If you’ve been anywhere near science media lately, you’ve probably seen something along the lines of “Researchers think they may have found ‘the gay gene’.” (Spoiler: they didn’t.)
The source of this juicy and totally misinformed hype was a press release in Nature detailing a yet unpublished study by Eric Vilain and Tuck Ngun, geneticists at the University of California, Los Angeles. By analyzing DNA samples from 47 pairs of identical twin brothers of which one or both identified as gay, they were able to correctly identify the participants’ sexual orientation 67% of the time – a far cry from a true gaydar, but still more accurate than one would expect from chance alone.
So, great! We’ve proven once and for all that being gay is a biological trait, not a conscious choice. Take that, homophobes of the world! *cue “Born This Way”*
But wait, the story didn’t end there. First, there was backlash against the media’s reporting on the study, and flaws in the study itself. Then there was Ngun’s rebuttal of the backlash, and a rebuttal of the rebuttal of the backlash. Turns out, the whole “gay gene” thing wasn’t as clear-cut as the Internet would have you believe. Shocker.
A lot of the debate is wrapped up in statistics and technical mumbo-jumbo concerning the validity of the original study. I don’t want to go into that, and you probably don’t want to hear about it. The other, more interesting side of this story was people’s reactions to the news, and how the media ran with it.
In order to understand how this study got misrepresented by the mainstream media, we need to first lay out the science behind it. Turns out, the researchers never actually claimed they found a gay gene, or even multiple gay genes. What they were really looking at was something called the epigenome. Refresher for anyone who hasn’t cracked a biology textbook since high school: your genome is made up of DNA, the material that stores all the genetic information that makes up a large part of who you are. When something in your unique DNA code changes spontaneously, it’s called a mutation. We all have a bunch of mutations – sometimes they’re harmful, occasionally they’re advantageous, but mostly they’re just neutral.
Then, you have your epigenome. This is the term for the complete set of chemical “markers” that attach to your DNA and control what genes get expressed and when. While your genome will stay fairly stable throughout your life, barring some mutations, the epigenome undergoes a lot of changes over time. These changes are caused by everything from stress, to what you eat, to the air you breathe. In a way, you can think of it as the interface between your genes, environment, and lifestyle.
Epigenetics is a pretty cool field, and understandably, it’s a hot topic in pop science media. It’s also a new area of research that we know very little about, especially in humans. So, naturally, there’s a lot of misconstrued information circulating about what it is and how it works. Take, for instance, the recent debate over a study claiming that Holocaust survivors passed trauma on to their children and grandchildren through epigenetics. False interpretations of epigenetics research can even be used to justify policing women’s bodies and placing undue burdens on poor or marginalized parents, as I’ve written about before. The possibilities of epigenetics in health and medicine are exciting, but we still don’t really know how to interpret the data we have. Scientists are cautious about drawing any conclusions too soon; many journalists, however, are not.
Which brings us back to the UCLA study. Vilain and Ngun claimed they found five specific markers in the epigenome that somewhat reliably predict homosexuality in men. Assuming their methods and data were sound, they would be the first to have found specific epigenetic patterns connected to homosexuality. While this wouldn’t be the first piece of evidence that sexual orientation is biological, it may be the first time anyone’s developed anything close to a test for homosexuality – which, of course, is itself problematic. Sexual orientation is an extremely personal matter for many people, and a test being proposed like the former poses serious threats to one’s privacy and room for individualism. This comes amid concerns that genetic information can facilitate discrimination based on, among other things, a person’s health and risk for certain diseases.
But even before we consider the implications of a sexual orientation fingerprint, remember that the relationship was correlational and only 67% accurate. That means there are a lot of self-identifying gay men who don’t have these markers, and straight men who do. The study also didn’t consider bisexuality, sexual fluidity, or asexuality, and it excluded women and trans people altogether. Demographic information on the participants isn’t available, since the study hasn’t been published, but studies like this tend to include predominantly white, well-educated, middle class individuals. This isn’t to say the findings aren’t significant in any way; it just means we need to consider their limited scope, and maybe refrain from declaring that a “gene test” can tell if someone’s gay or straight. The only reliable metric for a person’s sexual orientation is whatever they say it is, and it’s correct 100% of the time!
So, no, there is no gay gene. Does that mean sexual orientation has no biological basis? Hell no. A vast body of research has already shown that sexuality is, to a small extent, heritable, so genes almost certainly play some role, as does the epigenome. So do prenatal conditions, hormone cycles, and sometimes age. Our lived experiences and personal choices also shape who we are, including our sexual preferences, in ways we’ve hardly begun to understand. The bottom line is that sexuality is highly individual, and the idea that there might be one single explanation for why part of a person’s identity exists erases this complexity entirely.
Still, the idea that sexuality is genetic is being touted as a victory for LGB rights. But would a biological explanation for homosexuality really end discrimination based on sexual orientation? The same reasoning has been (and continues to be) used to justify persecution and genocide of peoples on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, and disability. On the other hand, a person’s religion can form a part of their identity even though religious practice is a choice. It shouldn’t matter if sexuality is a biological trait, an individual choice, or some combination of these and other factors. The spectrum of sexual orientations is real, and social change, more than science, is what convinces people of that truth.
The lesson to take away from this is that nuance in science is too often lost when the media gets a hold on it. The spread of false or excessively simplistic science news isn’t just irresponsible, it has the potential to influence people’s thinking in dangerous ways. But when the need for readership takes priority over factual accuracy, what we’re left with is watered-down click bait that does a disservice to scientists and readers alike. A truly accurate headline for this story would have been, “Sometimes cisgender gay men have some specific markers on their epigenome, and sometimes they don’t.”
But who would want to read that?