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Gays and Genes


It sometimes seems that as much attention is given to the causes of homosexuality as to the causes of any other aspect of human variation. Heterosexuals are fascinated by this minority in their midst, and homosexuals seem equally curious about themselves. Indeed, almost everyone feels free to float ideas on homosexuality, many of which figure in Robert Alan Brookey’s acute study Reinventing the Male Homosexual. Thus one theory posits that homosexuality is “an altruistic behavior in which one sibling foregoes reproduction in order to better the survival odds for the offspring of other siblings.” Another surmises that men who identify themselves as gay have “failed in the masculine competition for female partners,” and must endure “the frustration of unrealized heterosexual intercourse.” These speculations, like many others, are based on the premise that heterosexuality is nature’s norm, with the corollary that homosexuality is a deviation.

But not all inquiries occur in armchairs. In 1991 and 1993, the results of two laboratory studies were published in Science, a rigorous and reputable journal.1 The first was based on autopsies conducted on nineteen gay men, sixteen straight men, and six heterosexual women at seven hospitals in New York and California. Dissections of their forebrain hypothalamus found that the glands in both the women and the gay men were less than half the size of those in the straight men. “This finding,” the author concluded, “…suggests that sexual orientation has a biological substrate.” The second study examined forty families which had two gay brothers. It found that in thirty-three of the pairs, their other gay relatives—uncles and cousins—were mainly on their maternal side, pointing to “a correlation between homosexual orientation and the inheritance of polymorphic markers on the X chromosome,” which gay men receive from their mothers.

Hence there has been an ongoing debate over whether there is a “gay gene.” Part of this debate has centered on the scope and reliability of the empirical studies, with some scientists expressing doubts about their methods and assumptions. Science has since published the results of one attempt to replicate the earlier studies, which reported its inability to find “a gene of large effect influencing sexual orientation.”2 Still, Brookey seems to believe that time will bring such a discovery, and this prospect worries him. He is particularly concerned by the findings that the hypothalamus of gay men is close in size to women’s, and that the supposed gay marker is transmitted through mothers. These findings, he feels, will promote not only “the belief that male homosexuals are effeminate,” but that they are “physically feminized as well.”

As befits a democracy, members of the public feel free to form opinions, even if they have no knowledge of scientific studies. Not only that, their views are solicited in polls and published in the media. On this subject, as on others, ideology looms large. The Gallup Poll responses in Table A show that while two thirds of Democrats take the innate view, most Republicans cluster on the environmental side. The latter tendency seems to arise from a conservative wish that homosexuality did not exist, accompanied by the belief that eliminating it is possible. Hence the view of conservatives that identifying oneself as gay is either a freely made choice or results from events and influences in one’s upbringing that could or should have been avoided.

The “gay gene” also figures in politics. Brookey cites the controversy over a 1992 amendment to Colorado’s constitution, which was passed by a statewide majority. Referring to “homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices, or relationships,” it said that none of these could

entitle any person or class of persons to have or claim any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination.

Proponents of the amendment said that states have the right to disfavor or even ban certain proclivities and practices. A case cited frequently was polygamy, which is barred by several state constitutions.

Dean Hamer, the biologist who conducted the hypothalamus study, testified as an expert witness when the amendment was challenged in court. Not surprisingly, he cited his research to argue that being gay was not a preference like polygamy, but an innate element in a person’s makeup. As it turned out, the Supreme Court bypassed the genetic issue in overturning the amendment. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the 7–2 decision, said, “It identifies persons by a single trait…to make them unequal to everyone else.”3 Or as Brookey adds, “It denied homosexuals the same legal recourse and access to political participation that is available to all other citizens.” A corollary is that if states seek to ban certain sexual practices, as with anti-sodomy laws, the prohibition must apply to all pairs of participants.

As can be seen, there’s another asymmetry in Table A. While the gulf between men and women generally is not as wide as the division between Republicans and Democrats, it still calls for comment. (The percentage of men favoring an explanation based on upbringing or environment would probably be higher had gay men been excluded from the count.) So why do men, especially those who regard themselves as straight, prefer to see homosexuality as deriving from choice or environmental elements? We might turn the question around, and ask why most men reject the genetic explanation. They might think that if being gay is innate, it just could be that they have the homosexual gene themselves. Even if the gene is currently dormant, it might surface at any time, as seems to happen occasionally among married men. In view of such possibilities, straight men may find it comforting to vote for choice or circumstance. This allows them to presume that it is not a choice they would ever make, and that they have weathered influences that make other people gay.


In his essay “Born Gay?,” John D’Emilio says he really doesn’t care whether he was. He then goes on to cite several reasons why he feels it’s best not to pursue that question. He begins by describing changes in terminology, from “sexual preference,” with its inference of choice, to a more fixed “sexual orientation.” But even that denoted a direction in which someone had changed his or her attitude, leaving open what induced the journey. Hence the recent shift to “sexual identity,” which abandoned ambiguity, since it “went to the very core of who one was.” But D’Emilio and others who call themselves gay aren’t always completely sure about who or what they are. In this vein, he alludes to “the fluidity, the serendipity, the—yes—choice that went into creating our sexual selves.” Without using the word “bisexual,” he points to husbands who have satisfying sex at home, but occasionally have a fling with a man.

