“Abort babies with gay genes, says Nobel winner.” This was the startling headline on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph on February 16th. Such was the sense of déjà vu that for a moment I thought they had resurrected the ex-Chief rabbi Lord Jakobovits to repeat his now-infamous remarks on this topic.
But no, this time it was down to Professor James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA. The distinguished scientist had apparently said that if ever a gene predisposing people to homosexuality were to be identified, it should be permissible for women who find they are pregnant with a potentially homosexual child, to abort the foetus. The Sunday Telegraph’s interview quoted Professor Watson as saying: “If you could find the gene which determines sexuality, and a woman decides she doesn’t want a homosexual child, well, let her [terminate the pregnancy].”
The Sunday Telegraph’s hyperbolic presentation of Dr Watson’s opinions brought an immediate and understandable reaction. Nick Partridge of the Terrence Higgins Trust said the suggestion was “outrageous”, while at the other end of the spectrum, Quentin Crisp opined in The Times that it was a good idea, and that the world would be a better place without homosexuals. This in turn “mortified” Boy George who, in his Daily Express column said: “To quell my anger I had to remember that Quentin Crisp is as old as my granny, God rest her soul, and she would have said much the same.”
Meanwhile the obviously distressed mother of gay playwright Shaun Duggan, wrote to The Daily Mail to say that her son is: “a most caring, thoughtful person who wouldn’t hurt a fly: I don’t know what I would have done without him. He is loved by everyone who knows him. Scientists should be looking not for a supposed homosexual gene but for the gene that makes women give birth to monsters like Myra Hindley, Ian Brady and Peter Sutcliffe, to name but a few.”
Then came the straight defenders of homosexuals. I know they mean well, but somehow I can’t help but cringe when I read patronising stuff such as this, from Heather Lax of Portsmouth who wrote to The Daily Mail: “Throughout history our lives have been enriched by brilliant and talented homosexual entertainers: Oscar Wilde, Sir Ian McKellen, Rudolf Nureyev, Freddie Mercury and numerous other dynamic showmen. Mothers of gay men love their sons for who they are, not for the child they might provide. I feel privileged to count homosexuals among my closest friends. My life would be sadder without gay men’s joie de vivre, sparkling wit and sense of humour, usually directed against themselves.”
I don’t see much joie de vivre in Quentin Crisp these days. In fact I’m thinking of putting him touch with the voluntary euthanasia society. That might cheer him up.
Kathleen O’Hanlon, a leading gay researcher at Stanford University in California told The Independent: “Science doesn’t designate homosexuality as a disease. Aborting a foetus for what is not a disease appears to be more like the practice of eugenics, more like the 1940s in Nazi Germany than the 1990s in the US or Britain. It will not be tolerated.”
These were emotional responses, and perfectly understandable. More rational thoughts came a few days later. The famous biologist Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene) wrote to The Independent that Dr Watson was being misrepresented: “A woman might passionately desire a homosexual child and elect to abort a foetus with heterosexual genes. Indeed, I have not the slightest doubt that Dr Watson would be happy to add heterosexuality to his list of hypothetical reasons for aborting.”
Matthew Parris took this libertarian stance a step further in his Times column. He thought it foolish to try to halt the march of progress and says that parents have always wanted the best for their children and if there is a way to ensure that they have a “bright, strong and handsome” baby, they will take it. “It is simply fatuous,” he writes, “for a man who is tall, or crippled, or pale or short, or gay to try to prevent access to such scientific mastery on the grounds that if it had existed previously, he might not have been born. So what? If you don’t exist you haven’t missed anything.”
Needless to say, this was perfect Mary Kenny territory. And, as usual, Ms Kenny couldn’t see the wood for her Bible. She is, of course, a good Catholic and as such opposed to abortion. Also as a good Catholic she opposes homosexuality. This puts her in a bit of a cleft stick because if she didn’t oppose abortion, she could take the Jakobovits line and welcome the possibility of a final solution — by genetic manipulation — for the “homosexual problem”. Instead, she thinks that scientists are going too far, and discovering too much, “uncovering the very stuff of life” as she puts it. The reason she doesn’t want “the very stuff of life” uncovering is because every new scientific advance further undermines the authority of her religion.
