What makes men gay?

The final top donor request (the rest didn’t request a topic):

“blog about this

Since this is from a friend and not a stranger, I can safely say this: I hate you for making me read a scientific paper and review it during Blogathon. Hate. So much hate.

But you have my word, so I’ll do it. Onto the science!

A lot of people like to ask the question “What makes men gay?” It’s pretty clear it’s not a willy-nilly lifestyle choice, but scientists still aren’t really sure what the biology behind homosexuality actually is. Is it genetic? Hormonal?

Research on the latter is what a recent review article in the journal Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology summarized. You probably heard about the starting premise, since it received a lot of attention in the media. A study in 1996 found that gay men had a greater number of older brothers than heterosexual men. This is known as the “fraternal birth order” (FBO) effect, and has been replicated in many studies. It’s independent of potentially confounding variables like year of birth, age, socioeconomic status, and parental age. Non-biological siblings had no effect on sexual orientation.

The main hypothesis for why you see this pattern is known as the maternal immune hypothesis. Just like your body mounts an immune response against bacteria or ill-matched transplants, moms may develop an immune reaction against a male specific protein that’s present during development. Those proteins are normal for a male fetus, but a mother’s body still recognizes them as foreign. The immune response may then alter parts of the brain associated with male specific proteins like the anterior hypothalamus, which has also been linked to sexual orientation.

Recent research is finding more and more support for this hypothesis. One study showed that mothers of boys do develop an immune response to H-Y antigen, which is a protein expressed in the brain that is important in male fetal development. This immune response becomes stronger and stronger with each son a mother has.

This isn’t a totally crazy hypothesis. This exact thing happens in terms of blood type:

A medical model for a maternal immune response underlying the FBO effect is Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn (HDN). When a mother does not have the Rh factor in her blood (i.e., a mother is Rh negative), after gestating and giving birth to an Rh positive (Rh +) fetus, she may mount an immune response against the Rh factor. This immune response may affect subsequent Rh + fetuses, potentially attacking their red blood cells and causing anemia. The likelihood of an immune response becomes increasingly likely with each Rh + fetus a mother gestates.

There’s a problem though. H-Y antigen isn’t just produced in the brain – it’s also expressed in the gonads. Homosexual and heterosexual men don’t have any major difference in terms of gonads or fertility. Is there a way that the immune response would only effect H-Y proteins in the brain, but not in the gonads?

Possibly. Mice testes can develop without H-Y. And male gonads don’t reach maturity until puberty, so maybe a maternal immune response wouldn’t affect sperm too much.

The most compelling point is that there are three different forms of H-Y protein. It’s possible that the different forms are localized in different tissues, with only the one in the brain being targeted by the maternal immune response. However, there’s currently no information on where different forms of H-Y protein are localized.

Despite all of this evidence, this still doesn’t provide an actual mechanism. There’s a big gap between “increased immune response” to “homosexual behavior.” What are all of the steps in between? And is H-Y the only male specific protein that a maternal immune response targets? Probably not, but more research still needs to be done.

So do we definitively know what’s going on yet? Not quite. But feel free to slap homophobes with some science the next time you hear “lifestyle choice.”

And there goes all of the Blogathoon buffer time I had built up. Curses!

This is post 24 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Ghana orders all gays arrested

This is definitely one of those moments where I’m very thankful for the random chance of being born where I was born:

Ghana’s Western Region Minister, Paul Evans Aidoo MP has ordered the immediate arrest of all homosexuals in the country’s west.

Aidooo has tasked Ghana’s Bureau of National Investigations and security forces to round up the country’s gay population and has called on landlords and tenants to inform on people they suspect of being homosexuals.

“All efforts are being made to get rid of these people in the society,” he said.

The move by the Minister follows months of campaigning by the Christian Council of Ghana which last week called on Ghanaians not to vote for any politician who believes in the rights of homosexuals.

Muslims and Christians in the Western Region have been staging protests ever since a local media report claimed there were around 8000 homosexuals and lesbians in the district.

Finally, something Muslims and Christians can come together about… *twitch*

On being offended

I often comment that religious people don’t have the right to never be offended when someone questions their beliefs. Their ideas – theistic, supernatural, cultural, or otherwise – are still ideas. This is because I strongly support the concept of a marketplace of ideas – that “the truth or the best policy arises out of the competition of widely various ideas in free, transparent public discourse.” A religious idea must defend it’s worth just as a political idea would, and offense is sometimes an unavoidable side effect of this discussion.
After the many, many feminism or diversity related internet kerfuffles, I usually get at least a couple comments along the lines of “Why is it okay to offend religious people but not women/blacks/homosexuals?! Hypocrite!”

Let me try my best to explain.

Like I said, religion is an idea. Gender, race, and sexual orientation are not. They are (for the most part) immutable biological traits that a person has very little choice in. There are certainly bad ideas out there, whether they’re wrong for factual, logical or ethical reasons. I have no obligation to completely avoid offending you when all I’m saying is “I disagree.” But there is no inherent “wrongness” or inferiority in being a woman, or a racial minority, or gay. To suggest such a thing while lacking any logic or rationale is exactly what causes sexism, racism, and homophobia.

