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  • Fintan Steele

The Gay Gene: 30 Years of Debate

Thirty years ago this summer, a paper published in the journal Science provided initial evidence for a genetic link to male homosexuality. The lead author, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health named Dean Hamer (himself an openly gay man), knew it would be controversial, but the science was sound. The response was sound and fury.

Despite the reserved claims of the paper, the media sensationalized the findings. Headlines about “The Gay Gene” dominated the news for weeks. LGBTQ+ organizations generally embraced the study as “proof” that being queer was not a matter of choice or morality. The religious right condemned the work (and Hamer) as doing the work of Satan. Left wing pundits warned that such information would be used by the right wing to selectively discriminate against queer people, even to approving abortions of fetuses carrying the “Gay Gene”! The US Congress threatened to reach into NIH (part of the Executive Branch) to take away research funding, particularly from Dean’s lab. The scientific study, and what it really demonstrated, became irrelevant as the culture wars roared into life.

So what did that 30-year-old paper really claim to show, and was it really as profound as the response would suggest?

Compared to today’s genetic technologies, the tools Dean and his colleagues had access to were primitive. Not much was really known about the human genome then but there were a series of genetic “markers” across the whole genome that could be used as surrogates for any nearby genes. All the Hamer researchers did was look at the genetic markers in a group of gay men and non-gay men (including sets of gay brothers), trying to find markers that associated most frequently with gay individuals. Most of the markers sorted out randomly between groups, but one marker on the X-chromosome at a position called Xq28 was found to appear significantly more often in gay men. This finding strongly suggests that somewhere near that marker was a human gene or genes that influence the development of homosexuality.

A few observations.

First, that same chromosome location showed no relation to LBTQ+, just G: Subsequent genetic studies have expanded findings to other expressions of queerness, but it is still pretty complex and really hard to sort out.

Second, like any other human behavior or trait, there are many, many genetic and environmental contributions: The notion of a single “gay gene” is laughable (and not what was claimed, despite the press coverage).

Third, this kind of study says nothing about whether something is “good” or “bad,” only that it is. While a biological basis for queerness would seem to support its wider acceptance that is clearly not the case, particularly with religious fundamentalists.

Finally, the lived experience of LGBTQ+ persons is as critical as our genes to understanding our life. But this is true of any living human being, regardless of affiliation or beliefs.

It is really hard to bring science to bear on deepening our understanding of the LGBTQ+ community and individuals: it is too easy to compromise or even derail science with preconceived notions and deeply held beliefs, from the right AND the left. But there has been progress, and it is important that we not only understand what we have learned, but own and celebrate it.

Over the next few months, I will share a few of the scientific studies that have been done, sometimes in the face of strong opposition. Together, we can try to understand what they tell us about our lives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there aren’t that many studies, given the societal opposition. But there are a few of great interest, and they are worth knowing about. 


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