I have written a blog post at work about some research where – supposedly – an AI was created that could classify people as gay or straight based on photos of their faces. You might want to read that first but if you can’t be bothered here’s a quick recap:
- It really wasn’t an AI but a standard statistical method that did the classification, it was only based on a neural network that is able to ”see” faces. (This tidbit was probably interesting only to me)
- It really doesn’t do that well in the actual classification you’re thinking of (”tell me if this single individual is gay or straight”) but
- it did show that gay and straight people look different in ways that are not voluntary differences in hairstyle etc, but facial features you can’t choose such as the shape of your nose and chin, and furthermore those shapes and sizes were more like they are in the other sex (more feminine in men, and vice versa)
I had to cut out a lot of stuff to keep that piece to a decent length, to stay coherent and to avoid being too confrontational. But hey, here in my own blog I don’t have to do any of those things! Ha! Long rambling ahead, about two proverbial worms from the can: cause for gayness, and are there sexes?
What originally prompted me to read the actual paper was this central question: so how do you guys tell gay and straight people apart? What feature are you actually looking at? My suspicion arose from finding out that the photos of the people were from a dating site. But like I wrote in the other piece, this wasn’t actually a condemning issue. At the end of the day the paper does say that gay and straight people look biologically different. And I found no reason to disbelief that.
But it seems that this isn’t even mildly interesting to the relevant part of the scientific community. It’s yesterday’s news, so to speak. If it was actually a breaking discovery, this paper would have come out in a ”harder” science journal than psychology, and it wouldn’t have needed to be spinned in to a fearmongering story about privacy issues and falsely marketed as ”artificial intelligence”. (Note: this is my personal, ”off-duty” understanding of it. I’d need to do a lot more reading to make the claim ex cathedra, and therefore didn’t say it so bluntly in the other piece.)
It was somewhat new to me personally though. I had heard that the hormone levels during fetal development had something to do with being gay, but I wasn’t aware that it had moved from the realm of speculation to a more solid ground. So here’s the kicker (please focus and try to catch the emotion you get from this): unusual fetal development causes people to be gay.
I have to take that apart very carefully. First of all, the word ”statistically” should be added there because the effect isn’t clear-cut and deterministic, and there could even be other factors in play too. But there are heavier words here. Consider this: is saying that unusual fetal development causes gayness equal to saying that first everything is normal and ok and as it should be but then something goes wrong and the person ends up defective, deviant and also wrong?
It shouldn’t, of course. But apparently that’s what some people hear, or fear that still other people will hear it like that and then be total douchebags and therefore you shouldn’t say that. I didn’t invent this idea myself, I’ve learned about it somewhere – obviously no idea where – but also about its flipside: that the biological cause is sort of a seal of approval, it’s a part of you that makes you you, just like the color of your eyes or the tone of your voice, and definitely not a flaw to be lamented, shamed or corrected.
I’m not sure anymore what people hear in the claim. One person I talked to found the unusual-therefore-wrong reasoning to be farfetched when I suggested it, another one went directly from hearing me talk about unusual fetal hormone levels to a horrified ”WHAT?? Really?” But there you have it: same facts, different framing, different emotional response.
Anyway. If you have a worldview like mine, totally devoid of the supernatural, you have to conclude that there is a biological process that makes some people gay while most people are made straight, right? (Yes yes I know these aren’t the only options! I’ll get to that.) It’s not like a gay or straight soul will inhabit an otherwise un-oriented body. Hell, there’s a biological process that makes a blob of cells any kind of a human being. And it is messy, to make an understatement. (If interested, try Endless forms most beautiful by Sean B. Carrol. It is probably partially outdated by now, but will still get you from a free-floating factoid of ”genome is the blueprint of an organism” that doesn’t really mean anything as it stands, to some kind of understanding of how exactly that works.)
So for me now this piece of information about hormone levels and looking and being gay makes a lot of sense. It is actually directly tied to another potential shitstorm magnet I had to tiptoe around in the blog post: the binary nature of the sexes. Here’s how I see it (and I’ve been wondering if being a statistician makes it easier to accept such ambiguity): yes there are two categories, males and females, but no, it doesn’t mean that all people fall neatly in to those categories, because no, the categories aren’t neatly defined, but yes, the categories still exist, but no you shouldn’t really feel the need to shoehorn individuals in to one or the other, but yes, a lot of the time you can and do and the one you’re filing would file themselves like that too. But not always, and that’s just how it is.
I’ve seen a lot of absolutely great explanations of how human sexes are and are not determined by X and Y chromosomes so I’m not even trying to add to that. I just want to throw in my statistics-inspired understanding of it. Which is: there’s a long list of factors that come in two different flavors, male and female, or on a male-female scale, like what shape of organs you have and how tall and strong you are and how much body hair you’ll grow where etc. Some of these are ”mental”, although remember, if you don’t believe in souls then mind is just what a brain does so the mental-physical division doesn’t make that much sense… like what sort of people you want to love and fuck. (I’m going to steer clear from nurturing instinct and competitiveness and 3-d skills and all that for now, but yeah, those.) These factors are highly correlated, because they are caused (there’s that word again!) by the same cascades of events, related to hormones and which trace back, to a degree, to those X and Y chromosomes. So, most of the time you get a set of flavored factors that makes everybody, including you yourself, to file you in to a category, and that’s why we have the categories in the first place. But like said, the process is messy, so you might also get a less common combination, which may for example manifest as transgender identity or non-straight sexual orientation.
And now you might want to say something about nature vs. nurture and for example about how toys being color-coded and labeled as girls’ or boys’ toys has nothing to do with chromosomes. As you should. The thing is, you don’t need to know whether a sex division in behaviour or motives is based on nature or nurture, or a combination. (Actually, trick question: It’s always a very elaborate combination. But you get the point.) All you need to know is whether you’re imposing restrictions or demands from outside on somebody else’s behaviour based on their apparent category, be it sex or sexual orientation. And if you are, then stop it at once.