The Gay Gene

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Mishal Din, second year, gives us an insight into the debates surrounding the discovery of a proposed ‘Gay gene’ and predicts its consequences

Society’s stance on homosexuality has come a long way. With today’s forward-thinking, it’s surprising to learn that homosexuality was a legal offence in this country until as recently as 30 years ago. But no matter how much progress we make, it seems as if there’s a consistent nagging prejudice. Homophobia (albeit less than in the past) still prevails.

Some use tradition to justify this, others use religion. You may have heard of ‘conversion therapy’ or the ‘ex-gay movement’ – popular programmes which aim to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals. Their main principle is based on the idea that sexual orientation is a conscious decision. But what if they’re wrong? In the famous words of Lady Gaga: we were ‘born this way’. And now there may be scientific evidence to prove it.

So, can the mysterious ‘gay gene’ exist? Some studies have discovered correlations between people’s physiology and their sexuality. For example, gay men tend to have increased ridge density in the fingerprints on their left thumbs and pinkies. If these phenotypical differences can exist, then why can’t a genetic basis for homosexuality be possible?

In 1993, a geneticist named Dean Hamer conducted a famous study suggesting a link between a gene marker and male homosexuality. ‘Xq28’ is the region on the X-chromosome in question. The study found a higher incidence of homosexuality with those who possessed the gene compared to those who didn’t. Since then, this study has come under a lot of fire. There have been numerous replicates and followup studies, none of which have yielded conclusive results. However the concept of the ‘gay gene’ has gained a lot of attention and interest.

The gay gene could be a monumental step forward for the gay community. Proving sexuality is predetermined rather than a lifestyle choice presents an opportunity for equality. ‘The Advocate’, a notable American gay and lesbian magazine reported in 1996 that 61% of its readers felt that “it would mostly help gay and lesbian rights if homosexuality were found to be biologically determined.” Additionally, this could have many implications in the legislation of gay marriage.

Screenshot 2014-07-31 20.40.13In US law, the ‘Equal Protection Clause’ determines which groups of people are the subjects of discrimination. After this, they go on to scrutinise laws and government regulations which may victimise these groups. To be classified as one of these groups, one of the main criteria is ‘immutability’ – that is, something that cannot be changed. If we can prove that homosexuality is biologically determined (and therefore unchangeable) then this could debase many anti-gay laws and make way for more equality. This would have many implications in the legislation of gay marriage, laws concerning adoption and anti-bullying laws

The potential power of the gay gene isn’t limited to law, however. Homosexual people have been persecuted for centuries under the premise that their actions are ‘unnatural’ and ‘perverse lifestyle choices’. The gay gene would directly prove this not to be the case. Discrimination stems from the fear of the unknown – any way to shed light on this is a step towards acceptance.

It’s very possible that eventually blood tests might be developed to test for sexual orientation for use by insurance companies. The same tactic could be employed by the military or employers, thus exacerbating discrimination against homosexuals. Expectant mothers could abort a foetus at the risk of being gay.

Even worse, with a genetic basis, homosexuality might be viewed as a genetic disease. This would be hugely detrimental and take attitudes towards homosexuality back to the early 20th century when it was classified as a psychiatric disorder. Of course these possibilities would be an atrocious manipulation of research, but this doesn’t mean these consequences are impossible. Pseudo-science has been used in the past to justify unethical ideas – notable examples being Hitler’s regime and eugenics. While we may be fortunate enough to live in an environment where views are relatively tolerant, it’s easy to forget that homophobia is a serious problem in other parts of the world.

But before we can consider all the possible outcomes, more work needs to be done. Meta-analysis from all the linkage studies shows a link to Xq28. However, it’s also been shown that a few other genes must be present to show homosexuality as heritable. This study has been replicated numerous times – with mixed outcomes. Disappointingly there’s still no definite answer. And as things stand currently, it looks very unlikely that we’ll ever find a singular determinant for sexual orientation.

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