Phil Bereano. Gay Community News. Volume 22, Issue 4. Spring 1997.
“If homosexuality is inherited, shouldn’t it have died out by now?” two women talking in a New Yorker cartoon.
Last June, the US Supreme Court decided the case of Romer v Evans, overturning Amendment 2 to the Colorado Constitution, adopted by referendum, which would have barred all state and local laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination.
In the proceedings in the lower Colorado courts, one of the witnesses was a Federal scientist, Dean Hamer, who testified that homosexuality was a genetically caused, rather than a cultural or chosen, behavior. He was put on the stand by gay rights activists trying to utilize language of an earlier Supreme Court case which suggested that government’s ability to protect a group of people from discrimination might somehow be linked to the “immutability” of the characteristic which defined that group.
Although the “immutability” criteria was not part of the arguments voiced before the Supreme Court, there is significant social debate on whether homosexuality is a biological characteristic.
Is There A “Gay Gene”?
Questions about the biological basis of sexual orientation go back about a century when the British sexual investigators Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter urged ending the laws against same-sex sexual activities because people engaging in them were biologically different from those who had opposite-sex partners; they called such people “inverts.” The term “homosexual” had been in use as a somewhat clinical adjective for describing certain activities (sex between two men or two women); in the late nineteenth century it began to be used as a noun to designate a person who engaged in such behavior-although it is unclear how often or how exclusively one had to be doing the act in order to earn the label.
Whether to look to nature or nurture to explain sexual orientation does not align with political belief. Although some conservatives believe that homosexuality is a sin (i.e. chosen behavior for which one is responsible), a biological explanation would facilitate eugenic “improvements” of the population, a goal of rightwing authoritarians since the days of Darwin. Among progressives, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force relies on biology to claim that “homosexuality is a naturally occurring and common variation among humans,” while the Council for Responsible Genetics last month issued a white paper arguing that the scientific basis for such claims is exceedingly weak and irrelevant to the notion that gay people should be protected from the discrimination directed towards them.
Some of the researchers who are gay have made it explicit that they are involved in this research because they want to prove that gay behaviors are not “unnatural,” or “crimes against nature,” nor-if their sexual orientation has a biological foundation-is it their “fault” that they are gay. Yet posing the question of what causes individuals to be lesbian or gay exemplifies homophobia itself by implying that heterosexuality, because it predominates, is more “natural” or “normal,” and that homosexuality therefore represents a “problem” in need of a “solution.” Since gay behaviors have been recorded in virtually all known cultures, they must be both as normal and as natural human orientations as heterosexual activities.
Social Uses of the “Biological”
In our society people are subjected to discrimination precisely on the basis of biology (for example due to sex, or skin color) as well as because of differences that are cultural (such as ethnicity or religion). An examination of the African American and women’s movements amply demonstrates incidences where focusing on differences in biology have been used to further oppression rather than secure liberation. American slavery was rationalized on biological grounds, as was the Nazi persecution of Jews.
Indeed, in 1539 the theologian Sebastian Munster based his anti-Semitism explicitly on imagined physical attributes; “you Jews” he wrote, “have a peculiar color of face different from the form and figure of other men.” Unfortunately, these old ideas still persist Before Romer the Federal Sixth Court of Appeals upheld a Cincinnati referendum denying homosexuals “protected status” against discrimination, saying that it was impossible to have a law shielding a minority from discrimination where they are “defined by subjective and unapparent characteristics such as innate desires, drives and thoughts…. Many homosexuals successfully conceal their orientation…. Homosexuals generally are not identifiable ‘on sight’….’ Does this mean that it’s OK to discriminate against Mormons, Baptists, or Pentecostals waiting for the rapture?
Sexual orientation, like any other human behavior, is experienced in complex and variable ways which are undoubtedly influenced by both biological and societal factors. Since we are biological organisms, of course, virtually everything we do has some biological components. But seeking a definitive basis of homosexuality in genetics risks oversimplifying our view of human behaviors, and ultimately of our world.
“At last we will know what it truly means to be human,” exulted biologist James Watson (who received the Nobel Prize for his work for discovering the DNA double helix), as if Shakespeare, for example, had no inkling. The media is currently filled with a revival of earlier biodeterminist arguments attributing a wide range of physiological, psychological, and social characteristics to genetics. Reports claim that a host of disparate behaviors-the enjoyment of shopping, environmentalism, even the propensity to be raped-arise from genetic configuration, as implausible as these may sound.
It appears that this attempt to “geneticize” social activities and behaviors is a manifestation of our society’s unwillingness to deal directly with social problems by mounting appropriate remedial social programs.
What Does the Science Say?
The studies, to which people usually refer, to support the existence of a “gay gene” do not offer a clear conclusion. The most frequently cited one was published in 1993 by Hamer and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. They examined DNA samples from men who self-identified as gay and other gay family members. They claimed to have found a DNA segment, called a “marker,” which correlates with sexual orientation-but only in two-thirds of the men. Hamer’s group did not feel it necessary to check out whether any of the straight men in these families shared the marker.
Hamer’s study is significantly compromised by his definition of who is “gay,” using an extremely conservative estimate for the prevalence of homosexuality among American men, 2 percent. If one used instead the commonly accepted estimate of 5-10 percent, the statistical significance of his results would be severely reduced or would vanish. However, there is a large population of American men who have sexual relations with other males but do not identify as gay, as well as numerous men who identify as gay or bisexual and have had sexual relationships or marriages with women-and have sometimes even fathered children.
We also need to be aware the federal Office of Research Integrity is investigating Hamer’s study because one of his collaborators has alleged that the research team suppressed data which would have weakened the statistical significance of its findings.
