“There’s No Gay Gene!”

Rob Tisinai

February 28th, 2013

A Minnesota state representative opposed to marriage equality recently said, “We’re not talking about an immutable characteristic like the color of your skin. The human genomap was completed in 2003. There is no gay gene.” We’re likely to see this non-fact popping up more and more as the Supreme Court hearing nears, so I’m reprinting this piece I posted two and a half years ago.


Not long ago I saw this on NOM’s Facebook page:

They’ve mapped the human genome. There’s no gay gene!

I can’t find the quote anymore, but that doesn’t matter because this mistake is all over the Internet. The most common source seems to be this deeply flawed statement:

On April 14, 2003, the International Human Genome Consortium announced the successful completion of the Human Genome Project—two years ahead of schedule. The press report read: “The human genome is complete and the Human Genome Project is over” (see “Human Genome Report…,” 2003, emp. added). Most of the major science journals reported on the progress in the field of genetics, but also speculated on how the information would now be used. The one piece of information that never materialized from the Human Genome Project was the identification of the so-called “gay gene.”

So much wrong with this.* But that last sentence is especially bad:

The one piece of information that never materialized from the Human Genome Project was the identification of the so-called “gay gene.”

Actually, no — lots of information didn’t materialize from the project. Like the number of genes. Where they’re located on the genome. What those genes do. The same group that issued the press release also said this:

A sampling follows of some research challenges in genetics–what we still don’t know, even with the full human DNA sequence in hand.

  • Gene number, exact locations, and functions
  • Gene regulation
  • DNA sequence organization
  • Chromosomal structure and organization

And that’s just the beginning.

I can see why people are confused. What do you mean we don’t know how many genes there are? We’ve mapped the whole genome!

Strands of DNA, held together by base pairs

But that’s not what mapping the genome means. What does it mean, then? Time to get all dorky:

  • The human genome is made up of 24 chromosomes 23 pairs of chromosomes.
  • Chromosomes contain DNA, the genetic instructions governing an organism.
  • DNA is shaped like two long curly strands (imagine a double slinky) held together by “base pairs” of chemicals called neucleotides.

Wikipedia offers a great description of how these elements fit together:

  • DNA is made of two strands that pair together like the two sides of a zipper.
  • The nucleotides are in the center, like the teeth in the zipper, and pair up to hold the two strands together.
  • Importantly, the four different sorts of nucleotides are different shapes, so in order for the strands to close up properly, an A nucleotide must go opposite a T nucleotide, and a G opposite a C.
  • This exact pairing is called base pairing.

And what’s a gene? A gene is a stretch of DNA, a sequence of base pairs. Now here’s the key:

To say we’ve mapped the human genome is to say we’ve sequenced all the base pairs.

The cobblestone highway

That’s it. It does not mean we’ve identified all the genes in the sequence. And it sure doesn’t mean we know the function of each gene we have identified.

Here’s a metaphor of my own. Imagine a chromosome is like a cobblestone highway winding through America. We can walk the highway and identify every cobblestone (or nucelotide), but that doesn’t mean we know what state (or gene) we’re in, or even how many states there are — much less what each state does.

You can see this by looking at the genes that researchers have only isolated recently:

The gene that… Was identified in…
Lightens skin color 2008
Makes hair curly 2009
Grows tooth enamel 2009
Causes nearsightedness 2010
Makes your earwax wet or dry 2006

All of this, discovered after the Human Genome Project was “complete.”

Unfortunately, anti-gays depend a lot on junk science and ignoring the facts they don’t want to see. The passage I quoted up top is all over the Internet, so it would be handy to condense this rebuttal into a simple statement that doesn’t require carrying around a nucleotide zipper diagram.

This is what I’ve come up with:

Mapping the genome just means they’ve figured out its chemical structure. They still haven’t broken it down into all the individual genes yet. They’re not even sure how many human genes there are. I mean, they didn’t find the gene for near-sightedness until 2010, seven years after the genome project was complete. Who knows what else they’ll find next?

For the record, I have no idea whether there’s a gay gene. Or a gay combination of genes. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a lot like height: We know there’s a genetic component, but environmental factors play a part, too, like hormones in the womb, and childhood diet and health. Yet even though it’s not 100% genetic, that doesn’t mean it’s a choice.

