EXPLODING THE GENE MYTH

A Conversation with Ruth Hubbard

Copyright © 1997 by Frank R. Aqueno. All rights reserved.

This conversation took place at the Cambridge, Massachusetts home of Ruth Hubbard on October 10, 1993, following the conclusion of the OutWrite '93 (Gay and Lesbian Writer's Conference) in Boston.

Ruth Hubbard (RH) is a professor emerita of biology at Harvard University. Author of The Politics of Women's Biology, among other books, she has worked and written on the politics of health care since the early 1970s. In 1993 Ruth Hubbard, and her son, Elijah Wald wrote Exploding The Gene Myth: How Genetic Information Is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators, and Law Enforcers. (Beacon Press) An edition that includes an updated Afterword has been published in 1997.

Frank Aqueno (FRA) is a writer and performance artist. In 1987, he published his essay, "On Choosing a Homosexual Lifestyle". In 1992, Frank confronted Simon LeVay on the Donahue Show and again on CNBC's Real Personal. He was a panel member at OUTWRITE 93's discussion of 'Science and Politics'. In June 1997, Frank co:chaired a panel "Rejecting the Gay Brain - Queer Choice" at Emory University's "Queering the South". For further information about Frank's writing and performance work, visit FRANK'S PLACE.

John Lawson (JL), at the time of this conversation, was a Senior at Tulane University majoring in English.


 

RH: So, how is the OutWrite Conference?

FRA: It was great...it was great. We had a great panel yesterday on Science and Politics.

RH: Great. Was Anne Fausto-Sterling there?

FRA: Ann Fausto Sterling...yes. Your name came up several times. I held your book up. Yeah, it was quite interesting because all of the panel...it was three women and myself...

RH: Un-huh.

FRA: And..I'm trying to think...

RH: Who were the other two women?

FRA: Who were the other two women John?

JL: Ah...

FRA: I have two of them written down here...

JL: One's a professor at...Ohio State

RH: Un-huh.

FRA: Kay Diaz was the moderator...the woman on the end, John. The first speaker was...let me see here...

RH: So was the entire panel an anti-gay gene panel?

FRA: It was. And so was the room. It was the first time I've been in a room....

RH: For heaven's sake...

FRA: ...where no one spoke for 'born that way'. It would have been difficult to do...

RH: ...yes...well, that's interesting because you see the panel I heard at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science)....they had six speakers...four of them for genes and two against. A psychiatrist and a geneticist...and the room pretty much was with the speakers for the genetics. Now these were, in part, scientists...I mean some of them were activists but they were more on the scientific side and I wonder whether the scientists are just swinging in behind this bandwagon and that the writers and the artists and so on who I suppose are more of the OutWrite crowd...can read the handwriting on the wall a little more clearly.

FRA: I hope that that's true. When did you first become interested in biology?

RH: Well, I guess in my early days in college. I became interested in biology first by being interested in being a pre-med student. My parents were both physicians. I was born in Vienna, Austria and my parents were both doctors. I went to college during World War II. The American entry into World War II happened in the fall of my Freshman year in college. And I wanted...you know...to get into something useful. That was very important. And so I decided medicine was it. And I got into biology through that. And it's only sort of during my college years that I then decided that rather than go into medicine I'd do biology.

FRA: Well I mean a great influence from parents...

RH: Right. That's right. I mean my parents weren't scientists but they certainly were interested in health care and...bodies. And they were also very political. I mean in some ways their influence on me was a political influence as well.

FRA: One of the basic questions that pops up for someone who hasn't read the book or hasn't followed the debate is....if you're 'exploding the gene myth'...what is the gene myth?

RH: The gene myth is that everything we are or do comes out of our genes. And as this National Public Television eight hours that was aired in Boston last week or two weeks ago...just said over and over again genes control the shape of our lives. I think that was a literal quote. And that genes are everything and that finding out about our genes we are going to learn... to use James Watson's phrase...what it means to be human. So that's the gene myth.

FRA: I was surprised by your book because I have a narrower view of the topic. I'm mainly interested in the myth of genes causing homosexuality...

RH: Oh, but they say genes cause everything....(laughter)

FRA: I've personally been describing your book as 'a grenade thrown into the debate'. I learned so much about the field as opposed to just this one narrow topic that is of particular interest to me. But I've found that it supported my instincts that I've had since about 1974 that something wacky was going on.

RH: Well, I'm very pleased. That's why we wrote it. We felt there was a real need for a readable book that would present this point of view. And, I think it's probably true that there is no other sort of coherent exposition of our side.

FRA: Right. I haven't found it. What has been the response?

RH: Mostly the people who write are people who like it. I've had fairly positive responses from various kinds of people and quite a lot of requests for radio and television and people wanting short articles.

JL: I wanted to ask what colleagues and peers have thought about your book...

RH: ...well some like it and some hate it. Some think it's utter junk and some are quite pleased with it...

JL: ...because it seems to implicate....seems to implicate a large number of people in terms of...

RH: ...yeah...well I'm sure they don't like it. But I do have colleagues who...you know...who share my viewpoint or share parts of it..I mean I certainly don't, you know...work in isolation...

JL: ...in terms of grants and things like that how would something like the Human Genome Project...

RH: ...well...

JL: ...to apply...or had you applied to them...

