Research published in the journal Psychological Medicine has apparently provided the "strongest evidence yet" that people are born gay. In researcher Alan Sanders' study, in which he and his team conducted a genetic analysis of 409 pairs of gay brothers, he argued that his data “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”.
Sanders’ paper is likely to strengthen the public case that homosexuality is not a choice and that we are all “born this way”. Look past the headlines though and the study should once again open up questions about our obsession with finding a gay gene.
Despite Sanders’ research, a firm biological and specifically genetic basis for sexuality has still yet to be found. Virtually all of the research conducted on the issue over the past twenty years has had significant problems, primarily that we are searching for a biological cause for what is essentially a social construct. In reality we still have little idea as to the impact of nature, nurture nor choice on our sexual desires.
Does proving that homosexuality is "natural" actually do us any good? Many will say that finding a biological cause for sexual desires helps in our ongoing quest for gay rights. If we are born this way then it is much harder for people to discriminate against us.
Look at the history of social oppression however and this falls a little flat. The fact that race is genetic, for example, has not stopped people for being racist. The fact that sexual differences are physical traits has not stopped people from being sexist. People who discriminate against gays and lesbian because they believe we choose to be gay are simply using it as an excuse for their already prejudiced beliefs. If the choice argument was taken off the table then they would probably express their homophobia in some other way.
The born this way argument is not just unhelpful to the cause of gay rights, but it is actually extremely negative. The debate about the gay gene reinforces a system of compulsory heterosexuality.
Our sexuality is not just about physical desires. Key modern sexual identifiers (heterosexuality, homosexuality etc.) are relatively new constructions — ones developed largely for political reasons. These terms have been used to define what is "normal" and what is "abnormal" and in turn to maintain heterosexuality, and in particular procreative sex, as a social norm. Through recent history the enforcement of these norms occurred most specifically through state bans on homosexuality, which were and remain implemented primarily through medical intervention.
Despite progress this system of compulsory heterosexuality remains in force today. Instead of overt physical intervention this occurs primarily through economic and social means, but still often pushed by the state. The best recent example of this was the banning of the movie Gayby Baby in New South Wales Schools by the Liberal Education Minister Adrian Piccoli. This ban was implemented in the context of a broader debate about the normality of heterosexuality. Conservative columnist Piers Ackerman wrote for example:
"Children in same-sex couple families are one in a thousand of all children in couple families (0.1 per cent). Statistically, you are not in a “normal” family, no matter how many LGBTIQ-friendly docos you may be forced to watch by politically-driven school principals.
The drive to create the fantasy that homosexual families are the norm has come from the politically left-leaning Teachers Federation which is also pushing the Safe Schools Coalition, another political front group, which claims that anyone not involved in promoting safety for the “same-sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse young people, staff, families and communities" are bigots.”
The search for a gay gene inadvertently reinforces this debate. It maintains the idea that homosexuality is abnormal, or at least a variation of the norm. The very fact we’re searching for a ‘gay gene’ and not a ‘straight gene’ is an indication of this, as does the fact that all the research in the area describes the gay gene as some form of ‘variation’ from normal genetic structures. This variation is often blamed on gay childrens' mothers, something which has been used to reinforce gay stereotypes.
The gay gene debate sets up two very clear definitions of sexual identity (heterosexual and homosexual), and does not allow anyone to veer from these definitions.
But more worryingly, the gay gene debate sets up two very clear definitions of sexual identity (heterosexual and homosexual), and does not allow anyone to veer from these definitions. We see this regularly even within gay circles, whether it is attacks on Cynthia Nixon for saying that she chose to be a lesbian, to the common assumption that bisexuals just ‘haven’t made up their mind yet’.
This is likely to get worse in the future. Recent data from the United Kingdom for example found that 49 per cent of 18-24-year-olds no longer identify themselves as exclusively heterosexual. These numbers differed greatly from older generations, with the pollsters at YouGov noting that “with each generation, people see their sexuality as less fixed in stone.”
This is something that should be cause for celebration in gay and lesbian communities. It represents an explosion of sexual expression that could inevitably lead to the greater embrace of non-heterosexual activity.
The search for a gay gene may seem like an easy and convenient way to assure gay rights are ensured for a generation. But in taking the easy way out, we’re reinforcing the idea that homosexuality is abnormal and condemning those who break from our standard sexual identifiers to discrimination.