These identical twins share the same genes and upbringing, but one of them is straight and the other gay. They’re taking part in a new study that aims to help us understand what makes us who we are – and why we fall for who we do.
With mirror-image mannerisms and matching DNA, identical twins capture something in our imaginations. They are mysterious – how many times have you asked a set of twins if they can feel each other’s pain or read one another’s thoughts? – possessing an iron-strong bond that non-twins can’t even begin to wrap their heads around. But as so much is said about twins’ ‘sameness’, what happens when they differ in one fundamental aspect of their lives: their sexuality?
New research carried out by Dr Tuesday Watts and her team of psychologists at the University of Essex seeks to determine how and why, despite having the same upbringing and the same genes, identical twins can identify with different sexual orientations. A part of this work includes looking at images of the twins throughout their lives – to see if test subjects can identify when they began to ‘diverge’ in their masculinity-femininity, with one showing signs of gender nonconformity, which is related to sexual orientation. This study found that these twins started to visibly differ from each other in this respect much later than non-twins.
So could twins actually hold the key to determining the roots of our sexuality, giving us long-searched-for answers about what really makes us who we are? The researchers believe their findings rule out the idea that sexuality is solely the product of genes, because these twins share all the same DNA. They suggest that hormones and epigenetics (the influence of environmental factors on genes) could be important.
‘All my boyfriends wanted to hang out with Rosie’
Rosie, 29, is an artist; Spadge is a copywriter. Rosie is single, Spadge is married and both live in Lincoln.
Spadge says: As a child, I definitely erred on the side of the Disney princess. But if there was football on TV, or F1 racing, Rosie would be really into it. I’d just yell, ‘What is this? I want to watch Disney films!’ We’ve always been incredibly close. We went to the same school, the same university and now we live about ten minutes from each other. We’re constantly popping over to each other’s houses. Because of this, our bond is extremely tight. There was even one time in school when Rosie got hit in the face with a rounders bat. We met in the nurse’s room because I’d had a nosebleed. We call it ‘twintuition’. All my boyfriends wanted to hang out with Rosie because she had more in common with them than I did. She gets on well with my husband Rick; they both like Marvel and weapons – I couldn’t be less interested!
However, I was so surprised when Rosie came out and, actually, a bit mad at myself for not realising earlier. She is someone I am supposed to know better than anyone. But then a lot of things started to make sense. That was why she wasn’t interested in boys. That was why she liked the things she liked. It was quite surreal. I thought, ‘Hang on, this isn’t something I’ve ever considered before. Am I gay?’
I’ve since read more about sexuality and I think its roots might be hormonal: potentially the amount and type of hormones that are absorbed in the womb when twins have separated but are still taking in things from their mother. It’s all to do with epigenetics. Sexuality is like an orchestra – you can turn different sections on and off until you get a different sound. That’s how I like to think of us – we’re like remixes of the same song.
Rosie says: The best thing about being a twin is that you’ve constantly got a partner in crime. I’ve always been a tomboy. I loved football and motorbike racing and I thought for a long time that I was just asexual because I had no interest in any sort of relationship. I had lots of male friends and I’d play football or video games with them, whereas Spadge started talking about boys in a different way. She was obsessed. I began to think, ‘Hang on – I don’t feel the same way.’
When I was 18, I went to college to do an art foundation course. There was a bisexual girl there and I was strangely intrigued by her. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to be her or be with her. She wasn’t giving me any attention and it felt like the worst thing in the world. I remember Spadge listing all the boys we knew, trying to guess who I was upset about. Then I just burst out: ‘It’s not a boy!’
I want to find out what determines sexuality, and I have lesbian friends who feel the same. I’m not looking for a ‘cure’. When people say, ‘If they find out what causes it, they can get rid of it,’ it offends me. We just want to understand attraction and where it comes from. I agree with Spadge that it might be down to hormones. I’ve been on medication that’s affected my sex drive. I realise that it can change, on a day-to-day basis, what you want from life. I’m just happy to help find answers.
‘Initially, our difference in sexuality was a big issue’
Jess, 26, a junior menswear designer, lives in London; Sarah, a PhD student, lives in Birmingham. Both are in relationships.
Jess says: From the age of about 15, Sarah and I argued constantly. We were never really similar personality-wise and have always known how to press one another’s buttons. Growing up, Sarah wanted all her hair cut off, while I wanted mine long like a princess. She’d wear Spiderman stuff and I’d always be in pink. Even today we’re quite singular people and we don’t see each other very often – it can be as little as six times a year – because we live in different places. That said, we are much closer now. We talk every day and constantly FaceTime each other.
