The Problematic Hunt for a ‘Gay Gene’
In 2011, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” tried and failed to become the modern day equivalent to Valentino’s 1975 similarly titled gay anthem and disco hit “I Was Born This Way.” One reason why? After 40 years of discourse defending homosexuality by asserting that it’s an inborn trait, that particular line of argumentation is starting to wear thin.
There’s a new “gay gene” study making the rounds this week and while some members of the press are celebrating the study as objective and necessary evidence that homosexuality is not a “choice,” most gay, lesbian, and bisexual people I know could not care less.
This time around, we’re rolling our eyes at a study led by behavioral geneticist Dr. Alan Sanders at the NorthShore Research Institute in Evanston, Illinois, which examined the genes of 409 pairs of gay brothers, finding that gay men may share certain genetic markers on the Xq28 and 8q12 regions of the X chromosome and chromosome 8. Only some of the findings from NorthShore’s study are statistically significant, but that hasn’t stopped a flurry of misleadingly conclusive headlines like “Male sexual orientation influenced by genes, study shows” or “Broader study confirms genetic link to male homosexuality.”
If you don’t see gay people celebrating this news in the streets, understand that we’ve been hearing news about a potential biological basis for homosexuality for a long time now. In 1991, neuroscientist Simon LeVay suggested that small differences in the size of certain cell clusters in the hypothalamus could influence sexual orientation in men. In 1993, geneticist Dean Hamer published a paper in Science that claimed that genetic markers on the X chromosome could influence the development of a same-sex orientation in men. This was the start of a long love affair between Hamer and the media in the mid-1990s, with new stories swirling around each of his successive publications in anticipation of the discovery of the mythical “gay gene.”
As the discipline of genetics changed, so too did the scientific approach to homosexuality. In 2012, scientists examined the possibility that variations in hormone levels in the womb could influence the expression of genes that affect sexual orientation, a line of inquiry that falls under the emerging sub-discipline of epigenetics. The popular media, once so easily convinced by LeVay that homosexuality resulted from brain size and by Hamer that homosexuality was genetic, promptly changed its tune to declare that homosexuality was now epigenetic. Hooray? If it’s hard to get excited about these studies, it’s because, at this point, biological explanations for homosexuality are like iPhones—a new one comes out every year.
And besides, the studies that do enjoy widespread media circulation focus on a very narrow segment of the LGBT community: gay men. Information on the potential genetics of lesbianism is much harder to come by and bisexual people, who constitute more than 50 percent of the LGBT community in the U.S., are rarely mentioned in the conversation about the genetics of sexual orientation. Even if a conclusive link is found between genetic markers and male homosexuality, that still leaves most of the queer community unaccounted for.
Finding that conclusive link, however, seems unlikely given the track record of these studies. At every turn, their veracity has been cast into doubt by the scientific community. In her 1992 book Myths of Gender, for example, Brown biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling tore LeVay’s original study to shreds, noting that there is substantial overlap between the cell cluster size ranges of gay men and straight men in his sample. Most geneticists, too, who comment on the possible connections between chromosomes and sexual orientation are quick to assert that social and environmental factors play a large role in the development of any sexual orientation. And, of course, relatively little media attention has been paid to studies that conclude that there is no X-linked gene at the root of male homosexuality.
So what is it that we’re looking for when we seek out the elusive gay gene? At its best, the idea that sexual orientation has a genetic influence functions as a sharp rhetorical strategy in a homophobic world that demands proof that homosexuality is not “a choice” in order to recognize its validity. In 1996, for example, 61 percent of Advocate readers believed that “it would mostly help gay and lesbian rights if homosexuality were found to be biologically determined.”
But the ’90s were different times for both popular science and the cultural acceptance of homosexuality. 1996 falls squarely in the heyday of the Human Genome Project, a time when we were trained by science media, as Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin observes, to regard DNA as an unimpeachable “doctrine” that governed our lives. And in 1996, Congress was passing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the American Psychological Association hadn’t yet published its resolution against conversion therapy. Desperate times call for desperate measures and, in its initial stages, the search for a “gay gene” seems to have been a bid for the imprimatur of the latest and greatest hard science.
But as much as we may have wanted to believe that scientists could clear away anti-gay prejudice with a wave of their graduated cylinders, popular opinion on the origins of homosexuality has not kept pace with the increasing legal and cultural acceptance of a wide range of sexual orientations. According to Gallup, in 1997, 31 percent of Americans believed that homosexuality was innate and 40 percent believed it to be environmental. Now, 42 percent believe that it is innate and 37 percent hold that it is environmental—hardly a massive shift in popular opinion. When we consider that across this same time span, same-sex marriage has become legal in the majority of U.S. states, a subtle change in popular beliefs about the science of homosexuality hardly seems to have been the decisive factor.
Indeed, as it has always been, the magic bullet for the acceptance of homosexuality seems to be the act of knowing an actual gay or lesbian person, not reading a study that suggests the possibility of a shared genetic marker on the Xq28 region of the X chromosome. While the percentage of Americans who believe that homosexuality is innate has only ticked upward 11 percent since 1997, the percent of Americans who know a gay or lesbian person has increased more than 35 percentage points over that time, according to the same Gallup poll. In terms of promoting LGBT equality, then, it doesn’t seem to matter as much whether or not people believe that gay people are “born that way” as it does that they simply know someone who is currently gay, no matter how they were born. Friendship is the trump card in the movement for equality, not etiology.
And as homosexuality approaches a critical mass of cultural acceptance, more and more people are comfortable challenging the dominant “born that way” narrative. In 2012, Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon caused a stir when she told The New York Times that her lesbianism is a “choice.” When she faced pushback for this statement from the LGBT community, Nixon held her ground saying, “Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think they should define the terms of the debate.” Simon Copland of The Guardian agrees, noting that lesbian and gay people should refuse the nature-or-nurture dialectic and demand respect regardless of how homosexuality comes about. To accept these terms, Copland rightly argues, would be to constrain both the freedom of LGBT politics and the fluidity of sexuality itself.
After all, it’s not 1996 anymore. In 2014, the “gay gene” simply doesn’t matter. The science behind it is narrow and inconclusive. Its rhetorical potential—if it ever had any—has been thoroughly exhausted. And, at this point, continuing to pursue a genetic explanation for homosexuality could more harm than it does good. It doesn’t matter whether or not you were “born this way,” what matters is being accepted the way you are, however you got there.