Scientists May Have Found the Greatest Evidence of a 'Gay Gene' Yet
The findings of a new study help to erode the notion that sexual orientation is a choice.
Last week, a man claimed to have been "delivered" from homosexuality.
"I'm not gay no more. I am delivered! I don't like mens no more," he actually roared in front of crowds at a church in St Louis, Missouri. "I said I like women. Women, women, women, women!" The pastor then gave the man $100 (£65), saying, "God said he's going to bless you because of your commitment. Just to prove it, He just told me to give you $100."
Lucky bastard, eh? Thing is, someone should probably tell this benevolent pastor to hold onto his cash in future, because new genetic research – published by the New Scientist – may have provided some of the strongest evidence yet that gay people are born gay.
Researchers analysed 409 pairs of gay twins. In doing so, they found clear links between sexual orientation in men with "two regions of the human genome that have been implicated before, one on the X chromosome and one on chromosome 8". In layman's terms, scientists are saying this means that they've found a single gene in all of the twins that can only be attributed to sexual orientation. The findings are – according to study leader Alan Sanfers of the NorthShore Research Institute in Evanston, Illinois – an enormous contribution to the catalogue of evidence that "erodes the notion that sexual orientation is a choice".
Gene hunters had previously isolated the so-called "gay gene" back in 1993, with 40 pairs of twins. But this new study is far larger. Over five years, Sanders' team collected blood and saliva samples and looked at the locations of genetic markers called SNPs, or single nucleotide polymorphisms. These are, for those who don't speak genome, the difference of a single letter in our genetic code. The scientists then measured which SNPs were shared by the men.
In all 818 of them, being gay was the only shared trait. The twins were non-identical, see, so similar genetics in traits like height, intelligence, hair colour, etc, differed between all sets of twins. So, the scientists reasoned, any SNPs found in the same genetic group – wherever it is in the world – would more than likely be aligned with sexual orientation.
Sanders still stresses that sexual orientation depends on both genetic and environmental factors, and that even if he has honed in on individual genes they may only have a small effect on their own. But this research is huge.§
"This study knocks another nail into the coffin of the 'chosen lifestyle' theory of homosexuality," Simon LeVay – a neuroscientist who claimed in 1991 to have found that a particular region within the hypothalamus is smaller in gay men – told New Scientist. "Yes, we have a choice in life, to be ourselves or to conform to someone else's idea of normality, but being straight, bisexual or gay, or none of these, is a central part of who we are, thanks in part to the DNA we were born with."
However, presenting religious fanatics with science – however unequivocal – can be a tough task. I know someone with born-again Christian parents who believe that dinosaur bones were buried in the Earth by satanists to trick us. They said to me once, looking me dead in the eye, that The National History Museum was "a farcical joke". This is despite there being plenty of Biblical writings that sound pretty dinosaur-like to me. "The Book of Job", for example, in which Job writes: "Look at Behemoth, which I made along with you and which feeds on grass like an ox. What strength it has in its loins, what power in the muscles of its belly! Its tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of its thighs are close-knit. Its bones are tubes of bronze, its limbs like rods of iron. It ranks first among the works of God, yet its Maker can approach it with his sword."
Interpretation is everything. You make your own reality from what you read. Written word – or, indeed, in the case of Sanders' research, empirical scientific evidence – might be black and white, but we all absorb information in different colours. And for the 79 countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal, beliefs surrounding same-sex relationships are often so deep-rooted – so born of a desperate fear of "other" – that you wonder what difference such a strong piece of scientific evidence will make.
It's 2014 and so many parts of our world aren't just living in the dark, but actively making the shadows bigger. I t's become illegal to even advocate on the behalf of gay people in some countries, and, if you're young and gay in a country like Putin's Russia, you're completely cut off from any kind of legal support network. In some places – Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, Mauritiana, some parts of Nigeria and Somalia – they still murder people for being gay. In August, two adult men were hanged in Iran, supposedly for consensual sodomy.
The plasticity of the brain is widely acknowledged and accepted these days. We can change the way we think and, as a result, the physical structure of that grey blancmange we carry around with us. We are capable of eclipsing our own beliefs with more rational ones. "That's your responsibility as a person, as a human being – to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible," said Malcolm Gladwell recently. "And if you don't contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you're not thinking."
We can only hope (or pray, if that's your bag), then, that such hard science can make a dent in the terrified minds of those who believe that people who fall in love with those wielding similar genitals to their own should be punished for making such a "choice". Surely, as human beings, we're not that fucking stupid.
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