It's hard to talk about how a scientific breakthrough will change our lives. There’s no way to identify the impact it will have, until it has an impact. And we don’t know what other breakthroughs one will trigger, or how those will change our lives. With that said:
Earlier this month, Tuck Ngun, PhD. and a team from UCLA, found evidence that homosexuality may have a genetic basis. They examined the DNA of 37 pairs of twin men, of whom one was gay, and 10 pairs in which both brothers were gay. They examined their epigenetic marks (“epi-marks”), "chemical modifications of DNA that don't change the underlying sequence," and were able to identify five marks possessed only by the gay brothers. The team was able to predict sexuality with 67 percent accuracy. However, the study was riddled with methodological issues and is not necessarily conclusive regarding the extent to which genetics determines or influences sexuality.
These epi-marks, which only indicate homosexuality, can also be influenced by environmental factors. They’re subject to change. Despite this, recent headlines read: "The latest 'gay gene' gives no comfort to homophobes," "Landmark 'Gay Gene' Study Provides Further Evidence Sexuality is Not Chosen," etc. There is no “gay gene”—at least not yet—but we do now know, "there is a genetic basis for sexual orientation." This discussion isn’t relevant solely because it’s a significant scientific study; it has real implications for the lives of real LGBTQ people. In particular: for our identities and the way we are understood, both by ourselves and society.
A common dismissal of the LGBTQ identity is that being gay is a choice; thus, the community is one of sexual deviants. So, at the very least, Ngun and his team's study shattered that illusion in upholding that, genetically speaking, not everything is a choice. But the other consequence is that we lose some freedom in our identification. When I came out a few years ago, I was most concerned over whether or not my words would lead to a new, fixed reality. In my mind, once I said those words, I was permanently gay. I couldn’t even look at men anymore. Over time, I was introduced to the concepts of gender/sexual fluidity, which have become far more prominent in our everyday discussion of sexuality. It allows for an in-between space, and the gay community revels in those gray areas. Conceptualizing sexuality as a result of genetics could result in the same kind of pigeonholing that I feared, eliminating the gray areas where many LGBTQ people find refuge.
So much of the LGBTQ reality, at least from my experience, is about the ability to both develop and convey your own understanding of this identity. You choose where you exist on the spectrum, and that choice is a process. A good portion of that process happens in conversation with other people, when you have to explain what your sexual orientation means and entails (we’re talking logistics, folks). Not only does this encourage us to understand ourselves and what we want, but it provides an opportunity to actively shape the way that others understand sexuality. The issue over gay rights is one of understanding because it’s always easier to discriminate against what you don’t understand. And it’s been shown that “people who understand the role of biology in sexuality are more likely to be accepting and inclusive.” That is a fantastic thing.
At the same time, a breakthrough like this could mean that we lose not only the ability to define ourselves, but the ability to influence how others understand those identities. If we move in the direction of biological determinism, inevitably we will hear that we are gay because of some scientific reason. It is possible—even likely in some cases—that the conversation will stop there. That perspective is reductive and ignorant about the choices we do make. Every LGBTQ individual has a different way of being LGBTQ. If we lose the ability to talk about our individual experiences, then we lose our ability to decide for ourselves where we belong in the world. The potential exists that we will no longer shape others’ understanding of ourselves, but that others’ understandings will shape who we are.
Scientific progress is progress. It can encourage us to question our beliefs and assumptions, and push us to confront and challenge cultural norms. The issue at hand isn’t so much Ngun’s study and its results, it’s the way it impacts how people understand the LGBTQ community and its individual members. It’s not about finding sexuality in our DNA, but about preserving the space we’ve carved for ourselves.
Sometimes it’s less about who and what we are as human beings. Sometimes, it’s about how we are as human beings.