Thursday, May 23, 2013

Open letter: Epigentics- Conference on Gender-base Violence and LGBT Rights

Reposted May 23rd, 2013

 An Open Letter from America to Belize
(Based on the UNIBAM Conference on Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, 24 July 2012)
By Asa DeMatteo, Ph.D.

When Caleb Orozco of UNIBAM invited me to come to Belize for his conference on Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence in Belize, he asked me to talk about epigenetics. His request came after Mr. Louis Wade of Belize spent time online and on Plus TV arguing that homosexuality couldn’t be genetic because homosexuals don’t procreate (and, therefore, must recruit). Any genetic basis for homosexuality would, he said, be doomed to disappear from the human genome. Of course, the argument fails on the simple fact that many homosexuals do in fact reproduce and have throughout history. But there is a more subtle problem with Mr. Wade’s argument. In my online responses to Mr. Wade, I pointed out that your genes aren’t your destiny.
Over the past decade, science has greatly expanded our knowledge of how genes work. What scientists have discovered is that there are genes that are turned on or off by environmental factors, an area of genetic research and findings called epigenetics. Here’s an example that all of us can understand: Every female bee in a hive is genetically identical. The oversized egg-producing queen has the same genetic blueprint as the much smaller sterile worker bees who tend her. So how does she get to be queen while her sisters get to be workers? The critical difference is that she is fed and tended to differently from her sisters, and that environment turns on certain genes and shuts off others such that she becomes very different from the others and stays so for her entire life. And even the behavior of the workers apparently have epigenetic influences, purportedly stimulated by certain chemicals called pheromones that determine their roles within the hive. Some are ladies in waiting for the queen, others are nannies for the larvae, others gather food, and still others guard the hive. All of them have the same genetic blueprint, but are highly different in appearance and behavior as adults. That is how epigenetics works in bees.
So what do bees have to do with human beings? Science has also determined that epigenetics works in humans. Environmental events from the womb through old age change how our genes work. For example, identical twins are exact genetic copies of each other. They are exact copies because they form from a single fertilized egg that divides in two before developing into a fetus. However, although genetically identical, these twins become increasingly different throughout their lives. More importantly, some of those differences get passed down to their children. Some of the genes that get turned on or turned off in one twin, but not the other will stay that way in their children. The altered status of the genes can be permanent. This much we know, however incomplete our present knowledge of human genetics.
And how does epigenetics play a role in the attempt to understand the genesis of homosexuality? Why is it that when one identical twin is homosexual, the other has a 70% chance of also being homosexual? If being gay is in our DNA, shouldn’t that probability be 100%? On the other hand, if being gay were simply a choice or something that grows out of how one is raised, why is the probability so high as 70%, even with twins raised apart? Is being gay nature or nurture? Genetic science is currently investigating the role of epigenetics in homosexuality because the twin concordance is too high to be explained by environmental factors alone. It can’t be simply a choice. But because the twin concordance is not absolute, like eye or hair color, it can not be raw genetic destiny either.
One area of current epigenetic interest concerns an intriguing fact: For families with multiple sons, the probability of any one son being gay increases with each successive son. In other words, the youngest son has the highest probability of being gay and the oldest son the least. This finding is not an absolute rule, but rather a statistically significant trend. How might such a startling but reliable finding come to pass? The area with the most promise is immunology, or the workings of the immune system in mothers.
Our immune system works by searching out organic matter which does not match our genes. Certain cells in the immune system check organic matter in the body to see if it matches our own genetic structure and is thus ‘self’ while it identifies foreign organic matter as ‘not self’. If the material is identified as ‘not self’, these cells stimulate other cells to gather and attack the foreign matter, that is, the body mounts an immune response. This response can be as simple as the red swelling and itch of a mosquito bite, or as massive as toxic shock syndrome, where the immune response can kill. And in other cases, the immune system goes haywire and mistakenly identifies ‘self’ as ‘not self’, causing what are called autoimmune diseases and disorders. Juvenile diabetes is one such disorder, caused by the immune system identifying the insulin producing cells in the pancreas as ‘not self’ and subsequently attacking and destroying them. Other autoimmune disorders include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and lupus.
