The Gay Epi-genes?


I came across this awesomely bad article late last night. It is either an example of really bad science reporting, really bad science, or both.

Actual Headline: Scientists May Have Finally Unlocked Puzzle of Why People Are Gay.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with ever-elusive “gay gene” and the plethora of studies that have attempted to find it (and failed). Well, apparently we’ve moved on from that folks: now it’s all about the EPI-MARKS!

So what the hell is up with this story? Well, for starters it’s not actually science.

The team of researchers used mathematical modeling to suggest that teh gay is passed through epigenetic markers, not through genetics. How does this work?

Evolutionarily speaking, if homosexuality was solely a genetic trait, scientists would expect the trait to eventually disappear because homosexuals wouldn’t be expected to reproduce. But because these epi-marks provide an evolutionary advantage for the parents of homosexuals: They protect fathers of homosexuals from underexposure to testosterone and mothers of homosexuals from overexposure to testosterone while they are in gestation.

So what’s the conclusion these scientists draw? Welllll……

“These epi-marks protect fathers and mothers from excess or underexposure to testosterone — when they carry over to opposite-sex offspring, it can cause the masculinization of females or the feminization of males,” Rice says, which can lead to a child becoming gay. Rice notes that these markers are “highly variable” and that only strong epi-marks will result in a homosexual offspring.

So there you have it folks. These epi-marks create us sissy boys and butch girls, which clearly causes teh gay. Nevermind all the masculine gay men, feminine lesbians, trans* gays and lesbians, androgynous queers, bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals, and so on. They’re clearly just abberations that don’t fit into the neat homo/hetero binary based on heteronormative stereotypes and are therefore unimportant. Case closed!

Except, it’s not. Why?

Rice’s model still needs to be tested on real-life parent-offspring pairs, but he says this epigenetic link makes more sense than any other explanation, and that his team has mapped out a way for other scientists to test their work.

“We’ve found a story that looks really good,” he says. “There’s more verification needed, but we point out how we can easily do epigenetic profiles genome-wide. We predict where the epi-marks occur, we just need other studies to look at it empirically. This can be tested and proven within six months. It’s easy to test. If it’s a bad idea, we can throw it away in short order.”

So the whole “may have unlocked the puzzle of why people are gay” headline really should read “Hypothesis about epigenetic causes of homosexuality needs to be tested” or “Scientists seeking empirical evidence for basis of heterosexist understandings of homosexuality.” Or just “more biological reductionist crap from the media” would suffice as well. I mean, really, this whole thing about nellies and tomboys is right out of the sexology playbook circa late 1800s. Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing would be so proud!

The thing is, I don’t doubt there are some biological components to sexual orientation. But to completely ignore the wide varieties of how same-sex behavior is expressed and experienced cross-culturally is asinine. Simplistic explanations like this never pan out because sexuality is complicated and fluid and not so easily defined.

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  1. Where does this bizarre idea that homosexuals wouldn’t be expected to reproduce even come from?

    Even if you ignore all the social pressures in various cultures to marry and reproduce regardless of your sexual orientation, there’s this thing called rape, and it doesn’t magically go away for gay women.

  2. Who funded this “research”? It stinks of an agenda …

    In any case, as the trans community shows pretty clearly, there’s no one-to-one connection between gender expression and sexual orientation. As a trans woman and former “sissy boy”, I have always been attracted to women.

    In your faces bad science people.

    • Good point, Veronica.

      ” NIMBioS is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.”

      Department of Homeland security? What’s with that?

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