In the last week, a news story came out about a seven year old girl who has a Y chromosome. It was found during an amniocentesis and the child was determined to be a boy. Everyone was surprised when, voila, a girl was born. Physicians examined the child and determined that she was a fully equipped girl, with normal female genitalia. So how did this happen? A gene on a non-sex chromosome (meaning, not on the X or Y chromosomes) was defective. The protein made from this gene is involved in starting the development of male genitalia. This interesting story clearly shows that the development of gender is not simple, nor is it restricted to the chromosomes that we typically associate with gender; X and Y. Details on this story can be found at:
I’m curious. Will this little girl grow up to be a straight girl? Transgendered? A lesbian? Is the development of genitalia related to our sexual orientation? Clearly, there is already evidence that being gay is influenced by genetic, biological and developmental factors in the womb.
How is gender determined? How is sexual orientation determined? Is there something different about the brains of people who are gay? As a biologist, I have always been fascinated by the human brain. It is, without a doubt, the one organ we understand the least. And arguably, our most important organ.
It’s a legitimate scientific question, worthy of objective, controlled studies.
I won’t be providing the references for these studies as that would make this blog so long, I don’t think anyone will keep reading. So look forward to visiting Blogging For Truth
http://bloggingfortruthmay2009.blogspot.com/2009/03/blogging-for-truth.html during the week of May 25-31st, when this blog will be dedicated to the scientific research in this area.
To highlight a few studies that support that being gay has biological origins:
· Birth order – having older male siblings increases the odds that subsequent male children will be gay. This is thought to be due to maternal antibodies that feminize the brain.
· Identical twins have a 50 to 70% chance of being gay. Side note – some people argue this proves that being gay is not genetic. These people lack an advanced understanding of genetics and development. Being gay is not controlled by one simple gene. If it was, that mystery would have been solved.
· There are correlations to being left handed.
· Fruit flies can be made gay by changing a single gene. Note: Humans are not fruit flies.
· Being gay occurs in many animals, most notably penguins in zoos that mate for life and will not convert to heterosexuality, no matter how many fabulous looking female penguins are presented.
· Women with gay children have higher fertility rates.
· If two brothers are gay, there is a higher rate of other family members being gay.
· Pheromones – straight women and gay men are attracted to a pheromone produced in the sweat of men. Gay women and straight men are attracted to a pheromone produced in the urine of women. This study was done using PET and MRI scans, looking at areas of the brain that reveal sexual arousal, not the opinions of the participants. It was also published in a very prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Now let’s explore one study in a little more depth. I have taken an excerpt from an article that can be found at:
“Scientists at the Karolinska Institute studied brain scans of 90 gay and straight men and women, and found that the size of the two symmetrical halves of the brains of gay men more closely resembled those of straight women than they did straight men. In heterosexual women, the two halves of the brain are more or less the same size. In heterosexual men, the right hemisphere is slightly larger. Scans of the brains of gay men in the study, however, showed that their hemispheres were relatively symmetrical, like those of straight women, while the brains of homosexual women were asymmetrical like those of straight men. The number of nerves connecting the two sides of the brains of gay men were also more like the number in heterosexual women than in straight men. “
Where science leads, technology follows. Two years ago, scientists in Oregon reported an attempt to “interfere with defeminization of adult sexual partner preferences” in sheep. Their method, as they described it, was to alter hormonal inputs in pregnant ewes “during the period of gestation when the sheep brain is maximally sensitive to the behavior-modifying effects of exogenous testosterone.” When the attempt failed, they concluded that the dosage should be increased.
Would hormonal intervention work in humans? Should we try it? Some thinkers are intrigued. Last year, the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote: “If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use.” Mohler told the Associated Press that morally, this would be no different from curing fetal blindness or any other “medical problem.” The Rev. Joseph Fessio, editor of the press that publishes the pope’s work, agreed: “Same-sex activity is considered disordered. If there are ways of detecting diseases or disorders of children in the womb … that respected the dignity of the child and mother, it would be a wonderful advancement of science.”
If the idea of chemically suppressing homosexuality in the womb horrifies you, I have bad news: You won’t be in the room when it happens. Parents control medical decisions, and surveys indicate that the vast majority of them would be upset to learn that their child was gay. Already, millions are screening embryos and fetuses to eliminate those of the “wrong” sex. Do you think they won’t screen for the “wrong” sexual orientation, too?”