Another feature of the immune system is that it learns. When the immune system encounters a foreign body, it mounts an immune response, as I have outlined above. But it also ‘remembers’ the foreign proteins such that it can mount a quicker and more effective immune response in future. That’s why once we get mumps as a child, we don’t get it again. Our immune system learns what mumps is, and next time it encounters it, it knocks it out forthwith, destroying the virus before it can take hold. Another outcome of this learning is the growing sensitivity to allergens. Most readers know that for some people, a bee sting can be life-threatening, causing a severe immune response with swelling of the tongue and lining of the respiratory system that threatens breathing. And as they may also know, the response gets increasingly severe with each successive sting, so much so that the entire body can react in a shock response with rapid heartbeat, precipitous drop in blood pressure, and respiratory distress that can quickly kill. That’s how the clever immune system can be our foe as well as our friend.
Science also knows that the uterine environment has a great number of effects on fetal development. If a mother drinks alcohol while pregnant, that alcohol passes through the placenta, epigenetically altering the expression of genes in the developing fetus, and results in developmental abnormalities. If the mother gets rubella in the first trimester of pregnancy, it can pass to the fetus causing devastating alterations in the developmental expression of genes, including deafness, mental retardation, and physical deformities. And the hormonal environment in the mother’s womb has epigenetic effects as well. There is an interplay between the mother and the fetus such that the fetus seems to signal the mother’s hormonal system that it is female with two X chromosomes, stimulating that system to send relatively more estrogen to the uterus during the appropriate developmental stage, or if a male with one X and one Y chromosome, stimulating the system to send relatively more testosterone to the uterus during the same period. If the female XX fetus experiences too much testosterone during the development of the genitalia, the genetic expression of genital development will be altered, resulting in a masculinized female, often with an enlarged clitoris that looks like a small penis. And if the XY genotype fetus experiences too much estrogen in the womb, the male fetus will be feminized, often resulting in improper genital development with the urethra, the uninary opening, placed along the bottom of the penis shaft, a condition called hypospadias, and a partial to complete vagina in the absence of ovaries and fallopian tubes. All these effects are a part of epigenetics.
We can now turn back to that strange correlation between male homosexuality and birth order. When a woman becomes pregnant, the fetus inside her body is a foreign organism that is genetically similar to her, but not identical, having half of her gene structure and half of the father’s. And girls, having the same XX genotype as the mother, are more genetically similar to her than males with their XY genotype. In order for the fetus not to be destroyed by the mother’s immune system, the mother’s body must suppress her immune system, weakening it enough so that it doesn’t mount an immune response against the fetus, male or female. And the mother’s system is kept as separate from the baby’s system by the placenta for just the same reason. The working hypothesis is that the mother’s weak immune attack on the genetically dissimilar male fetus—something we know about—becomes increasingly severe with each male pregnancy, just like the increasingly severe immune response to successive bee stings. Something in that immune response alters genes epigenetically such that the genetic expression of male sexuality is altered for life.
No one should assume, based on the description above, that science now understands the source of homosexuality and the role that epigenetics plays in the development of alternative sexual response. I have only presented where science is headed. It hasn’t reached the full explanation as of yet. The plain fact is science doesn’t yet know the source of homosexuality. But so far, it looks like a very complicated combination of both nature, as represented by the genome, and nurture, as represented by the intrauterine environment. The science is very clear, however, that it is not a developmental feature that someone chooses, or that is subject to cognitive intervention like teaching, therapy, or wishing otherwise. Anyone who claims otherwise isn’t talking about science.
I have nothing more to say about epigenetics here. For those science geeks like me who want a good understanding of epigenetics, there is a great introductory book, “The Epigenetics Revolution” by Dr. Nessa Carey, published this year. I have recommended the book to Mr. Louis Wade so that he can avoid the mistakes he has so recently made when formulating his invalid argument for the impossibility of a genetic basis for homosexuality.
I have a purpose here quite different from reviewing epigenetics or proposing a biological basis for homosexuality. I prefer to talk about Belize and about all Belizeans who would like to see a more just and equal place for LGBT people in the Jewel.
