Is there a “gay gene,” and should it change our view of homosexual behavior if there is?
To many people, saying that homosexuals are born that way is as axiomatic as saying the earth revolves around the sun. No rational reason exists to reject this claim. The only hold-outs, it is said, are those who are either ignorant of scientific facts, homophobic, or bigots (read: Christians). But this claim is beset with problems. Before we consider them, let me make a tactical suggestion.
Many Christians get defensive when someone says that homosexuality is inborn. They try to respond with reasons why the claim is false. But that’s a mistake. There’s no need to answer the challenge since the claim is just that—a claim. And a claim without evidence is just an opinion. There’s no reason to think it’s true.
Instead of defending your convictions, make them defend their claim. Since they’re the ones trying to make a point, it’s their job to prove it. Ask, “What evidence do you have that homosexuals are born that way?” Many times they won’t have an answer. They’re repeating what they’ve heard others say, but don’t have evidence to back it up.
Instead, they sometimes punt to experience. They’ll say that homosexuals often report feeling different from their peers at a very early age, suggesting they were born that way. But personal experience is rarely an indicator of scientific truth and can’t count as evidence that homosexuality is biologically determined. So before you discuss the merits of the claim, remember that they shoulder the responsibility of providing evidence for their view.
With that tactic in mind, let’s look at three problems to this claim. The first is the most egregious. A simple scientific fact-check demonstrates that no study has proven that homosexuality is biologically determined.
Decades of research to discover a “gay gene” have come up empty. In fact, it’s uncommon for researchers to think that a gene can determine any behavior. And research that correlates brain anatomy and physiology with homosexual behavior doesn’t prove causation. In other words, even if part of the brain in homosexuals is different from that of heterosexuals, that might suggest that their behavior changes their brain, not necessarily the other way around. This is possible due to neuroplasticity—the lifelong ability of the brain to change in response to the environment, brain injury, behavior, or simply acquiring knowledge. The blind, for example, use their fingers to read braille and consequently have different brain morphology simply because their behavior differs from sighted people.
What’s surprising is that this is acknowledged by pro-gay researchers and organizations. The American Psychological Association (APA), for example, once held the position in 1998 that, “There is considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person’s sexuality.” However, a decade of scientific research debunked this idea and caused the APA to revise their position in 2009: “Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors” [emphasis mine]. A pro-gay group like the APA would revise their statement only if there was overwhelming evidence that necessitated a position change.
A second problem with the claim that homosexuality is biologically determined is that even if true, it wouldn’t prove that the behavior is moral. Consider that researchers have discovered genes they believe contribute to alcoholism, unfaithfulness, and violence. Are we to believe that because there is a genetic contribution to these behaviors (or even if they are genetically determined) that they should be regarded as morally appropriate? Of course not. So, proving homosexual behavior is appropriate by appealing to a genetic determinant is equally spurious.
Indeed, finding a genetic cause to homosexuality worries many gay rights advocates. Why? Because not all genetically induced characteristics are normal or healthy. Abnormalities in an individual’s DNA, whether by mutation or the addition/subtraction of a chromosome, lead to genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome, or cancer. If a genetic origin to homosexuality is discovered, the next obvious question that arises is whether it is abnormal, a mutation, or represents a disease process.
Moreover, if a cause can be identified, then it can also be targeted by genetic therapy or other methods that “cure” the condition. And testing that can detect homosexuality in utero could lead to abortion of “gay fetuses.” As a result, many pro-gay researchers have toned down their attempts to discover a biological cause.
A third problem stems from the mere existence of an “ex-gay” community. If homosexuality is, as many pro-gay advocates state, as inescapable as eye color, then how do they explain former homosexuals? Eye color is genetic, something that one is born with and can’t change. But sexual orientation is fluid, as evidenced by the changed lives of thousands of men and women.
There are women who spend years in long-term, sexually committed relationships with other women and then change and become attracted to males. There are also men who have been sexually attracted to other men since puberty, spend a decade in gay relationships, and then develop attractions to the opposite sex. Many of these people have gone through some form of therapy or counseling, but some spontaneously change without any professional intervention.
The fact that even one person has changed is evidence that homosexuality is not hard-wired. But that there are thousands of individuals who have changed is significant counter-evidence against the born-that-way theory. I know many of them. They can’t all be lying.
It seems the Christian hold-outs were right. Homosexuals are not born that way. But now that we hold this truth with greater conviction, we need to—more than ever—reach out with compassion to the people who were not born that way.