A new study has been published by a team of international researchers regarding that age old question of “the gay gene.” Are we born this way, or not? The answer seems to be “no, but kind of sorta.”
I must admit that science was never my best subject, except when it involved walking through the woods listening for birds or staring at clouds from the football field bleachers—thanks, hippie science teachers!—so I apologize if I misconstrue any facts, but this is essentially what I gather from the report: homosexuality doesn’t arise in genetics as we normally understand it, as being passed down from generation to generation like hair color or disease sensitivity. But it may be influenced by epigenetics, that is, a type of monitoring control that occurs in the womb. These “epi-marks” can be influenced by the environment and are meant to help protect fetuses and mothers from influxes of too much testosterone. Accordingly, the way epi-marks work can affect both genitals and sexuality.
Image via io9
Other than not fully understanding a lot of the vocab in this study (biology is weird!), there are still many things I’m confused about. If epigenetics help determine levels of femininity or masculinity, as I understand it, then is it also linking homosexuality to these traits? Is sexuality actually linked to how feminine or masculine we are? (While stereotypes say yes, my instinct is to say no.) The article says that epi-marks also essentially disappear after their purpose in the womb is fulfilled, which helps to make them different from full blown genes. Yet the likelihood of having certain epi-marks can possibly be hereditary and pass between generations, which seems to negate the whole “it isn’t genetic” thing.
There is this cool part, though, as explained by George Dvorsky:
And importantly — in order to satisfy the rules of Darwinian selection — the researchers noted through their mathematical modeling that these epigenetic characteristics can easily proliferate in the population because they increase the fitness of the parent; these epi-marks normally protect parents from natural variation in sex hormone levels during fetal development. They only rarely reduce the fitness of offspring.
So there’s something to stick in the faces of the “but humans are meant to have babies so if you can’t have babies why hasn’t evolution weeded you out” argument. Gays make our mommies STRONGER, y’all! Boom!
Darwinian enthusiasm aside, studies like this always bring up a number of questions for me, and an even more abundant amount of feelings. On the one hand, I appreciate them, because while I don’t necessarily understand science all the time, I do steadfastly believe in it. The drive and the ability to understand how we work as a human species is endlessly fascinating and wonderful.
That said, is the ability to say, “Yes, Darwin! We DO make sense!” that essential to who we are? Ariel Schrag, and many other queer writers, have discussed this idea at length in their writing, and I imagine this small tidbit about strengthening our mother’s “fitness” might be most interesting of all to them and other science-leaning folk. But for the larger point of the study, should defining whether we’re born this way or not really matter?
I’ll tell you the truth: when I first saw a link to this study, I was intrigued. But by the time I read the whole way through it, and came to my “we’re still kinda sorta born this way” conclusion, I felt a little disappointed.
This past year, I’ve danced my heart out to Gaga’s hit tune during several different weddings, including my own, and it’s felt like an empowering experience each time. Yet that really had more to do with the fact that every other person in the room knew it was a song about being gay, and no one cared. They were all dancing, too. And the power “Born This Way” could hold for religious youth out there, to hear that “God makes no mistakes,” (an idea which is often hard to swallow, especially in light of recent events, but which works well here), continues to move me.
But the song that actually speaks to me the most, that I really danced the hardest to at my wedding, was “Hair.” When Gaga sings, “I’ve had enough, this is my prayer, that I’ll die living just as free as my hair,” I have a hard time not inexplicably choking up every single time I hear it. There is something so perfect about it for me: it may seem silly, a thing like hair, but it’s something that she’s free to mold as she pleases, something that allows her to feel like herself, something that makes her happy and alive and right. It’s different; it’s bold—if she wants it to be; it’s always hers, and she clearly views it as something to be celebrated. What if sexuality was viewed more like that?
It’s nice to have science back us up, if only to have as a defense against those relatives and political foes who won’t accept us any other way. As in, FINE, if genes (or epigenes, or whatever) say you were actually made this way, I guess you shouldn’t die in a fiery pit for your evil choices. Or like, you should still die in a fiery pit, but I guess you can’t help your evil. I’ll “tolerate” you. So, sure, yay epigenes.
Yet clinging to science and genes alone still makes it seem like it’s something that can’t be helped, and accordingly, it becomes easy to jump to the conclusion that no one would CHOOSE to be gay. Generations of well-intentioned parents and loved ones have implored to us and to themselves: why would you CHOOSE to make life harder? To be discriminated against? To be “different”? Because in the end, everybody does want to be safe, to be happy and loved.
I’ll admit that I may be biased in my “but why isn’t it JUST OK either way” belief because of my own experience. I liked dudes my whole life until I met my wife, and then I liked her. And after a while of liking her, I realized I really liked a whole lot of other women, too. Yet it never felt like I had been hiding secret desires for ladies my whole life, or like I was having a sudden existential crisis; it simply felt like a new world was opening up to me, adding on to the world I knew before. And it was exciting! And fun! Something, like Gaga’s hair, to celebrate. And maybe my mom did have epi-marks in her womb that pre-destined me to fall in love with my wife, that just weren’t taken advantage of in my youth in a small conservative town. I know there are many other people who know they are gay from the first time they can grasp conscious thought, whose epi-marks were maybe stronger (or weaker, however it works) than mine. That’s great too! But maybe I also fell in love with my wife just ‘cause I wanted to.
And when it comes to how we treat each other, it really shouldn’t matter either way. Should we be able to marry each other because we are predisposed to who we love biologically the same way straight people are? Maybe. Or maybe we should be able to marry who we want because we literally should just marry who we want.
I’ll keep following the science, because scientists are cool and facts are great and the world is fascinating. But I’ll follow it for that alone: science. Not for excuses or reasons. Because you don’t need a reason to be as fabulous as we all are.