Angier, Natalie. "Study of Sex Orientation Doesn't Neatly Fit Mold," New York Times, 18 July

 

Angier, Natalie. "Study of Sex Orientation Doesn't Neatly Fit Mold," New York Times, 18 July
1993, p. 24.

In the sharp debate over the significance of recent work suggesting a biological basis for sexual
orientation, all sides are struggling to reconcile the new findings with the political aims and
personal convictions.

A report this week linking male homosexuality to a region of the X chromosome has reignited
the question of how much a person's sexual predilections are inborn and how much a result of
choice made, consciously or otherwise, from early childhood onward. And though the work
remains to be validate by other researchers and almost surely does not apply to all homosexual
men, leaders of gay groups, scientists and policy makers are already tussling over its potential
impact on the quest for gay rights.

On the face of it, the new research would seem to be a windfall for the gay rights movement,
offering a scientific rationale for what many homosexual always believed: that their sexuality is a
profound and unchangeable part of themselves. As such the work seems to reinforce the
argument that sexual orientation is worthy of all legal protection accorded other minorities. Thus
liberals, who in the past dismissed a genetic explanation for behavior traits like intelligence, find
themselves embracing the idea that sexual orientation is innate.

But some gay-rights leaders view the latest findings as simple-minded and potentially dangerous.
Worried that the new emphasis on the biological origins of homosexuality stems in part from the
desire to find some medical means of fixing it, they also doubt that biology alone can explain the
complexity of homosexuality or that discrimination can be ended with a simple wave of a
laboratory test tube.

"The easy political distinctions break down with this issue," said Dr. Tamar D. Gershon, director
of the Rainbow clinic, a pediatric clinic for the children of gay and lesbian parents at the
University of California at San Francisco. "It's considered politically incorrect now to talk about
sexual preference. You're supposed to talk about sexual orientation, because that sounds more
biological." But for many people, herself included, "genetics alone is not a satisfactory
explanation. Homosexuality is a large, many-factors thing with social, political and
environmental roots."

The new report, from the laboratory of Dr. Dean H. Hamer at the National Cancer Institute in
Bethesda, Md., is the latest in a string of studies claiming to detect a biological basis for sexual
orientation, from anatomical research claiming to see differences between the brains of
homosexual and heterosexual men, to studies of lesbian and gay male twins. The Hamer study is
considered by many scientists to be the most rigorous to date.

In the study reported in the journal Science on Friday, the researchers found that 33 of 40 pairs of
homosexual brothers had identical regions on a tip of the X chromosome, suggesting one or more
genes in that chromosomal neighborhood may have helped cause the men's homosexuality. But
other genes, as well as environmental influences, almost surely help sculpt a person's sexual
nature, Dr. Hamer said.

Of immediate concern to many homosexuals is whether the new research will help in their efforts
to block anti gay-rights ordinances under consideration in some states, and to promote the
passage of anti-discrimination laws in others.

Gregory J. King, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the largest national
lobbying group for gay and lesbian rights, noted the potential benefits of a biological explanation.
"We know from polls that when people understand that sexual orientation is not chosen, they are
more inclined to support basic civil rights for lesbian and gay people," he said.

Richard Green, a doctor and a lawyer at the University of California in Los Angeles and author of
"Sexual Science and the Law" (Harvard University Press, 1993), said the new biological work
could well result in overturning laws that discriminate against homosexuals.

"There is something the courts call immutability, when a thing is unchangeable," he said. "The
classic example of that is race." If homosexuality could be deemed as unchangeable as race, he
said, then laws that discriminated against homosexuals would have to serve some extraordinarily
compelling state interest to remain in place.

"If sexual orientation were demonstrated to be essentially inborn," he said, "most laws that
discriminate against gays and lesbians, including sodomy laws, housing and employment
discriminations laws, all would fall."

But other activists point out that the new scientific research is equivocal and sometimes sloppily
done, and they said such an approach to understanding human sexuality is likely to remain
inconclusive for a long time.

"This sort of work should not affect civil rights and the protections that are available to gays,"
said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in
New York, a gay-rights group. "What concerns me is that if we put too much emphasis on the
biological explanation, we end up in courts with dueling scientific experts."

Mr. Cathcart also criticized the notion that people are more accepting of homosexuals if they
think it all boils down to differences in DNA. "Bigotry does not respond well to facts," he said.
"Race and gender are clearly biological determined, and yet that hasn't eliminated racism and
misogyny."

Groups trying to pass anti-homosexual ordinances said that while they believed homosexuality to
be largely a matter of choice - and a choice they found repellant - they would not be placated by a
biological explanation.

"If it's discovered that one person has a set of urges to a greater degree than another in a specific
area of behavior, that does not mean the person has to yield to that behavior," said Lon T.
Mabon, chairman of the Oregon Citizens Alliance in Wilsonville. "Some people have said
there's a genetic link to alcoholism, but that does not excuse the drunk." Mr. Mabon's group is
trying to pass ordinances in Oregon that would forbid the state from doing anything that could be
construed as expressing approval of homosexuality.

Nor would homosexuals in the military necessarily benefit from a persuasivegenetic rationale for
their behavior.

The biological work "is not relevant to the issue," said Scott Williams, press secretary for
Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, who opposes allowing homosexuals in the military to
state their sexual orientation openly. "Different scientists may say different things, but the
question is, does open homosexuality have a negative impact on the cohesion of our fighting
forces? Based on our analyses, it would have a detrimental effect."

Some prominent homosexuals find the emphasis on the biology of homosexuality to be irritating
and beside the point. Why not talk about where heterosexuality comes from? they ask.

"As long as there are homophobes, and gays who need an excuse, we're going to be bothered
with this sort of absurdity," said Darrell Yates Rist, a co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Against
Defamation.

Dr. John DeCecco, a professor of psychology and human sexuality at San Francisco State
University and the editor of the journal Homosexuality, condemned the latest study for its
constricted view of what homosexuality is and its disregard for how homosexuality has been
viewed across cultures and throughout history.

Hamer chooses as his subjects, as most of these studies do, people who have adopted the notion
of a gay identity, which is a political idea that has risen to ascendancy at the end of the 20th
century." he said. "But homosexuality has had some many different meanings over the years."

Many leaders of gay groups raised the specter of biological intervention, an effort to correct
homosexuality as one might a genetic disease, or to detect a homosexual trait in time for a fetus
to be aborted.

"As an historian, I know that whenever the cause of homosexuality has been questioned, a cure is
looked for," said Lillian Faderman of California State University in Fresno, author of "Odd Girls
and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America (Columbia
University Press, 1992).