The Weekly Standard

Dec 9, 1996

"Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Gay Gene."

By Chandler Burr
(Chandler Burr, a writer living in Washington, D.C., is the author of "A Separate Creation: The Search for the Biological Origins of Sexual Orientation" (Hyperion))

I recently wrote a book on the biological search for the origins of homosexuality. In its final chapter, I described some rather amazing work being done at two biotech companies: The first is trying to manufacture a computer chip out of human DNA to tell you what genes you have, while the second is creating artificial viruses that can send new genetic material into your cells. The chapter is titled, "How Genetic Surgery Can Change Homosexuality to Heterosexuality," and the other week I received the following letter about it from a 38-yr-old lawyer.

"Do you know of any research institutions that are currently studying the possibility of converting homosexual men to heterosexuality?" the lawyer asked. "I would be very interested in making such a change. I am gay, and for personal reasons would like not to be. My thoughts on this don’t come from a religious perspective, and I don’t believe homosexuality is something to be ashamed of. I have gay friends, and I have been out to my family for 18 years. I’m happy in many aspects of my life, but for a variety of reasons homosexuality is not for me… I never entertained the hope of changing since everything I have read about changing through traditional psychotherapy suggests the chances are slim to none. I’ve always experienced my homosexuality as immutable—something deeply a part of me. But your book was the first thing I’ve read which gave me hope….

"I would travel just about anywhere, and would volunteer for ‘guinea pig’ status, assuming a sane level of risk. If you don’t know of anyone currently doing research, how might I best keep myself informed of continuing developments? Frankly, I would like to be the first on line the minute some form of treatment becomes available."

Rapid advances in genetic research and biotechnology may well make it possible to take what the lawyer describes as "immutable" and change it. If these two biotech companies are successful, the lawyer might find himself in a doctor’s office within a decade or two. The doctor will have a syringe loaded with millions of engineered viruses. He will inject them into the lawyer’s bloodstream and send him home. And one morning, maybe six months later, the lawyer will wake up—and his internal orientation, his instinctive romantic and sexual attraction, will be heterosexual.

What makes this scenario possible is the discovery that sexual orientation is a biological trait, produced by a "gay gene." Conservatives who dislike homosexuality have always hated the concept of a gay gene and argued against it. But this is because conservatives do not understand what its existence really implies: The gay gene is a remarkable vindication of conservative ideas about human nature and may offer one of the most devastating refutations of liberalism we have yet seen. Right now, most conservatives are unaware of this, as they are also unaware of the clinical research—all but universally accepted among biologists—showing that homosexuality is a biological trait. Conservatives need both to face this research and to understand how it works for them.

Ever since homosexuality became an issue in the United States 30 years ago or so, there have been three competing positions on it.

Position 1: Homosexuality is a chosen "lifestyle," like vegetarianism.

Position 2: Homosexuality is a disease, like schizophrenia.

Position 3: Homosexuality is a biological orientation, like left-handedness, and is neither chosen nor pathological.

Secular conservatives tend to accept Position 1 and/or Position 2, which means that every new piece of lab reserach on the gay gene sets their teeth on edge. But say that science had concluded Position 3 was a matter of fact. There is no question that conservatives would suffer a short-term loss; it is always painful when you have committed yourself to a belief that is literally proved untrue, and enemies of conservatism would play "gotcha" for a while.

But what the Right fails to comprehend is that a conservatism unremittingly hostile to homosexuality and *truly committed to the resurgence of conservative thought with real impact on public policy can, and should, embrace the gay gene, which will bring conservatives two long-term gains.

* * *

First, the short term loss. For every trait they study, clinicians and biologists routinely assemble a "trait profile," the sum total of all the data they have gathered clinically (from observation) about a trait. Here is a brief summary of one such trait profile: The trait shows up in the population as two "orientations." Ninety-two percent of the population has the majority orientation. Eight percent has the minority orientation. The trait is non-pathological and unchosen, and the minority orientation runs in families with what genetics call a "maternal effect" (which means the gene is probably on the X chromosome, which all men inherit from their mothers). It is heritable, as demonstrated by the fact that identical twins, who are natural clones, are far more likely to share the minority orientation than siblings who are not twins.

