Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The "Gay Gene" Part I

I had an interesting conversation with Bob (and briefly with AJ) the other night. Currently biomedical science does not support the hypothesis of a single "gay gene." But suppose a single gene were discovered that overwhelmingly determines sexuality, what would the ramifications be? Would it be a boon or a blow to the LGBTQ community?

In this installment, I will make the argument that the discovery of a single gay gene would be one of the greatest blow to the LGBTQ community, judging by the direction medical genetics is headed. In Part II, I'll briefly summarize the current literature on the genetics of sexuality. And in Part III, I'll posit a possible genetic model of sexuality. Hang on and read slowly, otherwise things might just fly right past over your heads.

First, a review of Mendelian genetics. We have genes that control particular traits. Each person has 2 versions of any given gene (called alleles), one inherited from each parent. Alleles may be dominant or recessive, with the dominant allele of a gene "masking" the recessive allele. In regards to sexuality, let's say heterosexuality is "dominant" and homosexuality is "recessive." If a person has one "hetero" allele and one "homo" allele, that person will be heterosexual. The only way that person can be homosexual is if he/she inherits two "homo" alleles.

Now let's expand upon this model (and ignore bisexuals for the moment - there is a way to make bisexuality "fit" in this model, but the genetics of that is beyond the scope of this post). Let's say a single gene is discovered that overwhelmingly affects sexuality. With this discovery, sexuality is overwhelmingly determined to be "nature" and not "nurture" (a faulty dichotomy to begin with, but we'll ignore that). We can rejoice in knowing that individuals are born straight or gay and have little/no choice in the matter.

Initially this may be cause for celebration, but it won't be for long. If the gene has been discovered then it can be detected. If it's detectable, then it can be found and individuals screened for the "gay allele" of this gene. There is a technology available now, today, called PGD (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) that allows scientists to screen embryos for particular alleles of certain genes. Through PGD, embryos can be screened so only the desirable embryos are implanted into the womb. If the "gay allele" is undesirable, embryos with that allele can be screened out so no homosexual individuals are born.

Alternatively, genetics is advancing at such a pace that gene therapy may become feasible in the near-ish future. If, through this discovery, homosexuality is viewed as a "diseases state," then research money will flow into the development of a "cure" to "fix" homosexuals and make them straight. Imagine taking a pill or getting a shot and changing your sexual orientation. If this outcome becomes a possibility, then the individual's consent might not even be necessary for these "cures" to be dispensed. If given to a minor before the age of medical consent, parents could force their "gay-to-be" children to take the pill or shot and "make" them straight.

Think for a moment: if you knew that your offspring could be gay, would you want him/her to go through the teasing, ridicule, and whatever emotional baggage comes with being gay because of societal and cultural norms? For most parents the answer is probably no - they would prevent such a future for their child if they could. And if a child is already born, well, a "cure" is on the way. Before you decry the above as science fiction, or say that even if it's a reality it will never happen, it's already too late. Similar cases have already begun. The prime example is deafness.

Deaf parents (the capital "D" is important) often wish to have deaf children so that their children may grow up as a part of the Deaf community. The Deaf community does not view deafness as a disability or a handicap; deafness is merely a normal variation within humans, and deaf individuals have their own culture. Deaf parents might utilize PGD to screen for embryos that may become deaf children, and thus screen out the "normal" children. In contrast, hearing parents view deafness as a disability/handicap. They will go to lengths to ensure their children are as "normal" as possible. This may include PGD, but more often than not they utilize cochlear implants to help their children hear. Deaf parents tend to find cochlear implants an abomination - a means to quash Deaf culture and suppress a minority.

How many parallels do you see between the LGBTQ community and the Deaf community in these regards? Because of this I find the prospect of discovering a single "gay gene" to be a very scary one. It only requires a tiny push from well-meaning genetics to tip into the dark history of eugenics. And I haven't even touched on the issue of health insurance and life insurance yet. Thank God that human behavior is too complex to be controlled by "merely" a single gene.

