By Austin McKittrick
Austin is a genetic counselor for Genetic Support Foundation, a non-profit genetic counseling group, where he provides telehealth genetic counseling from his home base in Vancouver, WA. He a first time blogger, long time reader of the DNA Exchange.
A study recently published in Science sought to answer the age-old question: Where’s the ‘gay gene’? As a member of both the genetics and LGBTQ+ community, this headline naturally piqued my interest. I’ve always thought that this question is inherently a double-edged sword: by ‘proving’ that non-same sex attraction is in some way genetic, the whole ‘it’s a choice’ argument can finally be put to rest. But finding a scientifically detectable ‘cause’ for non-heteronormative behavior naturally brings up an equal (if not greater) level of concern.
The intentions of researchers are often not what is embodied by the products of that research. I honestly don’t think that the creators of genetic testing for ancestry thought that this testing would one day be used by the Canadian government to try to sort out where migrants to their country are ethnically from. But maybe they should have.
Even when we think we understand the genetics of a trait, the outcomes often aren’t as straightforward as we once believed. Particularly for a trait such as ‘nonheterosexual behavior’, where social, religious, family, and political influences also strongly affect one’s beliefs and how they may choose to reconcile those beliefs with their lifestyle. Genetics is leaping forward faster than the majority of us had probably anticipated, and we’re getting a real lesson about putting the cart before the horse.
There are some issues with how the study was conducted, as sexual identity is very complex and some of the questions have been viewed as being too binary and focused on behavior rather than sexual orientation. The researchers categorized people into two buckets: those who have EVER had ONE or more same-sex sexual experience are categorized as ‘nonheterosexual’ while those who have never had a same-sex sexual experience are categorized as ‘heterosexual’. They do make an attempt later in the study to outline that sexuality is a spectrum, but that assertion is buried amongst other extrapolations.
The data sets for this study were collected from the UK Biobank, as well as direct-to-consumer testing company 23andMe. Companies such as these encourage their customers to consent to having their DNA used for research, promising that their selfless contribution will further the field of genetics and healthcare. In all actuality, it appears that this data is being sold to entities that are using it for less medically noble endeavors. Aside from individuals not fully understanding that their data could be used for such ‘research’, they may actually unknowingly be participating in research that could potentially lead to discrimination and other harms against them in the future.
The authors of the ‘gay gene’ study determined that ‘like other behavioral traits, nonheterosexual behavior is polygenic’. There you have it folks: it’s not ONE gene. It’s LOTS of genes! Is that better? Worse? Depends on what you do with that information…
Enter GenePlaza, a company that boasts that it can take the DNA information that you’ve received from companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com and use its internal apps to tell you things like how smart you are or how good you are at math (in case your grades in school didn’t tell you already). With data taken from this new study, GenePlaza proposed that for $5.50 they could tell you exactly how gay you are.
Backlash to the announcement of the app was swift, and a petition was quickly announced in an effort to get the app shut down. Although at the time of this publication it not yet reached its goal of 2,500 signatures, it appears to have been effective as there is no sign of the app now on GenePlaza’s app site.
It’s tempting to want to give GenePlaza the benefit of the doubt. ‘Oh they just thought it would be a harmless app’ or ‘They probably just thought it’d be a good party trick’. However, the revelations that the app’s developer, Joel Bellenson, is based full-time in Uganda paired with the news that this year Uganda is announcing plans that would make the death penalty punishment for homosexuality makes it seem that something more nefarious may be at play.
As the authors of the study said, we should resist ‘simplistic conclusions because the behavioral phenotypes are complex, because our genetic insights are rudimentary, and because there is a long history of misusing genetic results for social purposes.’
Some have raised concerns about the motivation of such research studies. But once something like this is out of the bag, it’s very difficult to put back in. No matter the motivation, this is another shining example that when it comes to genetic technology, we regularly need to be asking ourselves not only ‘Can we?’, but ‘Should we?’.