Neither orientation correlates with social environment, family structure, religion, or culture. Role models, two-parent families, divorce, or any other environmental influence can’t "make you" have the minority orientation. Through social and religious pressure you can force someone to alter the "behavior," that is the external expression, of this trait. But you cannot alter the *internal orientation—the trait itself.

The trait I have just described is… *handedness. Right-handedness is the majority orientation, left-handedness, the minority. But the data here are astonishingly similar to the trait profile that geneticists are assembling on human sexual orientation. Heterosexuality, the majority orientation, accounts for roughly 95 percent of us, while homosexuality, the minority orientation, accounts for 5 percent. (The "10 percent gay" figure has always been merely a statistical concoction of the gay rights movement). Clinical research shows that homosexuality is clearly heritable, like left-handedness, and neither correlates with any environmental factors. The sexual orientation, like the handedness, of adopted children bears no relationship to that of adoptive parents (which means that environment is not a factor). And both show a "maternal effect" pointing towards the X chromosome. A much-discussed study done in 1993 by a team of geneticists at the National Institutes of Health found a spot on, sure enough, the X chromosome that they believe contains a gay gene. The NIH team is now in the process of pinpointing the gene itself, which has already been registered by the name GAY-1.

[FOOTNOTE: What’s the study worth? The certainty of genetic studies is determined by their "significance" or "p value," 05 being the minimum needed for scientific acceptance. If a study gets .05, it has statistically only a 5 percent chance of being wrong. So a .03 would be better, only a 3 percent chance of being a false finding, and a .01 would be better still. What was the p value of the NIH study? .00001.]

What does this mean for conservatives? Here is the first long-term gain. One neuroanatomist I spoke with—a straight, pro-choice New York City liberal who favors total political acceptance of homosexuality—growled, "While [conservatives] can’t win the disease argument, and they can’t win the choice argument, admitting that [homosexuality is] biological and unchosen is their trump card. It means they’ve won on an argument that is still only on the horizon today: changing it. Their people can immediately adopt a strategy of, ‘Okay, let’s fix it, let’s eliminate it.’"

In fact, how this could be done is easily described. After pinpointing the gene, the next step is to find out what the protein it codes for actually does. And the biotech industry is already developing a method that would allow doctors to insert a different version of that gene—what biologists are calling STRAIGHT-1—into human beings.

At a conference on molecular genetics I saw the future. A young, rather cocky biotech wizard told his audience of twenty-five senior oncologists how his lab had injected twenty rats with carcinogens. He flashed a slide on a screen. There were ten of the rats, cut open, their insides infested with rancid-yellow cancerous lesions. Then, said the biotech guy, they injected the ten other rats with viruses they had engineered, viruses into which they’d loaded an anti-cancer gene. He flicked to the next slide, taken six months later—the cancer had vanished. Twenty-five oncologists gasped in unison.

Now, this work is being done to fight cancer. But the technology is applicable to any gene. Apply it to GAY-1, and you have genetic surgery to eliminate homosexuality.

Even sooner than this scenario becomes possible, however, the gay gene may provide ammunition to conservatives in the debate over abortion. We know genetic surgery will require progress in a number of different scientific disciplines before it is practicable. That may take a decade or more. But all the technology for selective abortion already exists. A test like amniocentesis may soon be able to determine whether a fetus will become a gay adult—and given the fact that there is an almost unlimited right to abortion, parents will certainly be able to terminate the fetus on that basis alone.

This turns the politics of abortion upside down. Liberals will be faced for the first time with the fact that the right to choose might be used to target one of their own constituencies. And the possibility that abortion will be used as a form of sexual eugenics might make liberals, who have long fought for the right to abortion in every circumstance, think twice.

Furthermore, genetic research may yet lead to the discovery that the gay gene is a disease gene. The most carefully considered theory on how GAY-1 might operate posits that it is a *defective gene, one that in 5 percent of the population fails to carry out the biochemical function for which natural selection chose it. Result? Homosexuality.

[FOOTNOTE: To be more precise, homosexuality in males. GAY-1 and STRAIGHT-1 probably affect only men—gay and straight. Research consistently reveals a clear male/female discrepancy; there are about twice as many homosexual men (around 6 per 100) as homosexual women (around 3 per hundred), and sexual orientation in women, researchers believe, may involve completely unrelated genes.]