I've begun talking to a new blogger, AJ (yes, a "second" AJ), and have just caught up on his blog: coming out (on the net). Great kid, do go over to his blog, say hi, and make him feel welcomed.

Hey AJ, I apologize that I stuck this blurb at the end of a rather intense post. I just wanted to give you a shout out before I forget.


Mr. HCI said...

The ramifications of a single controlling gene would definitely not be good.

In addition to the parents who would want to terminate or "fix" gay fetuses, the Religious Right would probably step up their campaign to keep us second class citizens (and preferably non-existent citizens). They already have changed their tactics in large part from "it's a choice" to "even if it's not a choice, it's sinful to act upon it." What kind of BS is that? I would think they would use that as ammunition to attempt to require that parents of potential gaybies have them "fixed," since termination would be out of the question.

After all, the RR freaked when the Supreme Court decided we had the right to touch each other's private parts without fear of imprisonment, and they are pouring more-and-more money into fighting our right to legally marry. Why not fight our right to exist, if gene therapy can eliminate us?

But what are the ramifications of a genetic "fix?" As I think I understand, genes don't necessarily work alone. "Fixing" the gay gene would potentially cause problems with other things affected by that gene. Who knows, we might end up with straight children with no fingers and toes, for example, or with prehensile tails.


OK, no, I am not a geneticist. Please, feel free to correct any errors I may have made above.

Interesting corollary: I watched a show recently where they talked about there being little switches (forget the correct term) that can turn genes off and on. So homosexuality could be the result of specific gene(s) being turned off or on (in addition to the environment in the womb). It was fascinating.

My gut feeling: Predetermined prior to birth but most likely not by a single gene.

naturgesetz said...

I think you're right about the effect of the discovery of a "gay gene." But given the number of gay people who say that given a choice in the matter, they would not have chosen to be gay, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Of course, I would not support prevention of implantation, but gene therapy would be acceptable.

Aek said...

Mr. HCI: You're right, many genes don't "work alone." Or rather, many genes have multiple effects on different parts of the body. So a "gay gene" may affect many different traits, not just sexuality.

You've also touched on a concept I decided to exclude in this post. I will discuss them later at some length in the next two posts. Genes are often thought of being "binary," either on or off. But even that's not entirely true.

As to predetermined, well, I don't know the answer to that.

naturgesetz: Would gene therapy be acceptable? What kinds of ramifications might that have if homosexuality isn't a "disease?" Would it be okay to force a "cure" on non-consenting minors if there's nothing "wrong?" Is this a violation of the rights of the child? I wonder . . .

naturgesetz said...

IMO gene therapy would be acceptable. Obviously, one's opinion would depend on whether one thought homosexuality was or was not a disorder or a disease. Since I think it is a disorder, I would have no problem with adults choosing it for their minor child.

But I must admit that, having never been heterosexual, I feel a certain uneasiness at the thought that I might have been made heterosexual if such therapy had been available when I was born. Fear of the unknown and comfort with the familiar, I suppose.

A. Friend said...

Politically deafness may be seen as a "variation"; but so is any given disease/disorder.
I don't see why it matters whether or not gene therapy might "make" a "pre-gay"child straight. "Gay" is not akin to a "people" or "race" because by default there is no lineage or culture specific to them and passed down from generation to generation.

Aek said...

A. Friend: I'm not sure what you're arguing here. Of course homosexuality isn't akin to any people or "race," but neither is deafness. In my opinion, the analogy stands.

There is the culture we're born into, and the culture that we choose to become a part of. But, culture is also geographically bound. There is a culture of San Francisco that is very much different than the culture of New York, for example.

If, say, a child were raised by gay parents in a gay-friendly neighborhood, would not that child be "born" into a gay culture?

The inherent difficulty with "culture" is precisely that it's difficult to define. Cultural anthropologists (of which I'm not one) have struggled with this for decades.