BORN THIS GAY
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ANNIE MINOFF: I’m Annie.
ELAH FEDER: And I’m Elah.
ANNIE MINOFF: And this is Undiscovered, a podcast about the backstories of science
ADAM: So I'm about to tell my mom. I'm excited and nervous. I mean, I'm already sure that she, like, knows.
ELAH FEDER: Annie, I’ve been making you watch a lot of these videos.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah, it’s been kind of heavy.
ELAH FEDER: So what we’re watching is— is this kid, he’s talking into the camera. And he’s really nervous because he’s about to come out to his mother.
MOM: Are we recording this?
ELAH FEDER: He invites her into the bedroom, they take a seat on the bed. And then he tells her.
ADAM: Yeah, I like guys.
ELAH FEDER: So these coming out videos, it’s kind of a thing on YouTube, as it turns out. Kids recording themselves as they come out to their friends or family.
CHRISSY FROM YOUTUBE: Hi Nanny!
GRANDMA: Hey darlin’! How are you?
CHRISSY: I’m doing well. How are you? How are you feeling?
ELAH FEDER: Most of the time in these videos, the family takes this in stride. Like Chrissy’s grandma.
CHRISSY: You know Bria. She and I— I think you know, but we’re together. We’re in a relationship.
CHRISSY: And I’m... gay.
GRANDMA: Alright. Is she?
ANNIE MINOFF: Her grandma just asked if her girlfriend is gay too. And Chrissy’s got this huge smile on her face now, like she’s trying not to laugh.
CHRISSY: Well, yeah, she is. We’ve been together in a relationship for three and a half years.
GRANDMA: Well, alright. That’s— that’s not gonna kill me.
ELAH FEDER: Alright. That’s not gonna kill me. Perfect response.
ANNIE MINOFF: And a lot of these conversations, they end in hugs. Parents tell their kids they love them, no matter what, want them to be happy.
ELAH FEDER: But in some videos, especially if the conversation isn’t going well or the kid seems really nervous, they’ll start to explain that this wasn’t a choice.
KID: I have not made a choice. I have been, from the moment I come out of my mother’s uterus, I have been that way. Probably long before I come out of her uterus.
ELAH FEDER: I probably said something like this when I came out to my parents—without mentioning my mom’s uterus. However you put it though, the idea that people are born gay, or bisexual, or transgender—it’s pervasive. It’s basically our anthem.
LADY GAGA: I'm beautiful in my way/'Cause God makes no mistakes/I'm on the right track, baby I was born this way/Don't hide yourself in regret/—
ELAH FEDER: And while the sense that this isn’t a choice really lines up with my experience and so many people’s, where did this idea come from, that being gay is something you’re born with?
ANNIE MINOFF: Because in the early days of the gay rights movement—the turn of the 20th century—this was far from consensus. In fact, some early activists, they really resented the idea that they were somehow, biologically, different from other people. They found it offensive.
<<theme music plays>>
ELAH FEDER: Today’s episode, we go back to pre-Nazi Germany. We’ll tell you the story of a doctor named Magnus Hirschfeld. Magnus Hirschfeld was one of the first people to try to prove scientifically that people’s sexual orientations are rooted in their biology. Something he thought could lead to greater acceptance.
ANNIE MINOFF: But is this the best approach? Could it actually hurt gay people? Because eventually, the wrong people do take notice of Magnus’s research. And this idea, that sexual orientation is hardwired, it has consequences he never intended.
ELAH FEDER: That’s coming up on Undiscovered.
ELAH FEDER: It’s 1907. And a big scandal is rocking Berlin.
ANNIE MINOFF: The United Press covers it, though the article omits certain “unmentionable” details. Just says an aristocrat is taking a journalist to court over “the publication of some facts.”
ELAH FEDER: The facts are homosexuality. A journalist has accused an aristocrat, Count Kuno von Moltke, of being secretly gay.
ANNIE MINOFF: The Count is this high ranking military officer, he’s close to the Kaiser’s inner circle. And he loses his post. So he sues the journalist for libel.
ELAH FEDER: Bad news for the Count: His ex-wife actually testifies against him. She tells the court, it’s true. Her husband refused to have sex and seemed unusually fond of his male friends.
ANNIE MINOFF: And even worse, the journalist calls an expert witness: Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.
ANNIE MINOFF: A short dramatization.
MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD (dramatized): From looking at the evidence, I have come to the scientific conviction that this plaintiff, Count Kuno von Moltke—
ELAH FEDER: —The aristocrat—
MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD: —objectively deviates from the norm.
ELAH FEDER: He’s not like most people.
MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD: In my opinion, he himself is not conscious of this disposition, which is commonly known as...homosexuality.
ELAH FEDER: Magnus is a short, heavyset man with a full black mustache and wireframe glasses. And he is pretty much the expert on the matter.
ANNIE MINOFF: He tells the courtroom he’s observed 5,000 homosexuals. And this Count, this Kuno von Moltke, he is a homosexual—even if he doesn’t know it.
ELAH FEDER: The judge finds this persuasive and the Count actually loses in court.
ANNIE MINOFF: But then there’s this bizarre twist. Because Magnus Hirschfeld, the expert who helped make life hell for poor Count Kuno, he was not just some scientist with an opinion.
ELAH FEDER: Magnus Hirschfeld was gay himself.
ANNIE MINOFF: Though he would not have called it that. “Gay” is a modern word.
ELAH FEDER: And he’s not out. He never talks about his sexual orientation publicly. And yet here he is, pointing the finger at someone else. It’s an odd move.
ANNIE MINOFF: Right, gay expert, not out, destroying somebody else’s reputation in court.
ELAH FEDER: It’s a little odd. Well, it turns out for Magnus, this was actually part of a grander plan, part of a strategy for gay liberation.
ANNIE MINOFF: Magnus didn’t start off studying homosexuality. He’d come from a big Jewish family and like his dad and his older brother, he went into medicine.
ELAH FEDER: In the 1890s, he’s running a medical practice in the city of Magdeburg. And then one day, he gets a letter from a patient that changes his life.
ANNIE MINOFF: The letter’s from a young soldier, who was supposed to get married to a woman. But he was gay, and so the night before his wedding he kills himself. But first, he sent his doctor, Magnus Hirschfeld, a letter. And he asks Magnus to please educate the public, teach them that there are people who shouldn’t have to marry and live a double life.
ELAH FEDER: And that’s where Magnus’s career in sexual science and activism begins. At least, that’s how Magnus told it.
RALF DOSE: Yeah that is kind of a legend he gave himself.
ANNIE MINOFF: That’s Ralf Dose, co-founder of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society. Since the 80s, Ralf’s been working to revive the story of this once famous sexologist.
RALF DOSE: Whether it happened right away, in that way, we do not know. But of course you had a lot of people in the same situation who committed suicide. So, there is some truth in this story.
ELAH FEDER: Magnus decides he can do something about this. In 1896, he drops his medical practice in Magdeburg, and moves to a suburb of Berlin.
ANNIE MINOFF: Because if you’re going to fight for gay rights at the turn of the 20th century, Berlin is the obvious place to go.
ELAH FEDER: So you might have heard that in the 1920s and the 1930s, Berlin was famous for its sexually liberated subculture. They even had an LGBT anthem of sorts.
<<Das lila Lied aka the Lavender Song starts, in German>>
ANNIE MINOFF: It’s called The Lavender Song and the chorus starts, “we are just different from the others….”
ELAH FEDER: So that’s in the 1920s. But when Magnus shows up two decades earlier, there’s already a queer scene emerging. In 1904, he writes about seeing pubs and parties for every kind of homosexual, old and young, different classes. At one cafe, Magnus notes, Jewish lesbians meet every day between four and six p.m. to drink coffee, read newspapers, and play chess.
ANNIE MINOFF: Which sounds delightful.
ELAH FEDER: Mm-hmm.
ANNIE MINOFF: But as free and modern as this sounds, there’s still a problem. A law called Paragraph 175.
ELAH FEDER: Under Paragraph 175 of the criminal code, sex between men is illegal. And blackmailers are having a field day.
ANNIE MINOFF: Magnus, at one point, estimates almost a third of homosexuals have been blackmailed. A couple hundred men are convicted across the country each year. So Magnus? He decides he’s going to take down Paragraph 175.
ANNIE MINOFF: One spring day, just after his 29th birthday, he invites a few like-minded men to his apartment, and together they start up a new organization, something kind of unprecedented.
ROBERT BEACHY: What is considered today the first homosexual rights movement.
