On Growing Up Straight in a Gay Community Debra Soh
Denise Johnson


On Growing Up Straight in the Gay Community

With the arrival of Pride every summer, I become really nostalgic for celebrations of yore. As many of my readers will know, some of the most important and influential people in my life have been gay men, and as a young woman, they left a life-altering mark on the way I view the world. It was through them that I realized I could be a strong, independent, outspoken female, not giving AF, while doing it all in six-inch heels.

The gay community has always championed strong women (think of gay icons Cher and Madonna), and the bond I had with my friends was like no other. Unlike my straight male friends, who would all-too-predictably disappear the minute they got a girlfriend, gay men appreciated a bad bitch in a well-coordinated outfit, every day of the year. We were nightly staples at the local gay bars. Mondays were low-key, Wednesdays had drag night and Saturdays were filled with hundreds of shirtless men, dancing to pop hits by Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue. We’d spend our days in-between, visiting each other at the make-up companies we worked for, gossiping about the newest fashion trends and our friends’ latest boyfriends.

They were the sisters I never had. Adam, a beautiful 40-year-old brunette who still looked 25, gave me the kind of advice every young woman needed to hear: Never let anybody judge you for the clothes you choose to wear. Don’t be ashamed to talk about sex, because there’s nothing shameful about it. My best friend, Steven, was hysterically funny and always down for a trip to McDonald’s. We got ourselves into countless altercations with strangers in public due to our big mouths.

Our fun nights out culminated annually in the form of Pride. Every year, in late June, a gaggle of 20 or so gay men and I would stampede loudly into a weekend full of club-hopping, random hook-ups (on their part) and in-group drama, to be followed by a slightly more subdued, hung-over and sleep-deprived attendance at the official parade the next morning. I was usually one of few straight people at these events, but the gay men I’d meet were always welcoming and kind.

Most of my friends weren’t yet out to their families or straight friends, and they couldn’t show affection with their boyfriends in public without being harassed or facing physical violence. Attending Pride was a statement of solidarity as much as it was a free reining party—you were telling the world that it needed to change, because there was nothing wrong with being gay.
When it was frowned upon for a woman to be assertive in pursuit of what she wanted out of life, the gay community embraced those of us who weren’t afraid to stand out and speak our minds.
It was during this time that I happened to come across the work of Ray Blanchard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and a world-renowned sexologist. His research had been profiled in Time magazine, and I read with intense fascination about his theory of the fraternal birth order effect—the idea that gay men were, on average, more likely than straight men or lesbian women to have a greater number of older brothers.

The reason for this stems from the prenatal environment; when a woman becomes pregnant with a male fetus, this sets off a particular reaction in her immune system, a response that strengthens with each subsequent son. Blanchard believed this maternal immune response was what increased the likelihood that younger-born sons would be homosexual.

Back then, the average person on the street didn’t know what made someone gay or straight—whether it was innate or a choice—but my friends all swore that it had to be biological. “I’ve been attracted to men for as long as I can remember,” they would say. I showed them the article as a way of helping them put together the pieces of who they were. Several years later, I thought again of Blanchard’s research, and made the decision to pursue graduate study in sexology. (Incidentally, I now consider Ray both a former colleague and a friend.)

In the 15 years since that magazine article was published, a large body of evidence has confirmed that the fraternal birth order effect is reliably linked to sexual orientation in men. In a recent study, Blanchard and a team of researchers, led by Anthony Bogaert at Brock University in Canada, went a step further and demonstrated that it is indeed immunological.
In the study, women who had gay sons—and especially, those with gay sons with older brothers—were shown to have higher levels of antibodies against NLGN4Y (a protein involved in brain development in males) than did mothers who had straight sons or no male offspring. This may lead to differences in the way an unborn baby’s brain is masculinized.

Of course, this immune response is likely only one factor among many that influences male sexual orientation, since not every man who has many older brothers is gay. But these findings fit in with the larger scientific consensus, supporting the idea that sexual orientation is biological. This includes formative work by Simon LeVay, the O.G. sexual neuroscientist, whose research in the early 1990s showed differences in brain structure between men who were straight and gay.

As for me, in the process of changing career paths and growing up, I eventually toned things down, retiring my short-shorts and F-bombs, replacing tequila shots at dinner with requests for a Perrier. I started reading neuroscience textbooks and asking where this new information might take me.

My friends advanced in their careers and now wear suits to work. If my former self could see us today, I don’t think she’d recognize us. But no matter how much my life changes, the Village will always be my second home. At a time when it was frowned upon for a woman to rock the boat and to be assertive in pursuit of what she wanted out of life, the gay community embraced and nurtured those of us who weren’t afraid to stand out and speak our minds. As a columnist, people often ask me where I find the courage to say the things I do. I owe a lot to those days, the boys who knew me in my youth.

Debra W. Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her and her writing: @DrDebraSoh.

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