The Argument, The Conclusion, The Dilemma: The Gay Gene Wishes to Speak

Maheetha Bharadwaj

Stanford University

Publication Date: January 1, 2015

“I’m beautiful in my way, cuz God makes no mistakes, I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way” -Lady Gaga

In her song Lady Gaga, a renowned supporter of the LGBT movement, has defined the crux of one of the more heated political debates of the decade. Every day, the question appears: are humans just a plethora of nucleotides chained together or do our environments influence us more than we think? This debate has plagued not only the world’s leading scientists and psychologists for years, but continues to plague the world of politics even today? The constant battle between our genetics and surroundings surfaces in many topics, causing riveting discussions about the nature of human existence and development. And like-wise, the nature versus nurture debate also questions the origins of human sexuality, particularly homosexuality: is it a behavioral choice environmentally influenced, or is it programmed in our genes?

In fact, this particular debate has become so pressing that it tends to play a dividing factor between the political liberals and conservatives. Not only does this struggle contain implications for the those involved in the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender+ (LGBT) movement, but it has the potential to redefine society’s perception of identity. This paper will focus on how the nature versus nurture debate influences the stance of the gay rights movement in politics. On the “nature” side, the LGBT movement feels that they can use the biological argument to support their cause, opponents argue that the biological cause just isn’t enough. Ultimately, through analyzing various perspectives, this paper will answer one question: how does the biological cause of homosexuality shape the LGBT movement in politics? Ultimately, I will come to a conclusion as to whether the biological argument for homosexuality helps or hurts the advancement of the LGBT movement.

The Current State of Biological Argument for Homosexuality: Lack of Definition

In 1991, science saw its first significant study analyzing the genetic causes of homosexuality. In the paper, “Linkage Between DNA Markers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual Orientation”, scientist Dean Hamer attempts to study the genetic origins of homosexuality. In a population of self-reported twin and non-twin homosexuals (using the Kinsey scale), Hamer created a family-pedigree of the non-twin male participants and analyzed a DNA linkage map analyzing the genome of homozygous twin subjects. Hamer deduces from his analyses that “these results demonstrate increased rates of homosexual orientation not only in the brothers of gay men, as has been previously reported, but also in maternal uncles and the sons of maternal aunts” (Hamer, 323). Hamer found a set of markers on the Xq28 chromosome band on the X-Chromosome that was highly correlated with homosexuality (Hamer 324). Thus, Hamer also concludes that some form of homosexuality is transmitted through the maternal side, through some form of sex-linked markers (Hamer, 325).

While Hamer looked at the genetic aspect of homosexuality, Simon LeVay looked at the neuro-endocrinological logic behind homosexuality. LeVay published another article around the same time that explores another biological element of homosexuality, adding to its scientific complexity. In his paper, “A Difference in Hypothalmic Structure between Heterosexual and Homosexual Men”, LeVay found an area in the hypothalamus of our brain controls sexual behavior representative in the typical heterosexual male. This study concluded that certain nuclei in the anterior hypothalmus (INAH 3) from the heterosexual males were twice as large as those in heterosexual females, and more importantly, twice as large as those from homosexual males. Like Hamer, LeVay also concludes that there is some biological substrate that ordains sexuality, although weaving possibility for a combination of multiple biological and genetic factors to have this effect (LeVay 1036).

Although the Hamer and LeVay arguments present the biological perspective, however, the community has seen efforts to strengthen the conclusions from these studies; however, these efforts haven’t clarified the large holes that need to be addressed. First of all, both the Hamer and LeVay study present correlations and not causations. To prove a causation Hamer would have to insert the Xq28 markers into a heterosexual male and show that they become homosexual; similarly, LeVay would have to somehow shrink the interstitial nuclei in heterosexual men and show that they become homosexual. Furthermore, the LeVay study presents another ambiguity: are the men homosexual because the nuclei are smaller or are the nuclei smaller because the men are homosexual? Despite these shortcomings, however, these studies did foster new potential for the LGBT movement in politics. In fact, ever since these arguments were pieced together, the science community in support of LGBT has tried to overcome or make-up for these studies’ shortcomings, most importantly by advancing the “markers” to an actual “gay gene”. However, the sexual science field has yet to see an actual “gay gene” discovered.

