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THE GAY GENE DEBATE


"The phone rang off the hook with calls from reporters; there were TV cameramen lined up outside the lab; the mailbox and e-mail overflowed," Dean Hamer later remembered the reaction to his July, 1993 paper in the journal Science. "Rarely before have so many reacted so loudly to so little." Hamer's paper-- "A Linkage Between DNA Markers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual Orientation"-- had the modest ring of science, where change is often slow and incremental. But the underlying idea seemed to carry enormous implications: Homosexuality was not a choice--"the wrong choice," as many religious and political leaders have demogogued on the issue. Instead, homosexuality was as much a biological fact as eye color.

Though the outcome of the "gay gene" debate is uncertain, the very fact of the debate is evidence of great change: The prevailing scientific view of the fundamental nature of homosexuality has undergone a signficant evolution in the last several decades. Where once the scientific and medical establishment maintained an unqualified belief that homosexuality was a form of psychological deviance, today a solid majority of psychiatrists and psychologists themselves believe in biological theories (genes, brain, prenatal chemistry) over environmental or psychological theories. More scientists are getting involved in this type of genetic research, although funding has not been keeping pace with the intensity of interest.

Even at the early stages of an emerging scientific consensus around biological theories of homosexuality, it is not possible to keep politics out of the debate. In his most recent book, Simon LeVay, who has been at the center of it all--and who is gay himself--wrote of a "worrisome question" that he faces quite often: "Are the positions taken by researchers merely the expression of their own personal attitudes and prejudices--whether pro-or anti-gay--that have been dressed up in academic language. . . ?" To espouse environmental or psychodynamic theories in recent years has been to invite charges of anti-gay bias or homophobia, he notes; and biological theories seem "pro-gay." But even these political lines can be blurred: Some have worried that the "gay gene," though often seen as tied to "pro gay" politics, could become a tool of a repressive, eugenically inclined majority looking to breed out undesirable same-sex behavior. The debate continues.


Making the Case

The search for the possible genetic basis of homosexuality was not new in 1993--other researchers had isolated the gene in fruit flies. But fruit flies are not human beings. And Dean Hamer, along with a brain researcher named Simon LeVay and a handful of other scientists focusing on biological and genetic causes of homosexuality, were making the leap from laboratory animals to people. Because of the perceived social, political, and cultural implications of the research, the relatively minor advances in scientific knowledge put forward by Hamer and LeVay in the early 1990s attracted extraordinary, global attention.

The Gay Gene and Evolution-- A Problem?

No sooner do those attempting to prove the existence of a genetic basis for sexual orientation begin to clear enormous obstacles in the lab than they are hit with an objection from biology itself: Why, from an evolutionary point of view, should a "gay gene," or same-sex attractions, exist at all? Part of the answer involves an excursion into the animal world, where homosexual behaviors have been widely documented, but where explanations for this behavior vary widely. This behavior is often dismissed as a minor artifact of generally heterosexual behavior. But biologist Bruce Bagemihl has recently marshalled wide-ranging animal studies to demonstrate the evolutionary advantage for a variety of non-reproductive, same-sex sexual relationships. In this article, Richard Pillard also draws strength from examples in the animal world as he argues against the "evolutionary" objection to genetic theories of homosexuality.


CHALLENGING THE EVIDENCE
Is Homosexuality Inherited? (NY Review of Books)

What might be the origin of biological differences underlying male sexual preference? Dean Hamer, Simon LeVay and others began to lay out their answer in scientific papers and several popular books in the early 1990s. In this article, Richard Horton, the editor of the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, untangles the scientific claims from the social and poltical ones, offering a sober assessment on the state of the science, but not a complete refutation. And there's even a clear streak of mild admiration for the ambition and aims of those attempting to link biology and homosexuality.


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