Either way, though, this particular anti-gay argument is dripping with irony. By attempting to cloak their homophobia in science, they do nothing but reveal their scientific illiteracy.

But at this point in the game, are you really surprised?

* The authors of this statement seem to be lying. The phrase,”The human genome is complete and the Human Genome Project is over” doesn’t appear anywhere in the press release (the authors direct you to the press release here, though that page merely links to the release itself). I don’t know why they felt the need to lie, because the Project is indeed complete. Maybe they were just sloppy, not dishonest. It’s aggravating, nonetheless.

UPDATE: Here’s a great graphic illustrating the relationship between the genome, chromosomes, DNA, genes, and base pairs.

Thom Watson

February 28th, 2013

And they completely ignore epigenetics and the likely role it plays in homosexuality.

It’s amusing, though, how they mistrust science on everything else, but they totally latch onto a perverted usage of science — i.e., via their misunderstanding of genetics and the human genome — when they think it fits their predetermined (hateful) position.

If a gay gene or sequence of genes /were/ to be discovered, suddenly they’d be the ones pointing out how genetics is a bogus science undermined by Obama.

I’d also like them to point out — since their claim often is that since the genome has been mapped and therefore we know everything about which genes do precisely what — just where is the gene, then, that makes people straight.

Steve

February 28th, 2013

What an idiot. The human genome project never made any claims of identifying the function of genes. Just identifying specific sequences. Never mind that genetics isn’t as simple as having every function encoded by exactly one gene.

It’s always funny when religious fanatics suddenly claim to love and respect science, although they are against it whenever it doesn’t suit their agenda.

daftpunkydavid

February 28th, 2013

thom watson has nailed this… exactly what i wanted to say… thanks!

Hunter

February 28th, 2013

I’m a little too cynical about the “Christian” right at this point to ascribe something like this to ignorance — except insofar as they’re relying on the ignorance of their audience.

They habitually misrepresent science, not only in citing specific findings (usually highly edited), but the disciplines of science itself — the whole “missing link” travesty is just that sort of argument. And by and large, it’s deliberate.

I think the proper response is “And there’s no “Christian” gene.”

PLAINTOM

February 28th, 2013

I think it is cute when the Bronx Agers attempt to utilize science in an argument.

Pacal

February 28th, 2013

So? May I point out that there is no Christian, Jewish, or Muslim gene. And for that matter there is no Republican or Democrat gene. Do we deny rights to those people because the above are not genetic?

Sandhorse

February 28th, 2013

Hunter,

I think you nailed the best and least verbose response to the gay gene ‘meme’.

It ties right into the ‘homosexuality doesn’t exist in the animal kingdom’. The best response to this comment is ‘Neither does the worship of God’. Too often we try to meet ‘toe to toe’ in the argument and point out evidence that homosexuality does in fact occur in the animal kingdom, only to have the subject of the argument turned around on us and the implication made the gays and lesbians are animalistic.

I’ve honestly never been all that interested in any evidence of a gay gene. Sure, it would be interesting on a scientific level, but I do not now and never will need evidence of a gene to justify my orientation, even to myself. I also must say, that if anyone out there in the GLBT community thinks such a discovery will be the turning point in our struggle is sorely mistaken. The most vocal of our opponents have already insulated themselves from such a finding by stating ‘it wouldn’t change the fact that homosexuality is still a sin.’

That being said I think the sheer volume of ‘willed ignorance’ to even the potential evidence of a gay gene does suggest that such a discovery would weaken their cause. But I think that’s only in light of the changing paradigm of thought regarding homosexuality in general.

Truthspew

February 28th, 2013

So true – we’ve only completed sequencing not mapping. They get confused over those terms.

We don’t even know what 99.9% of the genes do yet. We have found some interesting ones but it’s awfully hard to map these.

And there’s not just genetic but epi-genetic. I know some studies had been done that showed when a woman had more than one child that were boys, at least one of the boys would turn out to be gay. They suspect it is a hormonal influence of the mother.

Lord_Byron

February 28th, 2013

They are, deliberately, misrepresenting genetics. Most human characteristics are controlled by multiple genes and so there would be no gay gene.

The fact is that evidence of a gay gene would not change them because many groups have an attitude that being gay is not a choice, but choosing to act on those feelings are. In the end they don’t care whether it is a choice or not as long as they can call it a sin.

