Earlier this year, a groundbreaking study that looked at the genetic makeup of more than 500,000 people determined there is no singular "gay gene" that serves as a reliable predictor of a person's sexuality. Instead, there are a series of genetic markers that help to influence a person's sexual identity, and there is no definite indicator of someone's sexual preferences based on DNA. Despite that research, a new startup is claiming that it can determine the likelihood that someone is gay by analyzing the results of commercial DNA tests like 23andMe or MyHeritage.
To be clear, there is no scientific evidence to back up this claim but that isn't stopping Insolent.AI from making it. The startup, which claims to be responsible for machine learning-powered products for "self-improvement, creativity, quantified-self, and bio-hacking," recently released a new app called "How gay are you?" As the name suggests, the app can supposedly place your sexual preferences on a spectrum based on your genetic makeup. The app is hosted on GenePlaza, an online marketplace that allows people to take their existing commercial DNA test and apply it in different ways, running it through a variety of tests that can allegedly predict your genetic predisposition to a number of different traits. In the case of "How gay are you?," it'll supposedly tell you, well, how gay you are.
Except, of course, it won't. In fact, the Insolent.AI doesn't even claim to have the capabilities to do so in its own app description. The company specifically states "This App does NOT predict same sex attraction." They later warn in another disclaimer, "This application is not a diagnosis, a prediction, or a predisposition score." In fact, it's not even clear how the app would be able to produce such a result even if it wanted to. Instead, what it does is place you on a spectrum based on how closely your genetic profile matches those of people who are known to be attracted to people of the same sexual identity. It places your results on a graph that shows your same-sex attraction as compared to others by using data collected for the aforementioned study of 500,000 people — a study that declared that genetics only account for about 25 percent of a person's sexuality.
At best, "How gay are you?" is a silly and pointless app, and a quick way to throw away $5.50, the price the developers are asking for participants to pay for the service. At worst, though, the app reinforces some really terrible ideas about sexuality and could enable malicious actors to target the LGBTQ community, as has been done in the past — and it has a shady enough background to call into question its true intentions.
According to OneZero, the "How gay are you?" app is tied to a developer named Joel Bellenson, who works Insolent.AI and is based in Uganda — a country that has an ongoing history of attempting to repress and even eliminate its gay population. The country passed the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014 that made same-sex relations a criminal offense punishable by life in prison. The rule was eventually struck down by the country's Constitutional Court, but efforts to implement punishments for being gay have persisted in the country. Earlier this week, a version of the legislation was once again proposed in Uganda, this time giving the government the ability to sentence people to death simply for being gay. Proponents of the proposal — which is commonly referred to as the “Kill the Gays" bill — claim that it will curb the rise of "unnatural sex" occurring in the country. Uganda isn't the only country that has created laws targeting members of the LGBTQ community. According to Human Rights Watch, there are 68 countries around the world that criminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults and at least nine countries that have laws criminalizing gender expression that target transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Given this level of persecution still facing LGBTQ people around the world — an issue that should be at the forefront of the mind of a developer living in Uganda — a test that claims to be able to tell if someone is gay and just how gay they are presents major concerns in the wrong hands. The idea of a government implementing DNA tests to determine if someone is gay or not sounds dystopian but isn't far enough from reality to not be of concern. Following the massive study in search of so-called gay genes published earlier this year, geneticists and members of the LGBTQ community raised concerns that the results may be used for malicious purposes if placed in the wrong hands. Joseph Vitti, a member of the Broad Institute — a biomedical and genomic research center operated by MIT and Harvard — warned of exactly this in an op-ed published earlier this year. "A polygenic risk score for non-heterosexual behavior could easily be used to hurt queer people, regardless of its limited or lack of predictive value," he wrote. Now, whether it intended to or not, "How gay are you?" has presented the model to bring that worst-case scenario to fruition.
There's currently no indication that the app was made with the intention of being used by a repressive government like Uganda or that any nation is looking to implement such a test of sexuality. But it's not hard to imagine a world in which witch hunts for LGBTQ citizens turn to these types of misguided interpretations of genetics to justify persecution. A tool like "How gay are you?" is a step back, not forward, for sexual identity. Its results are bunk at best and it represents the potential for extraordinarily harmful outcomes that go well beyond just plotting someone's supposed "gayness" on a graph.