ANNIE MINOFF: Robert Beachy, is a professor at Yonsei University. He wrote a book on the history of gay Berlin.
ROBERT BEACHY: He called it the “Scientific Humanitarian Committee.”
ELAH FEDER: Because Magnus has this kind of radical idea. He’s going to convince society to accept gay people using science.
ROBERT BEACHY: The motto of the organization was “Through science to justice.”
ELAH FEDER: Or in Latin: Per scientiam ad justitiam.
ROBERT BEACHY: His very simple and, maybe in some ways, profound idea, was that if there were adequate you know scientific study, if people really just understood, they would change their view and ultimately this would also have the effect of changing the law.
ELAH FEDER: The law against sex between men, Paragraph 175, punished so-called “unnatural fornication” with prison time.
ANNIE MINOFF: Magnus’ idea? Is to prove that it’s natural. It’s based in that person’s biology. The idea being you don’t jail someone for what’s in their nature.
ELAH FEDER: So Magnus starts by collecting some basic stats. In 1903, his organization sends 3,000 surveys to male students at a technical university.
ROBERT BEACHY: They included little cards that somebody could easily return back anonymously.
ANNIE MINOFF: This is decades before Alfred Kinsey came up with his seven point scale for human sexuality. Kinsey is actually just a 9 year-old in Hoboken at this time.
ELAH FEDER: Here, Magnus gives the students just three choices to pick from, asks them are they attracted to women, men or both. And it actually works! Abouthalf the students send back their postcards.
ANNIE MINOFF: And most of them, 94 percent, are heterosexual.
ELAH FEDER: Not too surprising.
ANNIE MINOFF: But some aren’t. 1.5 percent are homosexual, and 4.5 percent are bisexual.
ELAH FEDER: Magnus does the survey again with metalworkers, gets the same kind of numbers.
ANNIE MINOFF: So gay and bisexual people, they seem to exist across different groups of people. But this doesn’t prove it has anything to do with biology. To show that, Magnus has to try something else.
ELAH FEDER: And remember, this is the turn of the 20th century. So, Magnus has this idea that there’s something going on in the brain during fetal development, but he doesn’t have the technology to look at it.
ANNIE MINOFF: And he can’t look at people’s genes either. At this point, scientists, they’ve already identified chromosomes, they can look at them under a microscope. They think they have something to do with heredity, but they’re not sure. But what Magnus can do is measure and document just about everything else about these people.
ELAH FEDER: So Magnus’ theory is that homosexuality is a type of “sexual intermediacy.”
RALF DOSE: Basically he had an idea about there are several levels on which you can be male or female or something in between.
ANNIE MINOFF: Magnus thought that all people people were a mix of male and female. Everyone would have something of the opposite sex.
ELAH FEDER: But gay people even more so. So for example, lesbians would be more masculine, gay men more feminine—on average anyway. And it’s worth noting here that today, we’d separate sexual orientation from gender identity and expression. In Magnus’ scheme, these lines are blurred.
ANNIE MINOFF: So most of Magnus’s science is about proving the idea that gay and lesbian people are fundamentally different. So he interviews homosexuals, he asks them about their childhoods, and their hobbies, measures their bodies, records all the little ways they deviate from the quote unquote norm. Some of his findings sound pretty ridiculous today.
MAGNUS VOICE (dramatization): Ever since Ulrichs, in the literature, you meet with the statement that homosexuals cannot whistle. This does not agree with the results of our statistics. Among 500 homosexuals, 385, 77 percent, could whistle.
ELAH FEDER: But he adds, among these men—
MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD: Only a few could truly whistle well.
ELAH FEDER: Among homosexual women, talent abounds!
MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD: Two I know in public appear as whistling artists.
ELAH FEDER: Magnus finds physical differences too. Like gay men have less body hair. Lesbians have narrower, more masculine hips. Not always, but, if you look hard enough, Magnus says, you’ll find something, some way that gay people deviate.
ANNIE MINOFF: As outdated as his research might sound, there actually are modern versions of it. You might remember the studies from a while back about finger lengths.
ELAH FEDER: Okay, so you can actually do this. So, lay your hand flat. And compare the length of your index and ring fingers. In women, they tend to be the same length. In men, the ring finger tends to be longer. No? What?
ANNIE MINOFF: I don’t know. My fingers are, like, weirdly bow-curved. What does that indicate?
