Some LGBTQ advocates are worried that a new study from Harvard and MIT will add fuel to the conversion therapy fire.
It’s well known that homophobia persists in the United States and internationally. In Boston, members of a far-right nationalist group organized a “Straight Pride” parade on Saturday, coincidentally on the same day as Bloomington’s own PrideFest. Around the world, same-sex sexual activity is criminalized in over 70 countries, and the situation isn’t necessarily improving. Kenya, for example, upheld its gay sex laws in its highest court earlier this year.
One much-discussed problem is conversion therapy. The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates that nearly 700,000 American adults have received conversion therapy, and nearly 80,000 minors will be subjected to some form before they become adults.
The belief that it’s possible to change sexual orientation can be deadly. One recent study from researchers at San Francisco State University found that being subjected to conversion therapy more than doubles the likelihood of depression and suicide for LGBT young people.
It’s no surprise, then, that some activists are concerned about scientific evidence which casts doubt on the idea that sexual orientation is determined from birth. That’s exactly what’s happening now.
A significant new study from Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, published in "Science," a top general science journal in the world, reports that there is no gene or even set of genes that determines same-sex sexual behavior. All in all, genetics helped explain less than one-quarter of the variation in sexual behavior in the study. In other words, when it comes to having gay sex, genetics doesn’t explain very much.
There were some important caveats to the study. First, it looked at sexual behavior, not sexual identity. In particular, the researchers tested for any statistical connection between genes and whether a person had ever had a same-sex sexual partner. It did not make significant conclusions about why someone might be likely to have more same-sex sexual partners and fewer heterosexual sexual partners. Second, it found high correlation between having ever had a same-sex sexual partner and risk-taking. It’s unclear how much of the population who had ever had sex with someone of the same sex were straight-identifying but willing to try gay sex.
This is not the first time scientists have examined the connection between homosexuality and biology. Last year, researchers at Stanford University successfully used artificial intelligence to predict people’s sexual orientation by their faces in their social media profile pictures.
Regardless, the implications of the study have prompted concerns and stirred controversy.
Several scientists associated with the Broad Institute, a biomedical and genomic research center, have argued that the results, or at least confusion about them, could give more ammunition to bigots.
Bioinformatics analyst Carino Gurjao expressed unease that misinterpretation of the results could be used to support conversion therapy and gene editing. “I worry that this study is the beginning of a very slippery slope into institutionalized homophobia — supported by false claims of evidence from the scientific community,” he explained.
Broad Institute researcher Meagan Olive even cited a line from Jeff Goldblum in "Jurassic Park": “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Their worries have merit.
For decades, much of the argument against conversion therapy for gay, lesbian and bisexual people has focused on the claim that sexual orientation is innate. Lady Gaga ushered in a new name for this idea in 2011 with the words, “I'm on the right track, baby / I was born this way.”
The “Born This Way” model of sexual orientation, which suggests that it’s determined from birth, has certainly helped advance gay rights politically. Jane Ward, a gender studies professor at University of California, Riverside, explains that the “Born This Way” rhetoric is “legitimizing and politically expedient.” By positing sexual orientation as a feature set at birth, it cements the idea that sexual orientation is beyond one’s control, which aids the arguments against conversion therapy and LGBT discrimination.
Yet Ward and other academics argue that whether you’re born gay or not shouldn’t matter.
Even if sexual identity is consciously formed, as many gender studies researchers contend, society should still accept queer people for who they are. To most young people, this idea is probably strikingly self-evident.
The argument can be extended. The Broad Institute study merely suggests skepticism for genetic determination of sexual orientation. It doesn’t provide insight on epigenetic, hormonal or other physiological influences, and it doesn’t follow that people can control their own sexual orientation. It certainly doesn’t imply that sexuality is a choice.
Moreover, there is robust evidence that sexuality is fluid into adulthood. After accepting sexual fluidity, the idea that same-sex sexual behavior can’t be predicted from your genes not only seems less controversial, but it also seems patently obvious.
Consider the logic of conversion therapy.
The case against conversion therapy does not depend on the genetic contribution to same-sex behavior. It depends instead on the complete wrongheadedness of conversion therapy’s goal, and additionally on the damning degree to which conversion therapy has failed to achieve that goal.
The ethical concerns about the gene study would carry less weight if the argument for queer acceptance did not depend on biological foundations. A rhetoric which preserves the dignity of gays, lesbians and bi people without tying it to their genes would preempt the arguments of homophobes.
The jury is still out on whether this type of science does more good than harm. Nevertheless, it has helped move the conversation forward. Scientists know more this week than they did last week. In the spirit of IU’s own Alfred Kinsey, I look forward to a time when we may discuss with full openness and honesty the science of human sexuality, without having to worry about the response from bigots.
The “Born This Way” model was necessary for an earlier time in the American public discourse. Let’s work for a new social rhetoric, which, regardless of the biological underpinnings, accepts queer people for who they are.
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