“Born that way,” goes the popular slogan about homosexuality. For many years we have heard this slogan on radio talk fests, in song lyrics, on television shows and in movies. Popular science articles have also lent credence to this view. People are born homosexual, this view asserts, and they stay homosexual all their lives.
Now appears an article that declares just the opposite. People are not born that way, and in fact the evidence that people are born that way has never been validated. And yet the notion that gays are born that way has persisted despite there being no valid evidence.
In “The Life of the Gay Gene: from Hypothetical Genetic Marker to Social Reality” (published in the Journal of Sex Research), Kate O’Riordan traces the evolution of this notion that homosexuality is a genetic variant. She starts by examining the research that led the gay rights moment and others to this conclusion, explores its lack of validation, then looks at how it has taken on a life of its on.
“It has become embedded in science media cultures,” she explains, “and lodged in databases that open up into information flows with greater porosity than ever. It is fed by aggregations of noise that contribute to the erroneous signal strength of the message that there is a gay gene.”
The conclusion that gays are born that way is based on three 1990 studies. In 1991, Simon LeVay published a study that reported on a group of neurons in the brain’s hypothalamus that were twice as large in heterosexual males than in homosexual males. LeVay assumed this difference in the hypothalamus was evidence that homosexuality is biological. However, critics point out that LeVay obtained his samples from 19 homosexual men who had all died of AIDS (and six of the supposedly heterosexual brains had also died of AIDS). LeVay did not adequately account for these confounding variables.
Also in 1991, John M. Bailey and Richard C. Pillard did a twin study in which they found a 52% correlation rate with regard to homosexuality among identical twins. This study was quickly picked up by most textbooks in psychology. However, critics have pointed out that Bailey and Pillard had recruited subjects for their study in homosexual newspapers, which probably biased their study. Later, in 2000, Bailey and colleagues did another study in which subjects were recruited from the Australian Twin Registry. The results of this study showed only a 20% correlation rate.
The third and most publicized study was published in 1993 by Dean Hamer at the National Institutes of Health. Hamer studied 40 pairs of homosexual brothers and concluded that homosexuality was linked to a specific region on the human X chromosome (Xq28) inherited by sons from their mothers. This study has come under much criticism. One of Hamer’s assistant’s complained about Hammer’s methodology, and the Office of Research Integrity of the Department of Health and Human Services investigated Hammer’s study. They later cleared him, but the study has never been replicated. In order for any study to be validated, it must be replicated.
O’Riordan notes that despite the serious flaws in this research, the notion of the gay gene has gathered steam in the 18 years since it was done. “In the last 18 years, the mediation of the gay gene has generated a biomedical media materiality that helps ground the concept in fact,” she explains. She points to a convergence of popular media and science in which the borders between the two are no longer clearly defined. After 18 years of constant exposition of this idea in all kinds of media and in some so-called scientific periodicals, the notion has taken on the semblance of proven fact.
The gay community, O’Riordan relates, has embraced the notion of the gay gene and encouraged others to embrace it as a matter of human rights and human justice. For example, soon after the Hamer study, gay men in San Francisco printed up T-shirts reading “Xq28-thanks for the genes, mom!” Gays view any suggestion that homosexuality is caused by environmental conditions as discrimination against gays, and hence any research that refutes the gay gene theory or espouses environmental theories is dismissed and discredited.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the gay gene theory has been refuted, or at least substantially challenged. The question is, if gays want to believe that homosexuality is genetic, and if their hope and well-being seems to depend on this idea, should we dash their hope and sense of well-being by insisting on the dubious underpinnings of their belief? Or should we, out of compassion, out of human rights concerns, allow them to hold on to this belief?
The larger question is, should we organize our society according to real scientific truths or mythical truths? Should researchers be censored with respect to the kinds of research they are doing on the nature of homosexuality, are should they be allowed to find whatever they find and conclude whatever they conclude, regardless of public sentiment?
On the one hand, our values are ruled by sentiment. On the other hand, they are ruled by the validated scientific experiments.
Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst, professor of psychology and author of 20 books.