ELAH FEDER: I don’t know. Um. Probably nothing about your sexual orientation.
ANNIE MINOFF: <<Laughs>> Okay.
ELAH FEDER: This is where sexual orientation actually comes in. In lesbians, these studies found that the finger ratio tended to be more like men’s. And the theory is that there’s something going on with hormones prenatally that are affecting both your finger ratio and your brain. So, I loved these studies when they first came out.
ANNIE MINOFF: <<Laughs>> How can you not love doing this, I mean—
ELAH FEDER: I know! I remember doing this with my friends and getting really excited if our fingers matched our sexual orientations the way that these studies—
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah, it’s like you passed the test! Like—
ELAH FEDER: It felt like— so— what’s in your brain, you can’t really show people. You can just tell them. But pointing to your fingers and saying look, this is real, there’s something physically different about me, that can feel validating.
ANNIE MINOFF: In fact, studies like these, that suggest sexual orientation is inborn, they might seem like a good news for gay advocates.
ELAH FEDER: But not everyone likes this line of thinking. And in Magnus’ day, activists were still very much duking out these ideas. Some absolutely hated his science, thought you could fight the law without it. Just make the case for personal freedom.
ANNIE MINOFF: Some didn’t even believe in sexual orientations. They had close bonds with men, sure, but—
RALF DOSE: It had nothing to do with sex. It has to do with friendship and state building and nation building, things like that. And well sex happens. <<Laughs>> Well, it's about friendship.
ELAH FEDER: Magnus disagreed with this. Men who have sex with men, women who have sex with women, they’re not like everyone else. They’re different, biologically. And in 1907, he decides he’s going to get the word out in the strangest of places. That libel trial between Count Kuno and the journalist. Magnus is called to testify.
ROBERT BEACHY: So here he had a chance you know on this stage in Berlin. Basically, this legal stage to come out and say I can say with certainty that this, you know, high ranking aristocrat is gay and I know it based on my science.
ANNIE MINOFF: In the end this backfires. The first judge sides with Magnus, but at a second trial, Magnus admits there isn’t enough evidence to say the Count is gay.
ELAH FEDER: After all, he’s never really spent time with the Count.
ROBERT BEACHY: And it was it was kind of an absurd and reckless thing for him to do but it also besmirched his reputation. And for a lot of people, this was this was a thoroughgoing discrediting of Hirschfeld.
ELAH FEDER: It’s a low point for Magnus, but he’s not giving up on Paragraph 175. One of his greatest strengths is this knack for befriending influential people.
ANNIE MINOFF: Over the years, Magnus and his committee repeatedly petition parliament to change the law. And they collect thousands of signatures from prominent members of society.
ELAH FEDER: People like Hermann Hesse, Rilke, even Albert Einstein signs this petition.
ANNIE MINOFF: It’s not enough to convince the government to bring down the law. But they keep at it, collecting more and more signatures over the years.
ELAH FEDER: By 1919, Magnus has built up enough money and influence to start up his own research institute: The Institute for Sexual Science. It’s located in the Tiergarten, which is like Berlin’s Central Park. They have medical rooms, of course, but also a sex museum and a library. And Magnus moves in with his boyfriend, Karl Giese, a younger man, who becomes the institute’s librarian and archivist.
ANNIE MINOFF: And for Berliners, the institute offers an essential service: Sex ed.
ROBERT BEACHY: They had a little box at the edge of the property and people could anonymously insert slips of paper with questions about sex or, you know, any sort of sexual issue that they had.
ANNIE MINOFF: Then every two weeks, they’d invite the public to educational evenings and answer the questions.
ROBERT BEACHY: Things like I don't know, premature ejaculation and you know how effective it was to use condoms for you know preventing pregnancy.
ANNIE MINOFF: The Institute is a big hit. Magnus’s friends throw costume parties in the grand entry room. The sex museum becomes a tourist attraction. And it seems like in 1919, Magnus Hirschfeld has made it.
ELAH FEDER: But at the same time, new forces are rising in Germany. In 1920, Magnus goes to lecture in Munich, about hormone experiments by an Austrian biologist. We don’t know exactly what happened, but the next day in the New York Times—
1920S REPORTER VOICE: Well-known German scientist victim of a Munich Mob. Berlin, October 11. Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the well-known expert on sexual science, died in Munich today of injuries inflicted upon him by an anti-Jewish mob. He was lecturing in the Bavarian capital—
ELAH FEDER: Except Magnus didn’t die that day. He woke up in a hospital, bleeding, with a concussion...but alive, and has this—no doubt surreal—experience of reading his own obituary in the newspaper.
