How Science Tried, and Failed, to Find a “Gay Gene”

With the celebration of pride month in June, science is confronted with the hard reality of historic crimes against the LGBTQ + community on an annual basis.

From inhumane treatment (among the worst examples include the actions of Nazi scientists during World War II) to retracted experiments due to falsified data, a number of instances of abhorrent experimentation against the LGBTQ + community have taken place throughout time in the name of science. However, all such instances share one common thread: they stemed from obvious biases that drove researchers to make very inaccurate conclusions about the nature of homosexuality.

Background: Risk of Bias

Like many other minorities, the LGBTQ + community has been subjected to biases that have driven various scientific studies, some of which resulted in inaccurate information regarding homosexuality. In many of these studies, researchers tried to find evidence for a hypothetical “gay gene,” a genetic component that could be linked to an individual’s sexual orientation.

Today, science recognizes that this approach is steeped in obvious bias, as it frames homosexuality similar to other studies looking at genetic causes for a disease. Even in searching for a “gay gene,” these studies imply that such a gene could be selected against in the genetic editing process, thus “curing” the individual of homosexuality. This ultimately frames homosexuality in a negative light, causing researchers to view it as a negative before an experiment may even begin. Additionally, when scientists have equated homosexuality with disease, another result is that they have created studies based on a false premise. In some cases, it has also resulted in the publication of studies that were completely falsified.

Analysis: Fake Facts and Gay Genes

In 2015, a study published in the journal Science that focused on same-sex marriage suggested that people had a more positive attitude toward same-sex marriage when having a face-to-face conversation with a gay canvasser than with a straight one. Unfortunately, the results of the study were found to be falsifiedas other experiments tried to replicate the results with little success.

Part of the falsification came from a lack of follow-up with the study’s participants through various surveys. Science retracted the publication five months after it was published. Before it was retracted, the study made headlines in major media outlets, just in time for the US to legalize gay marriage.

The retracted study reveals the clear lack of dedication by the researchers, one of whom later admitted, “There was an experiment, but the outcomes were never measured.” Whether this lack of dedication was driven by a bias against the LBGTQ + community is unknown, although the paper’s publication and swift retraction offered little recompense for the potential damages incurred.

Going further back to 1993, researchers once again believed that they had found a “gay gene” on the X-chromosome, looking at a set of identical twins, one of whom was gay, and one that was not. Much later, in 2019 Nature paper revealed that scientists now conclude that there is no “gay gene.” After looking at more than half a million genomes to find five genetic markers linked to sexual behavior, none were found to be a key influencer in determining sexual orientation. Despite its rejection of false information from past studies, even the 2019 study still to some degree perpetuates a particular bias of framing homosexuality as a problem.

Outlook: Science Still Has a Long Way to Go

While these retracted papers and contradictory studies only muddy the waters around the science behind homosexuality, they do bring into focus the necessity for a more rigorous exploration by researchers into this field. Although science has made significant progress towards becoming more sensitive and cautious with subjects like this, the long-present biases that have overshadowed studies of homosexuality still linger, and must be overcome in order to produce accurate and meaningful scientific results.

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As scientists continue to study homosexuality, one can hope that the research community will maintain a mindfulness for the historical context of their work, and an awareness of the biased attitudes that only stunted progress in the past.

Kenna Hughes-Castleberry is a staff writer at the Debrief and the Science Communicator at JILA (a partnership between the University of Colorado Boulder and NIST). She focuses on deep tech, the metaverse, and quantum technology. You can find more of her work at her website: https://kennacastleberry.com/

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