RH: ...no I haven't but this organization I work with...The Council for Responsible Genetics keeps on being urged to get money from the ELSI Program...the Ethical Legal Social Issues Program of the Human Genome Project...and we have taken the position that we want to be outside critics. We don't want to be coopted. We don't want to be part of this...but...I think they would probably love to give me money. They would love to be able to say 'look aren't we wonderful liberal people we're sponsoring these critics of our project'.

FRA: What motivated you to write Exploding the Gene Myth?

RH: I have been interested in the kind of damage that I think is inevitably going to be done to people and is already being done to people by turning everything into genetics. And, the reactionary politics -- it's not just the 'gay gene' though that's very important...but it's the general underwriting of a conservative interpretation of what is wrong with society by saying 'well what's wrong is that some people are just defective people'. I mean one way or another it's such a good excuse to frame the issues in terms of individual people's individual's foibles or problems or diseases instead of looking at what's going on in their lives and their surroundings.

FRA: I believe it was Anne Fausto-Sterling who said yesterday...she was bringing up the Genome project. She said that the problem isn't financial. The problem is that The Genome Project has to come up with problems...that in order to get more money they have to come up with problems that they are going to solve...

RH: ...well, that's right. Not only that but they have to move out of the relatively narrow sphere of the relatively few and quite rare health issues that can be readily traced to genes. Ten years ago if you had said 'genes and disease' people would have said 'oh yeah PKU I know about that...and Sickle Cell Anemia I know about that...and then if they were a little more knowledgeable they might say cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy but that's about it. Now they have to include things like cancer and heart disease and diabetes and schizophrenia and...

FRA: ...homosexuality...

RH: ....homosexuality...and criminality in order to sell to Congress a project that requires funding at this kind of level. That's one of the things that I find so annoying. I mean there's no question that there'll be some interesting biology come out of this. Some interesting biology has already come out of this. But, you know if they went to Congress and said 'there's some really interesting problems to be looked at about DNA and how it functions and...how it's involved in metabolism and development'....well you know Congress would have said 'well that's very nice now go home please...'

FRA: So you go in saying 'we can put a man on the moon'...

RH: That's right. So you go in and say if you're worried about any kind of disease....if you're all in your 50's and 60's and 70's and worried about what it is that's gonna hit you....we're gonna find out.

FRA: Did you see any of the PBS series The Secret of Life?

RH: Yes....

FRA: What did you think of it?

RH: I thought it was dreadful. I thought it was really atrocious.

FRA: I noticed the sponsors by the way...

RH: ...yes...

FRA: [laughing]

RH: ...the sponsors were worth noticing...I mean between the Human Genome Project and Upjohn...

FRA: ...yes...

RH: [laughing] You could expect about what you got. It was internally inconsistent. I mean the first two programs were all about how genes are everything. And then the next two programs were about...well that there are also all these other important factors. Visually it was spectacular. But it just bothers me like hell to have this kind of money wasted on this kind of totally garbagey presentation. This BBC 'Gene Genie', which is just a one hour thing was just so much more balanced. I mean for everything they had to say they had a person up there who had had the experience and who felt that this had not been good for them.

FRA: Who financed that?

RH: I think it was financed by the BBC. See they don't do this kind of high profile fantastically expensive stuff. So, it was quite a different thing. The thing that I have noticed in talking to people about that program who are not intimately involved in this is that it was such a mish mash that people basically came away with whatever they wanted to think about it. You could take almost anything from it.

I was also very annoyed by the sort of shallowness of the hype, particularly in the first program. I mean David Suzuki is a bright man and I realize he read a script but, I think he's still responsible because he's the one who opened his mouth and the words came out. And it just seemed so absurd to me to just stand there as though he was revealing some magnificent great truth by saying...'look we all have these same letters in us....and they add up to genes and they're the same in us as the fruitfly and the nematode worm...' Well, if that's true then how can it be so important? Then how come that's what makes us human? I mean maybe that's part of the metabolism of all kinds of creatures. But it seems to me that there's a total internal inconsistency between saying 'look, we all share this in common' and 'look, this is what makes us human'.

FRA: Yes there is. Big jump.

RH: Yeah.

FRA: Big big jump.

RH: Yeah.

FRA: If you talk to people in general about genes, they think, and so did I, that a gene is this locus...it's a spot....

RH: ....Well, the word 'gene' is used very...very fluidly. I mean the fact is that molecular biologists...people doing this work...when they talk to each other don't talk about genes. They talk about DNA sequences. And that's what one is really talking about. One is talking about pieces of chromosomes...pieces of DNA...that are involved in a metabolic network of pathways the result of which is that you get a certain kind of protein. And that protein then is active in one or another way or maybe multiple ways. The so called 'gene' is this sequence and the more people are learning about genes the clearer it is that these sequences need not be, and in general, are not continuous...but it can be this piece...and then skip these...and this piece and then skip this one...and this piece....and somehow the cell knows...and nobody knows how...that it's this piece, and this piece, and this piece...(and forget those two)...that really need to be translated into protein...

FRA: That's what I learned from your book that I didn't know before..because I tended to think of it as this one spot...this one....that you could go in and clip this gene....

RH: ...well that's what people used to think...