Regan DuCasse

February 28th, 2013

Other than the sequencing that recognizes genes in the first place, there are chromosomal aspects and those of DNA.
These are all still BIOLOGICAL in origin, and what science has advanced as far as the categorization of BEHAVIORS, is the most frustrating thing to educate a holy roller on.
We all have witnessed how they misrepresented why and how the DSM decategorized homosexuality as a disorder. Everything that isn’t a negative or conclusive result about homosexuality, the anti gay make up anyway.
The point is, NO sexual orientation has been genetically discovered and marked.
However, the less complex behavioral sciences have a LOT more figured out than the genome project has.
But they refuse to believe them anyway, exactly as already stated.
Because it doesn’t validate their prejudice of gay people.
Silly me thought that knowing that gay people ARE NOT the dysfunctional, threatening or unrestrained people they thought, would be welcome news.
It is to rational people.

Nathaniel

February 28th, 2013

Some of you have hit on the unwillingness of anti-gays to change even if such a genetic link were discovered. I am reminded of the Southern Baptist minister who said that if biological cause for homosexuality were discovered, we should then find ways to fix these apparent aberrations (i.e. ‘cure’ the ‘disease’). We aren’t safe even behind biological arguments, because to some people we will always be wrong, no matter what we do or why we do it.

TampaZeke

February 28th, 2013

Did they find the left-handed gene?

What about the “Busy Body Asshole, Gotta Always Have Your Nose in Somebody Else’s Business” gene?

CPT_Doom

February 28th, 2013

@TampazZeke – or the gene for ambidexterity (I’m currently typing this on my phone w/my left hand & eating pot roast w/my right).

They also haven’t found the gene for my prematurely gray hair or my bunions. In fact the podiatrst can’t determine if my bunions are genetic or the result of poorly done physical therapy when I was a child – which altered my gait and could have led to the foot deformities. It’s entirely possible my bad feet are a result of a totally natural process involving both genetic (foot structure) and environmental factors – and it could be totally environmental. Does that mean I chose to have deformed feet?

Duck

February 28th, 2013

@Thom Watson and Nathaniel – Were a gay gene discovered the SBC and other Christian organizations would be the first to advocate for a test to detect this gene and the first to call for mandatory abortions (or at best to encourage their flock to have them “voluntarily”) of fetuses testing positive for the gay gene.

TampaZeke

February 28th, 2013

“It ties right into the ‘homosexuality doesn’t exist in the animal kingdom’.”

Oh, the stopped using that line once they discovered that homosexuality has been observed in EVERY species where it’s been looked for. Then they changed their argument to, “well, animals eat their own young too but that doesn’t mean humans should do it”.

I know this from personal experience since my mother used to hammer me with the former argument but then quickly switched to the latter once I presented evidence her argument was not backed up by facts.

It doesn’t do any good to argue with these people. They will always morph their argument to suit their needs.

Ryan

February 28th, 2013

It’s not every day that a conservative gets something science-related wrong. Oh, wait. It is every day.

Regan DuCasse

February 28th, 2013

I think, considering I have seen first hand, and how impossible it is for a family to commit a schizophrenic member to a hospital, again, this preoccupation with homosexuality is truly stupid and wasteful.
Just recently, a man murdered his mother and dismembered her body. Took a picture of himself with her severed head, and got a friend to help him dump the body parts in plastic bags all over the city.
I have systemic lupus, which is an unpredictable, life threatening auto immune disorder that’s wreaked havoc on me.
It’s a genetic disease, and since both of my parents died young themselves decades ago, there were no family markers to trace how I got it.
I mean, seriously…homosexuality is benign, and gay people themselves HIGHLY self reliant, with great potential to offer society.

There are plenty of other disorders of the mind and body we can all do without. Homosexuality, isn’t one at all. And in such a diverse, and varied world of all kinds of normals, it seems a disorder in and of itself to have THIS much focus on homosexuality, and less on the other things.

Bill T.

February 28th, 2013

Were they able to explain why clothes dryers only eat one sock and leave its companion untouched?

Joel

March 1st, 2013

So i guess tackling this problem means that gays cant have rights till we can identify that gay is genetic?

Such pointless arguing imo. Necessary because bigots and arrogance is everywhere. However, pointless.

