Researchers at Northwestern University say they have identified a potential genetic basis for homosexuality in men — but are the findings really in the best interest of LGBTQ rights? Are the two even related?
On Friday, tabloid media blew up after Dr. Michael Bailey and his colleagues told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago that genetics is responsible for determining more than a third of a population’s sexual orientation. Citing 400 pairs of gay brothers recruited at Gay Pride festivals over several years, they indicated the presence of a “gay gene” that obtained across the sample but not in a straight control group. “Sexual orientation has nothing to do with choice,” Bailey told reporters. “Our findings suggest there may be genes at play — we found evidence for two sets that affect whether a man is gay or straight.”
The Daily Mail, whose science correspondent appears to have broken the story, told its readers that the findings may help resolve the debate over the origins of homosexuality. “Being gay could be in the DNA,” Fiona Macrae explained in her write-up, which also lists “known” genetic and environmental factors in a neat textbox labeled What Makes a Homosexual? “The confirmation of the existence of a ‘gay gene’ or genes will strengthen arguments that homosexuality is a matter of biology, rather than choice.”
If this whole inquiry sounds a little fishy in 2014, that is because it is — however, the issue may still be a little cloudy, so let’s keep reading. Bailey, whose unpublished findings appear to be based on Dr. Dean Hamer’s menacing “gay gene” study in 1993, goes on to state that, while the genetic basis may not be hard evidence, it could possibly underpin the future development of a prenatal “gay test.” Personally, he would not be against this type of test. “Clearly parents should not be allowed to torture or kill babies,” he said. “But they can currently choose to terminate a pregnancy early on, so they should be allowed to have as much information on the future child as possible.”
This Makes No Sense
Here’s how these reports typically pan out: Coverage begins with the strange assumption that the advancement of LGBTQ people pivots on some kind of scientific resolution. The false binary of “choice” vis-à-vis genetics is then submitted as a central issue of gay rights. Soon enough, we are veering dangerously close to something called medical etiology — that is, the study of the origination of pathologies, aberrations, and disorders.
This is not a good idea.
The truth is that neither “choice” nor “genetics” can be said to resolve the origin of homosexuality — or, rather, it doesn’t make any sense to use either as a starting point when discussing equality. Human sexuality is tremendously complex. Like pretty much all traits of character, it is grounded in an interplay of biology and environment that can’t just be unraveled and examined.
Given that the scientific community still doesn’t have a handle on the precise hereditary mechanisms whereby basic traits like height occur in offspring, it might be easier for the unconvinced to assume that homosexuality — like many other things in life — just sort of is. Some people are straight, and some people are gay. That way, we can all focus on issues of equality, policy, basic rights, and other things that actually have some kind of bearing on society. Because, what does the discovery of “gay gene” do for anyone, really?
Well, gay people will probably still be gay. And, people who are bothered by other people’s sexuality will probably still be bothered by it. Small minds tend to remain small in the face of discovery — for them, the identification of a genetic variation only stokes the misconception that “they” are somehow fundamentally different.
“It cedes acres of ground to the bigoted. It accepts their premise that homosexuality is a problem and then adds the timid caveat that it is a problem that cannot be solved,” Nick Cohen writes in The Guardian, citing the scorn leveled by geneticists against Bailey’s study. “If you "biologise" all aspects of human life, you have no right to be shocked if your opponents propose ‘cures.’”
The Guardian’s tech and science editor, Robin McKie, had similar concerns back in 1999, when Dr. Hamer’s study resurfaced as part of a new scientific investigation. Calling it “the celebrated theory that never made sense,” McKie charged that to link a sliver of DNA to complex behavior is to miss the point of genetics as well as human interaction. It has always been, and will always be, complete nonsense.
Without clear objectives, a study soon becomes novelty science.