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The Gay Gene Won't Save Us

The idea of a "gay gene" may be useful in changing perceptions now, but what does it mean for LGBT rights in the long term?

by Nicole Pasulka
Feb 1 2015, 1:49pm

Photo via Flickr user Sasha Kargaltsev

"Landmark 'Gay Gene' Study Provides Further Evidence Sexuality Is Not Chosen," crowed a headline in International Business Times last month. The study, published in Psychological Medicine, examined the DNA of 409 pairs of gay brothers and found some evidence that they shared a gene that could be linked to homosexuality. While the study isn't claiming a single gene is responsible for determining sexual orientation, Dean Hamer, a geneticist who contributed to similar research during the 1990s, believes we now know "there is a genetic basis for sexual orientation."

The idea that people are born gay, or that homosexual desire is genetic, comes up most frequently as an argument against discrimination or oppressive laws targeting LGBT people. In response to terrifying legislation like Uganda's "Kill the Gays" bill, which outlawed homosexuality, gay activists and supporters have argued it's inhumane to punish LGBT people because they cannot, in fact, change. To those who believe that same-sex desire is a choice, or a deficiency, the "gay gene" theory suggests these feelings aren't our fault. If we can't help our same-sex attractions, and if we were born this way, it's certainly unfair to punish us for them—no matter how personally off-putting you find our sex lives.

For many people, however, being gay is not a biological decree. We've moved toward an understanding of queerness that embraces gray areas—relying on the gene theory steamrolls all that nuance. Plenty of self-identified gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people don't look forward to a future in which we can be tested for a gay gene. We probably wouldn't pass anyway.

Part of the reason that a binary notion of sexual orientation—that you are born either gay or straight, rarely something in between—has gained so much political validity is that it's useful when arguing with extreme, repressive bigots. As Simon LeVay, a neuroscientist who conducted gay gene research on a smaller scale in the 1990s, made clear when we spoke on the phone, groups with "immutable" identities, based on concepts like race and gender, "have a higher level of constitutional protection than groups that are basically the product of choice."

But after reporting on the "ex-gay" movement and laws around the world that punish gay sex and relationships, I worry that relying too heavily on theories of gay genes may ultimately do a disservice to the struggle for civil rights. For many people who live and identify as gay, queer, and bisexual, the argument that people who want to have gay sex were born gay feels "incredibly crucial in the short term." Thing is, it can be "damaging" too, says Diana Roffman, a 32-year-old woman who, like so many modern queers, has moved through various phases of sexual attraction, desire, and identification before deciding, I can date whomever I want.

Future research will likely find some biological basis for certain forms of sexual desire. What is less likely, however, is that science will one day confirm the widespread belief that, despite various and changing desires, even the most sexually fluid queer people have a clear sexual orientation—the identity we truly are.

When I was younger I dated a lesbian, and then a straight guy, and later a man who called himself queer. None of these attractions felt like a choice, but I always figured that the gender and sexual orientation of the person I ended up with would resolve the question of my own identity. If it was a straight guy, well, then I was straight, but if I settled down with a lesbian, that must be who I truly was.

According to this logic, someone who has straight relationships and then ends up in a gay relationship has always been gay and all that heterosexual stuff probably happened because of social pressure or discomfort with her sexuality. I'm sure this is true in many cases. But I'm definitely not the only person with attractions that don't follow a clear binary who grew up assuming that, one day, given enough patience, their true sexual orientation would become known—settling like silt in the bottom of a glass. After identifying as queer for more than ten years, the water's not much clearer.

The problem is that our desires don't strike like lightning; they roll in like fog. "What's missing in all of this is any story of how sexual desire develops for homosexual or heterosexual people," said Anne Fausto-Sterling, a feminist biologist and Brown professor who has warned against placing too much emphasis on the theory of a "gay gene" or the idea that homosexuality can be clearly identified as innate or biologically determined.

Genes alone "don't provide us with a very sufficient explanation of how the world works," she said. They require a context—groups of cells and a set of friendly conditions—in order to express themselves. Fausto-Sterling has used the analogy of a Russian nesting doll to describe how genetic material wends its way through genes, cells, and organs and can be activated or overlooked based on conditions that include society and environment. In this way, nature and nurture are always inextricably linked.

