Is there a 'gay gene'? The problem with studies connecting genetics and LGBTQ identity

We won’t fix the ongoing problems in the LGBTQ community with the discovery of one or more gay genes, and there are compelling reasons why we shouldn’t even try.
Illustration of scientist looking through microscope at two women, rainbow genes decorate the background.
When sexual orientation goes under the microscope.Kelsey Wroten / for NBC News
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By Michelangelo Signorile

The largest study to date on genetics and same-sex sexual behavior was published last week, and it concluded something many queer people have been saying for a long time: Sexual orientation is complicated and can’t be explained away by a single “gay gene.”

This takeaway pushes back on what seemed like a resolute determination among earlier scientists to show sexual orientation is a product simply of biology, while it also backs up millions of us who’ve discussed our varied experiences regarding our sexualities. And it helps clarify where the priorities of LGBTQ people should be in fighting for civil rights in the political and legal arenas.

Sexual orientation is complicated and can’t be explained away by a single “gay gene.”

Yet there are LGBTQ people who are worried about the findings of the new study. “I deeply disagree about publishing this,” Steven Reilly, a geneticist who is on the LGBTQ affinity group steering committee of the Broad Institute at MIT, which conducted the study, told The New York Times. “It seems like something that could easily be misconstrued.”

Such fears are understandable. Though this study included a larger sample than any we’ve seen to date — 500,000 people in the United Kingdom and the United States — it raises more questions than it answers.

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And while it does conclude that genetics play a role in same-sex attraction, it also concludes that environmental and social factors play a large role as well. Anti-LGBTQ crusaders have been claiming for decades that homosexuality is a “choice.” The problem with studies researching the genetics of LGBTQ identity is that, no matter the conclusion, they can be used by bigots and bad actors to continue homophobic attacks fueled by religious dogma. Some are indeed already bellowing about it.

In many respects, the risks of finding proof of a “gay gene” seem to outweigh any benefits. While religious extremists are all too happy to ignore science when it counters their beliefs (climate change being a good example) they are happy to cherry-pick data in harmful ways. What if enemies of LGBTQ equality attempted to use the science to push attempts to edit the gay gene?

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Just as problematic would be a push to tie LGBTQ rights with biological determination. It’s always been an alluring argument, especially to those rejected by families, churches or others who’ve ostracized them in ugly ways based on religious tenets that condemn homosexuality.

Especially for those pushing back against the argument that LGBT individuals are committing crimes against nature and God, the “born this way” mantra feels like a powerful rebuttal. And for many of us, it certainly feels like we were born this way, as we knew we were queer from as far back as we can remember. But for many others that’s not the case at all; how does that rhetoric fit with the many LGBTQ people whose sexual orientation evolved over their lifetime?

“Born this way” or not, it’s clear LGBTQ people come in all shapes and sizes and from many different experiences. Lesbians and bisexual women, for example, may discuss their sexualities in different ways than gay and bisexual men have. And even the new study results made clear that the genes influencing same-sex behavior in women are different from those that influence men — and again, social and environmental factors get layered onto that.

Especially for those pushing back against the argument that LGBT individuals are committing crimes against nature and God, the “born this way” mantra feels like a powerful rebuttal.

This is not to say that the LGBTQ community has no use for scientific research. Mental health professionals have been doing very important work — not about what “causes” same-sex attraction but rather debunking the myths suggesting we are "deviant," defective or detrimental to society. Equally important are studies that have determined that trying to change LGBTQ people through “conversion therapy” programs is harmful.

The fact that some people have sex with or love people of the same gender is a normal, natural variation of human sexuality — an observation one of the new study’s researchers stressed. What makes us queer, for the purpose of attaining our civil rights, isn’t relevant. Americans are protected against discrimination in federal law under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 not only on the basis of race and ethnicity, after all, but on the basis of religion as well. And yet, unlike skin color, religion isn’t genetic, is most definitely a choice and is something people can and do change.

I’m not arguing that homosexuality is a choice, too — it’s complicated — but rather that it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. The problem isn’t how we came to love individuals outside the heterosexual binary. The problem is the hate and bigotry that has led to discrimination, violence and death for queer individuals for centuries.

We won’t fix these problems — which are ongoing — with the discovery of a gay gene, and there are compelling reasons why we shouldn’t even try. And the only way we can create meaningful change — or at least make the case for equality under the law — is by openly discussing the deep complexities of human sexuality.