This brings us to the pressing problem with biological perspective of homosexuality today: the lack of definition. Unlike, other biological or mental disorders where there is an established protocol or techniques used to identify the condition, there hasn’t yet been an established way to pin-point homosexuality. Rather, the more accepted definition today is that homosexuality lies on a scale (Kinsey, The Kinsey Institute), but is there possibly a more concrete definition?

The Importance of the Biological Definition of Homosexuality: Inborn and Immutable

Before searching for a definition, we must ask ourselves: why is biologically defining homosexuality important? In fact, what would mean to have a biological definition? Proving that homosexuality was innate would serve as an impetus for a sort of civil rights movement. “Proving people are born gay would gain them wider social acceptance and better protection against discrimination”, argues a the author of a Boston Times Magazine article (What Makes People Gay, 2). Ultimately, finding people are born gay “would advance the idea that sexual orientation is an innate characteristic, like race; that homosexuals, like African-Americans, should be legally protected against ‘discrimination;’ and that disapproval of homosexuality should be as socially stigmatized as racism” (What Makes People Gay, 3). If an analogy between race and sexual orientation can be painted, hopefully the movement can gain equal rights.

However, would having a biological argument be enough, asks the article “Is Sexuality Immutable”? The article points out that although the biological argument carries weight, according to our amendments, sexuality would also have to be proven “immutable” to gain the same status as race and gender. “A key legal element of [the plaintiffs’] constitutional claim requires them to prove that sexual orientation is ‘immutable’ (cannot be changed) in order to have the same high level of constitutional protection as for race and gender,” wrote Andrew Pugno, lead counsel for, the official advocate of Proposition 8, a provision that claims that only marriage between a man and woman is recognized in California (Farrell, The Christian Science Monitor).

The argument that homosexuality needs the immutability, however, seems hypocritical. Among the other things that are protected under the first amendment are religions and speech, both of which are completely mutable and related to choice. People could convert to any religion, even if they’re born into or taught to follow a certain religion; speech can be controlled and curtailed if necessary. So, shouldn’t sexuality also be treated the same way? If religion can be accepted, why not sexual orientation? In fact, religion doesn’t even have any genetic predisposition like sexuality. Yet, conservatives still argue that since race and gender are fundamentally immutable entities, sexual orientation would have to be immutable to gain equal status of race and gender. Thus, although seemingly unreasonable, the LGBT movement would have to prove a combination of both genetic and immutable characteristics of sexuality, providing a solid basis for acceptance. The LGBT biological argument as of now, however, lacks concrete evidence to prove sexuality is immutable. And because of that, the conservatives use the gap to sustain their counterarguments, ultimately stymieing the movement’s advancement.

Dangers of Using the Biological Argument Without Immutability

“Biological factors do not force us into a particular behavior; they only make those responses more likely” –Joseph Nicolosi, Parenting to Prevent Homosexuality.

The Environmental Argument

A Ph.D in clinical psychology, Joseph Nicolosi brings us to the center of the conservative counterargument: although genetic, sexuality can be influenced by various environmental factors. Nicolosi argues that sexuality is mutable from birth; this theory is voiced in his book “A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality”, in which he describes homosexuality as a combination of many environmental factors. He regards the gay gene as simply a factor that predisposes can individual to homosexuality, but that with the right influences, this predisposition can be avoided. He argues that “family influence, cultural influence, situational stressors, and one’s own choice to exercise self-control” (39) (all indicators of gender non-conformity) are factors that can definitely push someone into becoming gay. He claims that the interactions between that healthy parental relationships can prevent the development of homosexuality (Nicolosi 87). Nicolosi accepts that every individual has some level of genetic disposition for homosexuality, and thus every individual is born “homosexual” to some extent; however, he implies that that sexual orientation can be changed to develop either fully homosexual or heterosexual give certain environmental situations.

