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How ‘gay gene’ science could change our world

GSN speaks exclusively to two global leaders in understanding what makes us lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight – Simon Le Vay and Qazi Rahman – and discovers how their work may have much wider benefits
Research into what makes us lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight may have far wider benefits.
Image by Scott Nunn.

Scientists now know people are ‘born’ lesbian, gay, bisexual or straight. Job done. But behind this simple fact is far more complicated science, which could have far-reaching benefits for us all.

While pioneers have placed beyond doubt that we are ‘born gay’ they still don’t know why. This research has already changed society’s attitudes and, in the future, could help cure mental health problems.

GSN spoke to Dr Qazi Rahman, a psychologist at King’s College London, who is one of the global leaders in this field.

‘Sexual orientation really isn’t chosen. We need to almost stop having the discussion,’ he says.

‘It’s a bit like talking about whether gravity exists? It does! We don’t need to talk about it anymore, but the implications we do need to talk about.’

The reasons behind wanting a biological explanation of sexuality are clear according to Dr Simon Le Vay, the world's most famous pioneer of this research.

He told Gay Star News: ‘No one cause is intrinsically more desirable than any other cause: logically, it shouldn't affect how people value homosexuality. However, in the real world, people do take causation into account when judging traits.

‘For example, if homosexuality were shown to be caused by something bad, such as sexual molestation during childhood, that might well lead people to conclude that homosexuality itself is a bad thing.

‘And in past times, when homosexuality was broadly condemned, a biological explanation could be seized on to argue "it's not our fault" we're gay, or that our children are gay.’

The benefits of such research are also clear, Rahman believes.

He argues if we understand our sexuality is a biological fact, it makes it easier to accept it – even when society is against us – reducing psychological distress.

But Rahman notes this view is largely limited to western nations, and does not always help: ‘There are also places and people and countries on Earth where people have accepted homosexuality is biological, but it’s still a problem; it’s a disease.

‘My attempts around acceptance are less powerful there than in a western context.’

In the west, Rahman says the research done already has helped change people’s lives – making it easier to argue for LGBT rights, including same-sex marriage. If people are born gay, it’s hard to deny them the right to live equally.

But far more benefits could follow.

‘There is definitely an argument to be made that biological research, and even more broadly understanding the origins and development of our gender and sexual identities, is intrinsically important for not just social rights, which in part is done, but also for issues around reducing psychological distress and improving the wellbeing of LGBT people,’ he tells us.

In other words, if we understand why people are gay, we know more about what makes their brains tick – and that could help us tackle issues like depression and suicide, which are far more common among gay people than straight.

Rahman is quick to admit further research into the causes of homosexuality naturally comes with the risk of abuse.

But he argues ‘outdated social theories’ about sexuality are currently causing far more damage.

Both could be used for misguided and dangerous ‘gay cures’ but at the moment it’s the social sciences that are being misapplied in this way.

Rahman says: ‘People who base their theories on social aspects of sex orientation, outdated theories, are actually doing much more damage as we speak than anyone working on the biology of sex orientation, probably because the biology is so complicated.’

Le Vay agrees there is a risk, but feels the risk is not limited to sexuality, but many traits such as gender.

‘Yes there is some risk of this. I should say though this is a general issue facing humanity: what to do with the increasing power we are gaining over our own biological nature and that of our children.

‘I think it's important to work toward creating a world in which gay people are not just tolerated but positively welcomed into society, such that parents will feel blessed to have a gay child.

‘That sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, perhaps, but when I consider the enormous and rapid changes in attitudes towards homosexuality over my lifetime I am encouraged to think that it will happen.

‘If anything, I think the biological evidence is helping this process. Unfortunately, some countries and cultures lag way behind, and it is in those cultures where such misuse of the biology is the biggest risk, not in the UK or US.

‘In India and China, boys are greatly preferred for several reasons, and technology has led to a marked skewing of the sex ratio toward males, but in the West the women's movement and other factors have led to a great increase in girls' perceived value, so there is no large-scale skewing of children's sex ratio toward males, even though the technology is there to do it. I foresee a similar evolution with regard to gay children.’

So is research money in this field money well spent? Could it be better used elsewhere on LGBT causes?

Rahman replies: ‘Firstly, there is no money for the biological research on sexual orientation. It’s impossible to get funding in this area.

‘So this is why the research is still relevant, it’s still in its infancy. We know some of the basic assumptions have come out as more or less correct, like sexual orientation is a relatively innate trait, and by that I mean something very specific: development independent of social influences.

‘But even in well-funded countries like the US, there’s still only a handful of researchers who’ve managed to get publicly funded money.

‘And I think it’s really worth reinforcing that: there is no publicly funded money for sexual orientation research, per se, most research has been done off people’s own backs; for example scientists working over the weekend with their research programs based in other areas.

‘We need more funding. There is equally almost no funding for LGBT health research.’

He argues an understanding of the fundamental biology of sexual and gender identity is necessary to treat ill LGBT people effectively.

‘If we don’t understand the basic biology, it’s like hitting cancer with crystals,’ he says.

‘So I’d take your point and magnify it tenfold and if the government funding bodies are listening, or any wealthy gay men and lesbian women are listening or philanthropists are listening: we need the money to do this research.

‘We need the money to understand both the biological and the psychological mechanisms for example that influence distress in LGBT divisions.

'For example we have now lots of research suggesting gay men and lesbian women tend to be more like the opposite sex in terms of behavior; gay men tend to be more female in their psychology and lesbian women more masculine. It’s what we call a sex shift.’

Research into the psychology of homosexual men and women may also shine light on why women develop depression at many times the rate of men. With LGBT people suffering far higher rates of mental illness, this could make a big difference.

‘We need more money to do this research,’ Rahman says.

‘I’m just hoping Elton John or Stephen Fry will ring me up one day and give me lots of money because it’s the only way we’re going to get funding.’

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