FRA: It is much more complex. At the conference we were talking about how everybody wants a simple life. We want simple answers. We don't want complexity. I'm talking about society as a whole...we don't want complexity...we want everything neat and tidy. Somebody was describing a piece this man has written describing the Gay Pride March in New York this year as a 'rag tag bunch of filth and lewdness' counterposed with a description of how proud he is to hang with people who dress in suits and ties and shiny black shoes...I mean, you know, this neat and tidy...non-disturbing...kind of thinking allows this type of person to say -- 'oh well, here's the gene...this'll take care of that...this'll take care of that....'

RH: Well you see, after all, the way the history of this has gone is by looking at traits, right?....looking at variation in traits and then trying to figure out how to associate those variations with chromosomes. And, fruitflies are sort of the favorite thing and seeing that, yes, there seems to be some consistency between this trait and something happening on chromosome 4...something that you actually might be able to see because in fruit flies you have large giant chromosomes where you can actually see variation, and so people have this image of a correspondence between traits and genes. Now, we're in a completely different world. You see, the next thing that happened is that most of what people learned about DNA in the early days was from E. coli, which is a bacterium which doesn't have a nucleus...which only has a single circular chromosome and where genes do seem to be continuous pieces of DNA. So, that sort of bore out this model that people had lived with...'oh yes, a gene is a piece of DNA..ah...and that piece of DNA then gets translated into RNA and that gets translated into proteins and fine...that's how it works.' Well, it clearly doesn't in organisms that have nuclei. And with that it all gets much more complicated, much more fluid, much more interesting. But, the sort of, very simple...you know...deterministic arguments that people have in their heads and feel comfortable with...just don't wash.

FRA: Well, since you brought up the word 'simple'...let's move on to Simon...

RH: ...(laughter)...

FRA: LeVay who was not in town yesterday and I understand...

RH: ...was he suppose to be?...

FRA: ...well, when I originally was asked to be on that panel I was told, in fact, I asked to be on (the Science/Politics panel at the OutWrite conference) because I was told he was going to be there...there was going to be a 'Science' panel with Simon LeVay...

RH: ...and he didn't come to the Conference at all?....

FRA: ...ah, no. When I heard that LeVay was going to be on a panel, I said to Michael Bronski who coordinated the Conference...I said I'd like to be on that panel. And, I got asked the question that I'm asked often...'what are your credentials?' I said, well, I think that's part of the problem. You know...there are scientists and academics and so forth who have taken over and are making all these decisions about our lives...as if we mere mortals cannot deal...

RH: ...right...

FRA: ...with this. I've personally been interested in this for a long time....those are my credentials. The day before we left we found out that Simon was not going to attend. I picked up the impression that Simon did not see this as lucrative...as...he did not think it was a good place to push the book...or something like that...

RH: ....but that's really sort of interesting...if that's true...that he would feel that a gay and lesbian writer's conference was not a worthwhile place to be.

FA: I've been thinking about my own sexuality since '74...but Simon wasn't published 'till '91...of course, there was the idea that one is born gay prior to that...but his work really launched a whole new era here...more than anyone else because he was a gay man...

RH: ...well...but you know...I think it's more complicated than that. The 'gay twins study' came right after LeVay...

FRA: ...right...

RH: ....you know within six months...Well the same researchers published an earlier study in the 80's. I think what's changed is the atmosphere. I think the fact that LeVay got the kind of play he did, whereas when these people did their first paper in the 80's...it was back page news. I think that's really where it's at. And, I think, in a way, it would be worth thinking about what's happened....I mean the 'gays in the military' issue wasn't there yet...but I think the whole gay rights movement...is changing all the time. And, be it because of AIDS...or...or a lot of things...(word missing) '91 is a different time from '85...and from '80......'75...and...the media pick up on 'genes' more...of course...though LeVay wasn't talking about genes...but pick up on the biological basis of homosexuality more.

I think the fact that Science is publishing these relatively shoddy papers....that they not only are publishing them but they immediately feature them....in their 'news' section...and that they get picked up by the press...I think that's the big difference. Now it's true that..that..these folk...Pillard and his colleague didn't publish in Science. They publish in the Archives of Psychiatry...or something like that. And so it doesn't get the same kind of press anyway...but I think it's also that 'genes' and biology are in the news...I mean there've been studies on genetics of alcoholism forever. But now, publish a study on the genetics of alcoholism and it's gonna be front page news.

FRA: The event that brought about the point where I got irritated and wrote to Donahue was the publication of LeVay's 'discovery' on the front page of the New York Times as opposed to the 'Science' section let's say...

RH: ...yes...

FRA: ...even the front page of the 'Science' section would have been different...

RH: ...yeah...right...

FRA: ...but to have it on the front page. I'm a thinker so I can worm my way through figuring out that LeVay and other scientists are always using this word 'suggests' a link. I'm intelligent enough to think...well...you know...the sun rises in the East and sets in the West each day and if you're on Earth observing this it suggests that the sun is revolving around the Earth. This 'suggestion' held firm for centuries. So, what is a suggestion worth in science? However, I'm also aware that most people don't do that. Most people don't see what's behind that article on the front page.

There was an article in one of the gay press papers...talking about how highly orchestrated the release of that LeVay article was by Science magazine...

RH: ...un huh...

FRA: ...what is their agenda?

RH: Genes. Well...except this wasn't genes...I shouldn't say that...I think biodeterminism is the...the better word. I mean they're very much into genes. And though LeVay wasn't actually talking genes, biodeterminism is the next best thing to genes. And the editor of Science, Koshland is totally sold on that and is totally sold, in fact, on gene therapy. I think that their real agenda is eugenics and gene therapy and...