Each reader, gay or straight, knows in his or her bones that sexual attraction is a deep, abiding, and central feature of sexual identity. Our sexual nature is not something we choose; it is who we are. The argument of choice is not only wrong, it is irrelevant, and people who think otherwise simply don’t understand. The reason Mr. Wade and others leading Belize Action want homosexuality to be a choice is that then they can hold homosexuals responsible for what they believe to be immoral and sinful behavior. As Mr. Wade says, we know of ex-gays, ex-drunks, ex-adulterers, but no ex-black people or ex-females, so gays, drunks, and adulterers do not deserve legal protections. Of course, people making this argument never mention that there are also, ex-Christians, and ex-people-of-faith of all sorts. Religion is also a choice; however, that fact is never used to argue that religious behavior deserves no legal protections. And gay advocates often fall into the trap of shouting back at these folks that it isn’t a choice, gays can’t help it, and so LGBT people should have the same civil rights protections as racial minorities and females who have experienced discrimination.
I reject both of these arguments, and I submit that the LGBT community should as well. Consider a possible world in which someone could choose to be a male or a female, or to be a minority. Would racial or gender discrimination then be acceptable in that world? I hope no one would assert such reasoning. Civil rights don’t exist because people can’t choose who they are. Civil rights exist because citizens decide that they want a just and decent society that embraces all of its members. Human rights exist because we, as members of one great human family, have decided to enshrine in our overarching laws the golden rule: treat one another as you, yourself, would want to be treated. Or in the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35 KJV: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” Choice has nothing to do with deserving basic civil and human rights.
Right now LGBT people do not have equal rights in Belize. One of the sexual behaviors engaged in by some, but certainly not all, gay men is outlawed in Belize by Section 53 of the Criminal Code, with a penalty of 10 years imprisonment. But no LGBT person has ever been prosecuted for Section 53, people have argued. Think about that, about what people are really saying: Yes, you are a law-breaker and an immoral, sinful person, despite any good that you do for your community and society in Belize, but we won’t prosecute you if you just shut-up and don’t rock our boat. I would hope that the LGBT community in Belize would say, as Caleb Orozco has said with his challenge to Section 53 on constitutional grounds, “Unacceptable.” I would hope each would say, “I am a member of this society. I pay my taxes. I participate in the social contract. And I demand full equality and dignity for my citizenship and my humanity. I demand to be treated like everyone else.” I would hope that each LGBT Belizean could know, bone deep, these things: They have a right to be here. They have a right to live. They have a right to a full and happy life. They have a right to love. And they have a right to justice, equality, and dignity, guaranteed by the Constitution of Belize of 1981.
Some readers may consider me a fuzzy-thinking, over-educated, ivory-tower intellectual from San Francisco who can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be gay in Belize. And to a certain extent, they would be right. The Belize experience is unique in many ways. On the other hand, I’m an old man who has been in this fight for justice for the past 48 years. I grew up in the mountains of California, 8½ miles outside of a small, redneck town of 3000 people. If one could take a small community and its rural surroundings from Belize and plant it in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, it would be very much like the situation in which I grew up. When I was 17 years old, I went to San Francisco to find my tribe. But the San Francisco of 1964 was very different from the San Francisco of today. It was already a gay Mecca, as it had become when gay sailors and soldiers and marines, shipped off from there to fight in the Pacific in World War II, returned to San Francisco to gather with their tribe. But the cops called you faggot (the American equivalent of batty-man) or swish or queer or other things I would be reluctant to put in print, just for walking down the street in a gay area. They arrested gays if they held hands in a bar, or even just touched another’s shoulder. They arrested effeminate gay men for soliciting if they cross-dressed in public. And handsome young plainclothes cops would flirt with gay men, trying to get them to suggest a sexual liaison, for just the suggestion of which he would then be arrested. And the arrest was not the end of it. Their names were published in the newspaper, leading to people losing their jobs and careers, their social standing, and sometimes their families and children. People could attack, beat up, even kill gay people without consequence. In 1978, our first gay supervisor, Harvey Milk, was assassinated by another supervisor, a straight, devout Catholic ex-policeman who climbed into City Hall through a window to avoid the metal detector because he was carrying a loaded pistol. He went into the office of Mayor George Moscone, who was a friend and supporter of Harvey Milk, and shot him dead. Then he reloaded his gun and went to Milk’s office and put ten shots into his head. Later he said that he just felt that San Francisco was changing from how it was when he grew up, and was suffering a moral decay. Gay people would be the downfall of our beautiful gem of San Francisco. When I hear these same claims made in Belize media, I get a disturbing sense of deja vu. White was convicted not of cold-blooded murder, but of manslaughter, for which he served seven years. When the decision was announced, thousands of San Franciscans, gay and straight, joined a spontaneous march to city hall to protest, shouting “He got away with murder.” Sadly, the originally peaceful protest devolved into a riot, with all of the ground floor windows in city hall being broken and several police cars being burned. Later that night a phalanx of uniformed police swarmed the largest gay neighborhood and started a riot of their own, breaking all the shop windows, circling pedestrians and beating them with truncheons, and shouting that the fags were getting what they deserved. That killing, the unjust decision, and the subsequent riots changed the city irrevocably. The majority straight community, religious or not, came to the conclusion that this was not the sort of city they wanted to live in, that they wanted to have a city where no one—not gay, not straight, not religious, not irreligious, not police, not civilian—had to fear hatred, inflammatory behavior, and violence. The San Francisco that Supervisor Dan White returned to after seven years had undergone a sea change, and a hateful person like Dan White no longer had a place there. A couple of years after his release from prison, he killed himself.