Kenny says that Dr Watson’s reported comments were “not a kindly signal to homosexual people — that they should be exterminated before birth.” But Watson himself was cut to the quick by such interpretations. He wrote to The Sunday Telegraph: “Your headline deeply wounds me and is bound to create the impression that I am a homophobic individual, hostile to homosexuals’ existence and rights, and indifferent to the great contributions made to societies in the past by homosexual giants like Michelangelo or Tchaikovsky and today such creative individuals as Sir John Gielgud and David Hockney. The headline which you used to purportedly reflect my views, was bound to create anger and dismay in any homosexual reader who read your paper or others that followed from it in other British newspapers.”
Dr Watson says that his reputation and career has been “damaged” by The Sunday Telegraph’s spin on what he said.(and, indeed, it was the reporter James Langton who raised the topic of the gay gene, not Dr Watson), which further supports my contention that you should never trust a Fleet Street journo to do the right thing.
Of course, not everyone believes that there is a gay gene and for such people this whole debate is hypothetical nonsense. Peter Tatchell, for instance, wrote to The Times: “If heterosexuality and homosexuality are, indeed, mutually exclusive, unchangeable and genetically determined, as this theory suggests, how do we explain bisexuality or people who suddenly in mid-life switch from heterosexuality to homosexuality (or vice versa)? We can’t. It is, of course, possible that genetic factors might predispose individuals towards a particular sexuality. However, a predisposition is not the same as causation. Most studies indicate that genetic influences are of secondary significance compared to social mores and expectations.”
In other words, nurture has far more influence than nature. But is this true, or is it, as the arch-proponent of the gay gene theory, Chandler Burr, says, flying in the face of the evidence in order to defend an out-dated political stance?
I recently met Dr Dean Hamer, the man who, in 1993, claimed to have found the area of genetic material that was likely to contain the gene that would determine sexual orientation. I asked him whether he truly thought that the time would ever arrive when such a genetic identification could be made with any certainty. He was absolutely sure that it was imminent, although he accepted that biology would not explain everything about homosexuality.
All this still leaves an unanswered question: is the gay gene science fact or science fiction? A couple of decades ago we were asking the same thing about cloning. Similar moral debates raged about the consequences of scientists pursuing this line of enquiry — where was it going to lead us? Well, the scientists did carry on their research, despite the doubts of moralists, and now here we are —hello Dolly! — with a successfully cloned sheep and the doubtless ability to clone people.
On the Internet I came across an interview with Randy Wicker, a man in New York who describes himself as “an atheist priest”. Mr Wicker insists that cloning is a gay issue, and has started a group called Clone Rights United Front which “demands the right to reproduce ourselves without interference from religion, politics or society.”
Mr Wicker says: “Now that sperm appears to be no longer necessary, just DNA and the female body, heterosexuality…is historically obsolete. A woman can reproduce herself, as certain species do, without the use of males.” He also thinks that it totally undermines “the tyranny of the phallus in which men rule the world and everything bends to their whim” because “sperm is no longer necessary.”
So this is the brave new world, is it? I don’t know about you, but it’s doing my head in.
The Sunday Mirror was the platform last month for Paul Stone to take another pop at the hapless Jerry Hayes. We won’t go into what the gay betrayer said this time — mainly because another libel action is in train — but what I found most insulting about the piece was the photographs which accompanied it. Mr Hayes is shown sitting in a night club surrounded by four scantily-clad women with whom he is, apparently, whooping it up.
The photograph is so obviously phoney — posed and set up for effect — that it makes Mr Hayes look desperate. I don’t care whether he is gay or not (although I lean towards not) but does he really have to insult our intelligence with such obvious attempts at manipulation?
Meanwhile, the erstwhile MP unexpectedly found himself paired once more with his persecutor, this time in The Observer magazine. Mr Hayes was asked to describe his worst holiday and Mr Stone his best. Hayes’ anecdote was a boring recollection of awful charter flights and half-built hotels.
Paul Stone, on the other hand, told of a family package to Spain when he was seven years old. “One of the best things about it,” he reveals, “was that I was allowed to buy a handbag with my holiday money. It was just like my Mum’s — small and black and I carried it under my arm. I took it everywhere. I didn’t keep anything in it; I just liked carrying round a handbag.”
One suddenly begins to warm to the lad.