ANNIE MINOFF: The attackers were never caught and we don’t know who they were. But by this time, Munich was already a breeding ground for the early Nazi party. And increasingly, the Nazis targeted Hirschfeld. A few days after the beating, Hitler mentions Hirschfeld in a speech, calling him “Jewish swine” who was perverting German culture.
ELAH FEDER: We don’t know what impact this incident had on Magnus. But we do know that he kept going. And scientifically, this was actually an exciting time for Magnus. Because for years, he’s been meeting with gay people, documenting their life histories, cataloging their physical traits, their mannerisms, and it’s all in an effort to prove that they are biologically distinct.
ANNIE MINOFF: With questionable success.
ELAH FEDER: Yeah, mixed results. But then he gets a lead. A clue as to what might actually be causing homosexuality. And this research takes his work in a disturbing new direction.
ANNIE MINOFF: That’s after the break.
ANNIE MINOFF: Okay, we’re back. When we left, Magnus was on the verge of answering one of the ultimate questions: What causes homosexuality? And thanks to new research out of Vienna, he’s finally got a new lead.
ROBERT BEACHY: There was an Austrian biologist who actually experimented by implanting the testes of a— of a male rat in a female rat and then the female rat would begin to exhibit behaviors of the male rat. For example, mounting another female rat.
ELAH FEDER: The biologist was Eugen Steinach. And his work was on the cutting edge of the new hormone science. Magnus found this inspiring.
ROBERT BEACHY: Hirschfeld thought he could, with this sort of evidence, he thought he could also demonstrate that, you know, these same sorts of sex hormones were responsible for explaining homosexuality or lesbianism or bisexuality and so, you know, it was the different mix of these different sex hormones that would somehow help to explain behavior and sexual orientation.
ANNIE MINOFF: But this is where Magnus’s legacy gets complicated. Because if manipulating hormones in a rat could change their sexual behavior, why not people?
ELAH FEDER: And it seems that on at least two occasions Magnus referred gay men for an experimental procedure. It involved implanting them with the testes of heterosexual men to try to make them straight.
RALF DOSE: And of course those patients first reported, “Oh, I woke up after the operations and 10 days of the operation, I dreamt of— of a woman.” Well that vanished after a short time.
ANNIE MINOFF: In fact, as you might imagine, the results were disastrous. The implanted tissue would die, causing infection.
RALF DOSE: They end up being castrated. In the better cases, they kept one testicle.
ANNIE MINOFF: Within a few years, it was obvious these operations were not working and surgeons stopped performing them.
ELAH FEDER: Magnus’ and the institute’s involvement in these experiments—it’s a low point for his legacy. The only mitigating factor is that, sounds like Magnus and his team only referred patients who wanted this, were desperate to change. But they must have known that other people might force these so-called “cures” on men who did not want them.
ANNIE MINOFF: And the wrong people did eventually take notice of this: The Nazis. At the Buchenwald concentration camp, a Danish doctor named Carl Vaernet experimented on gay men, implanting pellets that secreted testosterone. At least one man died of infection.
ELAH FEDER: It’s probably not fair to blame this on Magnus. The idea that homosexuality might be a hormone anomaly was gaining traction at the time and he wasn’t the only proponent. But the Nazi doctor, Vaernet, he later wrote he first got the idea visiting Magnus’ institute.
ELAH FEDER: In the 1920s, fascism continues to rise in Germany.
ANNIE MINOFF: And for Magnus, it all comes to a head on May 6, 1933.
ELAH FEDER: At 9:30 that morning, a group of Nazi students gather outside his institute. They knocked on the door, and his housekeeper answers it, and she tells them he’s not there. Magnus had actually left in 1930. He’d been researching gender and sexuality around the world and he hadn’t set foot in Germany in over two years by that point.
ANNIE MINOFF: They march in anyway. They break down doors, they smash equipment, they toss books and paper out the window to their accomplices outside. A brass band plays on the street, drawing a crowd to watch. And finally, the Nazis cart everything away in trucks.