(And now back to geekgirl) Here we are. We’ve arrived at the intersection of science, ethics and morals. We are already capable of treating many conditions while the baby is still in the womb. Most of these are structural defects corrected by surgery. For some children, this is a matter of life and death. For others, it improves the quality of their life. Hearts can be repaired, bone marrow transplants, a closed urethra can be opened. I doubt that any of us would argue that this is unethical. We view it as a triumph of modern science and helping an unborn person.
But what about correcting being gay? Surely well intentioned parents will ponder sparing their child a life of discrimination, hatred and fear. One could even argue this is a compassionate act. But is it? If you have a child who is “different” in any way, you will know what I mean. My son is a high functioning autistic teen. (Note: I’m not comparing autism to being gay. I’m talking about what parents feel when trying to protect their children) Do I wish he didn’t struggle so with social interactions and making friends? You bet I do. But would I have fixed him in utero? I don’t know. Now that he is grown, I ask myself, would he be as smart, creative, artistic and such an original thinker? I love him as he is. He’s able to function, is amazingly logical and mature, and continues to consciously learn what the rest of us learn instinctively.
Let’s talk science first. A physician’s first obligation is to do no harm. How would we treat this? Not surgically. With hormones? How would we determine if there are dangerous side effects? Now we’re messing with physiology. Sex hormones are connected to many other systems in the body. Working out a safe treatment would require very expensive, long term research. As a scientist with a little knowledge of how the system works, I can’t even imagine what it would take to prove to the FDA that this treatment would be safe? Is this where we want our tax dollars spent? Or would we choose a vaccine for HIV, ways to prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimers?
If we choose to “correct” sexual orientation, why do we deny transgendered people insurance coverage to pay for hormone therapy and surgery? These are adults, who know who they are inside, capable of making their own decisions about their bodies. Certainly from a medical point of view, there is less risk than administering an in utero treatment.
So let’s say, we can’t fix it. Can we determine if a fetus is gay? Scientifically, again, this will take a lot of research. Let’s say that happens. That leads to questions of ethics and morality, the first being abortion. It doesn’t get more controversial. This is one controversy where I understand the logic on both sides. I would prefer to see abortion used only in cases of rape (better yet, use the “morning after” pill) , if the mother’s life is truly at risk, if the child has a severe medical condition that is untreatable and would result in a child with a terminal illness or so debilitating that there is no quality of life.
What are we correcting? Gay people are born with the same range of characteristics as straight people. Physically normal, normal intelligence and mentally healthy. Where is the medical condition that impairs their quality of life? There isn’t one. It is society that causes gay people to be stressed and live in fear, not their biology. If we correct being gay, what will we lose? Would Ellen be funny? Would Michelangelo have been a lousy artist? What kind of songs would Melissa Etheridge write?
Worse, would my best friend, a lesbian, be less understanding when she listens to me whine about the stress in my life? My life has been vastly enriched by my gay friends, starting with my best friend in high school – a guy. It is scary for me to think that they could be different if they weren’t gay. What would I lose? What would all of us lose? There’s a reason straight women say that all the good ones are gay or married.
Think about it. There is probably something about you that someone disagrees with. Something they don’t like. Would you want to be corrected to suit the beliefs and comfort zone of someone else? Should I propose that we find the combination that lightens the skin of black people, in the name that they will face less prejudice? Is there a biological combination that creates Republicans or Catholics? Hate, anger, or bigotry? (Ok – I admit – that one is tempting). Should we change people’s brains so they are submissive? So they don’t believe in God? Yes, there is evidence that belief in a supreme being is programmed into our neurotransmitters. That’s a whole different blog.
“Treating” being gay is the choice of a biased and prejudiced society. It is equivalent to denying people basic human rights that we see in China and Middle Eastern countries. A form of oppression. Medical intervention should be reserved for clear cut cases of improving the quality of life of the individual – treating an inherent limitation or disability, not “a disorder” imposed by the flawed belief systems of the religious right and conservatives. Leave science to scientists and the medical definition of a disorder to physicians. No, they are not always right. But their batting average is better than those with an agenda of discrimination.