It’s one thing to demand intellectual honesty of intangible ideas. Blasphemy is a victimless crime, after all. Offense aimed at intrinsic human properties is hardly victimless.

Temporarily ignoring concepts of privilege or -isms, a lot of these kerfuffles boil down to people lacking common human decency. While I don’t think religious people have the right to avoid all offense, I do think we should try to minimize the amount of offense we cause. Now, that’s not the same as saying “Don’t be a dick” ala Phil Plait. I think dickishness definitely has it’s place and can be an effective way of getting a message across in certain situations. But we have to ask ourselves “Can I accomplish the same goal while being a little less of an asshole?”

If accomplishing your goal requires offense, unapologetically go right ahead. Otherwise unpopular ideas would be silenced into oblivion. Because really, you’re always going to offend someone. Atheists can’t even say we exist or that we’re good people without pissing people off!

But when you’re needlessly enraging people with no goal in mind, that’s not equivalent to being edgy or snarky or a firebrand. That’s being a fucking asshole. Or if you’re doing it because it gets your rocks off – a troll. And if someone points out you hurt them, it’s a little troglodytish to insist that you didn’t or that you don’t care. I think a lot of this can be explained by the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, but it’s still disappointing.

I could go on about this all day – but I’ve given a whole talk on the topic, so watch it if you want more details and examples about minimizing offense.

Practically speaking as someone within the atheist community, it’s even more important that we try to tone down offense when it comes to minority groups. Diversity matters. It’s not just unrealistic to tell minority groups to suck it up and be stronger – it lacks compassion. We’re not saying they’re inferior or need coddling, but that if you put up with this shit constantly, why would you voluntarily join a group that adds to your frustrations? It’s precisely the reason why one of my rules of comment moderation is that I’ll ban people who use hateful speech. I could tell other commentors to suck it up, or I could make a safe environment where people feel comfortable contributing.

Even if I think you should do it out of the goodness of your heart, Greta Christina often suggests a purely Machiavellian reason for such a tactic. That making more people feel welcome in this movement will only help us grow even larger and more powerful. So if we want to succeed in our goals of promoting rationalism and humanism, we first need to make sure we can get as many allies as possible.

We simply can’t afford to make the same mistakes of every other progressive movement before us.

This gives me hope

A young child reacts to meeting his first gay couple:

“So that means you love each other!” Yes, yes exactly. You, child, have an understanding that exceeds most right wing politicians.

Amazing how people aren’t bigoted until they’re taught to be bigoted.

Today’s WTF Roundup

SPLC certified hate-group Mission America claims teacher unions are giving financial incentives for students to become gay. Because not only is homosexuality a choice, but the constant harassment and threats are worth the small chance that you get a tiny fraction of your college tuition paid!
Japan is cursed because the emperor had sex with a demon. Duh.

What is Dr. Marcus Bachmann a doctor in? Bigotry? Homophobia? Because it’s certainly not clinical psychology.

Speaking of scary Bachmanns, Michelle is now winning the polls in Iowa. …What.

In lighter news, remember that marriage pledge Bachmann (and Rick Santorum) signed that was full of homophobic bullshit and vowed to ban porn? It also suggested that blacks were better off back when they were slaves, but now they reworded it to not so sound mindbogglingly racist. See? Progress!!! No word on when they’ll remove the stupidity from the rest of the pledge.

70 year old man stoned to death for “homosexuality”


“I killed a man,” Thomas allegedly told the witness. He then described how he placed batteries and rocks in a sock, and hit Seidman in the head at least 10 times. Thomas then returned to Seidman’s apartment several days later and called police, saying he had discovered the body, according to court documents.

When police interviewed Thomas on Wednesday he said Seidman had been making advances toward him over a period of time. Thomas said he read in the Old Testament that homosexuals should be stoned in certain situations.

Yet another example of the terrible hatred that’s found in the Bible, and what happens when it falls into the hands of the wrong people. The twisted thing is that anyone who claims to be a Biblical literalist and doesn’t do stuff like this is a hypocrite. Thankfully.

Fabulous filler

I’m still busy golfing, eating, and sleeping, so here’s my favorite Neil Patrick Harris at the Tony Awards:

Homeopathy for homosexuality

The Union of Catholic Physicians of Germany is offering a homeopathic therapy to “cure” homosexuality:

The religious association, which calls itself the “voice of the Catholic medical community,” writes on its website that while “homosexuality is not an illness,” a host of treatments are available to keep such “inclinations” at bay. Possibilities include “constitutional treatments with homeopathic tools … such as homeopathic dilutions like Platinum,” “psychotherapy,” and “religious counseling.” Among homeopathy’s controversial treatments are the prescription of “Globuli,” tiny pills that consisting mostly of sugar.

[…]As for the scientific basis of the treatments offered by the UCP, Winkelmann listed “medical-psychotherapeutic, philosophical and theological literature,” the “minority views of psychotherapists,” the “teachings of the Catholic church, the Holy Scripture,” and the “homeopathy of Samuel Hahnemann,” the German physician credited with creating the practice.