ELAH FEDER: There’s a picture of the Institute’s library after they leave. The shelves have been emptied out. Papers are strewn all over the floor.
ANNIE MINOFF: Four days later, the Nazis take their loot to the infamous book burning at Opera Square. Among the books and papers, they also carry a bust of Magnus, skewered on a stick. In a film of the burning, it’s night time. Men are shouting, throwing books into the fire, singing.
<<Sounds from archival book burning footage>>
ELAH FEDER: Then Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, addresses the crowd. He tells them the era of exaggerated Jewish intellectualism is over. The revolution has cleared the way for a German way of life.
<<Archival recording of Goebbels>>
ANNIE MINOFF: Alongside works by Engels, Brecht, Einstein, and many others, that night, the Nazis burned much of what Magnus Hirschfeld had accumulated in over 30 years of work.
ELAH FEDER: Magnus learned about the burning watching a newsreel at Paris movie theater a few days later, and he’s devastated.
RALF DOSE: He was completely destroyed by the idea that everything that he had built up was destroyed by the Nazis.
ANNIE MINOFF: Magnus spent his final years in southern France, along the Mediterranean. By then, he had a new partner, Li Shiu Tong. They met in China during Magnus’ world tour, and stayed together from then on.
ELAH FEDER: After the institute was destroyed, Magnus tried setting up a second one in France, but he didn’t live long enough to see it through. His final journal entry in 1935 says, “I’ve got a new home, I’ve got new furniture.”
RALF DOSE: If I can live here for a few more years, close to the sun, close to the sea, with my friends and far away from Hitler, that would be great.
ELAH FEDER: He died the same year on his 67th birthday.
ANNIE MINOFF: A month later, the Nazis expanded paragraph 175, and they would eventually send thousands of homosexuals to prisons and concentration camps where many died. But Magnus didn’t live to see all this.
RALF DOSE: You only can say luckily he died in ‘35. So he did not experience everything that happened after the Germans invaded France. He was spared that kind of experience by an early death.
ELAH FEDER: Paragraph 175 would not be fully rescinded until 1994.
<<Nature sounds, birds chirping>>
ANNIE MINOFF: Today, the site of Magnus’ Institute is marked by a small monument inside the Tiergarten. The building itself was destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1943. Our producer in Berlin, Shane, went to take a look.
SHANE MCMILLAN: Aha, I think we’ve found it. I think we’ve found it.
ANNIE MINOFF: The monument is next to the Spree river, which cuts through the park. Nearby, there’s a bench and a flowerbed. Shane went to visit just as the sun was setting and people were heading home from work.
SHANE MCMILLAN: So it says here, “Justice through science. It was under this precept that the doctor and sexologist Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld carried out his work not too far from this spot….”
ELAH FEDER: Shane asked a few people if they’d heard of Hirschfeld. Some hadn’t. Some knew a little bit. It seems like in Germany people know him a little bit better than they do here, where for the most part, when people think pioneering sex research, they think of Alfred Kinsey, not Magnus Hirschfeld.
ANNIE MINOFF: But even though Magnus’ work was largely forgotten, research in his tradition continues.
ELAH FEDER: In the early 90s, especially, there was a flurry of studies trying to show that sexual orientation had a biological basis.
ANNIE MINOFF: Like the twin studies. They found if you’re a gay man or lesbian with a twin, your twin has a much higher than random chance of being gay too, especially if they’re an identical twin.
ELAH FEDER: Or there’s Simon LeVay’s dissection of dead men’s brains, which seemed to find a part of the hypothalamus that’s smaller in gay men.
ANNIE MINOFF: More recently, there was buzz about possible epigenetic markers, which affect how genes are expressed.
ELAH FEDER: So none of these studies really prove that sexual orientation is hardwired. Like, at best, the twin studies show there’s some genetic component, like pretty much every trait—
ANNIE MINOFF: Ever.
ELAH FEDER: Right. <<Laughs>> And you can poke holes in other studies for their stats or methods—like questionable ways of figuring out who’s gay, especially when they’re dead and you haven’t asked them.
ANNIE MINOFF: But in a 1991 op-ed, the authors of the twin studies wrote that, “Science is rapidly converging on the conclusion that sexual orientation is innate.” And that this was “good news for homosexuals and their advocates.” But, just as in Magnus’ day, not everybody agrees.
