An upcoming panel discussion, Who Are You? Genetics and Identity, will attempt to tackle the questions genetic research present in regards to identity.
Presented by the American Medical Association, the Center on Halsted, Columbia College and the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, panelists will discuss whether knowledge obtained through genetic research can impact long-held notions on topics such as sexual orientation and race, and how this knowledge can affect how we perceive ourselves and others.
The event features panelist Timothy Murphy, Ph.D., professor of philosophy in the biomedical sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Murphy is also author of the book Gay Science: The Ethics of Sexual Orientation Research.
Windy City Times spoke with Murphy about the current state of research, fears of the LGBT community and what can be gained through such research.
Windy City Times: What is the current state of sexual orientation research?Read more story below....
Timothy Murphy: It's never been a big field. New scientific techniques are being applied to sexual orientation in ways they never have been in the past. There's a variety of research going on. Genetics seems to get the limelight because we tend to think genetics is the ultimate explanation of everything. But there are other kinds of studies looking for biological correlations between sexual orientation—you may have seen some of these: the way people blink, finger length ratios, hearing capacities, densities of your fingerprints. At the talk I'll give some samples of these things.
It's not a well-developed field, by any means.
WCT: Why is that?
TM: Well, it's difficult because sexual orientation probably isn't traceable back to one thing and one thing alone—a variety of features can contribute to an adult's sexual interest.
WCT: Some feel that such research can pose a threat to the community. What is your response to that?
TM: Well, my talk isn't even going to be about that. My talk will more be geared toward the idea that sexual orientation as genetic is used by some people to consolidate an identity. So, in other words, some gay folks tend to think that science explains their sexual orientation, and therefore, makes it an involuntary feature. Now, if that's true, then you got a really strong objection against the moral arguments and the moral condemnations of sexuality as some sort of natural state. The view that sexuality is genetic has a lot of political traction because where people tend to believe it, they tend to be more tolerant of gay people. That's not a well studied phenomenon, but it seems to be true. Populations that tend to think homosexuality is involuntary and genetic tend to more tolerant than those who think it is a chosen behavior. For that reason, this idea of genetics is real large in the way people consolidate it as a psychological and political identity.
I think the evidence is still out that sexual orientation is genetic in any simple way. The conclusions are way ahead of the evidence. There aren't that many studies.
WCT: In terms of genetic research on sexual orientation, even if researchers use it in a way against the community or to harm the community, is it still a good thing to be focusing on?
TM: [ Spoke about the controversy regarding local research on sexual orientation, and a local paper that urged LGBT people not to participate in the study. ] I understand that this is a sensitive topic, but most of these predictions are unlikely to happen.
WCT: Where do you think that fear comes from?
TM: I take it as a measure of the insecurity of gay people in this society. If gay people feel secure, they are not going to worry about their future.
WCT: What can the LGBT community do to ensure that any type of research has a negative impact? Would it be to focus on our rights instead?
TM: What's true about genetic sexual orientation research is true about all genetic studies, which is we have to prevent people from involuntary treatments and therapies.
WCT: How do you think knowledge that comes out of this type of research will change the perception of LGBT?
TM: I'm not very good at predicting, but I do know that it is better to have facts then to speculate about what causes sexual orientation. I think you can get just as much damage about speculation about where sexual orientation comes from than presenting the facts right in front of you.
The discussion will take place on April 18 at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, 6-8 p.m., 618 S. Michigan. Although the event is free and open to the public, reservations are required. Call 312-422-5580.