Of Beards and Brain Chemistry

March 7, 2006

One of the things I liked best about Brokeback Mountain (besides gorgeous lanky fellas in jeans frollicking like randy rams) was that it spent time fleshing out the main characters’ relationship with their respective wives. You got a complicated taste of the initial attractions, the creeping estrangement, the ultimate heartache. The wives were not presented simply as beards. In fact, some of the earlier reviews I read contained speculation whether Jack and Ennis were gay at all, because they clearly loved or had been attracted to their spouses or other women.

The New York Times, mining the movie for fresh topics, came up with this: real-life Brokeback marriages. They featured wives who had been abandoned by gay husbands, and couples who had managed to stay together, despite the “fishing trips.”

But how could this be? Reason number 207 why gay folks are not so different from straight ones:

Helen Fisher, a research anthropologist at Rutgers University, said in an interview that human partnerships are shaped by three independent neurochemical brain-body systems, responsible respectively for sexual attraction, romantic yearning and long-term attachment.

“The three systems are very fickle. They can act together, or they can act separately,” Dr. Fisher said. This, she said, helps explain why people can be wildly sexually attracted to those they have no romantic interest in, and romantically drawn to — or permanently attached to — people who hold no sexual interest.

“Once the system is triggered, it’s so chemically powerful that you can easily overlook everything about that person that doesn’t work for you,” Dr. Fisher said. “Even straight people have fallen in love with people they could never make a life with,” she said.

I must remember all this when it comes time to explain the birds and bees to my son.