If you ask any person on the street to identify the hottest moral issues of the day, one of the most popular answers will inevitably be "homosexuality." Homosexuality is literally everywhere.
Listen to the national evening news or read a local newspaper and you'll learn about the debates surrounding marriage and civil unions. Walk into one of a number of high schools anywhere in the country and you'll see the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances. Sit in any living room or church service and you'll find individuals and families personally affected by homosexuality.
In this article, we will address genetic research relating to homosexuality. Are people really born gay — is there such a thing as a "gay gene"?
The Gay Gene
This discussion really first began in 1993 when Science, a respected research journal, published a study by Dean Hamer that ignited a "born gay" myth that later exploded into a firestorm. Hamer claimed that science was "on the verge of proving that homosexuality is innate, genetic and, therefore, unchangeable — a normal variant of human nature."
The media quickly added fuel to the fire. Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, and many other news publications and programs announced headlines and stories that suggested scientists had discovered a "gay gene." Time magazine's story read, "Born Gay? Studies of family trees and DNA make the case that male homosexuality is in the genes."
The headlines were misleading though; "blatantly wrong," many have said. Actually, the most important reporting conveyed in many of those articles and stories was relegated to the concluding fine print, offered almost as an afterthought. Here, reporters made qualifying statements about a possible discovery of a genetic link.
In actuality, though, no such discovery had been made. In fact, Hamer himself (also a gay-identified man) later responded, " … environmental factors play a role. There is not a single master gene that makes people gay. … I don't think we will ever be able to predict who will be gay."
As an overview to his study, Hamer claimed that homosexuality could be linked to findings on the X chromosome. He found that out of 40 pairs of homosexual brothers, 33 (83 percent) received the same sequence on five genetic markers.
Other scientists, though, such as N.E. Whitehead, Ph.D., co-author of My Genes Made Me Do It!, found a number of problems with Hamer's study. Whitehead first pointed out that the study lacked a control group from the general population, noting that if the same sequence from the X chromosome that appeared in the homosexual men also appears in the general population of heterosexual men, then the gene is insignificant.
Another problem with the study is that Hamer did not test the heterosexual brothers of the homosexual men to see if they had the gene, and some of the data from those heterosexual brothers did indicate that they had the identical gene sequence. Another conspicuous flaw is that seven of the pairs of homosexuals did not have the needed gene sequence at all.
In addition to Hamer's research, two other major studies attracted widespread media attention in the early 90s. One of those, done in 1991 by Simon LeVay, later became known as the "brain study." In his article, "A Difference in Hypothalamic Structure Between Heterosexual and Homosexual Men," LeVay attempted to find differences in the hypothalamuses of homosexual and heterosexual men. His study was also published in Science.
LeVay studied the brains of 41 corpses, including six women, 19 homosexual men, and 16 men presumed to be heterosexual. LeVay examined a portion of the hypothalamus known as INAH-3. He reported that the INAH-3 was more than twice as large in heterosexual men as in the homosexual men. He deduced that "sexual orientation has a biological substrate" because if the brains of homosexual men were closer in size to the brains of women than the brains of heterosexual men, then gay men must be more biologically like women.
What the general public doesn't know, though, is that many researchers found fault with this study, as well, including LeVay himself. He said, "It's important to stress what I didn't find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn't show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work. Nor did I locate a gay center in the brain."
Even more emphatically, LeVay stated, "… time and again I have been described as someone who 'proved that homosexuality is genetic' … I did not." And LeVay later admitted that all 19 of the subjects identified as homosexuals had died from AIDS complications. It is certainly possible, then, that the size difference in their hypothalamuses was caused by their illness rather than their homosexuality.
More specifically, other researchers pointed out that LeVay did not "adequately address the fact that at the time of death virtually all men with AIDS have decreased testosterone levels as the result of the disease itself or the side effects of particular treatments. Thus, it is possible that the effects on the size of the INAH-3 that he attributed to sexual orientation were actually caused by the hormonal abnormalities associated with AIDS."
Identical Genetics, Identical Orientation?
The third major study trumpeted as "proof" of homosexuality's genetic link was also conducted in 1991 by psychologist Michael Bailey and psychiatrist Richard Pillard. Using pairs of brothers — identical twins, non-identical twins, biological brothers, and adopted brothers — Bailey and Pillard attempted to show that homosexuality occurs more frequently among identical twins than fraternal twins.
Again, what the majority of people do not know, and what the media did not accurately report, is that this study actually provides support for environmental factors versus genetics! If homosexuality were in the genetic code, then both of the twins would have been homosexual 100 percent of the time, yet this was not the case.
Bailey and Pillard found that, among the identical twins, 52 percent were both homosexual, as opposed to the fraternal twins, among whom only 22 percent shared a homosexual orientation; 9.2 percent of the time, both non-twin brothers were homosexual; 10.5 percent of the time, both adoptive brothers were homosexual.
Dr. Whitehead further explains, "Identical twins have identical genes. If homosexuality was a biological condition produced inescapably by the genes (e.g. eye color), then if one identical twin was homosexual in 100 percent of the cases his brother would be too. ... Genes are responsible for an indirect influence, but on average, they do not force people into homosexuality. This conclusion has been well known in the scientific community for a few decades but has not reached the general public. Indeed, the public increasingly believes the opposite."
While there has been no shortage of attempts to prove a genetic link to homosexuality, neither has there been a shortage of problems with those studies that claim to have found such a link. Thus far, all scientific attempts to demonstrate that homosexuality is biologically determined, have failed.
Having said all that, do not take my word for it. Do the research yourself. Read Hamer's, LeVay's, and Bailey and Pillard's studies. Read the statements the researchers themselves have made. When you do, you'll find that there are still more questions than answers, so we must be honest and careful as we assess the evidence.