Recently, results of a major genetic research study were published to substantial media attention. "Many Genes Influence Same-Sex Sexuality, Not a Single 'Gay Gene,'" wrote the New York Times.
The study, by Andrea Ganna and his large team, found that five genes were statistically significant in their correlation with whether a person reported ever having a same-gender sexual experience. But none accounted for more than 1% of the genetic association with same-gender sexual behavior. The study authors estimated that the total genetic contribution to same-gender sexual behavior was 8-25%.
The study was hugely controversial, and this is no surprise. In our society today, discrimination against people who are queer and/or trans and/or nonbinary is justified by bigots with claims that only cis heterosexuality is natural, and all else is disorder or sin. Opposing this, LGBT+ people employ "born this way" rhetoric, summarized in the Lady Gaga anthem: "No matter if you are gay, straight or bi/ Lesbian, or transgender life/ You are on the right track, baby/ 'Cause God makes no mistakes/ You was born this way, baby."
At the same time, other scientist-advocates fear that finding genetic markers associated with same-gender sexual activity would be terrible. They dread a eugenic outcome. That is, they fear that tests will be developed to screen for the marker genes, and parents will use selective abortion or selective embryo implantation to avoid having "gay babies."
Some reporters seem befuddled by the apparent contradiction here: LGBT-supportive commentators both fear that a genetic "cause" for same-gender attraction will be found, and that it it will not be found? So. . . is there something for everyone in this study, which found a genetic component to sexual behavior, but also found that it is pretty small in size? Actually, said some scientific critics, what the controversy shows is that this study should never have taken place. The findings were sure to have results that explained little, with the actual result would be that "a historically marginalized group has been left more vulnerable."
Well, the study took place and was published, and you can't undo that. For what it is worth, the study authors worked with LGBT+ groups to try to ensure the results would be presented in a respectful way. The authors stated that it was important that they do this study, if for no other reason than to preempt people with less sensitivity or active malicious intent from doing it instead.
So, how was the study finding of a small genetic effect "spun" in the media? Most of the major mainstream media and popular science reports on the study headlined the idea that there is no "gay gene." "No' Gay Gene' Can Predict Sexual Orientation, Study Says," wrote CNN."Search for 'Gay Genes' Comes Up Short in Large New Study," said NPR, and "The 'Gay Gene' is a Total Myth, Massive Study Concludes," announced LiveScience. As predicted by Forbes, the media chose to focus on the fact that there is no single gene determining sexual orientation, while all the complexities of why people might have the identities they do appeared, to use the newspaper metaphor, "below the fold;" that is, further down in the articles where only the careful or invested reader will bother to read or scroll.
So we know how the results were spun. But the debate remains: which finding would "really" hurt people who love people of the same gender? Would finding a "gay gene" protect people from discrimination? Or would it justify eugenic attempts to eliminate querity?
And here is where intersex experience can step in and advise LGBT groups about whether finding a biological "cause" for sexual orientation or gender identity would be a good thing or a bad thing. What our experience shows is that neither finding would be protective.
Intersex experience shows that the idea that finding a "gay gene" would protect people from discrimination is very naive. Our sex variance has nothing to do with identity or "choice," and there is zero doubt that we are "born this way." Has that made society embrace us? No, our birth status is flatly termed a disorder. Has knowing we didn't choose to be born intersex stopped the imposition of cruel conversion therapies? Absolutely not--the opposite is true. We are subjected to the cruelest of all conversion therapies: surgical sex changes imposed on us as children without our consent.
I wish more of the people who embrace the "born this way" LGBT advocacy position would learn about intersex experience, because we could show them that they are wasting their time. To be sure, it's not just intersex experience that can demonstrate that. Consider the Holocaust, during which millions of Jewish people were murdered because they were "born that way" (and so, for example, practicing Christians who were born to Jewish parents or grandparents were sent to the gas chambers, as "biological degeneracy" rather than religious belief was what counted in the eyes of Nazi eugenicists).
So, the "born this way" crowd is wrong, and the LGBT-affirming group with eugenic fears is right. Look what happens with respect to intersex traits. Some intersex statuses are genetic, and can be detected via amniocentesis. Selective abortion of these fetuses has caused the number of children born with genetic intersex statuses to fall substantially. Again, it's not just us; consider Down syndrome. Selective abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome has led the birth of affected babies to decline by a third in the U.S., and to be virtually nonexistent in some countries like Denmark.
I have no doubt that if there were a prenatally-detectable marker identified for same-gender attraction, and especially for trans identity, it would be employed eugenically by some parents to avoid producing children with such a marker.
My question for the Ganna et al. would be: what would have happened if you had actual made a dramatic discovery of the thing you sought?
To be sure, I think that is impossible, because looking for a "gay gene" is like looking for a "democratic socialist" gene or a "libertarian gene." The reasons people have the desires and interests and worldviews they do are immensely complex. There may be some biological contribution to those, but it will be small and indirect. For example, one of the Ganna et al. findings was that a gene linked with a tendency toward risk-taking was one of the five they found linked with subjects' reporting having had a same-gender sexual experience. The explanatory power of the gene was tiny--it explained less than 1% of why people reported having a same-gender experience. And I will bet you that the reason there is a linkage has nothing to do with whether people experience same-gender attraction, but with how likely they are to be willing to risk reporting it to a researcher, given that the British study subjects were all older people who grew up when homosexuality was criminalized in Great Britain.
That said, hypothetically, what would have happened if Ganna's group had found that five genes explained, not 1% or less of the variance each, but could collectively predict if a person had a same-sex encounter, say, 70% of the time? I know that Ganna's team worked with advocates to try to present the results in a manner that would be supportive of people with same-gender attractions. I'm sure they would have said, "Look! People are pretty much born this way! Therefore they deserve social respect and legal protection."
But I would ask Ganna's team: is having good intentions enough, given the evidence provided by intersex experience? Being known to be born this way means that the large majority of intersex people identified at birth are subjected to mutilating physical conversion therapies. Intersex people, indubitably born this way, are much more likely to be in the closet than endosex LGBT people. We live with crushing shame and secrecy, imposed by doctors and parents.
What would you have done, how would you have felt, if the result of your research was that same-gender-loving individuals experienced the same high levels of medical intervention that intersex suffer? If eugenic selective abortions became commonplace based on "gay genes," as they are today for genetic intersex statuses?
It's probable that the Ganna team would say this would never happen, because they were careful, and gay rights have progressed so far, and we will never go back. This is a hopeful but seriously naive position. LGBT rights are being eroded every day today, by state and federal actions.
Still, I expect Ganna's group would say, in the end, science requires us to understand the world, and we simply must know more about human identities and behaviors. But if a general desire for genetic knowledge is so strong, why are teams like Ganna's not looking for genetic causes of homophobia, or of a desire to police others' sex and gender variance? How about the genetic markers for people who seek simplistic explanations for complex human behavior? Those are phenomena that cause a great deal of social harm, and deserve at least as much scrutiny as why people experience same-gender attraction.
Perhaps I sound very cynical. But one of the fundamental lessons of intersex experience is that doctors and scientists will tell people they are acting in your best interests, while cutting up your genitals and lying to your face about what they did and why. That's why I may be a social scientist, but I am distrustful of scientists when they act in the realms of sex, gender identity, and sexuality.
Some LGBT people, particularly white, upper-middle-class ones, may not yet have had the bubble of privilege popped--the one that lets people believe that social institutions will always act to protect them. And they are still rooting for scientists to find a set of biological causes--genes, prenatal hormone exposures, physical anomalies--that will prove they were "born that way."
But intersex people know better.