Pat Robertson often claims that "obviously" there could not be a gay gene because nature only selects for genes that "increase reproduction." Robertson knows nothing about the subject. Any first-year college genetics student could point out that anti-reproductive traits are selected for all the time. How? Through something called "pleiotropy," the fact that genes have side effects, as do drugs. Nature not only could easily select for a gay gene, but it can, and does, regularly select for genes that *kill us. One example: the gene that nature selects to protect us from malaria. This gene has a devastating pleiotropic side effect—it’s called sickle-cell anemia. If it turns out that the "gay gene" is simply another example of pleiotropy, this would suggest that homosexuality is, like sickle-cell disease, nothing more than a biochemical fluke. Why, then, should conservatives cower before the idea of a gay gene? Huntington’s disease is caused by a gene, and that makes Huntington’s neither "good" nor "acceptable."

* * *

In addition to the biomedical payoff, there is a more important reason to embrace gay-gene research—an ideological one. This is the second long-term gain. The fundamental battle between Right and Left since the modern era began is about one thing: Whose view of human nature is correct? The great majority of us never think about it, but every policy, every program, every law regulating everything from guns to homelessness to taxation is predicated on how its formulators see human nature.

The liberalism that emerged from Locke and Rousseau holds that everyone is born tabula rasa, as a blank slate upon which society and environment write the adult that emerges. This is liberalism’s most fundamental assumption, and in late 20th century America it is the intrinsic justification for taxpayer-funded social programs. Pass enough programs, spend enough on them, and we can equalize the sexes, equalize the races, level all professional playing fields, wipe out criminality, make the lazy industrious, the stupid smart, the violent pacific, and the poor rich.

The research on homosexuality says: No. It says: In fundamental ways, we are born with many important aspects of the way we are. And nothing-- no Head Start program, no midnight basketball, no welfare check, no well-intentioned but misguided clemency from the bench-- can modify that or make it better. It is evidence for the most important assertion that conservatism makes about human nature: We are, in some ways, born different. Men are different from women. Sometimes the violent need to be locked away. Intelligence is, to a certain degree, a given. The brand of liberalism that now dominates public policy is futile because it ignores human nature. Its philosophical leniency is an assault on society and on common sense.

Journalist James Fallows, himself a liberal, put it to me this way: "Liberalism, which has for the past four hundred years ridden to triumph on science, is now at odds with science, which is showing deeper remnants of our animal past than liberals are comfortable with."

The implications of biology’s findings have not escaped scientists. Laurence Frank, a zoologist at Berkeley, exclaimed to me with disgust, "I can’t even call myself a liberal anymore!" Frank had given a lecture on animal endocrinology and the way hormones determined maleness and femaleness "and a young woman came up afterwards and she was shocked, shocked that I would say such a thing." In her view, "maleness" is just macho posturing "socially constructed" by society, "femaleness" a myth created by the Neanderthal patriarchy. But to biologists, gender is as real as oxygen.

Frank sighed and said, "The observation that behaviors are biologically directed is scary to liberals because that means people aren’t infinitely malleable. It means you can’t pass laws and do social engineering to change the nasty people, and liberals—and Marxists in the more extreme sense—are completely and totally committed to the notion that we can change anything. All we need is good will." He concluded, "It seems to me just extravagant stupidity to pretend devoutly that humans are totally cultural and environmental creatures."

In fact, the traditional conservative position on homosexuality—"lifestyle"—toes exactly this liberal line. Fallows observed piquantly and with some pleasure that the "lifestyle" argument conservatives have been pushing "has always forced conservatism, a philosophy holding that the environment has little to do with outcomes—and that liberal programs meant to alter it are a waste of money—to make an inconvenient exception on homosexuality and argue, contradictorily, that young people can be pushed one way or another into profound aspects of their personalities by education and society. Which is exactly what liberals have wanted them to admit." Dump the internally illogical traditional position for a stance the liberal Fallows describes as "truly repellent to the Liberal mind," and conservatism becomes stronger, not weaker.