In fact, some studies support his argument, indicating some form of sexual orientation plasticity in both males and females. A study conducted in 2003, telephone interviewed 200 women and men who admitted to having changes in sexual orientation after going through some form of reparative therapy. The author of the study concludes that although it takes a while for most to “experience” the effects of the therapy, “almost all of the participants reported some substantial changes in the core aspects sexual orientation, not merely overt behavior.” According to the data in this study, some people only change their sexual orientation self-identity, while others change overall behavior itself. This study provides evidence that some gay men and lesbians are able to also change the core features of sexual orientation (Spitzer, M.D 2003).

Similarly, a paper by Langstrom et al., Qazi Rahman, Eva Carlstro, and Paul Lichtenstein in 2010, titled “Genetic and Environmental Effects on Same-sex Sexual Behavior: A Population Study of Twins in Sweden”, tests a model where the homosexual phenotype was a “sum of additive genetic effects, shared or familial environmental effects, and unique environmental effects” (Langstrom et al. et al. 75). They found “familial clustering” of same-sex sexual behavior in both men and women (Langstrom et al. et al. 77). The results support the notion that same-sex behavior arises not only from heritable but also from individual-specific environmental sources. The team estimated that roughly a third of any and total same-sex partnerships were influenced by genetics, whereas two thirds of any and total same-sex partnerships were influenced by “unique environmental effects.” A similar ratio was found in women as well.

Furthermore, many papers have embraced an alternative biological perspective for homosexuality: not the genetic, but the epigenetic argument. Authors for  The Quarterly Review of Biology, researchers William Rice and Urban Friberg believe that homosexuality can be explained by the presence of epi-marks, which they describe as “temporary switches that control how our genes are expressed during gestation and after we’re born” (Dvorsky, Genetics). Specifically, in accordance with a portion of Hamer’s findings, they discovered “sex-specific epi-marks” which have the potential to be passed down from mother to son. Most epi-marks don’t normally pass between generations and are essentially “erased”, but some can carry over from parent to child, and Rice and Friberg conclude that this could explains why homosexuality appears to run in families, without a “gay gene”. Continuing their research, Rice and Friberg presented a mathematical model that could possibly predict homosexuality by tracing markers and chromatin development in embryos inside the mother’s womb (Dvorsky, Genetics).

Another paper titled “Behavioral Genetics and Homosexuality”, written by Douglas Abbot, not only claims that homosexuality is genetic-environmental, but also critiques questions the ability to provide “absolute scientific proof of homosexuality” in the first place. He claims:

“To prove that genes cause homosexuality, scientists would first have to isolate candidate genes and then determine what proteins these genes manufacture. The action of these proteins on brain tissue, brain chemistry, or on some part of the endocrine system would then have to be established. Finally, if differences in brain or endocrine chemistry are consistently found between homosexuals and heterosexuals, then the potency (or strength) of those changes to predict homosexuality would need to be determined.” (Abbott, 88)

He agrees with the idea that humans are active shapers of their own development and claims that human sexuality is no exception (Abbot, 89). Like Nicolosi, Abbott also proposes a threshold model, that suggests that certain environmental factors (stress, family discordance, etc.) can trigger the expression of predisposing genes. He mentions, “some genes may be ‘susceptibility genes,’ which increase the chance of expressing the condition but which by themselves are not sufficient to produce the condition without some environmental trigger” (Abbott, 89). Ultimately, he claims that the genetic significance shown in past studies, such as the Hamer and the LeVay study, aren’t truly significant: in other words, shallow markers aren’t enough to prove a substantial genetic substrate.

Abbott brings us back to the idea that finding some biological proof for homosexuality is inherently difficult. In fact, even if a potential gay gene were discovered, sexual science studies would have to prove its function as a gay gene either by inactivating it in homosexuals, showing that they become heterosexual, or activating it in heterosexuals, showing that they become homosexual. But performing these methods in humans would bring up some significant ethical issues with such sexual science studies. And secondly, if we embrace an epigenetic model, it’s most certainly possible that even if a “gay gene” were truly present, its function could be masked or turned off by epigenetic and environmental factors, thus making any sort of gay gene practically impossible to find and, if found, void of enough evidence to suggest its function. Thus ultimately, it seems that the LGBT movement is at loss: not only is the biological origin of sexuality being undermined, but its immutability has also been questioned and shot down.

