Are Gay People Smarter Than Straight People?

Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation
Sept. 30 2013 9:00 AM

Are Gay People Smarter Than Straight People?   

Choreographer and dancer Kyle Abraham, one of at least three openly gay 2013 MacArthur fellows
Choreographer and dancer Kyle Abraham, one of at least three openly gay 2013 MacArthur fellows

Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation revealed the recipients of its so-called “genius” awards, a $625,000 grant dispensed over five years to innovators, visionaries, and trailblazers. Of the 24 winners this year, at least three are openly gay, meaning gay people are significantly overrepresented among the genius pool. The news has led some to speculate that gay geniuses outnumber straight ones, proportionally, in the population at large. Are gay people really smarter than straight people?

It’s a tricky question, but at least one researcher thinks he has the answer—and the data to prove it. Last year, Satoshi Kanazawa argued in the Journal of Biosocial Science that gay people are typically born with more intelligence than the average heterosexual. Kanazawa explained his findings through the Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis, which holds that smart people are better able to override their evolutionary impulses, adapting to new stimuli and desires more effectively than average or dumb people can. Just as smart people are ostensibly more likely to be vegetarians—a choice that requires shutting off the evolutionary impulse toward meat—so, too, are smart people more willing to engage with same-sex desires.

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But there’s a major problem with this premise. Kanazawa asserts that homosexuality is an evolutionary handicap because it prevents reproduction. This notion, though widely accepted in pop culture, is debatable at best. Some scientists speculate that the same genetic factors that cause homosexuality in one gender also induce hyperfertility in the other, a theory called sexually antagonistic selection. A gay man might be at an evolutionary dead end, in other words, but his sisters will be blessed with extreme fecundity, more than making up the balance. Homosexuality, according to this theory, isn’t some evolutionary defect: It’s a biological boon.

Even more obvious, however, is the common sense objection: What if smarter people simply feel more comfortable coming out? Assume, for the sake of argument, that intelligent people are, for whatever reason, more open-minded than dumb people. This would lead more intelligent gay people to come out while leaving dumber gay people in the closet, thereby completely skewing the data. Sexual orientation surveys are, after all, self-reported, leaving ample room for fibs and falsehoods. This eminently plausible alternative explanation, combined with Kanazawa’s alarmingly spotty record of scientific integrity, probably reduces his hypothesis to just another dingbat theory.

Where scientific arguments falter, however, sociological arguments pick up steam. Gay couples are more likely to have higher household incomes and college degrees than straight couples—two possible proxies for intelligence. Gay men in college, moreover, have higher-than-average GPAs and are significantly more likely to participate in extracurricular activities. Gays are wealthier and better educated than most Americans; shouldn’t that indicate that they’re also smarter?

If you’re prone to gay exceptionalism, you might believe so. But there’s good cause for skepticism. Here, again, an alternative explanation seems highly persuasive: Gay people might just work harder than their heterosexual counterparts. Starting in childhood, most gay people are acutely aware of the challenges they’ll face, the roadblocks they’ll encounter, the discrimination they’ll battle. Gays born into small towns—which tend toward homophobia—understand early on that they must escape in order to find acceptance. For LGBT youths, escape usually hinges on two all-important factors: good grades and money. When excelling in school and making money are the only escape hatch to happiness, hitting the books and working overtime have a lot more appeal.

For many gay people, that lurking fear of instability never goes away—and why should it? The government still discriminates against gay couple in both obvious and insidious ways. In most states, gay people can still be fired for being gay. Many states ban gay adoption; others keep gay people out of their partners’ hospital rooms. With this constant threat of bigotry in the background, is it any wonder that gay people strive for good grades and great jobs? Gay couples plan well for their financial futures not because they’re brilliant money managers, but because they have little to no social safety net. Before the fall of DOMA, many gay couples couldn’t share health insurance, and none could share Social Security benefits. Even today, many still can’t formally adopt a child with their partner. Financial security can’t solve all of these problems. But it helps to provide LGBT Americans a safety net denied to them by their own government.

The next time some study claims to show a link between sexuality and intelligence, then, it’s probably best to ignore it. Gays might be overrepresented in the “genius” pool—and the Ivy League, and the Fortune 500—but there are more than enough dumb gays to even out the numbers. Homosexuality isn’t a magical spark that ignites the fire of brilliance. It’s just a biological quirk. If we’re going to insist that gay love is no different from straight love, we’ll have to accept that gay brains are no better, or worse, than straight ones.

Mark Joseph Stern Mark Joseph Stern

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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