When it comes to how our sexual desires develop, "it doesn't bother me to say different genetic makeups are part of that story, but I don't think genetic makeups determine that story," Fausto-Sterling explained. The idea of a binary sexual orientation isn't just an overly conservative idea of sexuality. It's also an overly conservative take on biology. Like our nervous systems and physiology, our gender expression and sexual orientation can change over time. From the existing research, we know that brothers who both identify as gay often have a similar gene on their X chromosomes. This doesn't say much about brothers who both identify as queer, or bisexual, or transgender, or sisters who call themselves lesbians—and so on.

There's a vast difference socially and politically between men who identify as gay and men who have casual same-sex encounters but still consider themselves straight, for example. Both Simon LeVay and Dean Hamer accept the notion that men's sexual desires are more biologically fixed than women's, though they recognize that fluid female sexuality is more socially acceptable.

But what about a man who has been in relationships with women for decades and in middle age finds himself attracted to men for the first time? Rather than assuming he has been hiding his identity, or denying his desires, it's possible that those desires have simply changed. Is a 21-year-old who calls himself straight but writes on an internet forum that he has "this urge to want to suck a cock" a latent homosexual? Or just a straight guy who wants to suck cock? Does he have the gay gene, or has a strange brew of biology, society, environment, and developmental factors led him to fantasize about giving head the same way he might deeply love football or prefer bitter foods to sweet ones?

To be fair, the current research is more complicated and less decisive than some articles have suggested. While it's clear that many people feel their desires are static and innate (and those feelings should never be discounted or dismissed), when it comes to studying the biological roots of sexuality there's a lot we still don't know.

Though the theory that gay desires are inborn has obvious political advantages, it has some less apparent, but no less significant, weaknesses. If parents-to-be started prenatally testing for this genetic predisposition it could have disastrous consequences for gay rights. And for many people fighting their same-sex attractions, the idea that these feelings are innate offers cold comfort.

Men who experience same-sex attraction and live in repressive countries with severe antigay laws or hold religious beliefs that are explicitly antigay sometimes choose to undergo what is called "gay reparative therapy." The therapy seeks to trace homosexual desire back to an early sexual or gender-based trauma or a family life with nontraditional gender roles—strong mothers and weaker fathers, for example. As one Nigerian man who called himself Albert told me, he believes he's attracted to men because his father "didn't fight for his role in my life. My mom is the de facto head of the family."

There is no convincing, research-based evidence that same-sex attraction comes from trauma, or that it can be changed. But for the men I talked with, who are also very religious and deeply afraid of antigay laws, therapy feels like the only way to survive these feelings. The theory that they were born this way is no consolation. Gay activists from countries with more progressive politics urging them to accept their feelings as natural or normal "put people like me in the middle," Albert said.

Denying same-sex attraction is deeply painful. No one should ever be forced to change. But too much faith in genetic research privileges some stories over others and could obscure the need for broader civil rights. "If you don't build up a moral and ethical and legal set of reasons for tolerance, then you can be suddenly dumped into the ocean if a finding changes the genetic point of view," Fausto-Sterling said.

Existing scientific explanations of sexuality are too weak to shoulder our human rights demands and present too few options to those living in repressive countries where same-sex desires are sinful and criminalized. They ignore the needs of people like Albert, who aren't comforted or helped by the notion that gay is "normal," and Diana Roffman, who can't see her desires or experiences reflected in a binary.

The LGBT community in the United States has made massive civil rights gains in the past 50 years without definitive proof of a gay gene. Same-sex marriage is legal in over 35 states, the federal government prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and mainstream TV and film follow the lives of complex and sympathetic LGBT characters. All the while a relatively small amount of research on gay genes has been conducted, published, and debated.

Why wait for scientific validation when more expansive and radical frameworks exist to help us understand sexual orientation and gender? If science tells us with all possible authority that same-sex attractions (as well as queer sexualities and gender noncomformity) are genetically determined, it arguably won't change much.

Instead, what has and will continue to change people's minds, eliminate antigay laws, and increase safety for LGBT people is people coming out. As Samantha Allen pointed out in the Daily Beast in November, the number of Americans who think homosexuality is innate has only risen 11 percent since 1997, but the portion who know a gay or lesbian person went up 35 percent during the same time period. As people come out younger and in greater numbers than ever before, acceptance has increased.

If we want more people out and honest about their sexualities, we can't rely on a narrow idea of genetically determined sexual desire that perpetuates yet another exclusive notion of what's permissible. Instead, we have to leave the door open to those who aren't quite sure where or when their same-sex desires originated. To embrace and speak freely about flexible and expansive definitions of queer love and sex to allow people like Diana Roffman, Albert, that straight guy on the Internet with the inexplicable urge to suck a cock, and me to exist the way we've been born—or made.