Genetic Essentialism and LGBTQI+ Rights

Words by Alexi Barnstone

LGBTQI rights has been at the forefront of the sociopolitical scene for many decades. Many different research projects and endeavors have been undertaken to validate arguments about sexual orientation rights. One of the main investigative fields has been the exploration of a possible biological explanation to people’s sexual orientation. A lot of researchers believed that providing biological explanations for homosexuality would reduce the prejudice against homosexuals. In 1991 the neuroscientist Simon LeVay did research into the differences in the brains of gay and straight men, and found that the hypothalamus, an area of the brain associated with the nervous system, was twice as large in straight men. In 1993 an American geneticist Dean Hamer discovered a stretch along the X chromosome that was linked to homosexuality, this gene code came to be known as the ‘gay gene’. In 2014 Michael Bailey ran a research project observing the DNA of 409 pairs of gay brothers and confirmed Dean Hamer’s findings, this lead to the popular belief that there was a specific genetic code that determined if you were a homosexual or a heterosexual. In 2017 Alan Sanders analysed the DNA of over a thousand gay and straight men to isolate differences in their genetic code and found a significant difference in the SLITRK6 gene. Many of the people that undertook this research identified as homosexuals themselves, and committed themselves to this research in an attempt to find an explanation for homosexuality and justify their own sexual orientation. A common belief was that in providing a genetic argument for sexual orientation the notion that sexuality is a choice could be debunked, and it would improve peoples’ perspectives on LGBTQI rights. When a trait is viewed as immutable it should be more accepted, since the other side would be forced to accept that sexual orientation was an engrained aspect of a person’s identity and not a choice that could be changed. Discoveries in this field were believed to discredit those whom believed one could ‘pray the gay away’. The actual impact of these types of essentialist arguments are very different to what these researchers expected.

Dr Illan Nimrod, a Sydney University Social Psychologist, became interested in how biological arguments for sexuality effected peoples’ dispositions toward different sexually oriented groups. He wanted to know if these kinds of arguments, such as the existence of a ‘gay gene’ would actually reduce prejudice. His research led him to a very interesting finding about the effects of such arguments on peoples’ discrimination. Contrary to what was expected, people that were exposed to genetic arguments for sexuality did not show a reduction in prejudice. In fact, it seemed as though genetic based arguments for sexuality acted as a double-edged sword. They reduced prejudice because they established sexuality as an immutable and unchangeable trait, but the biological arguments also increased prejudice because they put distinct categories on sexually oriented individuals. Instead of viewing sexuality as a fluid scale, where individuals sit somewhere along it, sexuality becomes viewed as one of two options. The categorisation or labelling of homosexuals as a distinct group intensified peoples expressions of prejudice because it drew hard lines between the differences in people. This negative effect cancelled out the beneficial effects that genetic arguments had.

The truth is that irrespective of the effects biological arguments, equal rights and a reduction to prejudice are essential to the development of the best possible society. However, understanding the effects of these arguments may help us coordinate better campaigns to address these sociopolitical issues in the future. So, should we use genetic arguments to support the gay rights movement? Probably not. Because while it may force people to accept that there is nothing to be done to change one’s sexuality, it also can spur people to subjugate homosexuals as distinctly ‘the other’. Seeing people in this black and white way, is not the road to reducing prejudice.  

Pulp Editors