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Biology 202
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

The Never-ending Story: Sexual Orientation and Genetics

Amy O'Connor

It is my observation that the average person gains insight into the nature vs. nurture debate when some particular human trait that is politically or socially volatile at the time is announced as having a specific genetic origin. This observation was confirmed when, in surfing the web, I came across an article entitled, "Female Inner Ear Comes Out of the Closet (1)." While reporting on a study published by a UT psychology professor who found that homosexual women exhibit tones in the inner ear similar to those of male test subjects, the Daily Texan journalist, with no explanation or sources, effortlessly mixes and confuses the social construction with the "science" of sexual orientation—even in her or his title. Attempting to get to the root of how an individual's sexual preference is determined, and the subsequent attempt to designate these individual tendencies into definitive statements regarding large groups in society has become a seductive topic for numerous media sources within the past decade or so. A closer look at this debate reveals the relative error of exploring one side without an equal exploration of the other.

Dean Hamer et al at the National Cancer Institute published the initial paper that is accountable for the explosion of interest and argument regarding genetic determination of sexual preference in 1993 (2). Hamer's study found that, of thirty-two pairs of brothers who were "exclusively or mostly" homosexual, twenty-two pairs of brothers shared the same type of genetic material. This introduced the idea that there is a gene for homosexuality. Hamer went on to identify a specific genetic sequence that exists on the maternally passed-on X chromosome. The extent of this sequence's influence on sexual preference was not and is not known. Another study published in 1993 by Macke et al studied the same locus, but found that it had no bearing on sexual preference (2).

In fact, all that any study can definitively say is that scientific "suggestions," that homosexuality and heterosexuality (bisexuality is far-less explored, or often placed within the former categories) can be partially determined by genetics exist; the essential contradiction of these suggestions and the definitive ideal that the public identifies with science is inherent within these studies. It was this perplexing contradiction that caused me to ask, what is the point of these studies, and do they really benefit us as a society?

The means by which studies themselves are carried out could play a part in the opposing conclusions of nearly identical studies that, by definition, should produce concurrent conclusions. It seems that the most common method for obtaining a sample population for relevant studies is to advertise in gay-identified magazines and newspapers, seeking volunteers to self-identify their sexual orientation, and if necessary, that of their siblings, etc.; information verification, if it is possible, is not always attempted (3). It is very probable that difficulty in obtaining an unbiased and random study sample has a large influence on a study's outcome. Also, when dealing with a politically charged issue, one must be aware of bias on the part of the researcher (3). The fact that certain groups can and will use studies to discriminate, to end discrimination, to essentially further any number of politically or socially motivated agendas certainly should be acknowledged by both professional and lay people when confronted with these studies.

Ruth Hubbard identifies questionable motives or biases of researchers, among others, in a conversation that she had in 1993 with Frank Aqueno, a writer/performance artist (4). Earlier that year, Hubbard and her son wrote, Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators, and Law Enforcers. She defines the gene myth as the idea that everything we are or do comes out of our genes, and that through finding out about our genes, we are going to learn what it means to be human. She and many others cite the conservative interpretation of the gene myth as its' intrinsic danger: that society can now write off certain people as defective, and possibly use this to write off societal wrongs.

Wanting to simplify the fluid relationship between genetics and environment is tempting; wanting to reduce homosexuality and bisexuality to static states of being puts this particular debate in the spotlight at the present. The danger lies in precisely not recognizing the political and social implications of these studies—without which makes them useless to society at this point in time (4). There are members of the gay community and others who react positively to the recognition that their lifestyle is not necessarily a personal choice, as many homophobes argue (2). And as I already mentioned, there are also those who use genetics to justify societal inadequacy and discrimination.

There are many "whys?" to the ongoing debate between proponents of the nature vs. nurture argument when it comes to sexual preference. What really are the benefits of ascribing particular behaviors that the status quo deems abnormal as attributable to genetics? I'm not so sure that scientists, sociologists, social activists, or anyone else should ever be allowed to work independently of one another; it seems that on all sides misconceptions abound regarding the outcome, the method, and even the motives of studies produced by those who fall on opposite or just different sides of the debate.

Researching this debate leads me to believe that all involved must work hard to not use ambiguous or socially constructed ideals and rhetoric. Until there is some agreement between the aforementioned, Daily Texan and other medias will continue to misconstrue the how and why of the nature vs. nurture debate. Until then, perhaps the obsession with "decoding" the human genome or utilizing social theory in this particular debate reveals something more important about our society than whether or not sexual preference is a choice: that humans today are too focused on the why and the how of society and not the what and for what good.


1)University of Texas Psychology Page, a short article from a local newspaper citing new and strange study

2)Bryn Mawr College Student Biology Page, good overview of major genetics of sexual orientation studies in last decade

3)Hampshire University Website, thoughtful and comprehensive discussion of genetics of sexual orientation

4)Frank Aqueno Website, an interesting but biased conversation between a famous professor/author and an gay rights activist

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