In 1993, a study from U.K. researchers found a connection between men having genetic variations in a region on their X chromosome, and being gay. The study didn't definitively prove that being gay is genetic but, nonetheless, the idea of a "gay gene" was born.
Scientists have periodically been looking for more proof of this gay gene ever since, and research published this week in Scientific Reports has been presented as the strongest evidence of a genetic connection since that 1993 study. After analyzing the DNA of 2,000 men, some gay and some straight, the researchers found that two genetic variants were more common in the gay men's DNA. Since its release earlier this week, the study's been reported with headlines like, "Have Scientists Found The Gay Gene?" and even though the answer is a clear "no," people are already wondering what this could mean for the LGBTQ+ community.
Now, we can talk about this particular study's limitations (the fact that it, like other research into the "gay gene," only looked at men, for example), but there's a greater issue here: Why are we looking for a gay gene in the first place?
I was two years old when that first study suggested that queerness is genetic. If you believe the "gay gene" theory, that means I was already a lesbian. If not, maybe you think something in my environment made me feel attracted to women, or that I turned out gay because of how I was raised. Maybe you think it was a choice, and while I can assure you that being a lesbian is not something I consciously chose to do, it's also not something I would ever change if given the chance.
Exploring theories about our supposed innate differences will only fuel homophobia and inequality — which we should be fighting to end.
Of course there was a time when it was comforting to be able to "blame" gayness on genetics: Whatever problems straight friends and family had with a loved one's sexuality could easily be explained away and, thus, forgiven. And I understand that many queer people still feel connected to the idea that they were born gay.
"It's an interesting conversation within queer spaces, because so many queer people (myself included) feel that they were 'born this way,' and their queerness is inherently connected to their inner wiring," Lindsay Amer, an LGBTQ+ activist and educator, tells Refinery29. What's more, as The Atlantic pointed out in 2016, straight people who strongly believe people are born gay are more likely to support equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community.
But using the genetic explanation as a source of comfort, or to debunk homophobia — because we didn't "choose" to be gay, or it's "not our fault" — still implies that there's fault in being gay. The way I, and other LGBTQ+ activists, see it, the search for a gay gene does nothing to actually help the queer community. In fact, it has the potential to undo some of the progress we've made.
"I think trying to find a connection of any kind between sexuality and genetics is absurd and rooted in the thinking that any sexuality outside of heterosexuality is 'abnormal,'" Kristin Russo, cofounder of LGBTQ+ advice site Everyone Is Gay says. "It oversimplifies the often fluid nature of sexuality into a black or white context."
Russo points to another limitation of this particular study and a lot of other sexuality research, which tends to simplify identity down to "gay" or "straight." These are just two poles on a vast spectrum of sexual identities.
"With my knowledge of queer communities, it seems blatantly obvious that any studies like these are troublesome and also undoubtedly exclusionary of the many nuanced identities, attractions, and expressions that exist," Russo says.
Representation issues aside, another worry that comes along with this area of research is the question of what comes next. If scientists ever do find solid proof that a gay gene exists, what do they plan to do with it?
"We are circling back to the conversation that being gay is a mutation or a defect that can be weeded out, fixed, and further othered not only through cultural bias and stigma, but through science, as well," Amer says. She says "circling back," because we have been here before.
Only about two generations ago, "homosexuality" — as it was called in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — was considered a mental illness. Psychology Today reports that doctors tried to "treat" gay people through such practices as aversion therapy, which sometimes included subjecting them to electric shocks or forcing them to take drugs that would make them vomit, while simultaneously showing them nude pictures of individuals they may be attracted to, in an attempt to form an association between the attraction and horrible, ill feelings. It was violent and hateful, and has since been denounced by many major medical institutions as not only ineffective (thank god) but also harmful.
If a gay gene were proven to exist, some people worry that scientists would try to find a way to manipulate it in an effort to stamp out LGBTQ+ people. It would be a way to further label being gay as an abnormality. It could potentially send us back in time, to a moment when queer people feared ending up in a doctor's office, scared and in pain, with a medical professional who was there to try to "fix" instead of help them.
When it comes down to it, it seems like the only people who would benefit from knowing what causes gayness are the kind of people who wish it didn't exist.
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