By Steven Hussey
“Nobody is born gay” reads the headline of a billboard by a so-called “pro-ex-gay” non-profit in the United States. The ad shows identical twin brothers with the revelation, “One gay. One not.” Profound. Ironically, the openly gay South African model featured in the ad, who has no twin brother and whose image was duplicated and manipulated, expressed shocked surprise to find his face plastered on an advertisement he didn’t support at all.
What bothers me is not the billboard or its message (I cannot see what’s offensive about advertising an “ex-gay” support group) but the illogical conclusion that it’s intended to support: that same-sex attraction can, and should, be changed in the absence of genetic determinism. Whether people are born gay or not is the claptrap of both LGBTQ groups and their adversaries who squabble over its truth value as if it is the be-all and end-all of gay rights and its protection. It’s not.
First, let us candidly acknowledge that the statement is true. Of course nobody is “born” gay, it is a meaningless statement. How can we determine how “gay” or “straight” an infant is? One can be born black, white, South African, female, blood type O positive – any characteristic that can be determined at birth. I believe the intended meaning is something like, “nobody is genetically destined to be gay”.
The modified statement becomes a red herring. One extensive twin study found at most a 39% genetic contribution to homosexual orientation among men in the Swedish population, and a much lower value for women. From this we can at most state that being gay is genetically influenced (and considerably so), with an important caveat: in genetics, these heritability estimates represent the average genetic proportion of the variation we see in a trait for a given population; it says nothing about individual cases. The problem thus lies in generalisation: it may be that some individuals have by chance inherited a combination of genetic variants that make the probability of turning out gay near-deterministic. The same is true of height, which is influenced by both genetics (60-80%) and environment. Dwarfism is a salient example of a particularly deterministic genetic contribution – environment isn’t going to alter much at all. In summary, it is unfair and unscientific to state that nobody is destined to be gay.
The concept of environment, explaining most of the variation in human sexual orientation, is hopelessly misunderstood. It never fails to astound me how readily the term is substituted with “choice” or “learned behaviour”. Why does anti-gay propaganda zealously regard environment as an agent of choice, when it is glaringly obvious that there isn’t a nanosecond of deliberation when it comes to most of the body’s responses to the environment? As anyone afflicted with an autoimmune disease knows, the effect of the environment can be involuntary, mysterious and permanent. Autoimmune diseases are not genetic and their environmental causes are largely unknown. I didn’t choose to develop Type 1 diabetes, nor could I have avoided it. I’m stuck with it for life in the absence of a cure.
One also does not choose to prefer writing with one’s left hand, and I see a striking similarity between handedness and sexual orientation when it comes to historical and ongoing stigma. “Lefties” have fallen victim to right-handed hegemony and sometimes severe abuse for millennia. Society has demonised the left-handed on the basis of misinformation and a sinister (from the Latin sinistra, “left”) intolerance for the “abnormal”. But unlike left-to-right handed conversion, successful in about 50% of cases, sexual orientation “conversion therapy” is often harmful and its efficacy is not scientifically demonstrated. Whatever the cause(s) of same-sex attraction, then, most people experiencing it regard it as innate, intrinsic, and fairly immutable. One of the founding directors of an “ex-gay” ministry, now in a same-sex marriage, has come forward after many years to admit that faith-based conversion therapy, too, is a pipe dream. While there are also success stories, given the complexity of sexual orientation it would be foolish to presume that so-called “conversion” is viable for everyone.
None of this should matter for gay rights, anyway. We need to abandon the quest to understand the aetiology or mutability of sexual orientation as a guide to social acceptability and morality, because the acceptability of a behaviour surely does not depend on what contributed to it in the first place. Who is searching for the cause of interracial attraction as a basis for its justification? Who would claim we should accept murder were it to emerge that such intent is innate? Who would advocate for the genocide of a persecuted religious minority on the basis that practising that faith is free choice?
What does it matter if a homosexual orientation is not in-born? Neither is a heterosexual one, apparently. It’s an irrelevant question, an academic interest. What we should be paying more attention to is that all major psychiatric and psychological organisations can find nothing intrinsically abnormal about non-heterosexual preferences. It’s a natural expression of sexuality that appears to have an evolutionary function.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni criminalised homosexuality on the basis that it is not genetically determined. I’d like to see him apply the same criterion to other social freedoms. He’d quickly learn from his mistake.
Steven Hussey has a PhD in genetics and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pretoria. He is a 2010 Mandela Rhodes Scholar.