ELAH FEDER: Edward Stein is a professor at Yeshiva University. He’s written about the legal and philosophical implications of this idea that people are born gay and he’s not convinced it’s helping us.
EDWARD STEIN: We have stigma associated with biological conditions and genetic conditions and characteristics that are innate inborn and not a choice. And the mere showing that they— that people are born that way does not lead to liberation around those characteristics.
ELAH FEDER: People with certain genetic disabilities.
EDWARD: Yeah, certain people with people with genetic disabilities and— and for that matter, it's not what led to racial equality or sex equality. You know, in our sort of unsophisticated hundred years ago attitude was certainly to acknowledge that men and women were biological difference— had biological differences and yet men were better than women 100 years ago and men, you know— that was the view. And so, by— merely showing that a difference is genetic, biological, inborn, innate—does not lead to equality.
ELAH FEDER: But even if it doesn’t lead to equality, there is value in understanding human sexuality. In the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.
EDWARD: On the other hand we shouldn't be <<sighs>> starry eyed and idealistic about it. The truth— the truth is a good thing to be striving for. But the truth doesn't always set us free. We can find unhappy things when we look for the truth and the truth can be used by bad people for bad things.
ELAH FEDER: Do we really want to prove that people are born gay? On the one hand, we’d have an answer to ex-gay therapy and to people who think that gay people shouldn’t be teachers because they might influence kids. But at the same time, this work also paves the way for selective abortions and gene therapy and so-called surgical “cures.” Science does not always lead to justice.
<<Super bowl clip plays>>
ELAH FEDER: This year at the Super Bowl halftime show, Lady Gaga performed “Born This Way.” She’s dancing in a metallic leotard, there are pyrotechnics in the background, and she’s singing—
LADY GAGA: “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life/I’m on the right track baby/I was born to survive.”
ELAH FEDER: And the whole time, the crowd is cheering and waving. When she turns the mic to them, they sing the lyrics back to her.
<<crowd sings back>>
ELAH FEDER: I got tingles. But as good as it feels watching a tribute to diversity at this epic, all-American arena, if you think about it, saying you’re “born this way”—it’s not exactly a proud position. It’s kind of like saying, “I can’t help it.” The Macklemore song from a few years ago really spells it out.
SAME LOVE SONG: I can’t change/Even if I tried/Even if I wanted to—
ELAH FEDER: I’ll admit, super catchy. But “I can’t change even if I tried, even if I wanted to”? It’s not exactly empowering.
ANNIE MINOFF: Funny enough, Magnus himself, in the thousand page tome where he cataloguing everything what he’d learned about homosexuality, he said we shouldn’t care so much about why people are gay.
MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD: The question “why” is not only just a sign of learning, but is also frequently a childish limitation. If people wanted to know why there are mammals or why people exist, they would hardly be satisfied with any answer. We look at the fact of their existence as something taken for granted and that is what we should also do with homosexuality.
ELAH FEDER: Of course, we do want to know why mammals exist, and we want to understand human sexuality. So maybe we can keep asking what causes sexual orientations, as long as we keep in mind that research can be used both to help and to harm. But when it comes to advocating for rights, maybe we need to set aside arguments about biology and go back to that old Lavender song.
<<LAVENDER SONG plays out>>
ELAH FEDER: Not worrying about how or why. Just acknowledging that some people are different from the others. And there isn’t anything wrong with that.
ELAH FEDER: Undiscovered is reported and produced by me, Elah Feder.
ANNIE MINOFF: And me, Annie Minoff. Our editor is Christopher Intagliata.
ELAH FEDER: Special thanks this week to Liat Fishman for translation from German, Shane McMillan for production help in Berlin, to Tobias Enzenhofer and CharlesBergquist for voice work.
ANNIE MINOFF: Thanks also to Danielle Dana, Christian Skotte, Brandon Echter and Rachel Bouton. Fact-checking help from Michelle Harris. Original music by Daniel Peterschmidt. I am Robot and Proud wrote our theme.
ELAH FEDER: And finally, thank you to our launch partner, the John Templeton Foundation.
ANNIE MINOFF: Find more Undiscovered on twitter @undiscoveredpod or on our website undiscoveredpodcast.org.
ELAH FEDER: Thanks for listening. And yes also review us on iTunes.
ANNIE MINOFF: Yeah. Do that. Please. We’ll see you soon.