26 April 1999
Director, Progress Educational TrustAppeared in BioNews 005
The new research is unlikely to receive the same level of public and media attention as did the 1993 'gay gene' discovery. The refutation of a good story is never as exciting as the story itself. But already, commentators are discussing how the discovery that the gay gene does not exist might impact upon gay rights. Today's commentators are as quick to jump on the new research as they were in 1993. But they were wrong both times.
The discussion of the gay gene is an example of how the complexities of genetic influence can so easily be lost in media reporting. Neither the research published in 1993 nor the recent findings tell us anything conclusive about the genetic basis of homosexuality. The research which caused the original furore, carried out by Dr Dean Hamer, suggested that a particular genetic 'marker' causes homosexuality. The new research, conducted by Dr George Rice and colleagues, tells us precious little more. Using a larger sample of gay men than Hamer's research, the new research fails to show a link between the marker that Hamer identified and homosexuality.
But Rice also suggested that the story is not yet over. More research should be carried out into the links between genes and sexuality. Such work might seek to explain why more than half the identical twins of gay men are also gay, whereas only 22 percent of non-identical twins are.
So a genetic influence upon homosexuality may still be uncovered. But does it really matter if it is? The suggestion of a gay gene may have provided ammunition for those morally opposed to homosexuality. It was even welcomed by some members of the gay community as a validation that homosexuality is not unnatural. But ammunition is all it is.
The existence or otherwise of a link between genes and homosexuality tells us nothing about the rights and wrongs of gay sex. Like gays and lesbians, women have traditionally been discriminated against, but the fact that gender is determined by genetics is neither here nor there. If anything, the position of women in society has been enhanced by efforts to reject biological explanations of what are essentially social problems.
The UK's House of Lords, which has consistently voted against the lowering of the age of consent to gay sex, is unlikely to be swayed by the new research from Canada. Persistent lobbying to bring about a change in public and parliamentary attitudes is the only thing that will end discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Juliet Tizzard is the Founder of BioNews and was formerly Director of the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is coauthor of Key Issues in Bioethics (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw the Line? (buy this book from Amazon UK).