Quest for a Cause
The Fat Gene, the Gay Gene, and the New Eugenics
Science is a tricky political weapon; at best, it is a double-edged sword.
In the mid-1990s, newspaper headlines trumpeted research advances in discovering both a “gay gene” and a “fat gene.” Now, over ten years later, despite considerable progress in scientific quarters, it is unclear what causes people to be fat or gay, and debates continue to be waged about whether the quest for a cause is even a desirable endeavor. Still, public imagination about the existence of these dictator genes, as prompted by media sources, suggests that the possibility of a genetic “cause” for fatness and homosexuality factors heavily in discourse about public policy, legal protection, civil rights, and social movement rhetoric.
I want to trace the rise of public discourse about the search for the fat gene and the gay gene, and to consider the ways in which these discussions are implicated in a new consumer eugenics movement aimed at abolishing aberrations seemed socially or aesthetically undesirable (but far from life threatening).1 I will analyze the attitudes toward fatness and homosexuality prevalent among early twentieth-century eugenicists (notably Charles Davenport), consider cultural prejudices against homosexuality and fatness/gluttony in the United States, and examine late twentieth-century media discourse about the quest for genetic explanations for fatness and homosexuality in the guise of “cure” rhetoric. This will necessitate an investigation of several issues: How does the potential for prenatal genetic diagnosis of obesity or homosexuality raise the specter of consumer eugenics within our normalizing sociocultural environment? How have concepts of normalcy been deployed to underline the need for a “cure” (or, eventually, prevention) for fatness or gayness? and What is at stake, and who are the winners and losers?
A scientific zealot with plans for a racial purity crusade, zoologist Charles Davenport was the founder of the American eugenics movement around the turn of the