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The Complicated Truth About That Controversial ‘Gay Gene’ Study

gay gene

While researchers knew it could be twisted, and misconstrued, they still believed the work was ultimately important.

By: Julie Compton

After a large-scale study published in August revealed there is no single "gay gene" influencing same-sex attraction, the study's lead researcher, Dr. Benjamin Neale, has been a little worried.

Neale, who is openly gay, knew conversion therapy advocates would misconstrue the study's findings, which show that same-sex attraction arises out of a complex interplay between environmental, social, and genetic factors. The study shows, for instance, that genes are responsible for about a third of the influence on same-sex sexual behavior.

He also knew that conversion therapy has long been proven harmful pseudoscience, but that has never detered its advocates.

"I don't see that this work makes that circumstance better or worse," Neale tellsOut. "The hope I have is that these results reinforce the idea that there is some biology to what people are expressing and that that biology is part of our population, part of our species, and that diversity is a natural part of what we see, and that message I think should be carried forward to advance the struggle for equality."

Not everyone has gotten the message. In a blog post titled "Not Born This Way After All?," American Conservative writer Rod Dreher wrote: "If homosexuality is primarily a matter of nurture, not nature, why is it wrong to let gay people who want to seek therapy in hope of reducing or eliminating same-sex desire undergo that treatment?"

The Catholic website LifeSite, meanwhile, twisted the findings to say that the study shows children can be influenced to think they are gay through envrionmental influences and upbringing.

What the study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies, really shows is the opposite: Sexuality is too complicated to pin to any single factor.

The Potential Dangers of Studying 'Gay Genes'

Many people have expressed ethical questions around such research: Why do scientists feel a need to "prove" that same-sex attraction is rooted in biology? Does one's sexuality have to somehow be biologically determined to be authentic? How will people with anti-gay agendas abuse the complex findings?

Julia Serano, an evolutionary biologist, author, and transgender activist, warned that any research related to gender and sexual minorities can serve as a "Rorschach test" to anyone reading the results.

"People will project whatever ideas that they want to project onto them," she says.

For example, a 2018 study showed that the brains of transgender adolescents tended to match their non-trans peers with the same gender identity. The study didn't prove that brain scans can demonstrate whether someone is transgender, Serano said, but some people interpreted that in the findings anyway.

"It immediately got used and has been thrown about often again in anti-transgender and trans-skeptical parents groups who now say, 'Well, why don't we just hold off on acknowledging children's gender identities until we can do brain scans on them and determine whether or not they are transgender or not?'" Serano says.

Jeremy Yoder, an assistant professor at California State University Northridge, is a gay evolutionary biologist who has written about the ethics of seeking a genetic explanation for same-sex attraction. While the researchers' intentions might have been benign, he says, such studies have a long history of being misused.

"Scientists have not been great at anticipating negative unintended consequences on these kinds of studies as they are absorbed and processed by broader society," Yoder says.

According to Yoder, there are many questions about how exactly the results could be used. For instance, what if an anti-LGBTQ+ government had access to a database where the genetic data of its citizens is stored? He speculated about whether these governments might try to use the research to "prove" whether one of its citizens is gay, even if the genetic variations can't actually determine sexuality.

"It's a little bit paranoid to talk about it this way," Yoder acknowledges, "but we have this history of anti-gay misapplications of science that I think makes it a thing that we need to worry about."

While Yoder also expressed concerns that doctors and parents may someday try to use the data to reverse engineer embryos in an attempt to ensure that their children are heterosexual -- Neale said genetic variants cannot determine an embryo's future sexuality.

"It's not possible to use the results for genetic engineering," he insists.

Despite how their research might be interpreted, Neale said scientists have a responsibility to describe the world as accurately and scientifically as possible.

"Some aspects of [LGBTQ+] civil rights history, historically, have been rooted in demonstrating that this is a normal and natural part of human behavior and human variation, that this is part of biology, that diversity and variability is part of biology," he says, "We hope to reinforce that message, and we hope that societies will use those results to advance the cause for equality.

"But advocacy is hard, civil rights are taken, not given," he adds. "It's a challenging space."

How the Findings Could Actually Advance LGBTQ+ Rights

Regardless of potential risks, a large-scale study into same-sex attraction was inevitable given the genetic data that scientists now have access to, according to Neale.

A geneticist at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, Neale feared that if his top-notch team of international researchers didn't do the study first, scientists with less concern for the LGBTQ+ community would. "We really wanted to make sure the work was done thoughtfully, rigorously, and actually in conjunction with different advocacy and alliance organizations about the work itself," he says.

Accuracy was another reason to move forward with the study, according to Neale. Similar studies in the past were smaller, often left out women, and were not a true reflection of what the actual genetic influence on behavioral traits really looks like.

But the researchers knew they had a responsibility to the LGBTQ+ community to make sure the study's findings were well communicated, he said. The team worked closely with advocacy groups to craft a plan around how they would convey the study to the public. The goal, Neale said, would be to mitigate any inadvertent stigmatization the results might have on the LGBTQ+ community.

The team created a website and video explaining the complexity of the findings. They published essays on the research, detailed its limitations, and were upfront about the fact that anti-LGBTQ+ conservatives would probably try to misconstrue it.

Despite the ways in which conversion therapy advocates have attempted to exploit the results, Robbee Wedow, a Harvard sociologist and geneticist and member of the research team that conducted the study, says he believes the research has the power to make society less homophobic.

Wedow, who is gay, was raised in an ultra-religious community in Indiana. He says no one in his home town talked about the complex role of genetics in human behavior.

"I grew up really thinking that I was going to go to hell," he says.

Wedow said his father, who didn't speak to him for years after he came out, called him after reading the study. "I think this has been my great hope for this work, that the conversations we have will begin to open space, to increase tolerance," he says.

Yoder commended the steps researchers took to safeguard against potential abuse but cautions these measures are "pretty new."

"There's not been a lot of cases where the negative effects on a marginalized group have been anticipated this way and then the research has gone forward but with all of these attempted safeguards," he says. "But we don't know how well or poorly that's going to work."

Despite these concerns, Yoder says he also hopes the study will increase LGBTQ+ inclusion and acceptance.

"I think it's been a well-performed study and the authors have done their due diligence," he argues. "The worries I have are: How does society react to this now that it's out there?"

RELATED | The 'Gay Gene' Study Is Being Used to Justify Conversion Therapy

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Julie Compton