
Hardly able to contain itself, The Mail on Sunday (July 9th) rapidly commissioned an article from Mark Almond, a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford, which was headed: “Exposed: flawed work of the gay geneticist who misled the world”. Mr Almond says that he knew all along it was all a lot of clap-trap and had never believed for a moment that there could be such a thing as a genetic imperative for homosexuality.
Now just a moment. Has the Office of Research Integrity concluded its investigation? Has it, in fact, even started it yet? Or are The Mail on Sunday and Mark Almond being a tad premature in their celebration of the supposed “discrediting” of Dr Hamer’s findings?
Given that, at the moment, we have only one woman’s doubts to go on, what justification could the paper have for declaring Hamer’s work “flawed” and “misleading”?
Let’s just get the facts before we jump to any conclusions.
Ah, the facts. As Mark Almond says in his article: science is about facts and facts alone, and yet facts are a commodity with which he himself seems curiously careless. He says: “Since the ‘proving’ of the gay gene, exhaustive research by reputable scientists to verify Dr Hamer’s findings has proved fruitless. None has been able to reproduce the gene or find any trace of it.”
Mr Almond has obviously not seen The Times on July 3rd (six days before his own article) which reported that a study at the Institute of Behavioural Genetics at Boulder, Colorado, had, indeed, “confirmed the [Hamer] finding”.
Dr Stacey Cherry studied 33 pairs of homosexual brothers, a significant proportion of whom carried the same gene on the X chromosome that was identified by Dr Hamer. Some had heterosexual brothers that did not share the same gene, and no trace of it was found among 36 pairs of lesbian sisters. Another study conducted by Dr Michael Bailey of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois concluded that “for males, homosexuality is roughly 50 per cent inherited. The figure in females is much lower”. Dr Bailey says that there are probably also “environmental mechanisms” at work — such as the timing of the hormone surges in the womb — rather than social or psychological factors.
So where does this leave Mark Almond? He says that because Dean Hamer is himself gay he has “an ulterior motive” for ensuring that his research would prove his hypothesis. He says that gay scientists working on such projects have a “hidden agenda” and their work cannot be trusted. But what about lecturers in Modern History who write about science but don’t declare their religious motivations for doing so? Oh yes — nowhere in the article does Mark Almond directly declare his real reasons for being so opposed to the gay gene theory, but you can easily read between the lines when he says that: “scientists should not play God… The decline of religion has led people to look to science for the moral authority they once got from priests. But unlike religion, science is not about faith — it is about facts”.
It’s no good, Mr Almond, we’ve got your number. If anyone has a hidden agenda, I think it might well be you.
But before we leave those who are trying to use homosexuality as a means of justifying their own hateful dogmas, we have to return to Paul Johnson (“Can we take this man seriously?” asked The Daily Express on July 26th). Mr Johnson has extended his campaign against the “pornographic” Channel 4 from The Daily Mail into the pages of The Daily Telegraph. His attack this time is upon Sir Michael Bishop, Chairman of Channel 4, whom he accuses of waging “a crusade against Christianity” by broadcasting “15 solid hours of sex-pervert propaganda known as Dyke TV”.
Mr Johnson (for some reason nicknamed “loony bins” by Private Eye) becomes increasingly hysterical as the article proceeds, lashing out at all and sundry and eventually issuing an Old Testament-style curse on Sir Michael: “It is relevant to ask why [Michael] Bishop should so strongly back what have become Channel 4’s distinguishing characteristics — tastelessness and propaganda for homosexuality. His self-compiled entry in Who’s Who… reveals the fact that he runs British Midland Airways. Which airline one travels on is always a difficult question. Airliners are fragile things and an awful lot can go wrong with them. And Almighty God is not mocked with impunity. Personally I would not travel by an airline run by a man who chairs a television pornography channel notorious for its anti-Christian cynicism.”
The fact that this passage is itself blasphemous seems not to worry the bizarre Johnson one iota. He should think about getting a lightning conductor for his own roof before he starts threatening God’s wrath — in the form of an air disaster — on innocent people.