The conservative case for the gay gene will strike many as too pragmatic, somewhat equivalent to the case for pro-choice Republicanism. I admit the parallel. I am a Colin Powell Republican and a gay person who is an ardent assimilationist. I am an assimilationist in part because I look at a homosexual orientation as a biological roll of the dice with the political importance of left-handedness, i.e., none at all. For this reason, like the lawyer who wrote me, I too would not be opposed to considering genetic surgery.

Some conservatives may find accepting the gay gene as repugnant as accepting choice on abortion. But there is one glaring difference between them. The key question with abortion is, "When does human life begin?"—and answering it means defining the term "human life." For most pro-lifers, humanity has something to do with the soul, and the existence of the soul is not determinable by science.

But the question about homosexuality and volition—whether one chooses to be gay—is subject to empirical verification. And among researchers, this question is considered answered. Which means that supporting Positions 1 and 2—lifestyle or disease-- will soon be as politically successful for the Republican party as supporting creationism.

And for those who find intolerable even the short-term gain that liberalism would get from a conservative conversion to the idea of a biological homosexual orientation, I would remind them that there is a way out-- the final element of the conservative case for the gay gene. From the perspective of those who seek total proscription of homosexuality, it is certainly imperfect, but it is at the same time a way for conservatives to stop shrinking from science and accept the gay gene while nullifying its pro-gay political impact. It is the most obvious piece in the debate: religion.

* * *

Jeffrey Marsh, a physicist and orthodox Jew, reviewed my book for The Weekly Standard (August 5, 1996) and made two conclusive statements. The first was scientific: The research has demonstrated the biological nature of homosexuality. The second was religious and moral: This doesn’t matter. "The Bible," wrote Marsh, "does not forbid homosexual activity [emphasis mine] because it is ‘unnatural,’ but [because it is on] a long list of prohibited sexual relationships." Many Biblically proscribed traits, Marsh noted, have quite natural biological components, from greed to adultery, theft to murder. But to religion, biology is immaterial.

It is unnecessary for religion to pronounce on molecular genetics not merely because (as in the case of Pat Robertson) it usually gets molecular genetics wrong, but because genetics are irrelevant to religion. For religion speaks with absolute authority on the morality of the myriad traits that genes and molecules create, including GAY-1 and human sexual orientation.

Naturally, liberals and those pro-gay will combat this religious position with two arguments. The first: "The religious position—to take a specific example, the Catholic position that homosexuality is an ‘intrinsic disorder’-- is empirically incorrect." The immediate and dispositive religious counter-response: "Who cares?" First, religion is not subject to empirical verification. And the Biblical prohibition is on homosexual behavior, not homosexual orientation. In the same vein, there are very good reasons to believe that criminality has a genetic component, and proof of that would not invalidate legal proscriptions against criminal behavior.

The second liberal response: "The First Amendment separates church from state." The religious counter-response: Like a principled opposition to abortion, the religious opposition to homosexuality rests on a moral stance that is translated into individual positions on policy. Science presents information, but judgment and values and morality are applied to that information.

Ultimately, a moral opposition to homosexuality, though it will not convince the entire electorate, is above debate, just as it is above bioassay and data set. A moral opposition to homosexuality will not prevent the short-term loss that an acknowledgment of the gay gene will cause, but it is the best response to it. Science produces the ability to understand the mechanical functioning of genes, but it does not change the moral nature of the traits they produce. Which is why after the announcement of the gay gene’s discovery Emmanuel Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain (and reputedly Margaret Thatcher’s favorite religious leader), stated to the conservative Daily Mail: "Homosexuality is a disability, and if people wish to have it eliminated before they have children… I do not see any moral objections to using genetic engineering to limit this particular trend." Marsh, the physicist, framed the rabbi’s idea both more broadly and more trenchantly: "Fulfillment of [the human] potential [for holiness] depends on a continual struggle to overcome many perfectly natural human inclinations. By showing man how those natural inclinations work, science can help him in that struggle."

The science will show what it will show. And if it shows how biological traits such as homosexuality work, then this simply means that we can reply in the affirmative to someone like the lawyer who wrote me: "Do you know of any research institutions that are currently studying the possibility of converting homosexual men to heterosexuality? I would be very interested in making such a change. I am gay, and for personal reasons would like not to be…."