Aversion Therapy and Clinical Interventions

Not surprisingly, the environmental argument has led people to still believe that homosexuality can indeed be changed. In fact, this idea has been present for a while. In 1960s, a scientist named Basil conducted an aversion therapy study on one particular individual. The aversion therapy took place in three stages: 1) self-reported homosexual individual was put into a dark room and given medication that would make him nauseous. Meanwhile, during his nauseous feelings, the scientist would tell him that homosexual was sick and disgusting, while playing “vomiting” and “disgust” noises in the back, 2) the homosexual would encounter more aversion therapy to homosexual images, and 3) the subject would be likened to images of naked women while playing erotic sounds in the background. By the end of the study, the homosexual was successfully “converted into heterosexuality”, for he claimed that he felt no pleasure towards the idea of homosexuality and instead, had a girlfriend with whom he multiple sexual relations (Basil, 768).

Of course, the 1960s had very different ethical standards; the “aversion therapy” in this study would most probably condemned as unwarranted torture in the modern-day science field. However, attempts to better the ethical stigma around such clinical interventions have surfaced in various academic writings. A recent paper, “Practice Guidelines for the Treatment of Unwanted Same-Sex Attractions and Behavior”, written by many researchers in the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH, 35), outlines possible guidelines for modern-day clinical interventions for those who wish to get rid of their homosexuality. For treatment considerations, clinicians are encouraged provide clients with enough information on “change-oriented processes and intervention outcomes”, as well as use “accepted psychological approaches to psychotherapeutic interventions” that minimize risk of harmful mental after-effects. The study addresses the fact that reparative therapy should remain an option for those who genuinely wish to change their sexual orientation (NARTH, 60).

Political Consequences and their Social Implications: The Lose-Lose Situation

Ultimately, the lack of an “immutability” puts the LGBT movement at a lose-lose situation. On the one hand, if the LGBT movement doesn’t use any sort of argument, the LGBT movement doesn’t have any chance of advancing their cause. However, if they use the biological argument, the conservatives will always find a way to counter it, especially with the lack of immutability argument. For example, because of the lack of immutability, conservatives would argue that existing biological studies imply that the existing cultural beliefs that gayness is abnormal and a “disease”. But because immutability hasn’t been evidenced, scientists and are empowered to identify homosexuals and potentially “cure” homosexual “pathology” (Brookey, 119-123). By stating that there is a biological cause of homosexuality, gay rights movement advocates and their scientists are ultimately implying the possibility of “correction” (Brookey, And this argument is exactly what conservatives use: why not there be a genetic or biological cure for a biological cause? They would use the argument that although homosexuals have a predisposition that influences their behavior, they should not act upon that predisposition. This in turn, puts the LGBT movement at a loss.

Hypothetically, we can imagine what would happen if the LGBT movement still used the biological argument, even without the immutability facet. In addition to the political consequences for their movement, the opponents’ “biological correction” counter argument could pose some daunting ethical implications within politics. For example, imagine if an anti-gay parent wishes to use the “biological correction” and “environmental arguments” as an excuse to put their potentially gay sons through ‘aversion therapy’ and clinical interventions. This would kindle the ethical dilemmas concerning the rights of minors. Furthermore, the implication of “biological correction” could challenge the approach to sexual science studies in general and entwine politics and research even further. For example, as of now, in sexual science studies, like the gay gene study, we have a stereotypical behavior that is sought to be confirmed by genetic findings. What would happen if we applied the same approach to women and racial minorities (for example, giving genetic reasons to explain the stereotype that females aren’t as smart as males)? This would cause some serious issues involving research ethics, which is one reason why perhaps opponents of the LGBT movement hesitate to group sexual orientation with groups such as race and gender.