But we leave Mr Johnson’s fanatical campaign against “plummeting television standards” with a quote from Jaci Stephen in The Guardian (July 31st): “These are important issues which programme-makers need to discuss, but to do so in an atmosphere of hysteria and contempt inhibits them from examining TV’s role in a vastly changing world. Rejecting people by a system of spiritual cleansing is one that, heading towards the 21st century in a complex society, ultimately leads to intolerance, hatred and violence for all those who do not fit the requirements of what is being held up as the ideal and the norm.”
The papers continue to out people — albeit at the moment only those of a deceased nature. Perhaps the one that caused most fuss was Jane Austen (“Austen a lesbo” as The Sun so delicately put it). The claim was made in an article in the London Review of Books by “self-confessed lesbian” Dr Terry Castle who, according to the Daily Express (August 1st) “has spent years reading the letters and novels of the life-long spinster.”
Naturally there was “outrage” from Austen fans who imagined that this “sex slur” was the worst possible slander that could be levelled against their heroine, but Dr Castle topped it by inferring that Jane had a Sapphic relationship with her sister, Cassandra.
Only if you read beyond the headlines will you find that Dr Castle isn’t suggesting that “they necessarily had a sexual lesbian relationship in the modern sense” but they were “clearly very close and very tactile. They definitely had a strong homoerotic dimension.”
One of the defenders of Jane Austen’s “reputation” says in The Daily Telegraph (July 31st): “You can have our response in two words” — but does not specify what they are. Another excuse-maker says that the reason Jane Austen never married was because “she saw her destiny as a writer quite early on.” The only problem with this is that thousands of other writers seem to have found no difficulty at all in reconciling marriage with their “destiny”.
One biographer of Austen, Elizabeth Jenkins, similarly pooh-poohs the theory, explaining that the sisters’ rather over-enthusiastic bed-sharing was simply the result of a lack of central heating.
And will the next celebrity step right this way, please. Why, it is none other than John F Kennedy, named in a forthcoming biography by Ralph Martin as a possible closet case. The Daily Express reported that Mr Martin believes the assassinated President had a gay affair with his best friend, “bachelor Lem Billings”. This affair was conducted when Jack and Lem were room-mates at college.
The author doubts that Kennedy was gay but says that he was “very unsure of his sexuality.” Rather like a certain Right Reverend gentleman of our acquaintance.
Finally, the recently departed poet Sir Stephen Spender was outed by the London Evening Standard when it reported the up-dating of a biography by David Hughes. “Spender, claims David, never ceased to be a practising homosexual, continuing his dalliances with men even after his marriage to Natasha Litvin in 1941.”
The author cites several anecdotes as “proof” of his contention that Spender was gay. The family say they will take whatever action is necessary to “protect Sir Stephen’s name.”
The interesting thing that emerges from all this is not so much that these people were — or might have been — gay, but that it should still be considered such a disgrace that it has to be ferociously denied — whatever the evidence.
It says much more about the unthinking homophobia that pervades this country than anything Paul Johnson might screech.
John Lyttle’s column in The Independent is an intimate examination of one man’s gay life. Mr Lyttle spares us no details as he dissects his reactions to the events that overtake him. On July 28th he was writing about the uncomfortable and confusing feelings he was having about occasionally not wanting to have sex. He was not, he revealed, the unfailing sexual athlete of gay fantasy. Sometimes, he concludes, you just don’t want to do it, and sometimes you just can’t.
This piece of painful honesty drew an extraordinary response from Julie Burchill, who wrote in a letter to the editor: “As an important member of the gay community myself, I object most strongly to John Lyttle’s morbid autopsy of his own sexual failings. Might I remind Mr Lyttle… that we are ambassadors for our sorely ill-used people and should strive to maintain a positive and tranquil appearance at all times. If this means lying about what brilliant sex we have, then so be it. There are enough gloating heterosexuals who will lose no time in pointing our short-comings out to us without we ourselves joining in the free-for-all.”
The London Evening Standard’s Diary seemed to take all this literally, confused at Ms Burchill’s sudden “unsolicited information about her sexual status”. Reference is made back to Ms Burchill’s recent claim that she and her friend Charlotte Raven are “not homosexuals. We are simply in love.”
Of course, Ms Burchill’s letter to The Independent was meant to be ironic. It was intended as some kind of obscure expression of her contempt for gay men and the gay movement, wrapped up in what she imagined was a witty, neatly indirect riposte.
In reality it is so embarrassingly pathetic, I think she must have written it under the influence of Vimto.