A Canadian researcher has reported his inability to replicate Hamer’s results but Hamer himself has published another study claiming to reproduce these conclusions (only finding the marker within a smaller percentage of gay men, however).
Although Hamer was recently quoted as saying “there is no ‘gay gene’ and I’ve never thought there was. Genes play a role and there is probably more than one of them and other factors as well,” this statement backpedals from his triumphant 1993 claims of having found “the first concrete evidence that `gay genes’ really do exist,” made extensively in the print media and as a featured guest on “Nightline” and “The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour.”
None of the results of any of these studies support the claim that any one gene can determine sexual orientation.
Another claim for a biological link to homosexuality was made in 1991 by the neurophysiologist Simon LeVay, who concluded that a specific structure in the brain is smaller in gay men than in straight ones, more like the size seen in heterosexual women (although he had no evidence whatsoever regarding the sexual orientation of the women whose brains he examined). LeVay’s study utilized the brains of corpses, who were categorized by sexual orientation on the basis of circumstantial evidence. All of the “gay men” in LeVay’s study had died of AIDS; the disease is known to sometimes affect brain structure, and the wide variety of drugs and therapeutic regimes these people have undergone also introduce confounding factors. Amazingly, some of the study’s “gay” cadavers had larger structures than in the “straight” ones, so that upon inspection there would be no basis for deciding whether a given corpse had been “gay” or “straight” when alive.
Studies of twins and other siblings have been relied on for additional arguments that there is a biological basis to sexual orientation. The best known study, by Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard, found that for adoptive and nontwin brothers in their sample about 10 percent were both gay, a rate which is often attributed to the prevalence of homosexuals in the population. According to their data, the rate of homosexuality among fraternal twins was 22 percent, and 52 percent for identical twins .
Identical twins, of course, have exactly the same genetic makeup, so at first glance the fact that the rate of homosexuality is five times higher among identical twins than non-twins would seem to support a genetic basis to sexual orientation. However, the finding that fraternal twins of gay men (who biologically are the same as brothers born in separate pregnancies) were found to be roughly twice as likely to be gay as other biological brothers indicates that environmental factors probably play an important role in sexual orientation. Much of the world thinks of identical twins as being the “same” and treats them accordingly, and these twins often share intense feelings of sameness. Thus, it might not be surprising that an even higher portion among identical twins would exhibit similar behaviors. Catholicism runs in families too, but is unlikely to be biological.
Homophobia-which is clearly an environmental factor-probably distorted Bailey and Pillard’s sample. The researchers did not study a random sample of men. The participants “were recruited through advertisements placed in gay publications.” Thus, all of the study participants read gay periodicals and probably were, to some degree, open about their sexuality. In addition, the ads asked readers about their brothers; although the ads wanted gay men to call in regardless of the brother’s sexual orientation, readers with gay brothers would be more likely to participate than men with straight brothers if the straight brothers were homophobic or if the gay ones were not “out” to their families. Since so many people already believe that homosexuality is genetic, a straight man who has a gay twin who has read the ad especially a gay identical twin will feel that his own sexual orientation is suspect. He may be threatened by the study, and refuse to participate in it. Conversely, if identical twins are both gay and “out” they might find the study interesting and be eager to volunteer.
The potential for mischief in relying on these studies and the potential for misuse if a gay gene ever were found, is substantial. One cover story in The Advocate had the subtitle “Once a Gay Gene is Found, Can Gene ‘Therapy’ Be Far Behind?” Although both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association take the view that homosexuality is not an illness and that trying to change a person’s sexual orientation would be wrong, it is clear that the idea of using a marker or gene to predict which male fetuses are gay for purposes of terminating such pregnancies, or to subject young boys to “remedial” education, reprogramming or other so-called “therapies” will inevitably be voiced.
“Homosexuality is a disability and if people wish to have it eliminated before they have children-because they wish to have grandchildren or for other reasons I do not see any moral objection for using genetic engineering to limit this particular trend. It would be like correcting many other conditions such as infertility or multiple sclerosis.” These are not the words of some Neo-Nazi propagandist or mad scientist, but the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Lord Jakobovits, in 1993.
We need to keep our eyes on the real social issue behind all of the interest in the gay gene-homophobia and societal discrimination. Regardless of the extent to which biology influences one’s sexual identity, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals should be afforded protection against the discrimination based on their sexual orientation. It is naive to think that a biological explanation of homosexuality would provide a quick technological fix for the social problem of discrimination. Only social and political remedies will counter unjust and unequal treatment of people.
Biology is not the issue. Society at present protects people against discrimination for behaviors which are not biological. Whether people’s differentiation is cultural (such as religious) or purely the result of choice (such as marital status or political affiliation, protected in many jurisdictions, or religious conversion, protected in all), genetic predisposition is not necessary to create these legal protections. Would anyone seriously argue that the anti-discrimination statutes should protect, for example, a person born of a Jewish mother but not one who converts to Judaism? Certainly “born-again Christians,” who lately have claimed they are being discriminated against, ought to recognize the validity of choice as a basis for one’s whole persona.
The scientific argument for a biological basis for sexual orientation remains weak. The political argument that if we can establish a genetic foundation we will bolster gay pride or prevent homophobic bigotry runs counter to our experience. The lesbian, gay, bisexual community does not need to have its “deviance” tolerated because its members were born “that way” and “cannot help it.” Rather, society must recognize the validity of lesbian, gay and bisexual lifestyles. We need an end to discrimination, and an acceptance of all human beings. We need to celebrate diversity, whatever its origins.