BSSN column in G-Scene on gay genes


By Kate O’Riordan

Gay genes: from acceptance to anger

In the early 1990s the gay gene caused quite a stir. There was lots of media coverage and Dr Dean Hamer who claimed the discovery became something of a public figure. An enduring question about identity – are we born or made – seemed to be answerable.  T-shirts were printed up in San Francisco and worn in the Castro with the legend ‘thanks for the genes mom!’ However, in the ensuing twenty years a lot has changed.  A more recent engagement with the question of the gay gene by an LGBT community in Newcastle registered much more anger than approval. A closer look at the reception of the gay gene tells us that even in the early 1990s not everyone was happy about the claim.

Biomedical explanations for sexuality and gender identity are reported every few years in scientific journals. Before the gay gene there was the gay brain. The transsexual gene made an appearance in 2008. However, the gay gene studies were never replicated. Replication is necessary in the sciences for an experimental result to be transformed into reliable science. Not only did replication fail to occur but other research found contradictary results. We are no closer to an actual gay gene now than we were before the claim of its discovery in the 1990s.

The first gay gene reporting happened in the context of the Human Genome Project (a15-year big science project that mapped the human genome). It was a really exciting time in genetics and news stories about genes saturated the news during the late 1980s and 1990s. Many of the results that came out of this were both robust and exciting. Not so the gay gene. Although news of this came at the same time as the map it wasn’t actually connected.  It drew on the buzz of gene stories that were in vogue at the time but it wasn’t part of same bigger picture.

Gay gene stories in the UK press in the 1990s were quite critical and well informed. The press had a close relationship with scientists and people in the LGBT community. They had developed a relationship, partly because of working together in relation to the AIDs crisis.  One academic – Professor Jenny Kitzinger – at Cardiff University argues that this explains why gay gene news was so well informed and why the experts cited in stories in the 1990s were not only scientists but also LGBT spokespersons. Science stories usually give prominence to scientific experts so this was quite unusual.

Unfortunately, it seems like things have changed. News stories about sexuality and genetics, and other biomedical stories, are much less critical today.  Journalists writing on these topics seem more likely to accept genetic explanations and are less likely to be informed by LGBT commentary. The gay gene now appears as an origin story, used to give a quick history of research in science stories, but not questioned.  It is unsurprising then that the reception of biomedical sexuality research has shifted from approval to anger. In an area charged with such high stakes we need a return to critical reporting.

The Brighton & Sussex Sexualities Network (BSSN) is an inter-university research network aimed at supporting research and researchers who work on issues of human sexuality within the Universities of Brighton and Sussex and the wider Sussex area. We consist of community members and academics who have an interest in knowing about current sexualities research. We have an organising committee, which is open to all, and which meets about twice a year. A sub-committee organises our annual conference. Anyone can come to these meetings to suggest and organise events.

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