Désirée

March 1st, 2013

have they found the religion gene?
no?
then perhaps religion and creed should be removed from anti-discrimination language as well.

Thomas Kraemer

March 1st, 2013

Is religion a choice or is it genetic? In America we are free to choose our own religion, but the law still prohibits discrimination against anybody based on their choice of religion. Therefore, it makes no sense to make choice the litmus test for prohibiting discrimination.

Scientists are still working to find out how much of being gay is genetic versus other factors early in a child’s development process, such as how they are cooked in a mother’s womb. The answer will be interesting, but any conceivable answer will be irrelevant to deciding if discrimination against sexual orientation should be legal.

Donny D.

March 1st, 2013

Regan DuCasse wrote,

There are plenty of other disorders of the mind and body we can all do without. Homosexuality, isn’t one at all.

We can be sure, though, that if a group of genes were discovered that predisposed their holder to homosexuality, many fetuses with those genes would be aborted, including by liberal, “pro-gay” parents, and by parents who oppose abortion even in the case of rape or incest.

I truly do not understand why so many LGB people think discovery of genes predisposing people to homosexuality would be good for us.

Rob Tisinai

March 1st, 2013

Donny it has to do with the long and not entirely consistent way in which the Supreme Court has developed its Equal Protection doctrine and the concept of judicial “scrutiny.”

It’s especially relevant right now because a big part of the coming battle before the Court involves what level of “scrutiny” the Court should use in examining laws that affect gays and lesbians.

From a philosophical perspective, you can argue that genetic factors should be irrelevant, but within the American legal system they matter quite a bit.

(I put “scrutiny” in quotes because it has a legal definition that is not necessarily the same as its popular-definition.)

For more, Google: scrutiny suspect class

Preston

March 1st, 2013

“The human genome is complete..” as was the world atlas in 1491.

Donny D.

March 1st, 2013

Rob Tisinai,

Donny it has to do with the long and not entirely consistent way in which the Supreme Court has developed its Equal Protection doctrine and the concept of judicial “scrutiny.”

The “immutability” thing, yeah, I already know about that. But I don’t think that’s all or even most of the reason so many LGB people feel it’s important homosexuality be genetically determined.

I remember the big fuss decades ago in the LGB community when there was all that talk about “the gay gene”. But back then there wasn’t the big flurry of LGB-related court cases, nor nearly the same degree of understanding of the underlying legal issues that you see among grassroots LGB people now. The need for a “gay gene” preceded all that.

And given how those LGBs who want it to be true talk about it now, I think we’re talking about a deeper emotional need. It’s as though they feel it will justify their existence, somehow make them “okay” as LGB people.

Reed

March 2nd, 2013

Damn good reading. How good? “Rachel Maddow good.” And it doesn’t get any better than that in my book.

Ryan

March 2nd, 2013

Donny D, I’m going to assume your views are sincere and you’re not concern-trolling. It’s difficult, because for a gay person you seem amazingly ignorant of life-situations that every gay person I know has experienced, but I’ll give it a shot. You’ve also disturbingly parroted Ann Coulter’s views on homosexuality nearly exactly, right down to the silly abortion stuff. But I’m *still* going to believe you when you say you’re gay.
Homophobes and others with distaste/dislike for gay people have been justifying their bigotry by saying “it’s a choice” LONG before the recent flurry of court cases. After all, it’s significantly harder to justify bigotry against any group if they have no choice in being who they are. As a young gay (and not at all out) child in the 80’s, I remember hearing my mother and uncles debating whether or not it was okay to arrest homosexuals for being gay. My uncle had the point of view that “they couldn’t help it” and we shouldn’t go after them, and we should try to help them, whereas my mother opined that it was a choice like drug addiction. That is still the party-line to toe if you’re a religious conservative. Nearly every gay person I know has responded to that assertion with the rebuttal that it’s not a choice and that they had gay “feelings” well into early childhood. Therefore, bigotry against us is not morally justified. This has nothing to do with “deeper emotional need” for self-approval(though again, your comments would be quite welcome on say, The 700 Club. It’s eerie).
Now, it *shouldn’t* matter, not really, Discrimination is discrimination. Religious affiliation is, after all, indisputably a choice, and it’s still protected. But the truth is, it does. Religious conservatives can start to sense that the proof is around the corner, too. Hence the recent moving of the goal posts to comments like, “well, even if you’re born with those feelings doesn’t mean you should act on them”, and comments like your abortion line above.

