genes and sexuality

There’s a story at the NYT about how scientists have isolated a particular gene that affects sexual orientation without affecting the anatomy:

“We have shown that a single gene in the fruit fly is sufficient to determine all aspects of the flies’ sexual orientation and behavior,” said the paper’s lead author, Dr. Barry Dickson, senior scientist at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. “It’s very surprising.

I think this is fascinating, but a potentially dangerous bit of information:

In the war over the acceptance of homosexuality, many religious conservatives have adopted the angle that homosexuality is a sin and furthermore, a choice and therefore people making that choice should be prepared to accept the consequences (discrimination) of their sinful ways. To rebuff this rather ludicrous claim, homosexual rights advocates are quick to defend the stance that their sexual orientation is no more a choice than the color of their hair. News like this about the fruit flies is a welcome bolster to this line of view, because it reinforces the idea that sexual orientation is not chosen, but predetermined. This is an appealing strategy, but unfortunately it’s very simplistic and just as dangerous. I see it being made more and more often, and it concerns me.

It goes without saying that human beings are not fruit flies. We are vastly more complicated social beings, and thus the determinants of sexual preference in human beings are likely multi-causal, owing to both genetic factors and social structural forces. To attempt to write off “deviant” sexual orientation as a genetic aberration is just as silly as claiming that it’s always a willful choice. It discounts the possibility that people may develop an alternate sexual preference for a variety of reasons. Maybe they have always just preferred the same sex. Maybe their assigned gender role didn’t quite fit with their personality or physique. Maybe they really did just get tired of the opposite sex and made a choice. Maybe they stand to profit by the shock value of lesbian chic. But, who cares?

While there’s nothing wrong with exploring all of these various paths, including the genetic angle, from a scientific perspective, above all we should realize that they should have no implications for how we treat our fellow human beings. We should be fighting against discrimination and intolerance on the mere basis of compassion and understanding alone, not by using a cop-out argument that comes dangerously close to “well, yes it’s a sin but, we can’t help it because of genetics!” This may make the road to combating the religious argument against homosexuality more difficult, but it’s not worth sacrificing the truth over.