‘The science of LGBTQ+ identities: tensions and common misconceptions’

Diagram showing penis strapped up to equipment – this is science peeps

About the event

Scientists have been trying to understand and classify variance in human sexual orientation and gender identity since the 19th century. More than a century later, we are still far from a clear understanding of these issues. Some might even say that given the rapid societal changes of the last few decades, non-heterosexual identities are more difficult to understand than ever.

In this talk, we will ask: Is the attempt to classify sexual orientations and gender identities into neat ever likely to succeed? Do we simply need better tools, or was the enterprise doomed to fail to begin with?

We will try to understand some of the three-way tensions surrounding LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) identities between society, science, and LGBTQ+ individuals. We will review some attempts to “objectively” categorize and quantify sexual orientation and gender identity and touch on the conceptual difficulties that hinder such attempts. Finally, we will touch on the ethical issues arising when trying to define and study gender identities and sexual orientations.

Dr. Alon Zivony completed his PhD in cognitive psychology at Tel-Aviv University. He is currently a Marie-Skodowska Curie postdoctoral fellow, conducting cognitive electrophysiological research in Birkbeck College. He conducted several studies regarding LGBTQ+ stereotypes and has developed and taught a course about the psychological research into of gender identities and sexual orientation. He has 15 years of experience as an LGBTQ+ advocate and has given hundreds of workshops to students and teachers.

From the blurb on Birkbeck’s website

This event was held online and open to the public. About 30 people attended, so not exactly a great turn out.

UCL recently decided not to re-join Stonewall, but nevertheless its spirit is alive and kicking.

Introduced by

Dr Fiona Tasker, Professor of Psychology in the department of psychological sciences, introduced the event. This was the first joint event between the Birkbeck departments of psychological sciences and the institute of gender and sexuality. The event had been part funded by the Birkbeck institute of social research.

Fiona’s pronouns are she/her and is a professor of psychology with a ‘particular interest in LGBTIQ psychology and families’. Her ‘main research thing has been rainbow families’.

She welcomed Dr Alon Zivony who was going to give us the ‘science of LGBTQ+ identities’. Hear that? The ‘science‘. Alon has been working in Birkbeck’s brain behaviour lab. Alon has many awards, including a Newton Fellowship from the British Academy. Alon has also received a commendation from Birkbeck for public engagement.

Alon has done a lot of research in the area of LGBTQ and has been an LGBTQ ‘advocate for 15 years’ and given a lot of workshops of this type to students and teachers alike.

Alon’s talk

Alon promised us he was going to talk about the ‘science’ behind LGBTQ+ identities. But he never did. I will say up front that Alon identifies as a bisexual. An important thing to know for the context of the talk, which we only learnt at the end during the Q&A, though I think most people could have guessed given the general theme of the talk; the prevalence of bisexuality.

First we were told there were three tensions: 1) science and society, 2) science vs science and 3) science and individuals. Then we had a slide, with some nice pictures, which demonstrated the historical; namely there had been same sex couplings since Ancient times and ‘transgender women’. Oh, and a quote from Leviticus (20:13) which didn’t use the word ‘gay’ to describe male homosexual relationships. Can’t think why. But Alon knew. It’s because the word hadn’t been invented yet. (Some of us even know that it actually originated as an acronym – Good As You.)

Alon told us that in 1868 Karl-Maria Kerbeny first coined the word ‘homosexual’ in a pamphlet when he campaigned against the death penalty for homosexuality – I could not find a reference which exactly backed that up, just that Kerbeny had been asked to write a chapter in a book which was never published.

Then Alon posed the questions ‘Why do we need identities?’ (his emphasis) and ‘Why do scientises [sic] need identities?’ confirming that this was no serious scientific or psychological inquiry at all. A real scientific inquiry would at least ask the question: Is there any biological basis for homosexuality?

Biological sex was straightforward, until you got to college grade level, when you were finally ready to learn that men and women with abnormal sex chromosomes, were also normally afflicted by problems of the sexual reproductive tract. (Just joking, Alon didn’t say anything nearly as sensible about ‘intersex’ issues).

A run through the 20th Century

A historical timeline included Freud having been sort of positive about homosexuality in 1905, informing us that Freud believe it arose from psychological conflict but that individuals could be otherwise healthy and didn’t require treatment.

Sandor Rado was accused of having said that homosexuality was a sign of severe psychopathology and had promoted the idea it could be cured (though this New York Times article fails to mention that, and on further Googling it appears he did not believe in ‘constitutional bisexuality‘ promoted by Freud later in his career, so perhaps that was Alon’s real beef).

Evelyn Hooker and John E. Fryer were the psychologists who wanted to depathologise it. Homosexuality was taken out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973 and Gender Identity Disorder followed in 2013.

Science vs. science

Lisa Diamond was presented on a slide with little explanation and I believe the results of her research presented. Post-lecture I discovered that Diamond is most famous for carrying out a ten year study on female bisexuality and her primary research interest is ‘sexual fluidity’. I briefly checked out a video featuring Diamond on youtube, where she was invited to talk about sexual fluidity, where she felt free to discuss the completely unrelated issue of men in women’s sports – which she describes as a ‘manufactured debate’.

Have you ever seen such a contrived ‘I’m cray-cray’ hairstyle in your life?

