Queering the Genome – Are We Ready?
It has been less than a week since the landmark study into the genetics of same-sex sexual behaviour first broke and sparked debate across the twitterverse. There has been much disagreement amongst the scientific and LGBTQ+ communities alike, regarding whether this research should have been conducted at all. Conversely, many have praised the study for its sensitivity, not only did it include advocacy groups from around the world to aid in the communication of the results but the authors also created a website to share the findings with a non-scientific audience. Others have been cautious of the motives behind such a study – who serves to benefit from such a study? And why not conduct an analogous study into the genetics of heterosexual behaviour?
Unlike the majority of genome-wide association studies (GWAS), that correlate genetic elements with disease phenotypes to elucidate disease mechanisms or offer clues into risk prediction, a study into sexual behaviour has a less clear purpose. Understanding human behaviour for the sake of knowledge is a noble ambition, but unfortunately science does not occur in a vacuum.
Researchers are becoming increasingly aware of science’s long history of abuse against certain communities. Oppressive powers have used science as a weapon to justify the marginalisation of women, indigenous and queer communities, to name a few. The assumption that there is a biological basis to any behavioural phenotype is at the heart of some of our worst prejudices: racism, sexism, transphobia. For instance, Dean Hamer’s work into the genetics of same sex sexual behaviour in 1993, which has now been discredited, led to the Daily Mail publishing an article headlined “Abortion hope after ‘gay genes’ finding”. Although Hamer is a lifelong advocate for queer and indigenous rights, he had no control over how the media would report his findings and his research was highly subject to the politics of the time.
Returning to this recent large GWAS, the findings align with those of other complex behavioural traits as expected, officially debunking the myth of a single ‘gay gene’. This demonstrates that same-sex behaviour is polygenic, meaning it is the result of many genetic factors which each contribute small effects to the overall phenotype.
One of the most interesting findings of the study was that sexuality is far more complex than previously thought. In fact, the genome-wide analysis demonstrates that there is no dimension in which the more someone is attracted to the same-sex the less they are attracted to the opposite sex. This is the assumption of the Kinsey scale, a widely-used tool that has been instrumental in shaping our ideas of sexuality which was believed to operate from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. However, the genetic markers associated with different points along the scale are different and as it turns out, there are numerous dimensions of biology that shape sexual choices.
The authors were clear to acknowledge the limitations of this study, with a major limitation being the data itself. This study was largely an analysis of data publicly available from the UK BioBank, a resource that was not designed for a study of sexual behaviour. Data from this biobank had been collected from individuals along with a long generic questionnaire, of which sexuality was one of the criteria. Most of the work is based on responses to a single question, “Have you ever had sex with someone of the same sex?”, which does not encompass sexual orientation or identity and the authors are careful to say so.
The researchers also point out that they followed convention for genetic analyses by dropping from their study people who did not conform to traditional gender stereotypes. As a result, the work does not include many sexual and gender minorities such as transgender people, intersex people and other important groups within the queer community. Although the authors expressed hope that this limitation will be addressed in future work, this erasure is another example of how the most privileged members of a community will continue to shape how ideas about the queer community are influenced and spread.
Joseph Vitti, Post-Doc at the Harvard Department of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology at the Broad Institute where the research was spearheaded, expressed his disappointment in the Broad Institute’s decision to condone this study and pointed out the potential harm of a polygenic risk score that attempts to predict the likelihood of homosexuality among groups of people. In a blog-post he wrote: “I have yet to see a compelling argument that the potential benefits of this study outweigh its potential harms”. One tweeter queried what the ramifications would be had the lead author Ben Neale found a genetic element that could be edited using the widespread genome-editing tool, CRISPR.
As with any scientific study that analyses human behaviour, the results are up for interpretation. Conservative bloggers have already begun using this study as a means to justify gay conversion therapy. Ironically this news comes in the same week as a two decades long gay conversion therapy leader, McKrae Game has renounced the practise and come out as gay himself. Game has since announced that “Conversion therapy is not just a lie, but it’s very harmful,”. Over 700,000 American’s are believed to have undergone this practice which is known to induce emotional and psychological trauma, including depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.
So, are we ready for an era of ‘queering the genome’? Science will always have the potential to be taken out of context and used to serve political agendas. However, it also has power to drive social change if executed in the right way. As a start, it’s critical to engage minority groups with the research conducted on them, from the first hypothesis to the public release and beyond.