A genetic analysis of 409 pairs of gay brothers, including sets of twins, has provided the strongest evidence yet that gay people are born gay. The study clearly links sexual orientation in men with two regions of the human genome that have been implicated before, one on the X chromosome and one on chromosome 8.
The finding is an important contribution to mounting evidence that being gay is biologically determined rather than a lifestyle choice. In some countries, such as Uganda, being gay is still criminalised, and some religious groups believe that gay people can be “treated” to make them straight.
“It erodes the notion that sexual orientation is a choice,” says study leader Alan Sanders of the NorthShore Research Institute in Evanston, Illinois.
The region on the X chromosome picked out by the study, called Xq28, was originally identified in 1993 by Dean Hamer of the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, but attempts to validate the finding since have been mixed. The other region picked out is in the twist in the centre of chromosome 8. Known as 8q12, it was first signposted in 2005.
The latest study involves about three times as many people as the previous largest study, which means it is significantly more statistically robust.
Over the past five years, Sanders has collected blood and saliva samples from 409 pairs of gay brothers, including non-identical twins, from 384 families. This compares, for example, with 40 pairs of brothers recruited for Hamer’s study.
The team combed through the samples, looking at the locations of genetic markers called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – differences of a single letter in the genetic code – and measuring the extent to which each of the SNPs were shared by the men in the study.
The only trait unequivocally shared by all 818 men was being gay. All other traits, such as hair colour, height and intelligence, varied by different degrees between each brothers in a pair and between all sets of brothers. Therefore, any SNPs consistently found in the same genetic locations across the group would most likely be associated with sexual orientation.
Only five SNPs stood out and of these, the ones most commonly shared were from the Xq28 and 8q12 regions on the X chromosome and chromosome 8 respectively. But this doesn’t mean the study found two “gay genes”. Both regions contain many genes, and the next step will be to home in on which ones might be contributing to sexual orientation.
Sanders says he has already completed the work for that next step: he has compared SNPs in those specific regions in gay and straight men to see if there are obvious differences in the gene variants, and is now preparing the results for publication. “Through this study, we have the potential to narrow down to fewer genes,” says Sanders.
Not just genetic
Whatever the results, Sanders stresses that complex traits such as sexual orientation depend on multiple factors, both environmental and genetic. Even if he has hit on individual genes, they will likely only have at most a small effect on their own, as has also been seen in studies of the genetic basis for intelligence, for example.
Other researchers who have looked at the biological origins of sexual orientation have welcomed the latest findings, saying they help resolve contradictory results from earlier, smaller studies. “The most pleasing aspect is that the confirmation comes from a team that was in the past somewhat sceptical and critical of the earlier findings,” says Andrea Camperio Ciani of the University of Padua in Italy.
“This study knocks another nail into the coffin of the ‘chosen lifestyle’ theory of homosexuality,” says Simon LeVay, the neuroscientist and writer who, in 1991, claimed to have found that a specific brain region, within the hypothalamus, is smaller in gay men. “Yes, we have a choice in life, to be ourselves or to conform to someone else’s idea of normality, but being straight, bisexual or gay, or none of these, is a central part of who we are, thanks in part to the DNA we were born with.”
“Much hard work now lies ahead to identify the specific genes involved and how they work, as well as to find equivalent genes in women,” he adds.
Hamer himself, now a documentary filmmaker, is delighted with the result. “Twenty years is a long time to wait for validation, but now it’s clear the original results were right,” he says. “It’s very nice to see it confirmed.”
Why I took part in gene study, and what it means to me
Chad Zawitz is a senior physician at a clinic in Chicago, coordinating services for people with HIV and other infectious diseases. He took part in the study with his twin brother. This is why he said he took part:
As a doctor, I recognise the importance of furthering science through legitimate research. As a gay man, I’ve known that my sexuality has never been a choice but I could not explain, to myself or anyone else, how I became this way. Genetics and environmental influences seemed logical. This study is an attempt to answer the genetics part of the question.
The results may provide validation for homosexual men who have asked the same questions that I have. They may improve the self-esteem of the many men who have asked “why me?”, or have felt ostracised, prejudiced, put down, left out, demonised, or worse. They might possibly change the minds of those who believe homosexuality is a “choice” rather than something predetermined.
However, it is important that the findings be put in context. Inevitable headlines like “Gay gene discovered” or “It’s not a choice” over-egg the results. Just because there is a genetic link to homosexuality, it does not necessarily guarantee one will end up gay. The genes, if and when they are identified, may only predispose one to the possibility of being gay, should the required environmental, nutritional or other unknown factors be present at critical stages of development.
On a darker level, some may use the results to justify a belief that homosexuality is the result of a “broken” or “deviant” gene that needs to be fixed. Imagine parents requesting a genetic test on their unborn fetus, or worse, a government rolling out mandatory testing of all unborn children, and using compulsory abortions to cleanse the gene pool. There is enough hate in the world that this concept is not as outrageous as one might think.
Despite this, I remain hopeful that our world will continue to evolve into a safer and more accepting place for everyone. While some countries are going backwards, there is a greater openness around the world to homosexuality. This openness, coupled with scientific fact, will bring a greater understanding of human sexuality to a new generation.
Journal reference: Psychological Medicine, DOI: 10.1017/S0033291714002451