FRA: ...this is for (rubbing fingers together for 'money' sign)....

RH: ...sure I think there's money. I think there's ideology. If you want to be generous -- okay let's do a really generous analysis of this and forget the money and the fame and all that. I think you're dealing with basically people in the liberal establishment who are living in a society that's going to hell. And...who would feel much more comfortable if they could have believable -- believable by them -- and sellable biological explanations for why things are as bad as they are. I mean, it makes for a more comfortable liberal life to feel that this is in the genes...and Koshland, the editor of 'Science' wrote this famous editorial that we quote saying that the Genome Initiative is going to come up with cures for homelessness and...I think he would like to believe that.

FRA: You don't question his sincerity?

RH: Ah...I'm being generous. I think we can make a case that a dedicated liberal who believes that biology's important...thinks that all this stress on the environment that people believed 10 or 15 or 20 years ago is just a lost cause. If we really believed that it was social conditions...then we would either have to have a revolution which they don't want...or...we'd have to say 'it's genes and well we're stuck with it'. Cause you can't change that...I mean, at my most generous...I don't think he wants to trade in his house and car and comfortable income. So I think it becomes more comfortable and convenient to believe that the world is some kind of a meritocracy -- some kind of a biological meritocracy where the people at the top are there because they have premier genes and people at the bottom are there because their genes are lousy.

FRA: I've noted a vast difference between gay men and lesbians when I talk to them about this subject.

Gay men's backs go up. I'm generalizing, of course, but the vast majority of gay men get livid and you cannot hold a rational discussion on the subject. They were 'born that way'. They 'feel' it. They've 'always been sexually attracted to men and are therefore born that way.' That logic fails Debate 101.

This extreme defensive reaction from gay men put me on alert. Why are they responding so defensively? And, especially that became true then when I started talking to women who were not that way at all for the most part...and again that's a generalization...

RH: ...sure...

FRA: ...and I began to see that several things are going on here. That women have come through a whole other process...they've been second class citizens...been treated as such and...men have not...especially white men and...they've come therefore through this political process and are educated in a lot of ways that men have just not had...men are much more sexualized in the society so...I mean...they always say to me...'I've always been sexually attracted to men'. It's all on 'sexual'...

RH: ...yes...

FRA: ...as opposed to 'loving' or 'caring' or 'responsibility' or 'relationships'...or...

RH: ...how you're treated in a relationship...

FRA: ...yes...how you're treated in relationships. I've come to the point where I now think that it is an embracing of helplessness to say 'I was born this way'. It's nurturing that helpless position. I can't see it as anything other than psychological helplessness. And the opposite is true if you say 'I've chosen to lead this lifestyle' for rational reasons. If now, today, you can say 'there are very good reasons for my living this lifestyle...here are the benefits of it...here's what it does for me...here's what it allows me to do' -- that's empowering, that's not helpless at all. And I think there's something going on there...the psychology and the dichotomy between men...lesbians and gay men that's very interesting.

RH: Yes. Yes. Well...I...I mean from the ones I have been close to...I mean I know numbers of gay men who have basically feminist attitudes....but I think it is a basically feminist analysis. I don't know any lesbians who believe that their orientation is determined by biology. I mean I know numbers of lesbians who feel they've always been that way and that 'yes I was married when I was 18 and I could have stayed married forever and I would have just been unhappy like a lot of women or pretend to be happy and so on but I knew that this wasn't for me'. But they don't put that on their biology. They put that on a whole broad spectrum of life issues. I think some of the gay men who feel so invested in this being biological seem to embrace this very shallow view of what choice means. I've seen that with Dean Hamer, the 'gay gene' scientist at the NIH. He made an absolutely virulent attack on Paul Billings at the AAAS Conference for using the term 'sexual preference' because that implies choice and Hamer thought it was politically retrograde for Billings to imply that there was a choice.

FRA: I get that all the time. I'm 'feeding the right-wing rhetoric'. That's what I get. 'You're encouraging the bigots'.

RH: That's right.

FRA: As if this comes down to 'choose one from column A and one from column B'...

RH: Exactly...exactly...

FRA: ...I don't know all the answers. It's an interesting subject to me and I've learned a lot more than I knew ten years ago, but it's not so much...my life's not so much about finding the answers it's the journey that's interesting. And, I find very few people that join me in that...that are willing to join in that journey. Well, it's very discouraging on a large scale...ah...

RH: ...I do think it's basically internalized homophobia. Or, I think that's one of the issues. I was absolutely horrified listening on the radio to some of the congressional hearings on the Gays in the Military...and to hear...I remember one...I don't remember whether he was an officer or what...testifying before the Committee and saying 'I've been to my minister. I've been to psychiatrists. Do you really think I would choose this life...if I had a choice?' Now that's just heartbreaking.

FRA: I know. It is. It seems like almost everyday the question comes at me: 'why would anyone choose to be homosexual'...these are homosexuals asking that...

RH: ...yes...

FRA: ....I always respond: Can you think of a more homophobic question to ask? That goes right over their heads. I mean it just floors me each time I hear that. LeVay has this relationship with his father that he hasn't talked that much about but his father has never accepted....

RH: ....un-huh...

FRA: ...his homosexuality and LeVay also says he set out to prove...that he believed he was born gay and set out to prove it....that doesn't automatically negate his work but it certainly leads you in a direction...what do you think his agenda is? LeVay's...