When your “scientific basis” includes “philosophical and theological literature”, “teachings of the Catholic church,” and “the Holy Scripture,” you know you’re dealing with top notch research.

This is patently ridiculous on a whole number of levels. One, homosexuality isn’t something that can be cured, nor is it something that should be cured. But even if you did want to cure it, pseudoscientific bunk like homeopathy is probably the least effective way to do so.

Homeopathic medicine is nothing but sugar and water. When they say it consists of dilutions of Platinum, they mean they’ve diluted it so many times that there probably isn’t even a single molecule of Platinum left in the pill.

Though I am curious as to why they used Platinum. Usually homeopathy goes by the notion of “like cures like” – that you put something that causes your problems into the solution and keep diluting it, and then the water will “remember” those bad molecules and flush them out of your system (Yes, it’s that nutty). But what does Platinum have to do with homosexuality? Maybe it was too hard to dissolve the soundtrack to Rent? Since obviously stuff like that is what makes people gay, not hard-wired biology.

Maybe I shouldn’t be complaining, though. I much rather have people receiving sugar pills as treatment than being forced to attend psychologically damaging gay reprogramming camps.

Gays to blame for the rapture

I know everyone is probably sick of hearing about the May 21st rapture. It’s obviously ludicrously false, and it’s getting to the point where we’re beating a dead horse making fun of it. But I couldn’t pass up a quote from this fact sheet at the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: Why May 21?
A: Camping calculates May 21 is exactly 7,000 years from the date of the Noah’s Ark flood. In his book “Time Has an End,” Camping writes. “The year 391 B.C. is the year
when the Old Testament was finished, and 2,011 + 391 – 1 = 2,401, or 7 x 7 x 7 x 7.” There you have it.

Q: Any other reason?
A: Yes. Gay Pride and same-sex marriage. Camping says God will punish America and the rest of the world for Gay Pride and same-sex marriages, just as Sodom and Gomorrah were punished with fire and brimstone in the Old Testament.

…This isn’t even internally logically consistent! Which is it, Camping? Did you calculate a very specific date based on the word of God, or has God decided now’s the time because we reached Maximum Gayness? Or did God know that May 21 would be when he got sick of pride parades, in which case, free will…?

And before anyone tries to point out that this is just some fringe loonie… I think this comic from reddit sums up how I feel pretty well:

Heterosexual marriage is like gravity!

In case you weren’t aware of the parallels, here’s a Focus on the Family affiliate to clear things up:


…Because arbitrary, constantly evolving, man-made social customs are exactly the same as physical laws of the universe that have been empirically tested.

……And because gravity works by making things go downward.

………And planes fly by…no, I can’t even keep thinking about it. I need these brain cells for school.

Thank you, FotF, for adding “fucking scientifically illiterate” to your resume. I’m sure it looks nice below “hateful stone-aged thinking bigots.”

This video just made me cry

The good kind of tears.


I was holding it together until Woody appeared. Is that silly?

This commercial about the It Gets Better Project just aired as a commercial during Glee. I can only imagine how many kids it reached. Saving even just one life makes it worth it.

Dan Savage, you’ve done an amazing thing.

(Via Friendly Atheist)

If 13-year old Jen could talk now

Last night Dan Savage got the following question at an event at Cornell:

Cornell professor Ritch Savin-Williams said in the New York Times that he’s concerned that it’s not about gay youth, but about gender-atypical kids. Is the “It Gets Better” campaign too narrowly focused?

Dan’s response is spot on:

The kids who suffer the most from anti-gay bullying—the prime targets—are the gender-nonconforming kids, i.e. the sissies and the tomboys, the kids who can’t pass for straight. And some of the kids who can’t pass for straight are straight. Most kids who are gender nonconforming, or gender atypical, are lesbian, gay, bi, or trans, and the IGBP was created to reach out to these queer kids. But the messages at the IGBP are relevant to straight gender-atypical kids, and we know that straight-but-gender-nonconforming kids are watching the videos, commenting on them, taking hope from them, and contributing their own videos.

If I could hop in a time machine and go back 10 years, my 13 year old self would probably say something like:

Dear Mr. Savage,

I like boys, and I have a huuuuge crush on one who I think likes me back. But I’m a tomboy and I always have been. I’ve always hated it more than anything else when my mom tries to put me in a dress or skirt or tights. I don’t get makeup even though every girl is wearing it now. I like playing video games and Pokemon cards even though I’m the only girl at the comic shop, while all the other girls just like to argue about which Spice Girl they’d be. My only friend that’s not a boy is also a tomboy – I’ve always been “one of the guys.”

And that’s why everyone thinks I’m a lesbian. I don’t care if people are gay, but the way they say the word hurts so much. They whisper it like I’m dirty or broken. Girls don’t like changing by me in gym class, even though I’m more concerned that my underwear is dorky than what they look like in their underwear. I know it’ll probably stop when I get a boyfriend (if that ever happens, sigh) but that just makes me feel worse, knowing that the kids who really are gay can’t hide like that and have to put up with this forever.

But when I’m feeling down, I can watch the It Gets Better Project videos and know I’m not alone. So this big letter was to say “thank you.”

And what would my 23 year old self say?

Thank you.