Is there really a gay gene?

Ros Wynne-Jones
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The name Chandler Burr may as yet mean nothing on this side of the Atlantic. He is a gay science journalist based in Washington who has just published a book in America, and he is very big news over there.

It is not hard to see why. In his book, Mr Burr accepts as scientific fact the existence of a gay gene; he suggests it may eventually be possible to "cure" homosexuality by the use of antibiotics, and he claims that a silicon chip is already being developed which will be able to identify the future sexual orientation of a foetus. Mr Burr is about to bring his ideas and his book, A Separate Creation: How Biology Makes Us Gay (Bantam Press), to Britain.

When he comes he will leave behind him in the US a storm of controversy. "People are getting hysterical over parts of it," he says. "They have stomped out of book signings and lectures." Meanwhile, his assertion that the incidence of male bisexuality is so minimal as to barely exist has had consequences among his own circle of friends: "I've ruined two dinner parties this week where people have just walked out."

The consequences of research on the gay gene have an impact that extends beyond gay issues, he says. It means we can move towards curing genetic diseases, curbing violent behaviour and having a better understanding of IQ. "Homosexuals are always asking, 'Why are you picking on us?' That is paranoia. We have a saying in America: 'This is not about you.'"

Mr Burr says his aim is to tell the truth, and other people should be ready to face up to it. "I am a science journalist. I am reporting on biological facts and theories. I am not going to stop the research, you are not going to stop the research, no one is. We have to face up to it."

He acknowledges the controversial implications of his book, but says the truth must come out. "I want to be sensitive," he says. "But at a certain point they can go to hell. They are just going to have to deal with it."

"They", in this case, are a very large and varied group: both Left and Right, gay and straight, conservative and liberal.

Mr Burr's work leans heavily on the findings of Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute near Washington, who became an overnight celebrity after publishing evidence that many gay men carried an identical version of a small segment of the X chromosome known as Xq28. The study, based on 40 pairs of homosexual brothers, led to gay men donning T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "Thanks for the genes, Mom!"

To Mr Burr, the work of Dr Hamer and his colleagues means the existence of a gay gene is now beyond debate. But to Professor Steve Jones of University College, London, author of In The Blood: God, Genes and Destiny, the gay gene theory "does not look at all good at the moment". He is concerned, among other things, that when the tests on which Dr Hamer based his findings were repeated, they did not provide the same data. "This is not uncommon in genetic work," he says. "A similar thing happened with cystic fibrosis. But at the moment the jury is out on the gay gene."

Peter Tatchell, the spokesman for Outrage!, the gay rights campaign group, accuses Mr Burr of "bad science". "I totally reject the idea of a gay gene," he says. "Although there may be some biological influence on sexual orientation, it is highly unlikely that something as complex as human sexuality is caused by genetic factors alone. Indeed all the evidence from psychology, sociology and anthropology suggests that cultural values and peer pressure are the primary determinants of sexual preference."

Prof Jones is even more sceptical about Mr Burr's theory that homosexuality may be a genetic/bacterial condition which might eventually be "cured" by antibiotics. This idea is based on a study of a species of wasp called trichogramma, which is female. When they were treated with an antibiotic, male wasps appeared.

"The reason was that bacteria were co-opting the reproductive organs," says Mr Burr. "The bacteria only appeared in eggs and not in sperm, giving them a specific genetic agenda." He maintains that similar bacteria may be at work in the human body. It may be carried by women, he says, with the advantage of enhancing reproduction, but have the genetic side-effect of making men homosexual. In which case, he reasons, homosexuality might be treatable by antibiotics.

Prof Jones is familiar with the trichogramma research, which is a very exciting new piece of thinking, he says - for wasps.

"It has, however, taught us sweet bugger all about humans. Next, we'll be trying to apply knowledge about the fact that potatoes don't have males."

Mr Tatchell has a question for Mr Burr. "After the wild promiscuity in the gay community in the 1970s, during which gay men were given very hefty doses of antibiotics for various sexually transmitted diseases, why didn't all those men become straight?" Another piece of research that Mr Burr is enthusiastic about is the effort to develop a silicon chip made of DNA which can discern a foetus's future sexual orientation. "It would be able to detail the genetic make-up of an unborn child, with the unpalatable consequence that expectant mothers would theoretically be able to abort a gay foetus."

Again, Prof Jones is not convinced. The British geneticist has a cautionary tale, which he quotes in In The Blood. In 1937, a German geneticist called Theobald Lang thought he had located the "cause" of homosexuality on the X chromosome. The German medical establishment decided discriminatory laws should be abolished because the trait was in-born; the Nazis' view was that since homosexuals were not sick people to be pitied, they should be sterilised and eliminated.

"It's like this debate," says Prof Jones. "The Right will use this for their purposes and the Left for theirs. In the case of Germany in the 1930s, I think we know what happened."

Mr Burr will be in Britain from 11 July.