RH: I don't know. I don't know the man and I don't know his personal agenda. But you know, Simon LeVay was not a name to conjure with until 1991 when he published this paper. I mean he was just an ordinary respectable scientist and he certainly projected himself to fame if not fortune by doing this. Whether that's part of his agenda, I don't know but I don't think it's to be discounted. I think that's true also of Dean Hamer. I mean if he had gone on doing mouse genetics he could do that till the cows come home and everybody would say 'nice work, Dean'. And now he's a famous man.

FRA: My appearance with LeVay on Donahue was a result of my writing a Donahue producer. This was immediately following the front page New York Times piece. I said 'when you do this show you should have somebody on from the gay community who represents homosexuality as a choice. I never see this on any of the shows. I know several people you could get'. They called me and said: 'you!...we'd like you'. And I went. And I went with this attitude of like...oh I was going up against someone...a big gun...in a certain sense...but I also had this....I was still in awe of LeVay as a 'scientist'. And we got to...we got to the show. I was there with John DeCecco. Do you know his work? He's with the Journal of Homosexuality out of San Francisco State...

RH: ...yes...yes...

FRA: ...well John came. John DeCecco and I were in one Green Room and LeVay and the other scientist...I forget who that was...they were in the other Green Room. We were brought together just before the show. Part of LeVay's group included Dotson Rader. I don't know if you know him. He's a writer. Writes for Parade Magazine.

RH: Yes.

FRA: And as we walked in we were introduced. Dotson Rader was talking about a book he was working on about hustlers. And he was saying you know 'some of them are as young as 9 and 10 years old...working down at the piers...' And I write about the piers so my ears perked up. And as he was saying this LeVay says to him, 'well, I hope they're practicing safe sex'. And Dotson looks up and makes it clear that these hustlers are not practicing safe sex and LeVay and the other scientist go into this....LeVay: 'oh my god it's been like 10 years now that we know about this...all this information is out there...you would think they would know about...' you know on and on and from the other side of the room...it's the first thing I said. I said, 'maybe they're hungry'.

(making sound, passing hand over head) Right over their heads. I mean they turned around and looked like 'what does that have to do with it?' and I thought: These are the scientists!

Then I got a little dose of it afterwards where...we were in the greenroom following the show. LeVay was keeping his distance. I sensed he was treating me as an enemy...the thing was over...I wasn't like...I didn't feel like he was an enemy...this was a debate, a discussion....and I sensed that and so I think 'maybe he's really never heard anyone talk about choice before' and I ask him...I say 'Simon?.....Simon?' and he didn't respond and when I said 'Simon?' again -- he turned with this look like 'who is calling me by my first name?'

RH: Well, he's a Brit.

FRA: Yeah. So there was this whole 'class' you know, non-peer kind of attitude coming from him. Well, so much for the 'awe' that I went in with...it wasn't much...but it went quickly down the drain and he became much more of a real person and much more questionable as to his motives. You know I saw much more of the human problems that he had.

RH: A friend of mine who is British and a lesbian debated with him on BBC radio. And she says that he was rather meek and mild face to face. She did not find it difficult to deal with him in a debate. Did you?

FRA: No. No...I mean he...

RH: ...she found him far more hesitant than she had expected him to be.

FRA: This was my first time on a national talk show so there was some of that tension going on but I felt pretty secure as to where I was coming from. He kept saying to me 'well'...you know....'well, you're attracted...if you're attracted to women and men then you're bisexual'...I said no, I'm not bisexual...you're not going to define who I am.

He was interviewed on Charlie Rose. I tried to get a copy of the transcript before I came here....where he started out...I was amazed...he had backed off...I mean quite clearly...he said he had not proven anything...his work had been distorted...all kinds of things...I thought 'oh, this is interesting'...and THEN towards the end of the show as it's kinda winding down he goes into this whole rant about there are sections of the brain that will show us why girls like to play with dolls and boys like to play with trucks.

(laughter)

I mean get off it! The End!

RH: ...well, Steven Rose, a British neurobiologist who reviewed LeVay's book in Nature...pointed out in there that Simon LeVay's early research was on brain plasticity, which I hadn't realized.

FRA: Oh, I didn't know that.

RH: Yeah he worked with David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel at the Harvard Medical School and there he was part of the team that established the fact that, if you raise kittens with their eyelids sewed up, they aren't able to see when you first open up their eyes and that they then have to learn and they reported on the whole role of learning and the changes in the brain that occur as a result of this learning. That was his thing.

FRA: I know vision...I knew he was in vision but...

RH: ....Yes, but it was the plasticity of the visual cortex in response to stimulation by light and how the organization of the cortex...the organization of the brain...changes...with experience.

FRA: Is there any science that you know of that would support the genetic link...for the cause of homosexuality?

RH: I think that's a really interesting and complicated question because it depends on how you frame your critique. If we're simply going to say 'homosexuality is'...if we were going to say homosexuality is a biological phenomenon...sexuality is a biological phenomenon...biology that means that proteins are involved...that means that hormones are involved...that means that in some way or other genes must be involved because they are involved in metabolism...so genes, are, of course, involved in some of the biological reactions that are involved with sexuality. Now my own personal feeling is that that's not what homosexuality is about. I don't think we're talking about biology. I think we're talking about a psychosocial sexual complex of behaviors that get defined in certain ways by certain societies in certain historical moments. Behavior that may be called homosexual at one time, or by one kind of society, will not be called that at another time or by another society. I think we're talking about social characteristics rather than biological characteristics when we talk about homosexuality. And that biology may get into that...oh sure we're organisms...aren't we?...yeah and we have sex organs and yes there's biology in everything we do. So to that extent sure there are gonna be genes in it. But so what?

FRA: You said earlier about the word 'choice' that it gets used very narrowly...

RH: ...superficially...

FRA: ...superficially...I run into that all the time. What is a non-superficial way of talking about choice?

RH: Well I think it has to do with the sum total of your experience from the moment you were born or maybe earlier. What your parents expected of you. What society expected of you...the parameters within which you lived. What you have to adjust to with your friends. If I think of my own sexual development...I mean it was channeled by expectations...by my own expectations...my own seeing what went on in the world around me...plus the whole range of options that I saw...not just in the sexual realm...the areas in which I decided I wanted to run counter to the stream...the areas in which I decided I wasn't going to fight my battles...I mean there's just so much that goes on in the way one grows up. I mean none of it is a matter of accident in that it happens like this, or choice that it happens like that. There are decision points all along the way and we make choices at those times but they are all very contingent, and every choice is a choice among options. And it really depends on what the options that are out there are. I don't think about men as much as I think about women...and I can think of so many women who in an earlier generation just wouldn't ever have had even the choice to think about....being lesbian much less to be lesbian. I'm really interested in the women who did end up being lesbian at a time when it was very different. I mean I understand my own contemporaries and the women younger than myself a lot more...what happened in the 19th Century?...well they did it within their own frameworks...and did whatever they could do..and you know we have a fair amount of women's history about this and we don't know what they did in bed but we do know a lot about their loving relationships to other women and how we wish to label that...that's kinda up to us...since we can't ask them how they want to be labeled...I just think it's such a much richer picture....

FRA: ...I do too. My thinking is....given my own past...my memory...my first memories go back to early masturbatory experiences on a fence post in the back yard. My mind doesn't really go back before that time. Four or five. And trying to share that with my cousins and being told in a fairly polite way not to share the ride. And I think about things that were happening, you know, at that period where you're not able to verbalize what's going on and yet you're definitely making choices about what you're doing...and in my performance piece, QUEER PIER, one of the things I say is that as a young child, I was aware, I was conscious of the fact that men and women were not treated equally and that that had some effect on me...

RH: ...yes...

FRA: ...and I got in trouble with some women over that statement because they thought I meant that they are not equal...and, on Donahue, LeVay ridiculed that statement and said 'this is the first gay man I've met who said he was gay because women weren't his equals'...

[laughter]

What I was saying is that in the world I grew up in there was not this equality and I think that I noticed that. That my mother was treated differently than my father and that my boyfriends were treated differently than my girlfriends. That that had some effect on...my...the kind of people I wanted to interact with...the kind of relationships I wanted to make and ah..I mean I think that's just one example of the kind of...encounters one has at an early age with the world that you're in. I played with....I liked playing hopscotch and jump rope with the girls at recess and didn't want to play those stupid boy's games where you could get hurt. They were just dumb games to me and they weren't fun, pleasurable. They also weren't as creative. And what kind of effect do those kind of choiceshave? I don't mean choice as in 'I'll have potatoes not spinach...'

RH: ...exactly...

FRA: ...I don't mean 'choice' like some moment, some instant in time where I said boys not girls. Not that.

RH: ...yeah...I use,'not strawberry ice cream but vanilla ice cream'...

FRA: ...and I always get these individuals who want to simplify this to: I couldn't have chosen because I'm unable to give you a date and time....

RH: ...right...

FRA: ....where I made this choice. I mean that's a very simple and not very useful way of talking about choice...

RH: ...well it's interesting...my brother who's gay...when I told him about our phone conversation...I mean he doesn't think it's biological, but he said that he could understand much better how it would be a political choice for women, that is, what the political motivations would be for women than what the political motivations would be for men. He could see all kinds of other motivations besides feminist politics that can logically lead a woman to wanting to love other women and not want to involve herself with men. And he had a much harder time seeing a consistent political argument being built for men.

FRA: If I were born into a homosexual world I would probably choose to be a heterosexual. I want to be an outsider. In this society I want to be an outsider...

RH: ...right...okay...

FRA: ....I think it's criminal to want to be an insider...

RH: ...right....right...

FRA: ...so it has politics to it but I mean...I don't...I don't generally operate on that basis...

RH: ...right...right...

FRA: ...and it's what I have the most trouble with within my own community...all these assimilationists who want to get married and raise children. I mean it drives me up the wall. There are 40,000 dead infants piling up everyday and why are WE of all people modeling ourselves after this? I don't under...it makes no sense to me...I...I...I've yet to...I want to talk to a woman...a lesbian...who will provide me with that answer...

RH: ....my daughter, who is a lesbian, is about to have a child...

FRA: ...oh there she is...

[laughter]

I mean I think there are probably good reasons...

RH: ...she's always wanted to have a child. You know...she worked in day care before she became a lawyer. She's always known that she wanted to have a child.

FRA: I understand wanting to have a child because I wanted to have a child at one point in my life...

RH: ...but the biological part?..

FRA: ...yeah...

