The Hand of Fate

The woman with the short-cropped hair presses her hand on top of another person's hand,which is lying flat on the inkless fingerprint pad. She then applies the stranger's hand to a piece of yellow paper. The hand, which is one of hundreds Lynn Hall has inked, is mine. And the prints are for demonstration purposes only. Had this print been part of her study, for which Hall is seeking funding from the National Institutes of Health, I would have been an identical twin, and most likely gay. I would have been helping Hall discover if there are in utero environmental factors that help determine sexual preference. Hall is looking into whether fingerprint patterns can be used as roadmaps of sorts to prove that events in the womb can trigger a genetic predisposition toward homosexuality. Given the nature and sensitivity of her research, there is chilling irony in the fact that she is taking my prints with tools supplied by the Faurot Crime Detection Equipment Co. Because opponents of her study -- a group that includes human sexuality researchers and several Philadelphia-area gay activists -- say that not only is it naive to look so narrowly for the factors behind sexual preference, but it is also potentially dangerous. Hall -- who claims to be the only researcher in Philadelphia probing the link between biology and sexuality -- says she is conducting her study because "it is hard to discriminate against people if their traits are innate and immutable. Illuminating the etiology of homosexuality will reduce fear and hatred." But Hall's critics see it differently. They worry about the anti-gay, Christian and increasingly influential fundamentalist right, which considers anything other than heterosexual, married sex a crime against nature. Those people, the critics fear, would like nothing better than to have a method for identifying homosexuals. Standing next to a counter in the cramped, dingy office that serves in part as her laboratory, Lynn Hall, 34, admits that she does have a slight problem with conducting her research. She gets dizzy after staring closely at the whorls and loops and criss-crossing lines that are etched into the human hand. But Hall says those lines, formed inside the womb around the same time as the brain's wrinkles are formed, tell an important tale. "To date, most psychological theories of homosexuality have focused on postnatal socio-cultural factors to explain sexual orientation," says Hall. "Many researchers have found these to be insufficient." Hall says she is basing her work on the results of other studies on the biological underpinnings of human sexuality. "There is good circumstantial evidence to suggest that prenatal factors are involved," she says. "These include studies of the brain which indicate that gay males have several brain structures which are more similar in size to the brains of heterosexual females than they are to heterosexual males." A 1991 study by Northwestern University psychology professor J. Michael Bailey and Boston University professor Richard Pillard showed a possible genetic link to homosexuality. Bailey and Pillard found that, of the relatives of gay study subjects whose sexuality could be determined, 52 percent of identical twins and 22 percent of fraternal twins were also gay. In comparison, the Bailey-Pillard study showed that 11 percent of adoptive brothers of gay subjects -- roughly the societal average -- were also gay, showing that postnatal shared environment is not much of a factor in sexual preference. Hall says she is studying identical twins because they share the same genetic coding. "Identical twins have the same genes," she says. "Therefore any differences are due to the [in utero] environment." Fingerprints, and specifically the number and direction of ridges on each hand, are among physical characteristics that can differ in identical twins. Hall says she is employing a method of counting and comparing finger ridge counts used in a 1992 study of identical twins and schizophrenia, and later in a University of Western Ontario study of male sexual orientation. Building on the 1992 study, Western Ontario researchers Jeff Hall and Doreen Kimura set out to learn if there are any differences in the finger ridge counts of hetero- and homosexual identical twins. Hall and Kimura, in a report issued in March 1994, found that homosexual males show a pattern of greater left asymmetry, a tendency to have more ridge counts on the left hand than the right. "This is generally rare and found most frequently among heterosexual females," says Hall. But the Temple University grad student, who says that "most of my friends are gay," wants to take the Hall-Kimura study one step further. "They cannot differentiate between genes versus [prenatal] environment based on their study design," says Hall. "I can." Hall says that if her twins who differ on sexual preference also differ on the finger ridge counts, while the twins who have the same sexual preference also have the same finger ridge counts, "this will demonstrate that the prenatal environment was different for the co-twins. Presumably, this difference could also result in discordance for sexual preference." To prove her hypothesis, Hall will have to brave many hours of motion sickness resulting from staring too closely at the little lines she is counting and mapping. But, perhaps more importantly, she will have to brave the slings and arrows of outraged scientific skeptics -- critics like Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons researcher William Byne, Ph.D., MD. "People have told me that while my critiques are valid, I shouldn't make them because it may impede the progress of gay rights," says Byne. "But some researchers are subjugating scientific rigor to political expediency... People with political agendas should not be funded." Byne and colleague Bruce Parsons, MD., Ph.D., concluded in a 1993 study that "critical review shows the evidence favoring a biological theory [of the causes