Is gay genetic?


An example of nature/nurture rhetoric in the culture wars.

“Is gay genetic?”

Stupid questions deserve clumsy phrasing, and—prior to the present landslide of pro-gay sentiment in the US that started a couple years ago—this question used to get thrown around in the press all the time. Its subtext is, “Can you blame someone for being queer?” The claim that homosexuality (etc.) is ‘genetically determined’ was used by LGBT activists to say, ‘We can’t change, so you’ll just have to accept us as we are.’ Homophobic conservatives, on the other hand, used phrases like ‘lifestyle choice’ to imply that sodomy is just another form of optional debauchery, like drug abuse or Marxism.

‘Gay genes’ was probably an adept rhetorical move on the part of progressives, but as far as understanding human nature goes, it’s bullshit. The concept of ‘genetic determination’ is built on top of the assumption that either genes or environment determine human behavior, which is like saying that either your legs or the ground is responsible for your ability to walk. But obviously walking requires both legs and ground together, like upper and lower teeth for chewing. One without the other is as useless as nothing at all.

So it is with genes and environment—or, to use the more popular phrase, nature and nurture. Our genes cause us to behave in certain ways within certain environments, and our environment shapes our behavior in particular ways depending on our genes and their physical manifestation. In the words of Stanford resident primate Robert Sapolsky, “It is virtually impossible to understand how biology works outside the context of the environment.”

Given that all human behavior—sexual, gendered, and otherwise—comes from a combination of certain heredity and certain environments, a more sophisticated version of the question might be, “Under what environmental conditions will a certain set of genes cause (or not) queer behaviors?” and, “With which sets of genes will a given environment cause (or not) queer behaviors?” (I’m not even going to try to define “queer behaviors,” but if you do some Googling with Safe Search turned off I’m sure you’ll get a sense of what I mean.)

I suggest that the answers to these questions will be complicated. This is hardly an original idea, but it’s still worth pointing out—if only as a remedy to the simplistic idea that some people are gay and some people are straight. These are useful categories for everyday life, but we shouldn’t forget that they’re oversimplifications. Human beings are limited by their genes and environment—I will never run a three-minute mile, and I will never learn to speak a Bush language (though I could have a as a child)—but not fully determined by them. This applies to sexual and gendered behaviors as much as any other.


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