RH: ...what she has said is that...if she couldn't have a biological child she would adopt happily. And, she used to say...I don't know what will happen next...that she would sort of like to share the experience of birthing a child which has been the experience of so many women. And then, after that adopt...if she decides that she wants more children. And I can understand that because when I had children which was in the days of anesthetized childbirth and all that baloney...I sought out somebody who would let me have a child without knocking me out. And my feeling about it was I wanted to understand or be part of the experience that women have had through the ages and I know that of course having a child lying in hospital is not to share the experience that women have had through the ages but there is an element of it...

FRA: ...yes...

RH: ...and...and that was important to me. And I guess she feels that...that if it's possible to do...she would like to have had that experience...

FRA: ...I thought that would be the answer I would get from a woman....I just don't like to always assume that that's what I would get...It's not that I feel so strongly about it that I never see a valid case for it...it's just that the whole question is so shadowed by this pile of dead babies that pile up everyday. It sounds like your daughter thought about this a lot....I'm not as confident that many people do...certainly in life in general they don't.

RH: Right.

FRA: But they probably...lesbians and gay men probably I would think give it more thought...

RH: ...since it's a little more complicated...

FRA: ...since it's more complicated. But it's a real...you know...concern of mine...I'm real concerned about our children...I talked about this yesterday on the panel...this is where my interest in this debate comes from...is that I see the teen suicide rate in the sexual identity area is so high. I think there are young people out there right now who are feeling extremely helpless about their sexual identity and what are they being handed? -- 'you're born that way' -- And what could be more helpless than...I mean it's like a ticket to death...at that point. If you're already in sad shape and don't know how to work your way out of this and then you get handed that information...it's all over. It's just...I think it's criminal to be doing that. I feel agreat responsibility. When I talk about 'our' children I don't mean children who identify themselves as gay or lesbian...I mean all children should have...be able to make these choices about sexuality. It's all of them...

RH: ...Yes...

FRA: ...who are suffering under this. I know...I run into few heterosexuals who see heterosexuality as a choice...it's just a given.

RH: Yes.

FRA: It opens up a whole debate...

RH: ...right...

FRA: ...(inaudible) sexuality...when you talk about choice...

RH: ...right...

FRA: ...it allows everyone to...

RH: ...exactly...

FRA: ...participate...

RH: Exactly.

FRA: Where is solid genetic science that you find honorable? Does it exist? Where is the work going on that has merit as far as..?

RH: [laughter]....that's wonderful. I've just come from a board meeting of an organization I belong to called The Council for Responsible Genetics. And, periodically somebody says shouldn't we sit down and write out what we think is responsible genetics? And, of course, we've never done it. I think that there is a place...for genetics...for genetic analysis...if we're going to talk human genetics...are we going to talk human genetics?...

FRA: ...yes...

RH: ...just to narrow it a little bit. I think there's a place for genetic analysis if it is helpful to people who because of a genetic variation of one sort or another have a particular health condition they would like to understand better and especially if one then is able to identify things one can do in a medical way to make their lives better. I mean the prime example is PKU where understanding that this was a genetic variant and that it involved the metabolism of a very particular amino acid that's a common constituent of ordinary foods we eat...that if you give a child from birth or near birth a special diet that omits the proteins that contain this then this child can in fact avoid developing mental retardation and other severe symptoms. That's a really good thing. Now do you have to know about genetics to be able to do that? Well, I think what helps is just being able to understand...maybe...the way this runs in families and therefore...patterns of inheritance and therefore an element of predictability...knowing who is at risk and who is not at risk, which is useful if there's something you can do about it. That then opens the whole can of worms: What do you mean by 'something you can do about it'? And, of course, now for most of these situations 'something you can do about it' means abort. Which is not exactly what I had in mind, though, of course, women have to have the right to abort. But....I think if we're going to find more and more ways of predicting illness...or potential illness...and we can hardly ever predict how severe it's going to be. Tay Sachs disease is just about the only one where we can be pretty sure that it's going to be awful -- every other we just don't know how serious it's going to be...If you're going to offer that in the framework of increasing choice...which is how it's usually offered....then I think what you have to do is also offer ways of making it easier for women and families to have children who have one or another disability. But, we don't do that. So, again...you know...the social framework has a big role to play in what is and isn't responsible and appropriate genetics...like any other health care. I mean....it's in some ways no different from should you revive somebody who has had a stroke only to put them into a nursing home and let them be tied into their wheelchair for the next year before they have the next stroke and hopefully die. I mean unless you are prepared to supply more than what the science can provide I'm not sure that the science is ever going to be that useful or responsible. But, I think that...you know...if one put it in a proper framework there are probably good things, useful things, that genetics can do for people.

FRA: I would suspect...I mean I'm guessing here from how I know other institutions work that what happens here is you have this conflict...of...you know...Simon wants to talk about science as the pursuit of truth...which is the ideal...and then there's the business of science...the business of it. And Science magazine has its bent...this outfit has its bent...the Genome Project has its bent...and then you have to come up with justifying budgets and getting more money and getting funding and all those kinds of things. The politics of science...

RH: ...right...

FRA: ...this business of science...

