Pride: In Your Genes?

Posted by Daniel Sharp June 28, 2012
Biopolitical Times
A picture of the Genentech float from a past pride parade. The float used this year was extremely similar, if not the same.

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of the landmark event that began the gay rights movement: the Stonewall riots. Stonewall has always had a particular place in my heart: it’s one of those special political moments when a group of individuals spontaneously stand up in the face of injustice and say “Enough!” Last Sunday, Stonewall’s anniversary was commemorated by the 42nd annual San Francisco Pride Parade.

“Pride,” for LGBT folks such as myself, is a loaded term. Many of us embrace it with a pinch of irony, after growing up closeted and shamed by oppression and intolerance. Coming to recognize oneself as an LGBT or otherwise queer person and claiming “pride” as one’s identity is a highly cultural – and experiential – affair, one which would not be possible without the rich and vibrant queer communities many have worked hard to build.

This year, as I stood watching the Pride Parade, I was struck by a strange float passing in the street. The big, blue, shimmering platform read “Genentech” on the side, and was adorned with dancing biotech workers whose shirts read: “Pride is in Our Genes.”

The allusion to the (in)famous and elusive “gay gene” struck me as a bit off, to say the least. “Pride” – both the experiences it invokes and the celebrations that commemorate them – has always been a day to savor the triumphs of my community over societal stigmas and political and economic disenfranchisement. To reduce this rich context and history to a matter of genes seems naïve at best.

There’s of course a long history of claiming that LGBT identities are somehow “written” into DNA. Just last week, the latest version of the “gay gene” made its obligatory rounds through Think Progress, Huffington Post, Medical Daily, and other outlets. This time, a new study argued that the gay male “gene” boosts the evolutionary benefit of making the sisters of gay men more reproductively successful:

But how might the "gay man gene" make females more reproductively successful? A new study by Camperio Ciani and his team addresses the question for the first time. Previously, the Italian researchers suggested that the "gay man gene" might simply increase androphilia, or attraction to men, thereby making the males who possess the gene homosexual and the females who possess it more promiscuous. But after investigating the characteristics of 161 female maternal relatives of homosexual and heterosexual men, the researchers have adjusted their hypothesis. Rather than making women more attracted to men, the "gay man gene" appears to make these women more attractive to men.

I understand the impulse to look for something “in our genes” that determines one’s sexual orientation: it can make some people feel more “natural” in a world still sadly full of discrimination. And, at times, such claims have served politically expedient ends, making claims to equal rights more digestible to certain publics. But, genetic determinism also obscures the historical and political context of hard-fought achievements and community building which make the word “pride” meaningful for folks like me in the first place.

The “gay gene” is as much about the stories our culture spins to give meaning to the concept of “sexual orientation” as it is about any “scientific” truth, which is precisely why these sorts of claims invariably get so much traffic in the news. That’s all well and good, but we have to make sure we’re telling the right story: politically, factually, and historically. 

Previously on Biopolitical Times: