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Wednesday, September 5,2012

Biological tales

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City Pulse will interview speakers coming to Michigan State University for the semester-long “Whom You Love: the biology of sexual orientation” speaker series. The series, organized by MSU neuroscience Professor Marc Breedlove, will consist of academic experts from universities across North America who will support Breedlove’s research that proves, in part, that homosexuality is natural. The speakers are being filmed for a planned documentary that Breedlove is raising funds for through a Kickstarter campaign. All lectures will be held at 4 p.m. Mondays at MSU in Wells Hall room 115B and are open to the public. 

Below is an interview with the first speaker, Eric Vilain, a professor of human genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, who will speak on “Biological Tales of Sexual Orientation.” 


What is your lecture about? 

Many people think sexual preference is a choice you make growing up, or that other people can influence. For example, they believe that early unpleasant heterosexual experiences or being raised by a single parent increases your chances of being gay. A consequence of this ignorance is that some people believe that sexual orientation can be changed through willfulness or therapy. However, a lot of evidence points to a biological influence on sexual orientation. 

I study ambiguous sex, or "intersex,” in which the genitals are not fully masculinized or feminized. A large clitoris, for example, that falls between the statistical range of female and male genitals.


Has your research turned up any surprises? 

We have studied a number of twins that have discordant sexual orientation — one is gay, the other is straight, but both have the exact same genome information — so how do we explain this? It is possible that changes that occur after conception, in the way genes are turned on or off at specific periods of development, may have a role in sexual orientation. These changes are called “epigenetic” (literally "above the genetic") and are influenced by the environment. Sexual orientation may not be all about genetics.


What motivated you to pursue this kind of research?

My first rotation as a medical student in Paris was devoted to the treatment of intersex children. Doctors were making all sorts of life-altering decisions on behalf of these children, with little more evidence than their own beliefs. I was determined to understand how these children developed, how their brain was functioning, and what happened to them later on in their life. One lingering question was whom they loved. And I started my research in this area. I was passionate about it from day one, and I still canīt wait to go to my lab every morning.


How crucial of a role does physical appearance play in gender identity?

There is little evidence that physical appearance itself plays a role in the development of gender identity. There is evidence, however, that our gender of rearing — what our parents and peers consider us, either boys or girls — plays a much more important role.


What do you think are some of the worst things that have been done in the name of science to people with ambiguous gender? 

Probably the hubris of thinking that sexual orientation can be easily changed, based on dubious arguments.


What do you think this speaker series could possibly do for the social perception of homosexuality? 

It has the capacity to make all of us more tolerant. What we donīt understand scares us.


For more information, including a link to the Kickstarter page, go to whomyoulove.com.

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