Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre

Project Items

How Gay are your Genes?


This was a two-year science/art project working with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) communities of the North East. It began in May 2004 and finished in early summer 2006 with a significant work of public art.

The project was delivered by Lisa Matthews (local writer, performer and creative writing tutor). She developed the idea for this project after working as writer in residence for PEALS. There was no other science engagement work with gay communities at this time.

Lisa explored what people think about research into the genetics of sexuality, and gathered testimonies which will lead to a visual arts exhibition about nature/nurture and behavioural genetics. Our location in Times Square (Newcastle's thriving gay village) at this time was an ideal opportunity for the LGBT community and workers in genetics to get to know one another.

Workshops were delivered:

The project was developed in two stages:

Stage 1 - One off workshops - October 2004 - June 2005

workshop talks (with facilitated discussion and debate) to LGBT groups, societies and organizations in the north east region.

The workshops lasted 2 hours and covered:

This general discussion will hopefully lead into another about how genetics affects our lives. We'll look at questions like: is a person born LGBT; is being LGBT a choice; why do some people wait until later in life to 'come out' and many more fascinating issues around sexual identity and desire.

Stage 2 - In-depth artistic study of LGB - July 2005 onwards

A smaller group of people were recruited to work in more detail and over a longer period of time with both Lisa and a visual artist. The artist looked in greater depth at issues and ideas around the gay gene, behavioural genetics and what it all means to LGBT people. Visiting speakers from science, media and social science contributed their views.

All the work from the earlier one-off workshops, together with the output of the smaller group, was used by the visual artist to create significant pieces of artwork, in collaboration with participants.

Project update, April 2006

Between September and December of 2005, Lisa worked with a group of LGBT individuals from the north east of England to discuss and debate issues around the idea of a “gay gene”.

Our expert speakers in Phase II included: Su Stenhouse a diagnostic geneticist; Dr Catherine Donovan a social scientist; Jenny Kitzinger a professor of media studies and Dr Tom Shakespeare a social scientist and bio ethicist.

This Phase of the project was hard work and everyone who took part has contributed to the final installation that opens at the Hatton Gallery at the end of June (see future updates for confirmation of dates and gallery times etc.) For some the contribution was simply that of listening and speaking and no matter how small or large, everyone’s voice and ideas have been invaluable.

During Phase II we asked some key questions of the participants and then used creative writing to unpack ideas and responses. We recorded voices, shot video footage and utilised pen and paper. Here are just some of the questions we considered:

• When did you first realise you were LGBT?• Is sexuality a choice or is it set a birth?• What is a stereotypical LGBT person like?• What words/phrases are used to describe LGBT people?• Can sexuality be explained by genetics?• What is a stereotypical bisexual person like?• Who was your first crush?• When and how do you “come out”?• What can genetics tell us about ourselves?• Have any other factors affected your sexuality?• If a “gay gene” were to be found what would the consequences be?• Should we be afraid of genetics?• Why is knowing the origins of our sexuality important?• Who controls research and its findings?