Stop looking for the gay gene!

Stephanie Farnsworth challenges the need for studies searching for a ‘gay gene’.


One of the most popular recurrent stories with anything LGBTQ+ related is the search for the so-called ‘gay gene’. Yet another study (this time by NorthShore Research Institute in Evanston, Illinois and was first released in October, but is yet again gaining media attention) claims that there is a genetic link at play which determines sexuality. While the study uses 409 gay brothers (making it the largest ever) there is still no conclusive evidence which says categorically that a ‘gay gene’ exists yet the search for it is hugely problematic.

There have been arguments since LGBTQ+ activism began about whether people are born gay and whether it is a choice. There are strong points on all sides and yet they all ultimately fail upon examination. The ‘born this way’ argument hopes to attract sympathy but comes off almost as apologism and horrendous comparisons to racial rights have been made. Yes, both are similar in that a person suffers oppression for their identity but each oppression is very distinct, and furthermore, such comparisons erase gay people of colour. The ‘born this way’ argument, though, places its reliance purely on the fact that if one cannot change their orientation then eventually people will have to retreat in their bigotry, and at the very least it challenges the notions of ‘gay cure’ therapy.

The ‘born this way’ argument places its reliance purely on the fact that if one cannot change their orientation then eventually people will have to retreat in their bigotry, and at the very least it challenges the notions of ‘gay cure’ therapy

The argument that sexuality is a choice often tries to shirk off the weak sounding connotations with the notion that LGBTQ+ are born this way and it cannot be helped. It seeks to empower and show that it is a choice and one that will not be backed down from. Yet this argument always has serious flaws; many don’t feel it is a choice and by saying it is erases their experiences and attractions. It’s also been used by biphobic feminists who argue that bisexual women should not have sex with men if they want their political integrity to remain intact. In short, it’s used against other LGBTQ+ people as a silencing tool.

The biggest issue with both arguments however, is that they are entirely irrelevant. If those claiming to shout it is a choice feel they must because that’s empowering then I must question why they feel the need to justify their existence at all. That empowers no one. It’s still pandering to the narrative where straight people demand answers for who we are. It still sets being straight as the default and anything else as not fitting the ideal.

It still sets being straight as the default and anything else as not fitting the ideal.

It has been clear that in all aspects of nature is that there is an amazing amount of sexual diversity which has even led Attenborough to be accused of straight washing because he does not discuss sex same relationships in wildlife despite records of animals engaging in same sex activity (including oral sex which shows that it is an act rooted in pleasure and for no desire for reproduction) and in same sex animal couples adopting. In human populations estimates vary anyway from LGBTQ+ people making up 3-15% of the general population. Either way, given population sizes these are not small numbers and therefore why are same gender attractions being treated by scientists as anomalies worth studying? Why are the studies focussed upon purely same gender relationships and not say a wider study on attraction? Or perhaps even on a ‘straight gene’? Then there is the issue of bisexuality which is rarely talked about but behaviour often engaged in if recent surveys are to be even slightly believed. Finding a ‘gay gene’ will explain nothing about such sexual fluidity with such a narrow definition/outlook on identities. It conforms to the binary idea that a person can only ever be gay or straight which cannot be considered scientific by its huge rejection of reality for many people.

The more alarming question is what will happen when people do find a reason for why people are gay and bisexual. Attempts at conversion therapy for LGB people may have fallen foul in recent years but they have not been consigned to history. If a social factor is proved then won’t parents try to avoid this? If there is a gay gene highlight then surely the next funded study will be to try to alter it in some way. Perhaps these ideas come off as paranoid but while kids are still being kicked out of their family homes in staggering numbers for being LGB then there is a reason to be concerned.

The more alarming question is what will happen when people do find a reason for why people are gay and bisexual.

There also needs to be serious questions asked about the implications for trans people. Attempts to cure trans people are already far more prevalent in society, transgender rights are lacking and generally society is far from an accepting place for trans people to say the least. While attempts at locating a gay gene are worrying, the idea that there may be such studies for trans people is even more shocking. One study in 2008 focussed on trans women and their genetic makeup. The only biological issues for trans people that need to be improved and studied though are bettering healthcare in the area of transitioning.

Attempts to cure trans people are already far more prevalent in society, transgender rights are lacking and generally society is far from an accepting place for trans people to say the least.

When scientists enter into a lab and try to find out why people are different in sets off alarm bells. The science is setting LGBTQ+ people as against the norm. It’s bad enough when wider society at large believes such a thing but it will be disastrous if science actually finds what it is looking for. It will validate transphobic, homophobic and biphobic opinions whether a ‘cure’ is found or not because it automatically sets LGBTQ+ people as though their genetic makeup has somehow gone wrong. If anything shows how science interferes then it has been the horrific treatment of intersex people over the centuries; intersex babies are still routinely operated on. This is mutilation without consent to make babies look like how parents and doctors feel is right according to their narrow ideas of gender and sex. Surgical ‘corrections’ (as doctors often call it) are seen as routine and for the greater good. There is no reason for other LGBTQ+ identities to trust the scientific community and that they are out to merely satisfy their own curiosity. If they were dedicated to pure science, they would take a far less narrow heterosexist and cissexist approach to their work.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter (@StephFarnsworth)

3 thoughts on “Stop looking for the gay gene!

  1. The law assumes we are responsible for our own actions ; hence a system of punishments. It does take account of insanity ( what ever that is) and often the circumstances such a provocation.
    Some neuroscientists believe we have no free will perhaps the most famous is Sam Harris.
    They admit the whole concept of law will need to be rethought.
    I see no problem if a man is a danger to the community ; lock him up regardless and throw the idea of blame out of the window.
    Science will always meddle thats its purpose. Many are thrilled does but some like castrati are not so sure.
    Its done quite well for the rich third to date but the buffers are in sight.
    The great train of technology may well be halted and we will return to the dark ages.

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  2. I see I am a year late to this party, but I profoundly disagree. Certainly the media attention on this issue may be overblown, but there are scientists searching for the basis of left and right handedness (and ambidexterousness). That doesn’t mean that we still think there is something wrong with left handedness, it means that curiosity is a fundamental part of who we are. Moreover, when we search for these things sometimes we discover something that turns out to be incredibly useful in some unexpected way.

    I think searching for a genetic influence on sexuality is the same. It should be done as part of good science. What we learn may have implications for the struggle for LGBTIQ rights, but that’s not the main reason to do it. My guess is that what we find will be far more complex than anyone expected and as a result will be more use to those on the side of liberation than bigotry. The facts have a tendency to have a “well known liberal bias”.

    As I noted on my blog, at this stage it looks at this stage like there is no “gay gene” but there are two genes, or at least patches of DNA that correlate with sexual attraction to men, whether they appear in men or women. Nobody seems to have any idea how this works – what is it about men that this DNA makes people attracted to? – but the evidence seems to be pointing that way. And that’s really interesting, including in what it would say about bisexuality.

    https://forensicsfossilsfruitbats.wordpress.com/2015/02/21/you-may-well-be-born-gay-or-straight-but-not-everyone-is/

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