The search for the "gay gene"

When this report first came out last week I didn’t feel tempted to write about it, but it did lead to a lengthy and interesting discussion with some friends on social media. It involves the release of the results of a study conducted in Great Britain and the United States that’s being billed as the biggest study ever conducted on genetics and same-sex attraction. I’ll have to confess… I was kind of shocked at the conclusions. But long story short, while some possible correlations were noted, they concluded that there is no single “gay gene” that determines your sexual orientation. (NBC News)

The largest study to date on genetics and same-sex sexual behavior was published last week, and it concluded something many queer people have been saying for a long time: Sexual orientation is complicated and can’t be explained away by a single “gay gene.”

This takeaway pushes back on what seemed like a resolute determination among earlier scientists to show sexual orientation is a product simply of biology, while it also backs up millions of us who’ve discussed our varied experiences regarding our sexualities. And it helps clarify where the priorities of LGBTQ people should be in fighting for civil rights in the political and legal arenas.

Sexual orientation is complicated and can’t be explained away by a single “gay gene.”

The author goes on to offer a number of arguments as to why this study should never have been published, many of which have been around for ages and are worth consideration. Gays and lesbians have long been concerned over the possible discovery of the mythical gay gene because that information could be misused in the wrong hands. What if someone wanted to push the research in another direction and develop a “cure?” Or would parents begin prenatal screening and start aborting gay babies? Prior to recent changes in policy, there were suggestions the military might start screening blood tests of recruits and rejecting those that “failed the straight test.”

Much of my surprise was no doubt due to my highly limited, layman’s understanding of genetics. For some reason, I had always assumed that there would be some sort of definitive gay gene or genes. After all, there seem to be specific genes dictating every aspect of our makeup that we look at. There are genes that determine whether individuals find the taste of a particular food or spice pleasant, bitter and awful, or they detect no taste at all. There are genes that seem to predict whether you will prefer coffee or tea. Why wouldn’t something so fundamental as your sexual orientation be driven by something hiding in your double helix?

But then I was reminded by some of the people I was chatting with of some other factors to consider. One of the biggest was the idea that, aside from random mutations in each generation, genes are passed down from parents to children. The elephant in the room here should be obvious. How would a gene be passed down if its primary function was to make you vastly less likely to engage in the activities required to produce children? Good question.

In the end, will any of this matter? I highly doubt it. People are just people, straight, gay or in between. And while we have mapped the human genome, precisely what all of those tiny strands are up to will probably remain a mystery for a long time to come. In fact, most researchers appear to believe that most genes don’t “act alone” for any particular result, with the outcome depending on combinations of multiple genes. And some “turn on” or “turn off” at various points in our lives, so the picture is constantly shifting. So I’m not drawing any conclusions here. I just find the science behind it fascinating.

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