For me, sexuality wasn’t something I ever really thought about. Then at the age of 16, Sarah came out. I remember it vividly. I had gone up to her room, which was in the loft, and weirdly, she had the lights off – she obviously didn’t want to look at me. She told me, ‘Oh, by the way, I think I’m gay.’ I burst into tears and she said, ‘Don’t tell Mum or Dad.’
It drove a wedge between us for a long time. My misunderstanding and Sarah’s unwillingness to let me think on it for a bit caused tension. She felt unaccepted, and I can see that now, but it wasn’t the case. I was trying to understand it, but it was hard: I was very young, and went to a very sheltered, quite bigoted school. We lived in the countryside, we didn’t watch that much TV – this was one of the first times I’d even heard the term ‘gay’.
Now, I’m really protective of Sarah and her sexuality. I feel like a proud LGBT community member, even though I’m not gay. As I’ve got older, gone to art school and experienced different people from different backgrounds, I do feel there is a lot more fluidity in sexuality than people realise. It’s a lot more societal than we think. We don’t have to be 100 per cent one way or the other. It should just be whatever you fancy, really.
Sarah says: Jess and I were very competitive growing up. It was always, ‘I’m one centimetre taller; I’m faster than you.’ I did a lot of sport so Jess was never really in what you might call ‘the limelight’. She was quite quiet. There was a lot of overshadowing, and I think that’s where the bickering came from. It’s as though we had to win this nonexistent game and because of this we evolved into very different people on purpose. Initially, our difference in sexuality was a big issue. It actually separated us for quite a while.
It wasn’t a fracture per se, but more a time in our adolescence when she wasn’t my friend and she wasn’t my sister. But I’d kept it from her for a long time and that hurt her. You can relate on a very emotional level with your twin but we didn’t have our sexuality to share. It was incredibly tough. Nowadays, we can sit and debate. We still don’t have the same views about the same issues, but it’s because we have had very different social experiences. The environment speaks volumes about why we’re different. We had separate friendship groups at school: I was into sport and science while Jess is arty. The way that we think and the way that we problem-solve are different, but I think it’s all taught behaviour. It’s all social.
Jess and I got close again in the second year of uni. When she made a connection with other people on the LGBT spectrum we just clicked again and we started calling each other a bit more, opening up and rekindling what we had when we used to make dens in the living room. It took a long time but we got there in the end. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
‘As we’ve grown, we’ve become very different’
Harvey Gardner, 26, an art therapy student, lives in Bristol; his twin Luke, a hotel receptionist, lives in Portsmouth. They are both single.
Luke says: When we were young, Harvey and I were almost mirror images of one another. We can’t even tell who’s who in some of our family photos. But as we’ve grown, we’ve become very different people. Harvey doesn’t look like me at all now, with long hair and a beard. I don’t know if it’s conscious. Probably. But Harvey has always been quite unique. The bond twins share is definitely stronger than just siblings. If we’re in a room together and we’re having a chinwag, it is a bit odd for other people. We’ll just be talking rubbish with one another and laughing away like kids.
There is a comfort zone that comes with being a twin. It’s almost as though you’re on your own, but you’re not. You’re with this person who ‘gets’ you completely. However, if you get too comfortable then you don’t grow, get to know other people or develop better social skills. But that’s because it’s so easy when you’re with your twin. I knew when we were about 13 that I was straight and Harvey was gay.
At first I thought he was some sort of stud because he had so many lady friends, whereas I’d be out playing football. When he told me he was gay, I was, like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t really surprise me,’ but I think it was quite a big deal for him. Obviously he cares what other people think, but we both care most about what we think of one another. If I had turned round and shunned him, it would have really hurt him.
We’ve both always had deep questions about what sexuality really is. My opinion is loose. I don’t think there is necessarily a ‘preference’ but that some people try to hide who they really are. I think everyone can be attracted in some way to one another; it’s more about whether people are open about it or not.
Harvey says: I had a very sheltered childhood in terms of sexuality. I knew I was different. I didn’t want to do things with girls that other guys were talking about. I was at least 12 when I realised I liked men. I kept it a secret because life wasn’t like it is now. School was quite a horrible place for me. I had goofy teeth and braces. I really didn’t look the part – I got bullied.
The roots of sexuality are something that I’ve been thinking about for years. I feel a bit like an anomaly, and have done for a long time. I believe our family dynamics play out a lot in our relationships. In our family, there’s a bit of a split down the middle, with me being closest to our mum and Luke being closest to our dad. And I think we’ve taken on those masculine and feminine qualities. In my opinion, sexuality is based on life experience and it can be enhanced according to what kind of upbringing you have.
That said, neither of us is that romantically inclined. We’re not really that fussed. When you have a twin, you can just think, ‘Oh it’s fine – I’ll probably just move in with Luke when I get old.’
If you are an identical twin and would be interested in participating in the University of Essex’s research on sexual orientation, please click here.
Interviews by Lizzie Pook