Not only does the LGBT movement carry political consequences but also social and corporate implications for the general community. In general, sexual science studies reemphasize the cultural beliefs about homosexuality being feminine. In other words, it enforces the stereotype that gay guys are feminine, calling for superficial labeling. Most of the sexual science studies never question the assumption that homosexuality is feminine; thus all of the findings support this underlying cultural belief. Hamer’s DNA study was readily accepted because the “gay markers” been discovered on the X-chromosome (the “female” chromosome donated by the mother). What would have happened, were those markers on the Y-chromosome (the “masculine” chromosome donated by the father)? Thus the cultural beliefs and sexual science studies complement each other, turning into the vicious cycle that only results in the continuation of existing discrimination against the LGBT individuals. With the assumption that gay men are indeed feminine, now emphasized by sexual science research, businesses and employers could subtly discriminate against any individual male who comes out as feminine. Furthermore, what if pharmaceutical companies took advantage of the conservative argument to come up with medications to deal with the “symptoms” of homosexuality? This pushes us back to the aforementioned ethical dilemmas: what if mothers and fathers were to give medication to aid their child’s gender non-conformity, fearing that it might turn into homosexuality?

The ethical controversies would only send political debates spiraling into deeper arguments. Taking these issues into consideration, it’s important to debate whether the LGBT movement should use the biological argument as an impetus for their movement.

How does the Modern Generation View the Biological Argument?

“I’m not an activist but I really support their movement. I love my LGBT friends and I hope they have their rights soon. They should in no way be discriminated against” –Stanford Student, 2013.

This type of attitude towards homosexuality and the LGBT movement was seen in a majority of responses to a recent survey of approximately 110 Stanford students. The survey questioned the participants about their views on various facets of homosexuality and the LGBT movement. Surprisingly, the proportion of LGBT students who answered the survey is quite representative of the actual Stanford proportion of LGBT students (Appendix, Question 3). When asked whether the LGBT individuals should be given equal rights, 64% answered either “agree” or “strongly agree” (Appendix, Question 5). When asked if the biological argument would imply that homosexuality is a “disease”, an overwhelming 80% answered “No” (Appendix, Question 6). To top that, a substantial minority agreed that the biological argument would imply biological correction, and a majority (70%) of the students selected “neutral” about using the biological argument for their cause (Appendix, Question 7, 9).

Although Stanford’s campus is generally one of the more liberal college campuses, it isn’t dangerous to assume that most bright young college students tend to have an open mind towards homosexuals. So where does this place the modern view about the biological argument about homosexuality? Note that college students today, make the difference of tomorrow. We see from the results, that college students support the LGBT movement regardless of whether the biological argument succeeds or fails. They claim that the biological cause of homosexuality doesn’t imply a biological cure, and continue to show indifference towards the argument in a political setting. Thus, what could the LGBT movement learn from its supporters?

A Potential Alternative Solution: A Different Political Approach

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law…For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well”–Obama, Inaugural Speech 2013

In fact, what could the LGBT movement learn from President Obama’s words? Neither Obama nor the majority of Stanford students sees the LGBT movement as a fight to prove biological difference; they see beyond that. In fact, it seems that they have implicitly alluded to a possible different approach to the LGBT movement. The current approach with the biological argument is flawed and even a result of a huge misunderstanding within the movement itself.

The LGBT movement believe that equating the biological cause to race or gender would make it okay for them to be gay. But I ask the question: why should they even give a reason? Even in the civil rights movement of the late 50s, desegregation wasn’t immediately accepted–only when people accepted the fact that all citizens regardless of color are born equal did society come to accept desegregation. No one is the same, and everyone is different: the human species itself has so much variety in and of itself. The law doesn’t require females to give a reason as to why they are female or African Americans to give a reason as to why they are African American: society and law just accept them for who they are because they are citizens. So why should homosexuality be any different? Why should the LGBT movement give an “excuse” for being of a different sexuality? Aren’t homosexuals humans as well? Both the President and the law acknowledge that everyone is “truly created equal”. Thus, the movement should shift its approach to their cause–perhaps it should simply argue that as equal citizens, they shouldn’t be denied their rights.

However, even with a new approach, the best remedy for the current struggle is simply time. Perhaps, this decade isn’t the best time, for even if it went through the political struggle, the younger generations still make up a minority of the population, thus social acceptance might become a bigger struggle. I’m not saying that the LGBT movement should just stop being active, but for better social acceptance, maybe time is a key factor. Just how it took decades for a majority of the people to truly accept desegregation, it will take time for the acceptance of homosexuality. However, the rise of the new generation, a stronger civil rights approach, both coupled with the passage of time will eventually result in an ultimate success for the LGBT movement. But until then, the struggle will continue and the path to success will be paved.


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