Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2001

Could a brave new world of nightmare biotechnology bring about a “cure” for homosexuality even before a person is born? In an article that first appeared in Out West, Mike Foxwell argues that we can do something right now to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen.

Gay Genes and Soya Beans

by Mike Foxwell

From forensic DNA fingerprinting to the Monsanto corporation’s genetically modified soya beans, the message is the same: genes are what control life and we (or rather they), through genetic engineering, control genes.

If designer human beings are not yet fashionable, genetic engineering’s plaudits are already getting wide support for human gene modification in an attempt to defeat life-wrecking hereditary diseases. But do genes really program and control life in the simplistic way we are told by the scientists and, moreover, their paymasters, the multinational corporations?

Already we hear from researchers such as Dean Hamer that a gay gene will provide the “answer” to why homosexuality exists. Leaving aside the ethical question of why it matters why people are homosexual, even if Hamer’s gay gene exists, will it really be that simple to cut and paste human genetic material to promote whatever is thought to be desirable at the time and eliminate what isn’t?

If we look at the work of Hamer’s group in trying to establish an aetiological link between genes and male homosexuality (“A Linkage Between DNA Markers on the X Chromosome and Male Sexual Orientation”, Science 261 (1993), pp. 321-7) we see that the truth is rather different from the hype. The study purports to present statistical evidence that genes influencing sexual orientation exist in the q28 region of the X chromosome. Hamer and his colleagues used a group of 40 pairs of gay siblings in their study and expected to find that half of the pairs of siblings would share the same Xq28 region. This is because, although a mother has two X chromosomes, only one is passed on to a male child. In fact they found that 33, not the expected 20, pairs shared their Xq28 region.

The story of the red and white petunias

What is much more significant, though, is that, although the concordant pairs did have their Xq28 regions in common, none shared the exact Xq28 gene sequence. Furthermore, in the concordant group, although each man shared his Xq28 region with his brother, he did not share it with any other of the 65 men in this group. Finally, no single specific Xq28 sequence was common to all 66 men. So where is the gay gene? It seems that, although genes do program life, they do so in a far more complex and subtle way than the genetic engineers would have us believe.

Further evidence against the function-specific theory of genes can be seen in an experiment that was performed in Germany in 1990. In this study the gene that is supposed to produce the red colour in maize was transferred, together with another for resistance to antibiotics, to white petunias. When a field was planted out with these genetically modified petunias, the scientists just expected a blaze of red blooms and otherwise no differences from normal white petunias.

What happened instead was that, although the flowers were indeed red, the plants grew more leaves and shoots and were more resistant to fungal attack, but were less fertile. None of these unrelated multiple side effects, known as “pleiotropic” effects, were predicted because the genetic engineers didn’t know that genes operate in a highly interdependent and unpredictable way.

In another experiment with petunias it was decided to make red petunias redder. This was to be done in typical simplistic fashion by putting in more of the “red” gene. Instead of getting flowers with a deeper red colour, only half were in fact red at all – the rest being either white or pink! What this demonstrated was an effect known as “gene-silencing”, whereby adding another copy of a gene seems to result in the gene’s being turned off altogether. Worse still, some of the red flowers gradually turned white!

Just imagine what could have happened if these techniques had been used on human beings instead of petunias. We must remember that the pleiotropic effects that afflicted the petunias were simply the macro manifestation of things that had gone wrong at a microbiological level; who knows the real extent of the damage done to these plants?

It is sadly not difficult to envisage a genetic “cure” for homosexuality being invented. This could happen even if well-intentioned workers such as Dean Hamer are able to prevent the results of their work being misused, which is an unbelievably naïve hope when one considers the profits to be gained by the multinational corporations from biotechnology. But, even if this could be done in America and Europe, what about the rest of the world, where draconian antigay legislation is widespread?

Take Singapore for example. Here a National University of Singapore psychiatrist asked whether “pre-symptomatic testing for homosexuality should be offered in the absence of treatment”, clearly showing that he believed that homosexuality is an illness and should be cured. Similar attitudes prevail in China, and in the Islamic countries the situation is worse still: there, homosexuality is punishable by torture and death.

Once the gen(e)ie is out of the bottle it will be too late. We have only to look at the way nuclear bomb-making material has got into the hands of the despotical regimes we were told would never be allowed to own such technology.

So, then, despite all the best intentions and reassurances, suppose we end up with a genetic-engineering “cure” for homosexuality – or indeed any other normal human trait or even a heritable disease such as haemophilia. Then what? Then, what is true for petunias will no doubt be true for us, and we can expect people to be born with a whole range of unpredicted – and probably unpredictable – “side effects”. Maybe we will see people born “cured” of their foetal homosexuality by genetic manipulation, but maybe going on to develop very long arms or small heads, or having the disposition to develop skin cancer by the time they’re twenty. Who knows? Maybe that will be the form homophobia of the future will take. Instead of hating us for who we sleep with, the homophobes can revile us for all the physiological and/or mental defects that went with the genetic “cure”.

Actually, though, it is probably effects such as pleiotropy and gene-silencing that will end our love affair with genetic engineering.

You can fight it in your local shop or supermarket

And yet another complication is that of genetic instability. It has been shown that the genetic profile of modified plants such as rice is not stable over time. Plants with inserted genes tend to acquire more or fewer copies of the new gene over a number of generations. This effect, in combination with the other two, could have grave and unknown consequences if human beings are genetically modified. While the deleterious results of genetic instability can be avoided by destroying the old plants and using only new seed from controlled stock for each sowing (as is the case with the F1 hybrid plants we have already), this can’t be used with people. Not this side of a eugenics nightmare, anyway.

Already with its genetically engineered plants Monsanto is fighting a growing number of litigations brought because its plants are not doing what was expected. For example, many of those farmers who grew Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant cotton in the nineties incurred severe crop losses as the cotton balls fell off the plants. No one knows why. A similar thing happened in 1996, when this time Monsanto’s pest-resistant variety of cotton couldn’t withstand the stress of high temperatures in the Southern USA. The plants were infested with hordes of boll weevils, which would have destroyed the crops entirely if they hadn’t been sprayed with insecticides.

We can all play our part in derailing this dangerous brand of biotechnology, and the fight starts in the local shop and supermarket, where we can boycott genetically modified foods. Although corporations like Monsanto are trying to circumvent food-labelling regulations that require genetically modified foods to be so labelled, many suppliers and retailers, such as Iceland, have eliminated genetically modified ingredients from their own-brand products.

We should support them and demand that others follow their lead. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are running campaigns against genetically modified food, and we should get involved in them too.

If we don’t stand up for soya beans today, tomorrow it will be us.


This article was written at a time when Monsanto looked ready to dominate the world: it had initiated $8 billion worth of mergers and captured a huge share of the global seed and agrochemicals market.

Amazingly, by December 1999, Monsanto had all but disappeared. Mounting consumer fears about the safety of its products, along with the reluctance of farmers to plant its seeds and financiers to invest, caused its share price to plummet, and Monsanto was swallowed by the drugs company Pharmacia and Upjohn.

This rapid downturn in Monsanto’s fortunes is an object lesson. Surely no-one can now doubt the power we hold when we stand up for soya beans.

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Created : Sunday, 2001-09-30 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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