The “Gay Gene.”

Is there a “gay gene”?

Does it really matter?

So, we were having one of those Facebook face-offs the other day, about homosexuality, and the issue of a “gay gene” came up.

For us heterosexuals in the discussion, it was one of those “open minded” discussions. For the others, it was yet another angst-ridden hetero-handwringing session that only reinforced the impression that there will always be one more hurdle to being accepted as legit. We ended up letting the whole thing drop.

Still, the “gay gene” issue piqued my interest. I am an academic and historian, so I did some research. I looked at history. I browsed university research databases and scoured the various positions of  Human Rights Watch (HRC), the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and the American Psychological Association. I also took a look at WebMD, National Institute of Health, and Human Genome Project articles.

Well, I’m back about “the gay gene.” Here’s the takeaway:

It doesn’t matter.

No, it doesn’t matter.

There has been evidence for millennia that sexual orientation is inborn in some fashion and that being a homosexual is no more of a choice than being a heterosexual.   It’s been there in our families, it’s been there in our societies, and it’s been there (literally) right under our noses. And over the millennia we have concocted different explanations for why this is so. One of my favorites is by the comic poet Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, set in the late fifth century BC.

And yet, no explanation has mattered to people who will only recognize heterosexuals as fully human. These people have always thought that homosexuals are dangerous, degrading, and deviant no matter what the evidence or explanation is. If you could prove to them that there was a “gay gene,” they would merely treat homosexuals as people in drastic need of in utero genetic therapy, as if had spina bifida, only worse.

And it doesn’t really matter for the gay. From my reading, they don’t need the Human Genome Project to tell them that they exist. They are gay; end of story. Searching for a “gay gene” merely adds insult to injury: no one is fretting about a “heterosexual gene” before deciding whether to congratulate or castigate Jack for wanting to marry Jill. Gaining acceptance from heterosexuals because they envision you in the same category as someone with an incurable genetic disorder doesn’t seem like progress to them.

However, the issue of whether homosexuality is “controllable (determined by “choice” and “nurture”) or “uncontrollable” (determined biologically by “nature”) is very important to the great heterosexual muddle in the middle. In fact, it’s the most important factor in how ambivalent heterosexuals see homosexuals and want public policy to be formulated concerning them (Haider-Markel and Joslyn POQ 72.2 2008, 291-310). But, even for these people, “the gay gene” isn’t going to matter either. And that’s because the assumptions that mold our ideas about sexual orientation are gradually coming apart at the seams.

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) invented the term "homosexual" in 1869 as a positive term. He wrote: "Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the spectre which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt."

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895) coined the term “homosexual.” He wrote: “Until my dying day I will look back with pride that I found the courage to come face to face in battle against the spectre which for time immemorial has been injecting poison into me and into men of my nature. Many have been driven to suicide because all their happiness in life was tainted. Indeed, I am proud that I found the courage to deal the initial blow to the hydra of public contempt.”

Many of our ideas for what is masculine, feminine, and even “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were given a scientific imprint back in the late 1800s, when an array of budding sciences (medicinal, sociological, psychological, psychiatric) turned their attention to the understanding, correction, and improvement of human society.  A particular concern of the day was to ensure that children developed the proper masculine and feminine traits to become good Victorian-era men and women, and to diagnose, treat, and cure those who did not fit into those molds.

These molds were informed by an interlinked series of analogies about the proper “natural” balance in a binary world. In this world, men and women had naturally separate but complementary roles and qualities, which bore themselves out from the divine to the mundane. Male was to female as masculine to feminine, God to humanity, dominant to submissive, strong to weak, protector to protected, adult to child, reason to emotion, science to superstition, public to private, work to family … the list could go on. Enhancing the process by which dominant class males and females grew up to correctly fit these gender molds within society, and identifying and treating what went wrong when they didn’t, became a social preoccupation.

Some people, of course, did not fit the molds. In fact, some people seemed born outside of, and contradictory to, them. This is how a newly defined binary – “heterosexual” and “homosexual” – emerged alongside the others. Although the term was invented to define a psychologically healthy relationship, it was quickly adopted as exactly the opposite. That’s why homosexuality was officially defined and treated in psychiatry as a diseased, but complementary, aberration of “normal” heterosexuality until 1973. And it’s largely why the search for “the gay gene” still smacks of trying to identify an illness.

Now, all of this was initially about men. Gay males threatened the whole chain of analogies on which society was “naturally” based. No one was really interested in, or threatened by, lesbians. And, for the most part, they still aren’t. Women and women don’t threaten the top side of the analogy chart. Is this partially why many heterosexuals are sickened by gay sex and fraught with the question of whether gays threaten society and culture, while girl-on-girl action has become an accepted – in fact, a standard – sideshow element of heterosexual porn movies and erotica?  I’ll bet it is. It all makes me wonder who is really sick out there.

But anyway, the science of sex and sexual orientation is turning out to be far more complicated (and far more interesting) than binary oppositions. Instead of fixed and fused binaries, it appears that sex, gender, and sexual orientation exist on somewhat independent spectrums.

It’s so simple: squeeze him into one mold, squeeze her into the other. Set them up together properly. But what’s more important, persons or molds, when you find that you can’t squeeze some people into them?

What we’re finding out, as a part of a much larger picture, is that the masculine and feminine molds into which we have tried to conform ourselves and our children are not, in actuality, very reflective of our underlying biological realities. We unfold in a combination of nature and nurture, but come equipped with some fundamental personality contours. The outward manifestations of these contours can be suppressed (or repressed) or their inflections developed, but the underlying structures are not mutable. No matter what we do, they continue to exert pressure from within us and manifest themselves in our personalities and behavior. And, it appears, among these fundamental contours is our general sexual orientation.

Now, faced with a diversity of forms and only two social molds, we can react in three ways. We can 1) cram the misfits into the molds and pare away what doesn’t fit, 2) chuck the misfits, or 3) chuck the molds. The better part of the last few thousand years have been devoted to 1) and 2) in many places in the world.

In times past, infants who did not conform to rigid sexual demarcations were killed as abominations. Those who developed as sexually ambivalent were surgically altered (another way of obliterating them) to construct males or females, and even sexually normal children were surgically enhanced through circumcision to reinforce their gender roles. This way of coping with diversity has continued into our age:  surgical, pharmacological, and psychological interventions continue to be employed on individuals who do not conform to roles, maintained through traditional religion and culture, that are based on a simple, effective, and binary vision of humanity and sexuality.

But now both natural and social sciences are beginning to show us that this vision, as powerful, comforting, and compelling as it is for some, is not really true. And in a culture that promotes the potential of individual agency, values personal authenticity, and seeks individual flourishing, we have to accept – and even celebrate – the genuine traits that constitute our genuine individuality. Yes, many people still fall back on the clear comforts established by tradition and religion in defining who they should be. But even these people are changing. Even they want to be loved and accepted, by others and by God, “for who they are.” The thing is, how we understand “who we are” is changing in ways that heterosexuals will have to accept homosexuals if heterosexuals want to accept themselves. And so, by the time we finally discover the answer to why some people are gay, others straight, and others something else, it won’t really matter — even for the middle. And as far as I am concerned, that can’t happen too soon.


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1 Response

  1. Josh R. says:

    I’d like to see you take this to a religious context next. Great read!