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Might Gays Be Better Soldiers?

Differences in homosexual brains suggest that gay soldiers might make for a sharper fighting force.

With the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” looking imminent, the next question on America’s mind is what a military with openly gay soldiers will look like. Most experts, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, believe that a repeal of the discriminatory law won’t at all endanger the military’s stability. And a large majority of enlisted troops agree with them. But what if a military that welcomes gays and lesbians with open arms doesn’t just not fall part, but actually shows remarkable improvement?

For decades now, scientists seeking to understand why people are gay have done neurological research on homosexual versus heterosexual brain patterns. Though these experiments might initially sound like phrenology, pseudoscientific hooey that attempted to predict mental ability based on the size and shape of the skull, in fact, they have been academic and replicable. And while there’s still no consensus as to what makes someone gay, the differences between gay and straight brains that these studies have uncovered are not insignificant.

Take the 2008 work of a team of Swedish scientists in Stockholm. Using magnetic resonance imaging and 90 male and female volunteers, the group discovered that gay men’s brains are strikingly similar to those of straight women, which might explain homosexual men’s proficiency at languages:

Using brain-scanning equipment, researchers said they discovered similarities in the brain circuits that deal with language, perhaps explaining why homosexual men tend to outperform straight men on verbal skills tests -- as do heterosexual women.


(Adding a little credence to that theory, Lieutenant Dan Choi, a West Point graduate who was discharged from the Army because he is gay, is an Arabic expert whose services were invaluable in Iraq.)

More recently, in July of 2010, researchers at York University released a study showing that gay men’s brain hemispheres worked in conjunction with one another better than straight men’s, allowing them to remember faces quicker and more accurately:

[The study] found that when memorizing and discriminating between faces, homosexual men show patterns of bilaterality -- the usage of both sides of the brain -- similar to heterosexual women. Heterosexual men tend to favour the right hemisphere for such tasks.


None of this is to say that homosexual men are smarter, of course, and a search for data saying as much yielded nothing. However, research published in the Economics of Education Review in 2009 said that gay men are in fact more motivated to learn than their straight counterparts, at least on college campuses. “The thing that really comes out is that gay men see academic work as more important than heterosexual men,” Christopher Carpenter, an assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine, and the study’s author, told Miller-McCune. “They were 1.41 times more likely to say their academic work was important.”

If the research is to be believed, what all this amounts to is that gay soldiers can probably be counted on to beat straight soldiers in at least a few important metrics: A gay male soldier will likely be more adept at learning foreign languages than a straight soldier; he’ll also likely be better at remembering his way around foreign terrain and recalling the faces of—in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan—known insurgents. Beyond that, whatever he doesn’t know, he’ll probably be eager to learn.

It’s important to note that the gay brain isn’t perfect. Scientists say one of the main differences between gay and straight male brains is that straight men’s amygdalae, which help process emotional responses, have more nerve connections on the right hemisphere than the left. This imbalance, they theorize, leads to a more oriented fight-or-flight response in straight males, and it may be the one place in which the straight brain is preferable to the gay brain in a warzone. Gay men are also more susceptible to depressive disorders—like all minorities—meaning that gay soldiers may be more vulnerable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder once off the battlefield.

For their part, lesbians, who exhibit “above-average levels” of engagement and activism in the academic environment, and whose brains resemble the shape of straight male brains, would seem to have the best of both worlds—a particularly active mind and one whose fight-or-flight response to stress is heightened.

In the end, whether gays belong in the military is not a hard question—of course they do. The harder question is what makes a good soldier. Is it someone with an enhanced visceral response under extreme duress, or is it someone with the sharpness of intellect and memory to better avoid the duress in the first place?

That may be a question for Custer.

photo (cc) via Flickr user Geordie Mott

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