The Search for Gay Genes: Should Queer People Support It?

Efforts from scientists trying to identify “gay genes” are part of a longstanding, problematic tradition of research focused on how minority groups are genetically different.

A celebration in San Francisco after the Supreme Court decided same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits in June 2013. (David Goehring / Flickr)

To many of us, the attractions of gay sex are pretty obvious. But some scientists continue to wonder why people do it. If gay sex isn’t reproductive, why hasn’t natural selection weeded out all the queers? Why, after all this evolutionary time, isn’t everybody straight?

Increasingly, people think that sexuality is biologically innate. Sexual preferences shouldn’t be changed and they can’t be, simple as that. Per the famous Gaga refrain, we are “born this way.” Indeed, scientists may have helped to promote these beliefs. Some say not only that genes largely decide your sexuality, but also that genes help to explain why gay people exist at all. 

Case in point: A recent paper published in Nature Human Behavior looked to see whether genes associated with having gay sex are also associated with having more reproductive sex. Specifically, its scientists were curious whether ‘gay genes’ in straight people could help straight people to have sex with more partners. They found that they do, as the genetic markers found in gay people were also found in those who see themselves as open to new experiences and risk-takers. In a nutshell, gay genes may exist because they help straight people get over their inhibitions and get laid more. This might explain why evolution hasn’t gotten round to pruning away the gays yet.

At this point, you might be laughing like us. But on a serious note, this study isn’t a one-off for this research team. In 2019, the same team published a study in Science about genes associated with ever having had gay sex. The study was highly publicized, receiving coverage from Nature, NYTimes, NPR and Slate. Outlets, quoting the study’s authors, proclaimed it to sound the death knell of the ‘gay gene.’

Far from doing that, the study shifted from searching for a single gay gene to looking for many gay genes. Like the recent Nature Human Behavior study, the 2019 Science study was a ‘genome-wide association study’ (GWAS). Using fancy statistics, the latest technologies, and a massive data set involving half a million people, the 2019 study concluded that there are five genes significantly associated with ever having had gay sex, and that the cumulative effects of thousands of genes might help to explain differences in sexual behavior. In other words, while the ‘gay gene’ might be dead, long live the ‘gay genome.’

Genetic research on sexuality and other complex behavior traits is growing fast. Some LGBTQ+ advocates claim it shows that being gay is “natural” and “not a choice,” and that the proliferation of sexual genetic research is something to straightforwardly celebrate.

However, we think the implications of this research are far more complicated. While both the Nature Human Behavior and Science studies were conducted by LGBTQ+ scientists with good intentions, they join a longstanding and problematic tradition of research focused on showing how minority groups are genetically different.

Genetic research on homosexuality began in earnest in the 1990s. Scientists claimed that genes on the X chromosomes are associated with male homosexuality. Long before then, ‘eugenics,’ or social movements to control human reproduction in order to increase the “fitness” of national populations, played a role in the oppression of gay people. Eugenics research reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the forced sterilization and genocide of not only queer people, but also Jewish and disabled peoples in Nazi Germany, and largely Black, brown and immigrant peoples in the U.S. Even after the second world war, eugenic policies and movements continued to haunt LGBTQ+ communities. 

Today, most research agrees that a person’s sexuality is formed through a combination of social, biological and environmental factors. Yet many across the political spectrum continue to describe sexual preferences as biologically innate and fixed at birth. Some researchers suggest that those who believe sexual preferences are inborn tend to have more tolerant attitudes towards gay men and lesbians.

Others argue that “born this way” doesn’t actually increase people’s tolerance of sexual minorities. Instead, it is used to rationalize whatever beliefs people already have about sexuality, whether conservative or liberal. On one hand, it has helped to defend beliefs that queer people are less biologically fit, and therefore appropriate targets for reproductive control. On the other hand, “born this way” arguments have lent considerable support to LGBTQ+ advocacy. Campaigns to legally ban conversion therapy, a form of medical abuse that seeks to change someone’s sexual orientation, have successfully used “born this way” rhetoric to strengthen their cases.

In any event, increasing ‘tolerance’ towards queer people isn’t the goal. Instead of being tolerated, queer people should be fully accepted, embraced and celebrated. Feminist scholar Suzanna Walters reminds us that attitudes of tolerance towards sexual minorities may do more harm than good by implicitly othering them. It is telling that while there has long been a search for a gay gene, “no one is looking for a straight gene.” Scientists feel no need to explain the existence of straight people because it is assumed that straight people belong. By contrast, sexual minorities need an evolutionary rationale in order to belong.

Political scientist Joanna Wuest also notes that despite helping to ban conversion therapy, “born this way” arguments sometimes conflict with queer people’s own experiences. Many radical queers consider their sexual identity to be a choice entwined with their politics. Meanwhile, those with fluid identities and those who’ve questioned their sexuality for a long time have a hard time identifying with a picture of sexuality as stable, fixed, and innate. As political scientist Nina Hagel writes, “born this way” may uphold “untenable ideals of self-knowledge.” It may force people to get trapped on a side or pick a side before they are ready to.

Scientists feel no need to explain the existence of straight people because it is assumed that straight people belong. By contrast, sexual minorities need an evolutionary rationale in order to belong.

Soon after the publication of the 2019 Science study, an app claiming to be based on the study was developed that offered a “How Gay Are You?” genetic test through the online genetic prediction platform GenePlaza. We already see technology being developed that allows parents to pick embryos based on the embryos’ genomes and associated health risks. It is therefore not a far stretch of the imagination to also worry that genetic research on sexuality could eventually be used to develop tools to screen for and eliminate ‘gay embryos.’ 

We’re not saying that scientists should avoid researching sexuality. Many of us are understandably curious about where our desires come from, and science can help us to better understand each other as long as their research meets high standards. We are saying there’s no guarantee that today’s search for a gay genome will support queer liberation. Believing sexuality to be biologically innate might lead some to see LGBTQ+ people as biologically unfit. It’s difficult to know, as the political consequences of science are often complexly dependent on historical context. But for every person who uses “born this way” to win legal battles for gay rights, we know there is someone else who uses it to paint gay people as bad seeds of the human race.

Queer people should not uncritically celebrate research that gives new life to “born this way” arguments. Genetic research on sexuality is still in progress (and at this stage, a little laughable). Regardless, even if there is strong evidence we have yet to see, the idea that being gay is natural doesn’t guarantee the procurement of gay rights. It’s high time we moved the fight for LGBTQ+ recognition and survival away from the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate and into new directions. Millennials may have worshipped Lady Gaga, but many of us are ready to chant a new slogan.

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About and

Helen Zhao is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Columbia University. Her dissertation is on feminist values in science and she is a member of the Harvard GenderSci Lab.
Meg Perret is a PhD candidate in History of Science and Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies at Harvard University. She is an activist with the intersectional climate justice organization Our Climate Voices and a researcher with the interdisciplinary feminist laboratory, Harvard GenderSci Lab.