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Wednesday 08 April 2009

What might a "Gay Brain" Mean?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 20th March 2009

"Scientists have found tentative evidence that gay men's brains are similar in configuration to those of straight women, while lesbian brains were similar to those of straight men"
Watching TV3's 60 Minutes recently, I spotted a segment on advances in neurological imaging technology, which made me wonder about what this might mean for us.

Back in the nineties, there was some preliminary neurological autopsy work done which seemed to indicate that gay male brains were different in structure to straight male ones, although it should be noted that the autopsies were performed on gay male PLWAs, so it's possible that opportunistic neurological infections might have affected the overall picture. More recently, other scientists found tentative evidence that gay men's brains are similar in configuration to those of straight women, while lesbian brains were similar to those of straight men.

Let's assume that these neurological images from magnetic resonance imaging are valid ones, though, and question what advances in neuroanatomical scanning might mean for us.

Granted, forensic MRI technology could be useful in contexts like law enforcement and neurological medical applications. However, problems arise beyond that limited context of application. It's not difficult to work out why that might be the case. Remember, the Bill of Rights and Code of Health and Disability Consumers Rights prevent forced medical treatment unless one is a tangible risk to oneself or others. One must also recall that the Code has similar provisions that deal with informed consent to medical treatment and privacy and confidentiality of medical records. When it comes to DNA sampling, for example, the New Zealand Police are obligated to destroy any collected DNA samples if a suspect is eliminated from consideration, or acquitted of criminal charges.

If forensic MRI technology were to spread beyond those narrow and legitimate applications, then we might well suffer. As yet, this is a fledgling technology. It is possible that variations in individual neuroanatomy might result in misleading results. This technology should not be allowed into the private sector, and it should not be used to provide covert disability, genetic or antigay discrimination based on intrusive and non-consensual neurological scans during employment interviews, for example, or in equally intrusive personalised 'neuromarketing'.

I have included homophobic (and transphobic) discrimination in case identifiable gay genetic sequences do turn out to cause particular neuroanatomical results. Abused, forensic MRI scans could be exploited to pry into one's latent sexual orientation or gender identity, violating one's right to medical confidentiality and privacy. I would also oppose their abuse in the context of employment or other discrimination against those with psychiatric disabilities, as this group has particularly suffered from exclusion and discrimination related to educational attainment, housing and employment stability. I imagine disability rights groups would feel the same way if it came to physical anomalies that might emerge in later life. Many disability rights activists believe that the insurance industry already has too much latitude in these areas.

As with the related area of genetic discrimination, and developments in artificial intelligence, advances in neuroscan technology may play a role in future LGBT lives. For that reason, we need to insure now that its future potential applications must not stray beyond the legitimate needs of law enforcement and medical need.


Vernon Rosario (ed) Sciences and Homosexualities: New York: Routledge: 1997.

Johann Hari: "What Makes You Want to Have Sex With Men?" Attitude 169: August 2008: 62-64.

Craig Young - 20th March 2009