of homosexuality] to be lacking... [T]emperamental and personality traits interact with the familial and social milieu as the individual's sexuality emerges." Byne, who has never met Hall and is not familiar with her work, is critical of her thesis because of statements she made about wanting to show that "people who believe homosexuals are born that way are less likely to be hostile than if it is the result of a lifestyle choice." "That is the wrong reason for doing this kind of work," says Byne, who recently spoke to the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Academic Union's symposium on biology and homosexuality. On a theoretical level, however, Byne is not opposed to fingerprint research or to searching for the biological underpinnings of human behavior in general. But Hall's thesis question, says Byne "is naive." "All mental phenomena involves biology," he says. "Let's see what biology can be involved." Byne says instead of a direct influence on behavior -- such as that suggested by Hall and her study of in utero environmental differences -- biology merely influences personality values. How a person interacts with his or her environment, peers and family emerges out of that social experience, says Byne. "The thing is, almost all research being done today is premised on the direct model," says Byne. "Some of the studies used are flawed." In particular, Byne faults the infamous study published by openly gay researcher Simon LeVay in Science in 1991, which appeared to show that a particular cell group in the hypothalamus was smaller in women and in homosexual men than in heterosexual men. That nucleus, LeVay suggested, was involved in the regulation of male sex behavior. LeVay based his theory on a study of rhesus monkeys whose section of the hypothalamus was subjected to lesions. LeVay found that those male rhesus monkeys had complete sexual indifference toward females. Thus, he concluded, that area of the hypothalamus was critical toward sexual preference. Byne says he witnessed an attempt to verify LeVay's study fail. But not only did it fail, it showed that LeVay's work was incomplete, if not downright shoddy. Byne found that the rhesus monkeys subjected to lesions did copulate. Any problems they encountered, says Byne, were the result of the monkey brain no longer being able to cope with the monkey's complicated sexual sequence. "There was no impairment or change in sexual desire," says Byne. "Just the ability to carry out the sequence. That is quite a different thing." Flawed research aside, Byne says even the best intended studies on the causes of homosexuality have proven disastrous for gays and lesbians. "Magnus Herschfeld was a homosexual German man in the pre-Nazi years," says Byne. "He worked hard to show that homosexuals constituted a third biological sex. He tried to repeal the sodomy laws. On one hand, he was not successful in demonstrating scientifically that homosexual men were feminized. But he contributed to their persecution by stigmatizing them as feminine, not real men. This whole movement to get rights for homosexuals based on biological etiology has failed historical precedents." Questions about her science aside, Hall faces logistical problems as well. She is planning to study as many as 50 pairs of identical twins. In some of those pairs, both men will be gay, in others, only one. Being that these pairs are few and far-flung, one of the biggest obstacles, aside from doubting scientists, is money. Much of whatever money is left over from her job teaching biological anthropology gets poured back into research, says Hall. She says she has laid out her own money to pay for trips to the NIH headquarters and for preliminary interviews with research subjects. "I am working on a grant proposal for about $15,000," says Hall. "That money will cover the cost of travel. I am trying to set up clusters of interviews so that I can reduce the cost." Even if she convinces the NIH to cough up the money, Hall's task is still formidable. There are only about a million pairs of identical twins in the country. She estimates that, at the most, about 100,000 identical twins are gay men, a small research pool that may be further diminished by AIDS. And there is no telling how many twin pairs -- either concordant or discordant for homosexuality -- are interested in becoming part of a study involving having their fingerprints and blood samples taken. So far, Hall says she has identified about six pairs of gay identical twins interested in taking part. To date, her primary contact tool has been the Internet. "It's free," she says. But not without problems. Hall says that someone keeps taking her post off the Internet. "Maybe they just recycle the messages," says Hall. "Or maybe someone has it in for the study. Maybe I'm a little paranoid, but when I have seen other studies involving gay identical twins advertised on the Internet, there have been long responses from people urging the twins not to participate." So far, the most interesting responses to her Internet request, she says, came from a pair of identical twins who both sent posts on the same day, the first day she had put her request on the Internet. "The first brother said that he was interested and that his brother would be, too, but probably didn't know about the study," says Hall. "The second brother sent me a post a few hours later. He said he was interested in the study and that his brother might be, too, but probably didn't know about it." There has also been hate e-mail as well, says Hall. "One person wrote to me and said -- this is almost a direct quote -- "hahahahaha..." That was the whole first couple of lines. Basically, he said there was no prenatal environmental component to homosexuality, that it was all in the genes." And what was the point? "I can't really say what this person's stance was," says Hall. "It may have been a gay person who does not believe in biological research." Hall is well aware of her critics. And she