Gay for the Thrill of It

By Gallagher, John | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), February 17, 1998 | Go to article overview

Gay for the Thrill of It


Gallagher, John, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Lesbianism is more the result of nurture than nature, and lesbian mothers

are far likelier to have lesbian daughters than are straight mothers. Gay

men are "hardwired" in their sexual orientation, while lesbians are not.

And, for the record, there is no gay gene.

According to Dean Hamer, chief of gene structure and regulation at the

Laboratory of Biochemistry at the National Cancer Institute, these

statements are more than just sound bites for journalists, gay activists,

and members of the religious right to speculate upon. They are rooted in

our most fundamental biological makeup. "Just about every aspect of

what we do is affected by genes," says Hamer. "Other factors are

important, but genes do play an important role too."

Hamer lays out his thesis in his new book, Living With Our Genes:

Why They Matter More Than You Think. In everything we do, from the

frequency of sexual activity to anger, aging, and addiction, Hamer writes,

genes are increasingly shown to have a crucial impact. "The real

breakthroughs in understanding personality are not occurring on leather

couches but in laboratories," Hamer

and coauthor Peter Copeland argue in the

book. "Understanding the genetic roots of

personality will help you `find yourself' and

relate better to others. The knowledge can

help you in relationships and at work."

"What he's saying is that there's a bunch

of genes that are not specifically sexual in

their task, but they produce personality

traits that influence our whole selves," says

Simon LeVay, whose 1991 study of the

hypothalamus found differences between

those of gay men and straight men; his

study was considered a landmark in the

quest for a biological connection to sexual

orientation. "That our sexuality is a kind of

mosaic of characteristics, some of which

are specifically sexual and some of which

are chips off a larger block, is very

believable. It's how we intuitively think

about human beings."

Other scientists are

unconvinced. "There is not a

very good self-critical

assessment when people say

there is a gene for this or that,"

says Anne Fausto-Sterling, a professor

of medical science at Brown

University. "If you take a

complicated human behavior

like shyness, which is

modulated over a lifetime, the

gap between the behavior and

that protein is enormous."

In his book Hamer traces the connection

between several larger traits that he links to

genes, such as thrill seeking and anxiety,

and specific sexual behaviors. For example,

straight men who have a genetic tendency

for novelty seeking are far more likely to

sleep with another man than those lacking

the gene, while gay men with the same

marker are far more likely to have slept

with a woman. Men of either orientation

who have the marker for low anxiety--Hamer

calls it genetic Prozac--are likely to

have sex less frequently than those with a

marker for high anxiety.

"When your boyfriend or girlfriend says,

`Not tonight--I have a headache,' it may be

a genetic thing," Hamer told The

Advocate. "Or maybe you said the wrong

thing that morning. Genes certainly don't

dictate. There is no gene that says you have

to have sex twice a

week." There is also, says Hamer, "not a

single, all-powerful 'gay gene.'" Instead, he

says, a variety of genetic markers conspire

in a complex manner to shape a person's

tendency to be gay or straight.

Richard Pillard, a professor of psychiatry

at the Boston University School of

Medicine, believes that the evidence favors

a genetic explanation for traits, particularly

sexual orientation. …

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