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Nature vs. Nurture: Research & Ideology Clash in Search for Roots of Homosexuality

by Cody Lyon

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 5, 2008

Over the years, there have been countless theories and studies seeking to find some sort of biological or genetic factor that might play a role in determining sexual orientation. Debate over the validity of such studies and how they might impact the gay community in its quest for acceptance and greater equality has gone on for nearly just as long.

Some proponents of this sort of research hope the results reveal a scientifically conclusive genetic component in homosexuality whereby the hope is that social conservatives and other groups, especially those who call sexual orientation a "choice" might temper or silence some of their criticisms.

Dr. Alan Sanders is one of the researchers working on this cutting-edge--and highly controversial--issue. Sanders is looking for gay brothers--the blood kind, not the "girlfriend" kind.

"We've been aiming to get about a thousand pairs of gay brothers," said Dr. Alan Sanders, the lead researcher of an ongoing study at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare Research Institute near Chicago. So far, they've recruited about 700 pairs. Parents as well as heterosexual brothers, with the exception of identical twins, are also being recruited for the study, which expects to release findings at the end of this year.

"We're trying to use genetics as a tool to better understand the development of sexual orientation," said Sanders noting that he and his team of researchers are just as interested in how genetics contribute to someone being straight as well as being gay.

Officially, the mainstream psychological community doesn't "take any sort of stand on those studies," said Clinton Anderson, Director of the American Psychological Association's Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns Office. "That is fundamentally a scientific question. Our concern is that there is no reason for people to be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. We try to bring psychological information to bear in the appropriate context."

For his part, Sanders believes environment, psychology and genetics all work together determine sexual orientation. The current study is building on the work of research scientist Dean Hamer, who, 1993, studied 33 pairs of gay brothers and found a link between the genetic marker Xq28 and homosexuality. Many later found fault with his methodology.

Sanders said that he and his team couldn't quiet replicate what Hammer had found--which he said could be due to a number of factors. He became more curious and realized that in order to reach any sort of valid conclusion, he needed a much larger sample size.

Studies Lead to Greater Acceptance

He and his team obtained a federal grant and began the quest for 1,000 gay brothers, partly on the still-active Sanders does admit that, if his study does indeed offer conclusive scientific evidence that genetics plays a role in determining sexuality, it might impact social attitudes about homosexuality. "There have been polls that show more tolerant attitudes about homosexuality in people who believe there is an early biological or genetic contribution," said Sanders.

A 2000 study led by California State University's C.E. Tygart, "Genetic Causation Attribution and Public Support of Gay Rights," found "The greater degree to which the subjects attributed the causes of homosexuality to genetics, the greater the support for extending gay rights in the areas of legalized domestic partnership and gay marriage."

Still, evolutions that have occurred in society's attitudes about gay people have not necessarily been the result of any mea culpa in science that offered proof that one's gayness is innate. And, even if science did provide a clear DNA trail, would that impact attitudes?

"I suspect it would not take to long for people or groups that are currently hostile towards sexual minorities to find new reasons to be hostile," said Dr. Gregory M. Herek, a psychology professor at the University of California Davis. "People will still either have prejudice towards sexual minorities or not have prejudice towards sexual minorities--and they will find justifications for those attitudes in either direction."

'Birds are not born knowing a particular song, they learn it at a particular age, and once that bird learns that song, it can not learn another.'

Still, some gay activists point to scientific immutability of homosexuality as a means for furthering political and civil progress for members of the gay community. But that raises concern among some experts. "The bottom line is, should the gay rights movement be basing much of its issues of civil rights on science that is simply not there yet," asked Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York City psychiatrist well known for his writings and practice among gay men.

"In the past, the gay rights movement implicitly copied itself on the black civil rights movement and the parallel issue of race," he said. Since the science was never conclusive, social conservatives vigorously advocated that sexual orientation was an individual choice. The result was a growing cottage industry of so called "conversion" or "sexual re-orientation therapy," a practice based on the premise that an individual can choose to be gay or not.

Drescher says that these groups, like Exodus or NARTH use therapeutic approaches that tell a person they are the agent of change. So it's up to the individual. What often happens, however, is that patients simply suppress their sexuality, which can lead to feelings of failure, depression and according to Drescher, suicidal thoughts.

The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality or NARTH states as one of its' position statements that the right to seek therapy to change one's sexual adaptation should be considered self evident and inalienable.

"The truth of the matter is, re-orientation therapy is like any other therapy," said Arthur Goldberg, Executive Secretary at NARTH. "It doesn't focus on one's sexuality per se, it deals with underlying issues, lack of self esteem, self worth, it's very conventional therapy," said Goldberg, adding, once people feel better about themselves, they are better equipped to make the determination into which way they want to go.

Conversion Therapy 'Cures' What, Exactly?

But, Dr. Gregory Herek says the whole problem in conversion therapies is that there is an "it' that no one defines clearly. "What is 'it' that's chosen?" he asks. "Is it the idea of having an attraction, is it the idea of engaging in sexual behaviors or the idea of adopting an identity?"

"Even those people who have gone through successful conversion therapies will often say they still have attractions to people of the same sex, and the only difference is, they don't act on them," said Herek.

He said the consensus among mainstream psychologists is that being gay is simply one way of being sexual and that there is nothing maladjusted about having same sex attractions: "There's no reason to change, it's like asking whether or not we could effectively intervene to make left handed people right handed."

In recent months, the American Psychological Association announced plans to review its 10-year-old policy on counseling gay men and lesbians. Some are hoping the APA strongly denounces these "post-gay" therapies. Current APA policy opposes any counseling that treats homosexuality as a mental illness but does not explicitly denounce reparative therapy.

Among the Task Force panel, were psychologists and one psychiatrist, Drescher. "Those on the panel are imminently qualified to provide APA with a review o scientific literature and recommendations," said Anderson.

NARTH's Goldberg counters that the panel was stacked with what it called gay activists. "Gay activist simply means being active in the gay world or actively advocating gay posture," he said. NARTH protested the fact that no members or supporters of reparative therapy were on the task force and worries that the APA will come to a pre-determined vote.

"If someone is unhappy with his or her sexual orientation, be it religious, cultural, secular or whatever, they have a right to go and seek assistance for it," Goldberg maintained. Goldberg is quick to point out that NARTH is secular but admitted it does assist religious based conversion groups. "Even if a genetic component was found, it doesn't invalidate the fact that people who want to change, who are motivated to change, would be able to change," he added.

While there's no solid proof anyone is born with their sexual orientation, it's not easy to change--if at all, according to Drescher. "One of the best examples is how birds learn their songs," he said. "Birds are not born knowing a particular song, they learn it at a particular age, and once that bird learns that song, it can not learn another."

Meanwhile, back in the trenches in Chicago, Dr. Alan Sanders says his research would appear to fly in the face of those who say that sexual orientation is a choice. "When you have more evidence being built up that at least part, or a sizeable part of the picture are early pre natal aspects, like genetics, that tends to undermine the idea that sexual orientation is a choice," he said. "Over time, the arguments of conversion therapy advocates will probably evolve, where they will say, perhaps sexual orientation is not so much a choice, but sexual behavior is, and its what you do with it."

Cody Lyon is a New York freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of national daily newspapers and New York weeklies. Lyon also writes a political opinion blog at