is quick to provide me with a list of names and phone numbers of people who disagree with her. "There is always controversy with gay-based research," she says. "Some of it is from homosexuals who do not want to see it done. People are worried that it will be misused, especially with the climate getting more and more hostile for homosexuality in general. "Some people worry that genetic research, or research into the etiology of homosexuality, could lead to a new anti-gay eugenics movement in which possible gay fetuses are aborted. That is highly unlikely." Why? Researchers like the National Cancer Institute's Dean H. Hamer, to whom Hall is providing blood samples from her study, "have stated they will copyright any genetic tests and forbid their use for such purposes. But the complexity of this, like any other personality trait, makes it very likely that no genetic or environmental cause will ever be pinpointed." Hall adds that, even if genetic or biological components are identified, "this does not entirely rule out postnatal components." Another question raised by Hall's work is simple. Why? "It was kind of one of those things I always sort of flirted with in high school," says Hall. "I was always interested in homosexual research. But back in the '70s, there was no way to get into it. It was not that easy to find a department of homosexual research." Hall says the idea for this study came to her while working on a college anthropology paper on the genetic epidemiology of schizophrenia. "It automatically clicked in my mind," she says. "I kept seeing parallels. I don't like to talk about homosexuality and schizophrenia in the same breath. I'm not talking about homosexuality as some kind of disorder, because I don't think it is. But there is a similarity in that there is a genetic basis to both." The bottom line, however, is this: "It is a fascinating and compelling subject." What do her friends think? "Most of my friends think it is great that I am doing this," she says. "The few straight friends I have are pretty much academics themselves. It's not like I know a lot of housewives or blue-collar workers." Not all of Hall's friends agree with either her research topic or her hypothesis. "As a gay person, I feel I should be able to say I chose to be this way and have my rights upheld," says Jeff Maskovsky, Hall's teaching colleague at Temple and a frequent debating companion. "I don't want to have to argue that I was biologically predisposed to be this way. That I can't help it and you have to be nice to me. I reject a lot of that argument." While disagreeing with Hall, Maskovsky says, "I am not trying to say that what Lynn is trying to do is completely useless. It just has to be done very carefully." And Maskovsky has a question for Hall. "Who is looking for the straight gene?" he asks. "The thought of homosexuality is very threatening to a lot of straight people. There is a lot of cultural anxiety associated with homosexuality among straight people. And to a certain extent, this type of research is their way of trying to find a solution to that anxiety." Scott Tucker, a Philadelphia-area gay activist, criticizes both the scientific and media worlds for only reporting controversial findings on homosexuality. "When correlations are claimed by scientists between, for example, race and intelligence or sex and spatial ability, the media has orgasms," says Tucker. "But when there are studies disconfirming these hypotheses, they almost never get the same play. Everyone coast to coast has heard of Simon LeVay. But who has heard of William Byne?" Tucker also has fears about the research being misused. And he disagrees vehemently with Hall's contention that her research will make life easier for gays and lesbians. "It is interesting that this research is happening at a time when we are having a resurgence of eugenic racism, along the lines of The Bell Curve. I am claiming no conspiracy, no cabal of folks in a central committee funding and directing research. But we are still talking about pseudo-science that was long ago discredited by the Nazis. "Therefore," he adds, "I think that the argument, made by gays, unfortunately, that we are born gay and therefore deserve civil rights could not be more wrongheaded. It is politically and morally disastrous, even if there is a biological component in sexuality." Clearly, the university, operating under federal guidelines, is concerned about the security of Hall's research subjects. Aside from having to prove to university officials that her thesis was scientifically relevant and theoretically sound and that her methodology was accurate, Hall had to convince officials that her subjects would be protected. Particularly because they are a sexual minority with a history of discrimination, undergoing tests that, if in the wrong hands, could be used against them. Fingerprints in particular make identification of individuals easy. "There is always a concern about who has access to the data," says Zeb Kendrick Ph.D., who, as chairman of the Temple University subcommittee on non-medical intervention, is responsible for approving studies like Hall's. "Usually, what the investigators do is assign a numerical code to the data so the subject is not identified. The master list is kept in a locked file." Lynn Hall says that she expects NIH funding, that she hopes to get her study underway by October and to have her research completed by this time next year. The results will likely be as controversial as the 1993 Hamer study, reported in the July 1993 issue of Science, which pinpointed a genetic marker on the X chromosome, called Xq28, that Hamer concluded influences homosexuality. Hall says she is prepared for controversy, and that her study is scientifically, morally and ethically sound. But most importantly, to her anyway, is that it is designed to enlighten. "My goal," she says, "is to see people become more accepting of homosexuality."

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