Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1997

Udo Schüklenk sets out the case against etiological research on sexual orientation.

Science, ‘Gay Genes’, and the ‘Third Sex’

by Udo Schüklenk

A lot of talk is going on currently about the search for the ‘gay gene’. Most recently Simon LeVay published his book Queer Science in which he again makes the case for etiologic sexual orientation research. The Guardian considered it a good idea to invite LeVay, who is himself a scientist, to argue his ethical case for sexual orientation research, even though LeVay has no competence in this area whatsoever.

In this short article, I shall not debate the methodological merits of the approach of either LeVay or Dean Hamer, co-author of The Science of Desire (1994). I have argued in some detail in the literature mentioned at the end of this article that there is no evidence yet for a biological causation of homosexuality. Indeed, we don’t know whether sexual orientation is biological in the first place.

The ethical case against etiologic sexual orientation research is to some degree a historical one. As yet, there hasn’t been one instance in history where the results of etiologic sexual orientation research have not been used against gay people. On the contrary, virtually every ‘cause’ of homosexuality has been accompanied by attempts to ‘heal’ gay people. Electroshock treatment, hormone therapies, genital mutilation and brain surgery were amongst the consequences of etiological sexual orientation research. It is not a coincidence that in Germany, the country where ‘homosexuality’ as a category distinct from ‘heterosexuality’ was invented at the end of the last century, and where it was constructed as a psychiatric illness shortly after its invention, the main professional sex research societies have asked for a moratorium on etiologic sexual orientation research. The abuse of the research results that was a consequence of this research was most blatant in Germany. Proponents of this research often confuse etiologic with other sexual orientation research. For instance research which was credited to some degree for the depathologisation of homosexuality by American psychiatry was not etiologic research at all, yet it is often used as a justification for etiologic research.

The ethical case against etiological sexual orientation research rests also on the fact that proponents of such research seem to be confused about the ethical relevance of empirical data for the issue of gay rights. They believe that homosexuality cannot be denounced any longer as ‘unnatural’, or ‘abnormal’. This is nonsense. The truth is that in order to declare homosexuality ‘unnatural’ one needs a normative, prescriptive concept of nature, rather than one informed by scientific, descriptive concepts. Hence, empirical data will not suffice to reject arguments of the ‘unnatural’ or ‘abnormal’, because these arguments rest on normative (natural law) premises that cannot be falsified by genetics or other scientific research. All sorts of things, for instance, are abnormal in a statistical sense. Millionaires are abnormal in a statistical sense, yet nobody claims that it is inherently bad (immoral) to be a millionaire. These are just two of the reasons why debates with devoted Christians about the morality of homosexuality are destined to lead nowhere. The political battle is ultimately not about the ‘natural’ or the ‘normal’ but about equal rights. A genetic cause is not going to make any difference to that. After all, homosexuality could be caused by societal factors, and could still well be not chosen and at the same time irreversible. The bottom line for the political debate is therefore not whether there is a genetic cause, but rather why should the cause matter. The argument that homosexual people have not chosen to be homosexuals accepts by implication that there would be something wrong with such a choice, hence the preoccupation with trying to find a genetic cause that results in us being gay and others being heterosexuals, and others being something else. The genetic cause is essentially the apology ‘gay gene’ researchers offer for being what we are. This is clearly deeply insulting, and politically counter-productive.

That a genetic cause is not going to demonstrate that homosexuality is a healthy lifestyle becomes clear when one bothers to do a quick review of the medical literature outside Western countries. For instance, a paper published in 1995 in a Singaporean medical journal discusses the question of whether we should use a genetic screening device for homosexuality in the ‘absence of treatment’. It is highly irresponsible that Western researchers, trying to further a political agenda on their own home ground, produce research results that are likely to be used against homosexual people in other cultures. Any ethical evaluation of such research has to take into account its implications in places other than the USA or the UK, for instance.

Dean Hamer and others have suggested patenting a possible genetic test and preventing its use subsequently. German legal scholars have expressed doubts as to whether this is possible. Hamer’s views are utterly naive for another reason, too. He assumes that the use of a potential pre-natal screening device for homosexuality could be regulated by legislators. If this were the case, the female feticide that is currently occurring on a large scale in the People’s Republic of China and in India would not take place, because the use of sex selection techniques is illegal in these countries. We have no reason to assume that a homophobic society would ultimately be prevented from using such devices because of legislation designed to prevent them from using it. Indeed, why should we assume that legislators in homophobic societies would regulate the use of such devices in the first place?

Two papers of mine discussing these issues in greater depth are Schüklenk, U & M Ristow: The Ethics of Research Into the Causes of Homosexuality in Journal of Homosexuality 1996; 31(3): 5-30, and Schüklenk, U, Stein E, Kerin J & W Byne: The Ethics of Genetic Research on Sexual Orientation; forthcoming in Hastings Center Report.

A complete literature list with analyses I have published or that are forthcoming can be accessed on my website.

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