Although far too many people are still oppressed, persecuted and otherwise mistreated for their sexual orientation in nations around the world, tolerance for homosexuality is slowly increasing. For years, a debate has been framed around the nature of an individual’s sexuality, questioning whether people are born gay or choose to be that way. It should be obvious to anyone that sexual orientation is not a choice, that no one actually decides whether to be either straight or gay. On the other hand, it’s not obvious that anyone’s born either way, either. The likeliest answer is that it’s a combination of both factors, yet the structure of society has largely treated homosexuality as a deviation from what’s acceptable and normal. If that perception can be changed, then that’s more of a victory than any discovery regarding the reason why some people are homosexual and others aren’t.
Some scientists, however, see it as an imperative to find the genetic factors linking homosexual individuals. Dr. Alan R. Sanders is the latest to lead such a study, which he conducted at the NorthShore Research Institute in Evanston, Illinois. The study focused on 409 pairs of gay brothers, and the team ultimately found genetic markers on regions of the X chromosome and chromosome 8 which provide further evidence supporting the theory that homosexuality is hereditary. Sanders himself made bold claims about the impact of his study, claiming, “It erodes the notion that sexual orientation is a choice.”
Unfortunately, that notion — which, as mentioned earlier, should have eroded long ago — can’t exactly be proven by Sanders’ study. His data do build upon two earlier studies that identified genetic markers in the same regions, such as Dr. Dean Hamer’s landmark 1993 study, which identified the same region, Xq28. The region of chromosome 8 identified in the study was also previously identified in a 2005 study. Sanders’ data pool was also much larger than the previous two studies. But none of this leads to the elusive “gay gene.” It may suggest that there is likely a genetic reason that some individuals are predisposed to homosexuality, but it’s far from a revelation.
If a “gay gene” is some day identified and that revelation does come, the impact is likely to be more of a mix between positive and negative than Sanders expects. Scientific evidence of a “gay gene” would force oppressive institutions, such as the Catholic Church or the Ugandan government, to recognize that some people are born gay or lesbian, but that might not stop them from finding it an abomination. Genetic evidence could be viewed as a genetic anomaly. Especially with emerging genetic engineering technology, it would raise ethical questions as to whether or not sexual orientation could be manipulated prior to birth. Proof that homosexuality is genetic, however, would obviously have a positive influence on those struggling with their own sexual identity. It would, like Sanders suggests, “erode the notion” that homosexuality is anything but a trait with which many individuals have been born for centuries.
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The search for a link between genetics and homosexuality won’t answer all the questions about homosexuality or solve all of its problems, but the research being conducted is at least furthering our understanding. Dr. Chad Zawitz, a physician at a clinic in Chicago and a participant in Sanders’ research, summed up the study’s importance in the following paragraph: “As a doctor, I recognize the importance of furthering science through legitimate research. As a gay man, I’ve known that my sexuality has never been a choice but I could not explain, to myself or anyone else, how I became this way. Genetics and environmental influences seemed logical. This study is an attempt to answer the genetics part of the question.” That problem is still far from being answered completely, so in the meantime society needs to keep working on its acceptance of homosexuality regardless of the reason people end up that way.