British Man ’Turns Gay’ After Accident?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 9, 2011

A British man who was previously a rugby-playing skinhead broke his neck and suffered a stroke--and then, he says, found that his sexuality had changed from straight to gay, British newspaper the Daily Mail reported in a Nov. 8 article.

26-year-old Chris Birch weighed in at 266 pounds and was engaged to his girlfriend when he suffered a freak accident at the gym that left him with a broken neck. He subsequently suffered a stroke and, he says, when he woke up in the hospital he was a changed man--in every sense.

Moreover, Birch says, the transformation has proven to be permanent.

"I was gay when I woke up and I still am," Birch told the press. "I had never been attracted to a man before--I'd never even had any gay friends. But I didn't care about who I was before, I had to be true to my feelings."

Virtually overnight, Birch changed from a sports fan who liked hanging out with friends, drinking beer, and playing rugby--a rough and tumble sport much like American football, though without helmets and padding--to what he called a "preened man."

With his change of personality and interests came other life changes as well: Birch gave up his banking job, became a hairdresser, and started dating a man.

He also cleaned up his act and became more health and fashion conscious.

"Suddenly, I hated everything about my old life," Birch told the media. "I didn't get on with my friends, I hated sport and found my job boring.

"I started to take more pride in my appearance, bleached my hair and started working out," Birch added. "I went from a 19 stone (266 lb.) skinhead to an 11 stone (154 lb.) preened man."

Along with his new feelings he gained other beneficial attitudes.

"People I used to know barely recognized me," Birch recounted, "and with my new look I became even more confident."

"He sought advice from his neurologist who said the changes in his personality could be due to the stroke opening up a different part of his brain," the article said. "There have been cases of patients waking up with different accents and of others becoming artists following strokes."

Research has long indicated that there are neurophysiologic reasons for some people being gay or lesbian. Sexual minorities themselves insist that they do not "choose" their sexual orientation, but say that their romantic and sexual feelings are deep seated and innate.

"Strokes can have a big effect on individuals and lead to personality changes," noted Joe Korner of the Stroke Association. "During recovery the brain makes new neural connections which can trigger things people weren't aware of such as accent, language or perhaps a different sexuality.

"Whether or not the stroke turned Chris gay, or whether he was gay anyway but unaware of it, his experience seems to be a positive one, which is great," added Korner.

Birch does not regard the change in his sexuality and other personality changes as being an impediment; rather, they are now as much his own personal nature as his previous persona had been. Indeed, Birch regards his new personality traits as beneficial.

"I think I'm happier than ever, so I don't regret the accident," Birch told the media. "I'm nothing like the old Chris now, and although I'm sorry it's upset my family, I wouldn't change a thing."

Though quite rare, changes in sexual orientation have been observed in other cases of stroke. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences published a paper on how a gay man in his 50s suffered a stroke and then claimed to have turned heterosexual.

Researchers have taken note that brain chemistry seems to have an influence on the sexual orientation of animals. But, they caution, those observations should not be taken to mean that human beings will one day be able to switch from one orientation to the other.

A March 27 article says that genetically engineered male mice unable to produce their own serotonin exhibited more same-sex courtship behavior, mounting other males and "singing" to them at frequencies too high for the human ear to detect--another part of the mouse mating ritual.

"Serotonin is known to regulate sexual behaviors, such as erection, ejaculation and orgasm, in both mice and men," the article said. "The compound generally dampens sexual activity; for instance, antidepressants that increase the amount of serotonin in the brain sometimes decrease sex drive."

The article said that mice with normal serotonin levels "mounted females first," but that "nearly half" of the mice lacking the brain chemical "clambered onto males before females," and went on to report that when the mice were given injections to enable them to produce serotonin, they then "mounted females more than males." However, if the serotonin levels climbed too high, the result was a reduction in "male-female mounting," the article said.

"An unavoidable question raised by our findings is whether [serotonin] has a role in sexual preference in other animals," the researchers wrote in a paper that was published in science journal Nature on March 24.

Florida State University's Elaine Hull told LiveScience that the results may have some bearing on the mysteries of human sexuality, but added, "A lot of people are going to be reading more into this than may or may not be warranted." Hull warned that further research was called for, and warned against "jump[ing] to the conclusion that serotonin is the factor that inhibits male-to-male attraction."

Research also indicates the brain structure plays a key role in sexual orientation, and genetics seems to play a part as well.

Intriguing research carried out in Korea last year shows that there might indeed be a genetic basis for homosexuality, at least in mice--not by the presence of a specific "gay gene," but rather due to the deletion of a gene.

When Korean researchers deleted a gene in laboratory mice relevant to a specific enzyme, fucose mutarotase, what they ended up with were female mice whose sexual behavior focused on other female mice, due to a "masculinization" of their brain structures, reported Neuroscience on July 15, 2010. The female mice shunned sexual contact with male mice, and displayed sexual interest in other females.

Similar brain structure differences have been theorized to account for gay and lesbian humans. Scientists suspect that in utero hormone levels play a role in the development of human fetuses that later develop into gay or lesbian adults. Several studies have confirmed a slight, but definite, increase in the incidence of homosexuality in children whose mothers have already given birth to male offspring.

Though changing the hormone balance in the human brain in the same way would probably not lead to a "masculinization" of human neural pathways--the specific hormones that appear to govern human brains and related sexuality are different than in mice--it is possible that an analogous genetic change could have a similar impact of human sexuality.

However, a genetically based "cure" (or prevention) for gay humans also seems questionable, since human sexuality could be the result of a confluence of factors.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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