While not discounting the power of conservatives, D’Emilio is also unsettled by “the ease with which many liberal Americans have embraced the born-gay approach.” Being able to say that being gay is genetic, he feels, allows them to “push aside their personal squeamishness about what we do.” Nor is he sparing about the views within the gay community. In his judgment, the premise that people may be born gay “allows us to sidestep our own internalized homophobia.” He argues plausibly that the genetic explanation makes it too easy to deflect “the uneasy—and unarticulated—feeling that, if we did have a choice, we might choose otherwise.” But it isn’t clear why he frames the issue as one of self-hatred. Musing about having a different life need not imply enmity toward the one you have.

If gays and lesbians make up a relatively small part of the US population—my own estimate would be about 6 percent of all men and between 2 and 3 percent of women—they have many ties with others. Apart from their parents, most have siblings who are straight. A considerable number were once married and have children, while others are conceiving or adopting offspring. In another essay, “Laying Claim to Family,” D’Emilio looks forward to “the acceptance of lesbian and gay families as an integral part of American society.” He calls this a “quest for family recognition,” which would include same-sex marriage, full rights to adoption and child custody, along with the granting of social and legal legitimacy to varied domestic arrangements. Some steps toward such legitimacy are already being taken. Vermont allows same-sex couples to register as “civil unions,” and Hawaii has a strong “domestic partnership” law. Some businesses and localities extend benefits to employees’ partners, and more hospitals are viewing companions as next of kin in situations when only a few visitors are allowed.

D’Emilio claims that fully a quarter of gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults have youngsters living with them. The figure may be true for women, since many are raising children from earlier marriages. But I have seen no convincing evidence that one out of every four gay men has a child in residence.4 Whatever their numbers, young people whose parents are gay deserve to be treated in their schools and elsewhere like any other offspring, just as do those born to unmarried parents or without a resident father. Yet even so benign a sentiment can stir controversy.

Think of a class of six-year-olds where one pupil is being raised by a set of same-sex partners. If the child is teased, the teacher may feel bound to turn the situation into an educational lesson. As it happens, there are books aimed at just this grade level. Among the best known are Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate.5 In the first, the girl lives with two women. In the second, the boy is with his mother, but spends considerable time with two men. The purpose of the books isn’t simply to make youngsters with gay parents feel better about themselves. It is also to convince their classmates that their households are an acceptable form of family life. Needless to say, not all school systems are using such texts. Their fear is that some students could conclude that being gay or lesbian has equal status with heterosexuality. Indeed, they see this as yet another example of an “environment” that might lure youngsters into homosexuality.


A related concern—among those who voice concern—has been the growth of what might by called a gay presence in the US and elsewhere. A gay partnership is basic to the prime-time plot of Will and Grace, just as gay characters recur in network programs and multiplex movies. Hence the question is raised whether the number of gays and lesbians is actually growing, relative to the total population. By all outward indicators, more Americans than ever before are now willing to say they are gay or lesbian, or allow others to make that inference. The big shift from the past is among young people coming of sexual age, many more of whom feel able to admit being gay both to themselves and to the world.

  1. 1

    Simon Levay, “A Difference in Hypothalamic Structure Between Heterosexual and Homosexual Men,” Science, Vol. 253, No. 5023 (August 30, 1991), pp. 1034–1037; Dean Hamer et al., Science, Vol. 261 (1993), pp. 321–327. Also see Dean Hamer and Peter Copeland, The Science of Desire: The Search for the Gay Gene and the Biology of Behavior (Simon and Schuster, 1994).

  2. 2

    George Rice et al., “Male Homosexuality: Absence of Linkage to Microsatellite Markers at Xq28,” Science, Vol. 284, No. 5414 (April 23, 1999), pp. 665–667.

  3. 3

    Romer v. Evans, 517 US 620 (1996).

  4. 4

    D’Emilio cites an exit poll conducted by the Voter Research Service during the 1992 election. However, Lee Badgett of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst tells me that its sample of 13,729 contained only 263 men who were willing to say that they were gay, and 186 women who identified as lesbian. This subset yielded 61 men and 70 women who said they had children in their homes, not really large enough to warrant broad generalizations. Kenneth Sherrill of Hunter College also led me to a 2000 Harris Internet poll, where 13 percent of gay men and 46 percent of lesbian women said they were raising children. See www.harrisinteractive.com, November–December 2000.

  5. 5

    Lesléa Newman, Heather Has Two Mommies (Alyson, 1989); Michael Willhoite, Daddy’s Roommate (Alyson, 1990).

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