Monday, April 9, 2012

How 23andMe Scared Me

My questions: Do genes determine sexual orientation, and is 23andme trying to answer this question? Is this ethical? What are the advantages to this, and why should people like me be concerned? 

While anticipating my results from 23andme, my biggest concern was finding out I had an increased chance for some serious life-threatening disease (Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, etc.). I was relieved to learn that this was not the case, and overall my health seemed to be okay. However, upon receiving my DNA analysis, my heart skipped a beat. Why? 23andme wanted me to participate in a survey about my sexual orientation. I am also gay. Ironically, I did not become eligible for this survey until the same day my results were delivered to me. Timely coincidence? Maybe. I’m not sure if anyone else was invited to participate in this survey, however in my mind the following thought occurred: that, maybe, 23andme is conducting research about a possible biological basis for sexuality, and they identified a genetic marker in me. Paranoid? Possibly. But it’s not such a novel idea. 

I recently watched an episode of Law and Order where this subject was discussed. In the show, the idea was held that by identifying a genetic marker, one’s sexuality could be determined before birth. The father in that episode wanted his pregnant wife to have an abortion because his child-to-be had that marker. 

Although it would be a fascinating find, should geneticists really be trying to discover this? Homosexuals face discrimination just like other minorities, we’re just fortunate enough to be able to hide our differences if needed. That is the advantage of “being gay” instead of belonging to another social group which experiences discrimination: it’s almost like an invisible identity, and is only visible if the individual is comfortable enough with it. By discovering a genetic marker that could determine sexual orientation, homosexuals would lose that advantage - they could even possibly be screened before birth. Of course, parents want the best for their child, and some might consider this to be a problem. Or maybe the child would be born into a homophobic or extremely conservative family. The amount of abortions could skyrocket. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme. Regardless, I think that homophobic discrimination would augment greatly. 

However, this type of research could be a good thing, too. I, personally, would love to know if there is a genetic reason for my sexual preferences, for curiosity’s sake. It would also dispel the idea that: “gays choose to be this way” or “homosexuality is unnatural or immoral”. Because no, I don’t “choose” to be this way, I just am. And no, I’m not an immoral person. I actually am very proud of my morals. Many people in favor of gay rights would think of this as a good thing.

But, as I stated before, I think in the long run this would just cause more discrimination by those who are against homosexuality. For me, my sexuality isn’t my defining feature - there’s more to me than being attracted to people of the same sex. But, not everyone considers that. From my own perspective, it seems like people hold onto that one aspect of identity, and don’t really consider anything else. In fact, I had a friend once, who, upon learning my sexual orientation started introducing me to her friends as “This is (name). (S)he’s gay”. It is immature and irrelevant to introduce someone like that. 

So sorry I went on a tangent, but this was the part of 23andme that worried me. It made me feel vulnerable, as if the researchers knew that I was gay. I’ve always considered myself fortunate to be fairly discrete about my preferences, but just by “becoming eligible” for this survey, I felt like I was being targeted. If the data obtained from identifying a “gay gene” wouldn’t be misused, then I wouldn’t be so concerned. But, there is a possibility that it could be, and that is important to remember. 

If you’re interested more in this, I skimmed an article that goes into more detail about my post: http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/ViewPage.aspx?pageId=77

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this deeply insightful post with us!

    And, the survey you write of just popped up in my 23andMe account several days ago and I caught something on Facebook or otherwise announcing this new research initiative.

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  2. I have a post that I keep trying to put up but I can't seem to find the button to simply POST something! I feel like other people must be having this issue...I'll keep looking!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "New post" gets you to the form. and when you're ready you can "preview it" or just "publish" it. That's how you post it. In blogging lingo "publish" is the verb "post" is the noun you publish and "blog" is the venue where you publish your post.

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  3. Also, that was a a really interesting post! It's difficult to form an oppinion on something like that, its just so complex!...I just wonder how many positive effects there could be in the discovery of a "gay gene"? Personally, I don't see that many. I suppose there is a chance that it could open people up to homosexuality more, and allow those who are gay to be more comfortable with themselves and recognize that they are completely normal and natural, and shouldn't have any fear in being themselves, because, though it may be enironmental, there is a "gay gene"!...Besides that, it is a bit worrisome of who could get their hands on that information and what they could possibly do with it...

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  4. 23andMe here - we saw your blog post and want to assure you that our new survey about orientation was released to all 23andMe customers at the same time (March 30th). The invitation to participate is not connected in any way to your genetic results. We certainly want you to feel comfortable exploring your own DNA.

    We anticipated that a survey about orientation would raise questions, which is why we outlined our thinking on our blog, The Spittoon. Essentially, sexual orientation is the single-most requested topic for new research by our customers and a relatively understudied area. We don't know what we'll find, but do hope to advance the understanding of the factors underlying sexual orientation. Follow the link to read our "Do Ask, Do Tell" post in full: http://spittoon.23andme.com/2012/03/30/do-ask-do-tell/

    Please write to help@23andMe.com if you have further questions.

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  5. By participating in 23andme, how are we not doing choice evolution? Even by knowing simple small stuff.... Scary. I'd love to participate in it, but this did cross my mind.

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  6. " In the show, the idea was held that by identifying a genetic marker, one’s sexuality could be determined before birth. The father in that episode wanted his pregnant wife to have an abortion because his child-to-be had that marker.

    Although it would be a fascinating find, should geneticists really be trying to discover this? ..."

    Hi DNAnonymous,

    I don't think we need to worry about this because it isn't going to happen: we'd only be able to make tentative, probabilistic predictions. If a genetic marker like the one imagined in the TV show existed, then we would already know about it, from looking at patterns of homosexuality occurrence in family trees. As I understand it, the evidence to date shows suggests both environmental (cultural) and perhaps genetic components to male homosexuality: which is another way of saying that if you give me someone's genome, that alone is not enough for me to confidently predict whether they are gay or not. So I think what 23andme might find is (a) nothing, and (b) some genes that are correlated with homosexuality: i.e. if you have the gene, the probability that you are homosexual increases by X %, depending on the environment/culture in which you live. I don't think it's plausible that they will find a gene with the property that if you have it you are definitely going to be gay.

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