RH: ...sure. But I think there is another thing that's important here...you say...Simon LeVay says science is the search for truth or whatever...there are lots of truths out there. Choices get made every day...about what we're gonna do and what we're not gonna do and what we're going to invest time and money in and what we are not going to invest time and money in. And, those processes of decision making all have a lot of politics in them...have a lot of economics in them. But, particularly have a lot of politics in them...and...it's clear that if we are going to go down the route of looking for genes for everything, we're not going to be able to also go down the route of looking for cures for a lot of things. I mean Huntingtons disease...cystic fibrosis...you name it...I mean these all had their disease foundations and had their research programs and what people were looking for were therapies and cures...instead of diagnostics. And, I would still say that looking for therapies and cures is a more worthwhile thing than looking for diagnostics. Looking for diagnostics basically is looking for the "hidden" cases. In the BBC video on genetics called The Gene Genie, they have a pediatrician on camera saying 'why there are thousands perhaps millions of people out there who have that gene who don't even know it'. And that's the point. You know...if you've got millions of people out there who have that gene who don't know it...okay...so why not let it be that way?. And, this thought that you're doing something utterly wonderful by telling people that they have this problem built into them which they aren't aware of...that is a benefit to society? Now it's a benefit to society because you can then do predictive genetics and...abort. Or, if people decide to do gene therapy, manipulate genes or manipulate embryos.

FRA: There's a play opening on Broadway called Twilight of the Golds. A gene identified homosexual fetus. I guess the decision is to abort. I know that the issue is that the fetus has the 'gay gene'.

RH: Right.

FRA: I mean this is...

RH: ...it's the inevitable outcome.

FRA: It's the inevitable outcome. I was struck by that headline from the British tabloid that you comment on in your book:

["GAY GENE PROVIDES ABORTION HOPE"]

RH: I got that because I was doing an interview at the time with someone from Britain. Oh, I think somebody from the London Times...the Sunday Times or something like that who immediately gave me that...

FRA: ...so you actually saw that headline in print?...

RH: ...oh yeah...they sent me the thing...

FRA: ...that was...

RH: ...because the Times...the New York Times...insisted that I actually see the thing in print not just take it over the phone. So they faxed me the thing.

And...I hadn't realized but in the current health debate apparently the Clinton folks have decided that they cannot afford to provide financial support for people who are born with disabilities that don't count as medical. That is, if you need a wheelchair or you know...need special training or special education or something like that...they can't pay for that. But they can pay for diagnostics and they can pay for abortion.

JL: Where are they coming down on...predictive medicine?

RH: They are ready to pay for that.

JL: Your book points out explicitly that predictive medicine's gonna be more expensive or it's gonna fail...

RH: ...if they're gonna pay for predictions and pay for abortions but not pay for services that surely stacks the deck.

FRA: In your book you talk about the fact that much of the genetic research is being sold on the basis of future cures for this disease or that disease. What's the track record so far?

RH: There isn't one. I mean there really is nothing yet. There's nothing yet. And...you know...as we say in the book, with sickle cell anemia we've known the genetics, we've known the protein...known that for 30 years, 35 years...and yet no really good therapy and certainly no cure...

FRA: And yet on PBS' The Secret of Life which we referred to earlier they made it so exciting by saying that we're so close to that cancer cure...

RH: ...Yeah....right...we can have bilateral "preventive" mastectomies. I don't think [in the book] we even talk about the bilateral mastectomies yet because they hadn't put that thought out yet.

FRA: What is that?

RH: Well, that's the preventive. You see, if they get out a diagnostic test for the "breast cancer gene" and a woman knows that she is at risk one of her "options" is to have both her breasts removed "preventively".

FRA: Do you have an agenda?

RH: Do I have an agenda? Yes. I want genes out of this discussion. Yes, my agenda is to downplay genes because I think that lends itself to discrimination, lends itself to eugenics...individualizes...takes the focus away from larger social questions. Yes, I have an agenda.

FRA: And what should we put on the agenda? How should we be talking about all these...

RH: ...I think we should (a) contextualize everything, not just talk about individuals and their habits and so on...and (b) I think that if there are health conditions that need to be ameliorated then we ought to figure out how to do that. And in many situations that, in fact, requires social measures, public health measures...whatever...rather than individual measures. I mean you talk about all the babies dying. They aren't dying because of genes. I think we ought to focus on what the problems are and by and large our problems are not about genes. I think it's a reactionary and destructive way to look at people...look at health...what it is to be human.

JL: Earlier you were talking about a revolution. Do you think it's really possible to get out of these current modes or do you think we'll just transfer into another mode of discriminatory thinking? Cause what I'm most struck by in your book is the class implications of it. I've been reading a lot of 19th century fiction and doing a lot of research and background and finding how class and racial situations...these are very bound together...how they reflect and are reflective and it seems...and you imply in your book how it's moved into the 20th century and the 1990's. Do you think it's possible? Do you think it's.....realistic?

RH: Well, let me answer it on two levels. One is, I think anybody who's politically active in a sense almost can't afford to ask that question. But apart from that, I think times have changed. See, when we're talking about gay genes, by and large you're talking about a pretty priviliged population. The moment you move out of the privileged populations, people know they're getting shafted. When you spoke about the difference between lesbians and gay men...if you move into communities of color, they know that the things that are coming down the pike about genetics are likely to be used against them. I think even among the more privileged populations as people are having more experience with genetic discrimination and things like that...they see that this emphasis on genes is more likely to hurt them than help them...and I think, in fact, the constituency for opposing this kind of thing is increasing rather than decreasing as the practices get used more and more and it becomes clearer what it's about.


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