Rob Tisinai

March 2nd, 2013

Back in the days before these court cases, many people believed anti-gay crusader (and very popular celebrity of that era) Anita Bryant, who said, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.”

In fact, this may be have been the majority view (!). The pedophilia smear has to be the worst accusation consistently leveled against gays. That’s why it became so important for many of us to say, “Look, either you’re gay or you’re not. It isn’t a choice and there’s no recruitment.”

And that gave importance to the question of a gay gene, way before questions of scrutiny and suspect classes came to the fore.

Donny D.

March 4th, 2013

For the number of years that I’ve been commenting on Box Turtle Bulletin, I believe you are the first person, Ryan, to even suggest that I’m a troll.

Your post was rather overheated, Ryan, and it makes me think of a boxer who’s swinging wildly.

I have little time right now, but I’ll do the best I can:

Being “born this way” isn’t the only way people could conceivably be immutably bisexual, lesbian or gay. When I was a young adult, in the late 1970s, the prevalent theory, at least among sane, intelligent people (meaning non-homophobes who were at least somewhat informed) was that sexuality becomes set in early childhood, but that it’s not known why it does, and there is no conceivable way anyone could intentionally or even accidentally influence that.

But then the next decade came, the one where you spent your childhood, and America got REAGAN. The country went backwards in a number of ways then, and then I believe is when people started talking in earnest of “the dumbing down of America”. It was the time to get stoooooopid, in SO many ways.

That was also the time I started hearing the “born this way” talk. It’s conceptually a lot simpler than the theory that I described two paragraphs up, easier for people who don’t want to think as much, and who don’t want to have to deal with all the possible attacks against that theory that “change”-pushing bigots might try to launch — though I still don’t know how you’re supposed to make sure someone is going to grow up straight by the age of 4, the earliest age I hear again and again that LGB people say they realized that they were what they would later understand to be bisexual or gay.

So anyway, I accept that older theory, and not the “born this way” notion.

So, I am NOT saying that I believe that many LGB people are saying that their sexuality is IMMUTABLE out of a deep emotional need to prove to some nebulous homophobe supposedly not in their own heads that they are “okay”. I think the immutability of sexuality is simply a fact, and I believe this is the concensus position in the relevant social sciences. And that people who recognize their own sexuality’s immutability are simply self-aware.

I was speaking against the “born this way” notion.

Which I know can be controversial nowadays.

As to that crudball Ann Coulter, the ONLY thing that I said that was at all similar to what she says is that if there’s a set of genes discovered that predispose their holder to bisexuality or exclusive homosexuality, then there would be liberals, including many “pro-gay” ones, who would be aborting fetuses with those genes.

But you chose to ignore the rest of the sentence where I had expressed the above. There, i ALSO said that anti-abortion conservatives, the hard core who oppose abortion in the cases of rape or incest, would be aborting those fetuses too.

My guess is that you left out any mention of that because it inconveniently cripples your attack on me as a follower of Coulter’s homophobia. Can you, or anyone here, imagine Coulter, who ALWAYS plays up to the most rabid conservatives, EVER saying what I said in the previous paragraph about anti-abortion conservatives? I like to think I have some flexibility of mind, but that one is beyond me.

Dave H

March 7th, 2013

So many of the comments above “nailed it” in one way or another. One of the main reasons I enjoy Box Turtle Bulletin so much is that the articles and the comments are usually well thought out and intelligent, even if viewpoints differ.

That said, I’ll add just one more thing.

People (all of us, even we “enlightened” ones) make decisions based on emotion first, then we select the facts we need to support our decisions.

If people have decided that gays are sinful and just plain icky, they will reach for whatever reasons they can find, true or not, to support their decision. “There’s no gay gene” is a prime example. It’s a clever sound bite and a message that sticks. It’s word candy for a fact-free diet. People who toss this around don’t want to be bothered to actually learn the facts presented in this excellent article, or have their belief tested by the many logical constructs offered in these comments.

If they were to finally be disabused of this notion, of if one day a gay gene is really discovered, they would most likely reach for the next “factoid” they could find to support their emotionally-based decision rather than actually change their viewpoint.

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