Anyway back to Diamond’s research. Alon presented the following results. Everything comes in threes it seems. Diamond’s model looks at sexuality as being comprised of attraction, romantic feelings and sexual intercourse.

It was claimed that people with confirmed sexual orientations were really much more bisexual than they themselves realised. Below is a table which denotes where people had experienced an attraction against their stated sexuality – Alon presented these results over the course of 3 slides.

Over last year …Lesbians (to men)Gay Men (to women)Heterosexual Women (to women)Heterosexual Men (to men)
Attraction48405025
Romantic Feelings15312013
Sex with91229
Results are percentages – but how many people were asked?

So you see everyone is bisexual really! We weren’t provided with any details about how ‘attraction’ or ‘romantic feelings’ were defined, nor of the numbers surveyed, nor how those candidates were recruited.

Then a supposed quote from a Saint of the LGBTQ+ movement, Alfred Kinsey, popped up. It has been alleged recently that Kinsey colluded in the sexual molestation of minors in the name of research and failed to report to the police when research participants admitted to sexual crimes.

The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white …

Nature rarely deals with discrete categories …

The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.

From Alon’s slide, suggesting it was a direct quote

The actual full quote was very easy to find. It’s from a paper, and I’m surprised, nay shocked, that Alon didn’t simply show us the full paragraph. Why ever not?

Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex. . . .

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, in fact a co-authored paper by Kinsey and two others

So who are the sheep and who are the goats? We never learned, but Alon was very happy to leave that image lurking in the corners of our mind.

Guess who else did research to prove that humans are constitutionally bisexual? Why of course Kinsey did, with the Kinsey Scale continuing to live on well after his death. In fact, it featured in the YouGov survey that Alon moved onto next. This had shown very high levels of bisexuality in 18-24 year olds (43 percent) and used the Kinsey Scale as a metric.

How many people identify as transgender?

Not that many as it turns out, just a piddly 0.4 to 0.6 percent. However, if you use a slightly different definition other than ‘transgender’ then you get a better result (0.8 to 1.1 percent – ‘incongruent gender identity’). Further tweaks to the language (‘ambivalent gender identity’) and you can get up to a whopping to 3.2 to 4.6 percent.

Ready for the sciency bit?

Alon explained to us that if men really only just felt like men, and women like women, we would to see a very simple axial graph. However, if you allowed for nuance you would get this:

A pretty graph which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. So now 35% percent of people might be ‘transgender’? That’s an incredible reach, it really is, you have to applaud the ingenuity.

Objective measures

Objective measures included looking at how big a person’s ‘third interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus’ might be, or alternatively the more easy task of looking at the length of fingers. Alon told us both these investigations had drawn blanks and were not predictors for sexuality or gender identity. Damn.

However, strapping pressure-inducing sensors to a penis and then exposing said penis-owner to pornographic imagery had happily shown results that the willing penises had had ‘movement’ with regards to both male and female pornographic imagery, regardless of the penis-owner’s stated sexuality. Great stuff.

Tension no. 3 – Science and individuals

Another slide, another question: Is self-identification meaningless? No! was the answer (in size 48 font).

We learnt that identities were incredibly important for mental health and that if people don’t recognise your special identity you are at risk of harm. A pictogram of a shield was used with arrows including words like ‘shame’ and ‘isolation’ and a scared-looking enby quivering behind it. Alon rather forgot that shields can also double up as weapons as he explained the metaphor to us.

Were there too many identities though? No there weren’t! Not enough in fact. We want more!

Classification of sexualities and gender identities could not be represented by a taxonomic system and therefore we needed to think it of more like music genres (proving again that he hadn’t thought his metaphors through, since classical/hip-hop wouldn’t really ever be a thing (we hope)).

Take home messages

  1. There is no easy way to classify gender and sexual orientation. (Two sexes, heterosexual attraction, homosexual attraction – done it for you.)
  2. Can scientists even study gender and sexual orientation? YES, but … (but what, dickhead?)
  3. Respect for peoples’ identities has real-world consequences and requires ethical consideration. (Exceptions presumably made for pervy researchers who like strapping sensors to semi-erect todgers.)

And that was the end of the presentation.

Question and answer

The audience was so stunned at the end of Alon’s talk no one was able to formulate any questions initially, which meant it was left to Dr Tasker to ramble on for about ten minutes whilst people collected themselves together. In response to Tasker’s preamble we learnt that Alon (surprise surprise) was not a big fan of empirical research because it meant you missed the bigger picture, preferring instead an ‘open channel of communication’ (whatever that means).

Why is there so much resistance to multi-gender identities? What does that stir up in cisgender identities?

Opposite sexes is such a weird idea! said Alon. Society had spent a lot of effort into this idea. We would really have to change society if the idea of multi-genders and bisexuality became normalised (revealing his hand late in the game).

Is sexual preference based on gender or sex?

Alon told us that lesbian might only be attracted to other people with vaginas. But if she saw a ‘transgender woman’ who might not ‘have a vagina’ and they might not know what kind of genitals they had (not a vagina I can guarantee) then the attraction might be ‘more visual’ (?). Sexuality was much more multifaceted than we knew.


It should be noted that no attempt was made to define the + (as in the end of the acronym).

The recording is to be posted publicly in due course and when it is I shall post it here.


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2 comments

  1. How weird. I am left none the wiser about anything! It seems one can build an academic career on the basis of saying some stuff to an audience.

    Liked by 1 person

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