Curing Gay Sheep

Some researches at Oregon State may have discovered a cure for gay sheep.

SCIENTISTS are conducting experiments to change the sexuality of “gay” sheep in a programme that critics fear could pave the way for breeding out homosexuality in humans. The technique being developed by American researchers adjusts the hormonal balance in the brains of homosexual rams so that they are more inclined to mate with ewes.

This brings to mind an old joke by the late Lewis Grizzard: “The Agriculture Department at Clemson has just discovered a new use for sheep: Wool.”

The politics of this case are only slightly less funny:

It raises the prospect that pregnant women could one day be offered a treatment to reduce or eliminate the chance that their offspring will be homosexual. Experts say that, in theory, the “straightening” procedure on humans could be as simple as a hormone supplement for mothers-to-be, worn on the skin like an anti-smoking nicotine patch.

The research, at Oregon State University in the city of Corvallis and at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, has caused an outcry. Martina Navratilova, the lesbian tennis player who won Wimbledon nine times, and scientists and gay rights campaigners in Britain have called for the project to be abandoned. Navratilova defended the “right” of sheep to be gay. She said: “How can it be that in the year 2006 a major university would host such homophobic and cruel experiments?” She said gay men and lesbians would be “deeply offended” by the social implications of the tests.

Do sheep have rights? Is being gay among them? If so, doesn’t that have implications for the common practice of castrating livestock and house pets?

But the researchers argue that the work is valid, shedding light on the “broad question” of what determines sexual orientation. They insist the work is not aimed at “curing” homosexuality. Approximately one ram in 10 prefers to mount other rams rather than mate with ewes, reducing its value to a farmer. Initially, the publicly funded project aimed to improve the productivity of herds.

The scientists have been able to pinpoint the mechanisms influencing the desires of “male-oriented” rams by studying their brains. The animals’ skulls are cut open and electronic sensors are attached to their brains. By varying the hormone levels, mainly by injecting hormones into the brain, they have had “considerable success” in altering the rams’ sexuality, with some previously gay animals becoming attracted to ewes.

Professor Charles Roselli, the Health and Science University biologist leading the research, defended the project. He said: “In general, sexuality has been under-studied because of political concerns. People don’t want science looking into what determines sexuality. “It’s a touchy issue. In fact, several studies have shown that people who believe homosexuality is biologically based are less homophobic than people who think that this orientation is acquired.”

The research is being peer-reviewed by a panel of scientists in America, demonstrating that it is being taken seriously by the academic community.

Potentially, the techniques could one day be adapted for human use, with doctors perhaps being able to offer parents pre-natal tests to determine the likely sexuality of offspring or a hormonal treatment to change the orientation of a child. Roselli has said he would be “uncomfortable” about parents choosing sexuality, but argues that it is up to policy makers to legislate on questions of ethics.

Michael Bailey, a neurology professor at Northwestern University near Chicago, said: “Allowing parents to select their children’s sexual orientation would further a parent’s freedom to raise the sort of children they want to raise.”

D.A. Ridgely, who has a different variation of the sheep joke in mind, has a thoughtful discussion of this jumping off from Bailey’s comment.

I certainly would not attempt to change or pressure someone into changing his or her already established sexual orientation, though I’d be okay with people who wished to do so themselves to have the option available to them. On the other hand, if there was a relatively safe and effective method of ensuring that my own unborn or newborn child would be heterosexual, I’m inclined to think I would okay the procedure. Does that count as some sort of homophobia? I don’t think so any more than, say, ensuring my child was not born deaf would constitute prejudice against deaf people in general.

That’s pretty much my take as well. One can simultaneously take the position that one would prefer that one’s child not have a certain condition and yet recognize that those with said condition should be accepted as morally equal human beings.

We saw in both the recent controversy at Gallaudet University and the backlash when the late Christopher Reeve tried to recover his ability to walk that people with what we generally consider “handicaps” often develop a strong culture, including an emotional response to the idea that they should be “cured.” Yet, it seems perfectly obvious from an objective standpoint that being deaf or quadriplegic are things one would wish to avoid if possible.

Is being gay tantamount to being deaf? My instinct is that it is not, since it impacts a much more narrow range of the human experience. At the same time, would I choose for my kids to be gay? Absolutely not. There are plenty of disadvantages that come with it and no obvious upside. If they turned out to be gay, though, they would continue to have my love and support.

If one believes homosexuality a function of biology rather than choice–and that’s my understanding–then ostracizing those with that orientation is self-evidently wrong. What, though, if one could “treat” homosexuality by taking medication, as one might for depression or high blood pressure? Would that change the cultural dynamic? It’s an interesting question.

UPDATE: Michael Demmons provides a thoughtful response. Most notably, he observes, “[T]he only ‘downside’ to being gay has nothing to do with being gay in and of itself. It has to everything do with perfectly changeable attitudes of straight people.” Henry Lewis also chimes in, adding, “There is no disadvantage to being gay that isn’t created by the narrow-mindedness of others.”