Now LGBT people participate fully in the life of my city. They are in all the professions, in every corner of the city, young and old, and it has now become quite socially unacceptable to be homophobic, though not illegal. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who continue to consider homosexuality a sin and a violation of morality. The most populous religion is Christianity, and the most populous denomination is Catholic. Surely everyone knows how the Pope feels about homosexuals. But even the Catholic diocese of San Francisco has committed itself to offering pastoral care and support to those it considers sinful and straying from the way of Christ, welcoming them into their churches. Yes, San Francisco is largely mainstream Christian, but there are also several synagogues, including two gay synagogues, a Metropolitan Community Church, which is a gay-affirming Christian sect, several Buddhist Temples, a Sikh community, a spiritualism center, a large Zen Center, Chinese ancestor worship, several Mosques, Baha’is, a few covens of Wicca witches, and even a Church of Satan, though that last is pretty much now defunct, which is probably a good thing since its sole reason for existing was to provoke Christians. They don’t fight with each other, though each thinks the other is utterly wrong and misled. Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians can and do preach against homosexuality. Almost everyday there are evangelicals and charismatic fundamentalists carrying signs in the tourist areas warning against the dangers of homosexuality. And there are gay people who shout back at them and carry their own signs and bumper stickers. But those street preachers are almost always from out of town, and they tend actually to embarrass the home Christian community. With all of this activity, we all live together in our big hodge-podge of a city, free to follow our own star, to live as we see fit as long as we don’t, whether pro-gay or anti-gay, harm each other. Being gay in San Francisco is frankly no longer a relevant public issue. How to pay your rent, which bus or train to take, whether your street gets repaired—those are the pressing issues for the 800,000 residents of San Francisco, more than twice the number of Belizeans, living together in 49 square miles, but one in dignity and rights. I have watched the change, step-by-step, slowly but surely, of the old San Francisco to that of today. I can tell you that contrary to the propaganda that the conservative right in the U.S. spews about San Francisco as a new Sodom and Gomorrah, on the brink of disaster, it is in reality a model city for the world, our gem, a city of marvelously diverse cultures, religions, sexual orientations, ages, races, and national origins where people actually have learned to get along and treat each other with kindness, equality, dignity, and respect. That’s why people from all over the world want to live there. We are proud of our San Francisco values; they were hard-learned and hard-fought. The only real problem is that so many people want to live there that the demand for living space raises the cost of living to dizzying heights. I tell my visitors that owning a house in San Francisco is no more expensive than a moderate cocaine addiction.
The L.G.B.T community in Belize is only at the beginning of their struggle, but I see the same energy and determination I saw back in 1964. I hope with all my heart that their struggle does not have to wind up in the violence that our gem had to experience before the straight and gay communities learned their lesson, that Belize Action and the L.G.B.T community both see that their error is not in their beliefs and values, but in their rancor and demeaning attitude towards those who disagree with them. At the same time, I pray that L.G.B.T Belizeans do not falter, do not give up—that they talk to one another, help one another, and never relent in their demand for equality and justice. I believe in my heart that that happy state will come, and sooner rather than later, because the world is coming to the conclusion that L.G.B.T discrimination is unacceptable. We must all remember what Gandhi teaches us: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. The L.G.B.T opponents in Belize have certainly stopped ignoring the L.G.B.T community, and they aren’t laughing at them as much. But they are fighting with everything they’ve got. My message to Belize is this: Don’t lose heart. Next, everybody wins.



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