The search for a gay gene has intensified since the publication in the early 90’s of the now famous research by Simon LeVay and Dean Hamer. Their findings were reconfirmed only last year with the release of a study from Dr. Alan Sanders, who analyzed the genes on 409 pairs of gay brothers and found they shared notable patterns in two regions of the human genome, on the X chromosome and chromosome 8.
Yet the importance and significance of a genetic explanation for human sexual orientation is hotly contested within LGBT academia, where a rift has opened between those who view the essentialist (“born that way”) thesis as a vindication of LGBT human rights and those who see it as both irrelevant and dangerous. In the latter camp is Julie Bindel, who claims that resting human rights “on the basis that we can’t help who we are is counter-productive.” She sees those who embrace the gay essentialist thesis as attempting to vindicate homosexual behavior (which is a choice) on the grounds of biological difference, which would put gay rights on the same basis as anti-racist or feminist politics.
Many gay people are sympathetic to Bindel’s claim that homosexuality is not due to genes but to “a mix of opportunity, luck, chance, and, quite frankly, bravery.” But what Bindel means by “homosexuality” is homosexual behavior, not the involuntary experience of homosexual attraction or desire, which can be expressed or repressed. Essentialists may agree with Bindel that homosexual conduct is a choice. The essentialist thesis is not determinism and does not require that homosexuals have no choice about their sexual expression. Indeed, Bindel is right to say that sexual behavior is down to a variety of factors and not simply reducible to biological sexual attraction. Perhaps not surprisingly, Dean Hamer expressly rejected any sort of “gay gene determinism” after publishing his study on the gay gene back in 1993.
No one is claiming that all people who identify as lesbian or gay were born that way. For a variety of personal reasons, some people simply prefer to share intimate partnership with someone of the same sex. Even if people are “born that way” this would not entail that they necessarily behave in exclusively homosexual ways. Some might even pretend to be straight for their entire lives. Nor is anyone claiming that being “born that way” is a necessary condition for granting full legal acceptance of homosexuality. In a liberal democracy, bisexuals and people not born with a predisposition to same-sex attraction ought to be free to participate in homoerotic (or any) sexual behavior, so long as it is consenting and between adults.
However, the essentialist thesis still has significance for LGBT human rights because research into the biological causes of sexual orientation continues unabated. If private companies can profit from offering prospective parents a eugenic “treatment” for homosexual orientation, we can be sure they will lobby hard for the liberty to do so. They are already laying the discursive groundwork for a eugenic age.
The traditional nexus between acknowledging that some people have no choice in being “born that way” and social tolerance of homosexual behavior has broken down. So Bindel is right that pinning one’s hopes for justice and equal rights on gay biology is a lost cause.
Back in 1992, only months after Simon LeVay published his “gay gene” theory, the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated its position that the homosexual inclination must be seen as an “objective disorder.” From the 1990s onwards a variety of religious and social conservative bioethicists began publishing widely in support of interpreting homosexuality as a pathology and used pseudo-medical language with a view to the future when reprogenetics — the merging of reproductive and genetic technologies — or some similar treatment scenario will be viable. These authors were frighteningly well placed to influence public policy.
Nowadays, instead of describing the given aspects of natural “creation” as the very benchmark of God’s design and plan, Christian bioethicists such as Ronald Cole-Turner, Michael J. Reiss, Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Dr. Roger Straughan and Ted Peters emphasize how biotechnology might facilitate human interventions into “fallen creation” in order to “restore” it to “its full glory.” They argue in support of treating homosexual orientation as a target for biomedical intervention.
Whether or not there is a biological substrate that determines patterns of sexual attraction is a question of fact, not one of value. So, if it turns out that there is a “gay gene(s),” denying its existence in theory will not prevent big biotech firms from providing the means to eliminate it in fact. Therefore, forming an anti-eugenic lobby to advocate for laws that would prevent the misuse of biotech is preferable to treating gay biology as a chimera.
Liberal eugenicists are already arguing for unlimited and unregulated use of reprogenetics. They distinguish it from eugenics in that the latter implies state coercion with the presumption of benefit. The former would be voluntarily pursued by individual parents with the aim of improving their children according to their preferences. This is a form of privatized or free-market eugenics, so there is of course a financial incentive to promote its use.
Liberal eugenics leaves eugenic decisions to the market, driven by parental preferences and consumer demand. This seems to qualify as “liberal” because the state does not impose any single vision of “the good life” upon future generations of individuals subject to it. Rather, it leaves individuals the “moral space” within which to make value judgments for themselves (and for their offspring). Consequently, proponents like Nicholas Agar and Gregory Stock argue that the future direction of human nature will be determined not by a dictator with utopian plans for social engineering, but by parents and what they perceive to be in the best interests of their offspring. Though not a Christian invention, the liberal eugenics movement provides an ideological Trojan horse by means of which Christian (or any) eugenics can get a legitimate foothold in a liberal democracy.
Against this view, it should be noted that allowing a patient’s “disease” status to be defined (and treated without his consent) not only fails to protect the individual from the tyranny of the majority; it legitimizes subjecting individuals to such a tyranny by new, more powerful, and irrevocable means. Unlike the indoctrinated child who can, if given adequate alternatives, rebel against a controlling parent, the genetically modified child would simply not wish to rebel. Medicine will be enlisted to do the work that punishment and moral exhortation did in the past. But providing new, more efficient and permanent ways of expressing the majority’s intolerance for perceived “social ills” is anything but liberal.
Reducing the biological substrate for homosexual attraction (if one exists) will almost certainly reduce homosexual behavior. The purpose of the reprogenetic interventions will be to eliminate individuals’ voluntary homosexuality by eliminating their involuntary biological predisposition for it. This will happen not by taking away the individual’s free will, but by biologically steering the direction in which it is most likely to be expressed. To deny this is to pretend that voluntary sexual acts are unrelated to involuntary sexual attraction.