Researchers from Queen Mary University of London say they believe they have found a link between gender nonconformity and sexual orientation in women.
Building on accepted evidence that gender conformity has some grounding in genetics, psychologists Andrea Burri and Qazi Rahman followed a group of children to adulthood and found that one-third of gender nonconforming girls would grow up to be lesbian.
This, researchers says, appears to suggest a biological grounding that may in fact indicate an interplay of genetic traits and environmental factors.
Burri and Rahman followed a group of 4,000 British women (including one set of twins) and asked them questions about their sexual attractions and behavior. They also asked a series of follow up questions about their gender conformity. The results of this fell in line with previous research: the team observed what they describe as “modest” genetic influences on sexual orientation and childhood gender nonconformity.
Writing in the journal PLoS One, Dr Andrea Burri and Dr Qazi Rahman from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences report that a shared set of genes and shared set of random environmental factors is partially responsible both for gender nonconformity and female sexual orientation.
Dr Qazi Rahman, co-author of the study, explains: “We found that there is a connection between these mental traits and how sexual orientation develops. One idea is that there is an association between these psychological traits and sexual orientation because they all develop under common biological drivers; like the development of brain regions under the influence of genes and sex hormones.”
Dr Rahman adds: “We think environmental factors and genetics drive other mechanisms, like exposure to sex hormones in the womb, to shape differences in gender nonconformity and sexuality simultaneously.”
Researchers also found that 50-80 percent of gender non-conforming boys would in later life identify as gay.
Dr Rahman is keen to stress that while such behavioral traits are commonplace, there are many lesbian and gay people that are gender conforming. Therefore this research should not be taken as supporting unhealthy or even damaging stereotypes that allowing children to act in a gender nonconforming manner necessarily leads to homosexuality. However, he does note that for gay people who are gender nonconforming, this research may be of some comfort:
“Poor mental health in gay populations is partly due to societal stigma and victimisation. Our results suggest that being gender nonconforming and lesbian comes from “within”; there is little you can do about it. So gender nonconformity does not cause mental health problems, but it may trigger negative reactions from other people (like parents and peers) leading to mental health problems,”says Dr Rahman.
As with all research like this, it is important not to draw errant conclusions from what is a narrow yet very interesting study.
The last point that Dr Rahman makes is important though: Whether a concrete genetic cause regarding homosexuality will be found or a combination of factors is determined to be at work here, what is key is that once again research supports the idea of sexuality being innate, or that it is not a choice. Now we find evidence that gender nonconformity may also be a trait outside of our control.