Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Are We an Endangered Species?

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Are We an Endangered Species?

Article excerpt

Scientists are almost certain genetics plays a n,4 or role in homosexuality. One day soon it may be possible to determine or even alter sexual orientation in the womb

In Simon LeVay's new novel, Albrick's Gold, Dr. Guy Albrick performs cruel genetic experiments on gay students at a right-wing religious college. Dr. Roger Cavendish, a gay scientist, tries to stop him. In this biotech thriller, LeVay, best known for his controversial research regarding the differences in brain structure between homosexuals and heterosexuals, examines what could happen if such science is used for evil. Thrillers play off the fears of the reader, and LeVay's book, being marketed to gays and lesbians, is no exception.

The fear is not unfounded. Just look at some recent events: In February a mini-uproar in Britain resulted when The Sunday Telegraph quoted scientist James Watson as saying, "If you could find the gene which determines sexuality and a woman decides she doesn't want a homosexual child, well, let her." Watson, who shares a Nobel prize for helping to discover the structure of DNA, has claimed he was misquoted. Journalist Chandler Burr wrought a bit of controversy himself by writing in the December 16 issue of the conservative Weekly Standard that in the not-so-distant future, gene therapy might "cure" people of their homosexuality. And in the Broadway play and Showtime cable network film The Twilight of the Golds, a woman discovers through genetic testing that the baby she is carrying will most likely be gay. In the play she aborts the baby and ends up barren. In the movie she keeps the baby but loses her husband.

Of course, nothing has really happened yet. The ramifications of such a scientific breakthrough are all conjectural because there hasn't been any major scientific breakthrough. So is all this fuss justified? It depends on whom you ask.

According to Dean Hamer of the National Cancer Institute, a genetic test for homosexuality is not only unlikely to be developed anytime soon but also unlikely to even work. "I don't think there's ever going to be an accurate test for homosexuality," he says. And he should know. In his groundbreaking 1993 study of 40 pairs of gay brothers, Hamer located the area on the X chromosome where a gene linked to homosexuality most likely resides--an area where 33 of the pairs shared genetic material. While most scientists agree that there's a genetic component to the causation of homosexuality, it's unlikely that genetics alone are entirely responsible. In an earlier study of identical twin brothers of gay men, researchers Richard Pillard of Boston University and Michael Bailey of Northwestern University discovered that only 52% of the twins were gay as well. The so-called gay gene would hint of a propensity for homosexuality, but it wouldn't definitively signal it. In fact, researchers don't really know what causes a child with such a gene to become homosexual. "An honest doctor could never say that he knew for sure" a child would be gay, Hamer says. "If he did, it would be malpractice."

But that doesn't mean a test won't--or can't--be developed. LeVay believes that "a test is very possible, perhaps in the category of `likely,' especially for men." (In women, researchers have not yet been able to see a genetic link to homosexuality.) Burr, author of A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation, is adamant that once the gene for homosexuality is documented, "there will undoubtedly be almost immediately a fetal test for determining whether a child is going to be gay."

What would be the response to such a test? If someone does manage to develop at least a partially accurate analysis, the medical establishment would I be presented with an ethical quandary. Is homosexuality a medically neutral trait and therefore to be left alone? Or is it a genetic disease that should be cured, as antigay crusader the Rev. Lou Sheldon has remarked during discourses on the prospect of homosexuality's being biologically determined? …

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