Challenges to research

Where does sexual attraction come from? And why are some people transgender, others cisgender, and still others some other gender or sexual identity? It hasn’t been easy for scientists to explore these questions. Politics sometimes gets in the way of research, with people at both ends of the political spectrum expressing doubts about the merits of such work.

Research on gender and sexual identity is also difficult to accomplish. Our identities are highly individual, complex and multi-faceted, and they don't lend themselves easily to being studied in scientific labs.

Take sexual orientation. Science writer Megan Cartwright sums up the challenges to studying the origins and development of same-sex attraction: “The science . . . is extremely complicated, with genetics and hormones and other factors playing parts." (Cartwright, 2015)." In other words, there's no simple, unitary explanation for why people are gay, straight, or some other sexual orientation. After decades of searching, scientists have concluded that there is no "gay gene," for instance (Akpan, 2019).

The development of gender identity is no less complicated. Dr. C. E. Roselli, who studies the neurobiology of gender identity and sexual orientation, notes, "The establishment of gender identity is a complex phenomenon and the diversity of gender expression argues against a simple or unitary explanation (Roselli, 2018)."

Not only is the science complex and multi-faceted, but it's also challenging to recruit individuals to serve as research subjects, particularly when they are members of a minority group who are subject to discrimination. This is beginning to change, with younger people more willing to identify openly and volunteer for research programs than older LGBTQ+ persons. But that can skew the demographics of the research population in ways that impact findings.

And then there's the need for adequate funding. The "biggest roadblock in doing this kind of work," says [Dr. Meredith] Chivers of Queens University, "is institutional support at the university and government level, especially in the United States (Cartwright, 2015)."

Why pursue research on gender and sexual identity in the face of so many challenges? Because it’s basic to who we are. A group of prominent scientists led by Dr. J. Michael Bailey, PhD, defends scientists’ efforts to increase understanding of sexual orientation:

“[T]he single best justification for studying the causes of sexual orientation is scientific, not sociopolitical. Quite simply, sexual orientation is a basic human trait that influences identity and behavior at both the individual and the group level, and hence it is fundamentally important and interesting to understand its causes and development (Bailey et al., 2016).”

Researchers studying the formation of gender identity make a similar argument--gender identity, like sexual orientation, is a fundamental characteristic of individual identity and therefore worthy of scientific exploration and understanding.

In spite of many challenges, the study of gender identity and sexual orientation is an exciting field, with new findings emerging all the time. Scientists are the first to admit that they have a lot to learn. For instance, existing studies on sexual orientation have disproportionately focused on men; only recently has the lens broadened to incorporate women's sexuality. Researchers have also just begun to study the characteristics of bisexuality, and studies are starting to emerge on the broad spectrum of gender identities, including transgender identities, as well as lesser-known sexual orientations such as asexuality.

Scientists are just scratching the surface in their question to better understand gender and sexual identity. One thing's for certain--there won't be any simple answers to the questions that animate their research. But that won't stop them from exploring these basic human traits, thereby contributing to our fundamental learning about who we all are as human beings.

About the author--Kathleen Clark is Chief Learning Officer of Identiversity Inc. She lives with her family in Charlotte, NC and writes widely on topics relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Featured Content

Click to read the full Slate article and learn more about the challenges to studying sexual orientation, including reasons why scientists are only just now getting around to studying women.

Where’s the Scientific Research Into How Sexual Orientation Develops in Women?


Akpan, Nissan. (2019, August 29). There is no 'gay gene.' There is no 'straight gene.' Sexuality is just complex, study confirms. PBS.

Bailey, J.M., Vasey, P.L., Diamond, L.M., Breedlove, S.M., Vilan, E. & Epprecht, M. (2016). Sexual orientation, controversy, and science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(2), 45-101.

Cartwright, M. (2015, August 3). Where’s the scientific research into how sexual orientation develops in women? Slate.

Roselli, C. E. (2018). Neurobiology of Gender Identity and Sexual Identity. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 30(7).

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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