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Gay people often have older brothers. Why? And does it matter?

Credit: Lily Padula for NPR

The Science of Siblings is a new series exploring the ways our siblings can influence us, from our money and our mental health all the way down to our very molecules. We'll besharing these stories over the next several weeks.

This is something I learned years ago through gay bar chatter: Gay people are often the youngest kids in their families. I liked the idea right away — as a gay youngest sibling, it made me feel like there was a statistical order to things and I fit neatly into that order.

When I started to report on the science behind it, I learned it's true: There is a well-documented correlation between having older siblings (older brothers, specifically) and a person's chance of being gay. But parts of the story also struck me as strange and dark. I thought of We the Animals, Justin Torres' haunting semi-autobiographical novel about three brothers — the youngest of whom is queer — growing up in New York state. So I called Torres to get his take on the idea.

Torres' first reaction was to find it considerably less appealing than I did. This makes sense — his latest novel, Blackouts, won a National Book Award last year, and it grapples with the sinister history of how scientists have studied sexuality. "My novel is interested in the pre-Kinsey sexology studies, specifically this one called Sex Variants," he told me. "It's really informed by eugenics. They were looking for the cause of homosexuality in the body in order to treat it or cure it or get rid of it."

That's why, when he saw my inquiry about a statistical finding that connects sexuality and birth order, he was wary. "To be frank, I find these kinds of studies that're looking for something rooted in the body to explain sexuality to be kind of bunk. I think they rely on a really binary understanding of sexuality itself," he said.

"That's fair," I conceded. But this connection between queerness and older brothers has been found so many times in so many places that one researcher told me it's "a kind of truth" in the science of sexuality.

Rooted in a dark past

The first research on this topic did indeed begin in the 1940s and '50s, during that era of investigations into what causes homosexuality, to be able to cure it. At the time, the queer people whom scientists were studying were living in a world where this facet of their identity was dangerous. Plus, the studies themselves didn't find much, says Jan Kabátek, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne.

"Most of it fell flat," he told me. "But there is an exception to this, and that is the finding that men, specifically, who exhibit attraction to the same sex are likely to have more older brothers than other types of siblings."

/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In the 1990s, this was dubbed the "fraternal birth order effect." In the years since, it has been found again and again, all over the world.

"This pattern has been documented around Canada and the United States, but it goes well beyond that," says Scott Semenyna, a psychology professor at Stetson University. "There's been now many confirmations that this pattern exists in countries like Samoa. It exists in southern Mexico. It exists in places like Turkey and Brazil."

Huge study, consistent findings

An impressive recent study established that this pattern held up in an analysis of a huge sample — over 9 million people from the Netherlands. It confirmed all those earlier studies and added a twist.

"Interestingly enough — and this is quite different from what has been done before — we also showed that the same association manifests for women," explains Kabátek, one of the study's authors. Women who were in same-sex marriages were also more likely to have older brothers than other types of siblings.

At baseline, the chance that someone will be gay is pretty small. "Somewhere around 2 to 3% — we can call it 2% just for the sake of simplicity," Semenyna says. "The fraternal birth order effect shows that you're going to run into about a 33% increase in the probability of, like, male same-sex attraction for every older brother that you have."

The effect is cumulative: The more older brothers someone has, the bigger it is. If you have one older brother, your probability of being gay nudges up to about 2.6%. "And then that probability would increase another 33% if there was a second older brother, to about 3.5%," Semenyna says.

If you have five older brothers, your chance of being gay is about 8% — so, four times the baseline probability.

The author, Selena Simmons-Duffin, at age 3, with her brother, David Simmons-Duffin, at age 5.
/ The Simmons-Duffin family
The Simmons-Duffin family
The author, Selena Simmons-Duffin, at age 3, with her brother, David Simmons-Duffin, at age 5.

Still, even 8% is pretty small. "The vast majority of people who have a lot of older brothers are still going to come out opposite-sex attracted," Semenyna says. Also, plenty of gay people have no brothers at all, or they're the oldest in their families. Having older brothers is definitely not the only influence on a person's sexuality.

"But just the fact that we are observing effects that are so strong, relatively speaking, implies that there's a good chance that there is, at least partially, some biological mechanism that is driving these associations," Kabátek says.

A hypothesis, but no definitive mechanism

For decades, the leading candidate for that biological mechanism has been the "maternal immune hypothesis," Semenyna explains. "The basic version of this hypothesis is that when a male fetus is developing, the Y chromosome of the male produces proteins that are going to be recognized as foreign by the mother's immune system and it forms somewhat of an immune response to those proteins."

That immune response has some effect on the development of subsequent male fetuses, Semenyna says. The plausibility of this hypothesis was bolstered by a 2017 study that found "that mothers of gay sons have more of these antibodies that target these male-specific proteins than mothers of sons who are not gay or mothers who have no sons whatsoever," he says.

But now that Kabátek's study of the Dutch population has found that this pattern was present among women in same-sex marriages as well, there are new questions about whether this hypothesis is correct.

"One option is that the immune hypothesis works for both men and women," Kabátek says. "Of course, there can be also other explanations. It's for prospective research to make this clearer."

Fun to think about, but concerning too

In a way, I tell Justin Torres, this effect seems simple and fun to me. It's a concrete statistical finding, documented all over the world, and there's an intriguing hypothesis about why it may happen biologically. But darker undercurrents in all of it worry me, like raising a dangerous idea that becoming gay in the womb is the only version of gayness that is real — or a repackaged version of the old idea that mothers are to "blame."

/ Mariner Books
Mariner Books

"It is the undercurrents that worry me immensely," he responds. "I remember when I was a kid — I have this memory of watching daytime television. I must have been staying home from school sick in the late '80s or early '90s. The host polled the audience and said, 'If there was a test [during pregnancy] and you could know if your child was gay, would you abort?' I remember being so horrified and disturbed watching all those hands go up in the audience — just feeling so hated. At that young age, I knew this thing about myself, even if I wasn't ready to admit it."

Even if tolerance for queer people in American society has grown a lot since then, he says, "I think that tolerance waxes and wanes, and I worry about that line of thinking."

At the same time, he agrees that the idea of a connection with gay people being the youngest kids in their families is kind of hilarious. "One thing that pops into my mind is, like, maybe if you're just surrounded by a lot of men, you either choose or don't choose men, right?" he laughs.

Essentially, in his view, it's fun to think about, but probably not deeper than that.

"As a humanist, I just don't know why we need to look for explanations for something as complex and joyous and weird as sexuality," Torres says.

Then again, scientists are unlikely to be able to resist that mysterious, weird complexity. Even if the joy and self-expression and community and so many other parts of queerness and sexuality will always be more than statistics can explain.

More from the Science of Siblings series:

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Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.