The gene for being gay

You read the zaniest things in science fiction. The genre has the disadvantage that it isn’t quite as gripping or dramatic as, say, crime; however, in its favor, it leaves behind big imprints in the memory and imagination that quite outstrip its emotional impact.

For instance, I read today a story called Cocoon about a biomedical company that makes an implant that prevents various chemicals, toxins and infections from passing through the placenta from mother to foetus. This story has an interesting science tidbit. Apparently, when we undergo stress, either physical or emotional, the body releases two chemicals into the blood. One is adrenaline, whose release is very short term. The other is cortisol, which gets released over a longer period of time. Like any other blood borne chemical, it finds its way through the placenta into a foetus from the mother.

Now according to the story (and I do not know if this is real science or not), cortisol plays a key role in the neural development in a foetus. It helps shape two related areas of the brain: the area related to self image, and the area related to sexual attraction. A baby doesn’t know whether it’s male or female until these two areas are developed. Cortisol affects this development, and so it may control the sexual orientation of the person that the foetus grows up to become.

The stress response of a body, and therefore cortisol production, is regulated by a group of genes. These genes, when initially discovered, were thought to be the ‘gay gene’, because they appeared disproportionally in homosexuals. However, it was later found that these genes were, in fact, regulating the mother’s cortisol reaction to stress.

The story was interesting in its own right but also as a trigger for thinking about my own views on homosexuality. I certainly do not think homosexuality should be illegal as it is in India now. This is because I do not believe the law should have any purview over matters which do not affect civic well-being. I also think there should be equal rights for things like hospital visitations for both homosexual and heterosexual couples. In fact, I see no relationship between visitation rights and sleeping together rights. Areas where I am still trying to figure out where I stand are government and religion. Why do the Bible and Koran explicitly forbid homosexuality? I used to think it was to encourage childbearing and child raising. However, I remember Bala pointing out some time back that many of the societies where homosexuality is taboo, also accord immense respect to celibacy (for example in priesthood). So there is some reasoning behind the historical taboo of homosexuality than merely because gay people cannot have kids. On the legal front also, I am in two minds. I know that in the US, for example, you can choose to file taxes jointly as a married couple and this often works out cheaper than filling individually. Should this be extended to gay couples too? I think this would lead to abuse; where would you draw the line? Would you allow same sex couples that do not sleep together to file taxes together? How about roommates filling together? Thin edge of the wedge. But in this case, I feel the problem is in the original law because I do not see any reason to give a tax break to married people in the first place.

Coming back to Cocoon, I guess you can see where the author is headed. By preventing cortisol from reaching a kid through the mother, the company at the center of the tale is able to make a product that will guarantee that your offspring will be heterosexual, raising the prospect that in a couple of generations, there will be no more gay people in the world.

Would this be a gain, loss, or don’t-care? I don’t know. I haven’t yet read a story, or watched a movie, whose creator is able to channel his or her homosexuality to give us a compellingly different perspective, the way that women authors (Jane Austen, for one) were able to tell us stories from a feminine point of view that no man could have written. But maybe that’s because I just haven’t read enough.

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