Certainly, the social reaction of others, whether from religious training or simple bigotry, is a major obstacle. That alone, frankly, would be enough for me to not wish being gay on my prospective children. That people shouldn’t react differently to gay people doesn’t mean that they don’t.

Still, as Ridgely notes, that’s not the only “downside” of having gay children. Straight offspring are quite likely to get married and procreate, providing the joys of grandfatherhood and whatever vestigal benefit comes from continuing the family line. Gays sometimes do that as well, of course, and they can always adopt. But it’s not quite the same thing.

FILED UNDER: General, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. jpe says:

    If so, doesn’t that have implications for the common practice of castrating livestock and house pets?

    ha! That pretty much made my day.

    W/re/to your argument, it’s almost certainly true that straights face fewer obstacles. That said, if there were some way to morph a black baby into a white one for the same reason, something about that would strike us as unethical. The discomfort this hypo creates suggests that the situs of the “cure” should be the society rather than the child, and to the extent we cure the child we participate in those social biases. (hopefully you know I’m capable of being reasonable, and none of the foregoing is an attempt to tap into the charged terrain of racism, or call you a racist, or whatever – it’s just a plain jane hypo aimed at bringing out intuitions).

    That seems to get at what makes me uncomfortable about such a procedure, although I also have leanings toward the ‘yeah, sure, why not?’ posture of your post.

    Nevertheless, very interesting stuff.

  2. floyd says:

    “”If one believes homosexuality a function of biology rather than choice—and that’s my understanding—then ostracizing those with that orientation is self-evidently wrong””

    Many studies have blamed “biology” for agression,pedophilia,schizophrenia, hyperactivity, etc.We still find the behavior associated with these things to be intolerable. Many forms of so-called antisocial behaviors are biologicly based and these persons are forced into treatment. Controlling one’s “impulses” for the sake of society is foundational.

  3. Bithead says:

    Perhaps being New Year’s Eve, I am in a particularly weird mood. But on reading your story, I could only picture this scene from Monty Python:

    City Gent Good afternoon.

    Rustic Afternoon.

    City Gent A lovely day isn’t it.

    Rustic Eh, ’tis that.

    City Gent You here on holiday or…?

    Rustic Nope, I live ‘ere.

    City Gent Oh, jolly good too. (surveys field; he looks puzzled) I say, those are sheep aren’t they?

    Rustic Ar.

    City Gent Yes, yes of course, I thought so…only…er why are they up in the trees?

    Rustic A fair question and one that in recent weeks has been much on my mind. It’s my considered opinion that they’re nesting.

    City Gent Nesting?

    Rustic Ar.

    City Gent Like birds?

    Rustic Ar. Exactly. Birds is the key to the whole problem. It’s my belief that these sheep are laborin’ under the misapprehension that they’re birds. Observe their behavior. Take for a start the sheeps’ tendency to ‘op about the field on their back legs.

    (off-screen baa-ing) Now witness their attempts to fly from tree to tree. Notice that they do not so much fly as…plummet. (sound of sheep plummeting) Observe for example that ewe in that oak tree. She is clearly trying to teach her lamb to fly.
    (baaaaaa…thump) Talk about the blind leading the blind.

    City Gent But why do they think they’re birds?

    Rustic Another fair question. One thing is for sure; a sheep is not a creature of the air. They have enormous difficulty in the comparatively simple act of perchin’. (crash) As you see. As for flight, its body is totally unadapted to the problems of aviation. Trouble is, sheep are very dim. Once they get an idea in their heads, there’s no shifting it.

    City Gent But where did they get the idea from?

    Rustic From Harold. He’s that sheep there over under the elm. He’s that most dangerous of animals, a clever sheep. He’s the ring-leader. He has realized that a sheep’s life consists of standing around for a few months and then being eaten. And that’s a depressing prospect for an ambitious sheep…

    We now return you to your blog which was already in progress.

  4. lily says:

    What if a gay couple took action to insure gayness in their child? What if deaf parents used genetic engineering technology to insure deafness inn their child? Should dwarf parents be able to guarantee that their child won’t grown taller than they are? I have a problem with the concept of people manipulating the embryo or their own biology so they can have “the child they want to raise”. They should want to raise the child they have.

  5. jpe says:

    What if deaf parents used genetic engineering technology to insure deafness inn their child?

    I don’t know if you missed this, or your comment was a reference to it.

  6. Rodney Dill says:

    Consequently a way may be found to ensure that babies are gay.

  7. Anderson says:

    Kinda creepy, in the sense that all these “we can build your fetus!” projects are creepy. Where does it end, exactly?

    I’ll be curious to see how consistent the “thou shalt not tamper with the human embryo” crowd is in condemning any human application of this research.

    (One in 10 rams are gay? Dodge might need a new brand name for its trucks … or maybe the homoeroticism was always there ….)

  8. floyd says:

    “”(One in 10 rams are gay?””

    So… That explains the source of men’s cardigans?

  9. Bigfoot says:

    Approximately one ram in 10 prefers to mount other rams rather than mate with ewes

    Sounds eerily like the old gay rights movement slogan “one in ten”, referring to the Kinsley report’s conclusion about what fraction of men are gay. But then, the gay rights movement doesn’t like to draw attention to another of the report’s conclusions, that gay men have something like 1000 gay lovers during their lifetimes.

  10. Anderson says:

    Unfortunately, the Puritan mores of the time compelled Kinsey to conceal his research into sheep as though he were reporting on human subjects. Cf. the thinly veiled satire in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.

  11. Jim Newman says:

    PETA’s big lie:

    Just so you know. The false suggestion that the research is aimed at curing homosexuality was made by PETA. Yes, the animal rights group.

    Of course PETA has their own motives for receiving press on this story. In fact, PETA heavily edited quotes by the researchers and even fabricated information to generate press coverage, Many weeks ago, a writer in the states looked into PETA false claims. Here’s what he found:

    http://thenexthurrah.typepad.com/the_next_hurrah/2006/09/peta_crosses_th.html

  12. Len says:

    gay men have something like 1000 gay lovers during their lifetimes.

    That’s amazing, Bigfoot. I wonder how I missed that memo?! I’ve been with the same guy for 30+ years, and I can guarantee that I never had “like 1000 gay lovers” before him.

    That really is an amazing statistic. A thousand. Wow. Hard to imagine.

    P.S. You know what they say about guys with big feet, right?

  13. McGehee says:

    Len, I think it means that somewhere out there is some poor guy who’s been having to take up all your slack to hold up the averages.

  14. Bigfoot: That statistic has been discredited more times now than I care to count. I’ll leave it to you to look it up. I’ve spent too much time linking the debunkings for fools like yourself who don’t know how to do research and only quote highly discredited “researchers” like Paul Cameron.

    James: Here’s my rebuttal to your post. I cannot seem to trackback to your site.

  15. Since, in spite of strenuous efforts on the part of homosexual activists, there’s not one shred of evidence that even remotely suggests that homosexuality is anything but a choice, how does one come to the conclusion that it’s biological?

  16. Len says:

    how does one come to the conclusion that it’s biological?

    Danny: Likely in the same manner as one comes to the conclusion that heterosexuality is biological.

    If homosexuality can be “cured,” can heterosexuality also be cured? If homosexuality is a choice, then the same must be true of heterosexuality. Can you remember the moment when you made the decision to be heterosexual (assuming you are)?

  17. Another wrinkle to consider: if the treatment, as indiciated in the article, is prenatal in nature, what will be the impact on the abortion debate? It’s hard to argue a fetus has a right to not have its orientation changed but also deny it has a right to not be aborted.

  18. Tano says:

    “…there’s not one shred of evidence that even remotely suggests that homosexuality is anything but a choice…”

    Why is there such a frequent correlation between the force of a statement and the depth of ignorance of the writer?

  19. James says:

    “Still, as Ridgely notes, that’s not the only “downside” of having gay children. Straight offspring are quite likely to get married and procreate, providing the joys of grandfatherhood and whatever vestigal benefit comes from continuing the family line. Gays sometimes do that as well, of course, and they can always adopt. But it’s not quite the same thing. ”

    Should someone really base the future of their child based on their wanting grandchildren? There are many straight people who never have children. Part of having a child is knowing they will grow up to be something you cannot entirely control. To fiddle with the biology of your child because you want a grandchild seems like a very shortsighted motive. What if these changes cause your child to be straight, but also cause him or her to be unable to reproduce? What if these changes cause your child to develop a gene for a very serious illness that he or she would then pass down to their children?

    Do we really want to open this door?

    Not to mention that somehow thinking genetic manipulation can somehow spare our children from prejudice is wishful thinking at best.

  20. James says:

    I’m sorry, I forgot to mention that Michael Bailey, who was quoted in that article, is a dubious expert on this subject. He has major issues with transgender people, bisexual people, etc.

    http://www.tsroadmap.com/info/j-michael-bailey.html

  21. just me says:

    I think this statement is the real question regarding the issue:

    Another wrinkle to consider: if the treatment, as indiciated in the article, is prenatal in nature, what will be the impact on the abortion debate? It’s hard to argue a fetus has a right to not have its orientation changed but also deny it has a right to not be aborted.

    I have seen several gay bloggers make the argument that tying the homosexual political agenda to abortion is a mistake, and for this very reason.

    If a baby has a right to homosexuality in the womb, then how can you in turn argue it has no right to life, especially given that the “treatment” for homosexuality is actually given to the mother and not the baby?

    This is another one of those questions where science has moved into an area where the ethics aren’t fully worked out yet-and sometimes doing something because you “can” doesn’t mean it is moral or ethical.

  22. Michael from U.K says:

    I read about this is a newspaper here in the u.k, and it filled me with a deep, moral rage and disgust that they have now reached this level, and that they are considering de-programming a creature of its natural sexual preference and calling it a ‘Cure’.

    The ethics of this are as up held as the ethics of the nazi’s in killing jews, except its far more grim, because it attacks homosexuality at its core to kill it.

    And well gay men perhaps in this generation might laugh it off and say “I’d never get such a treatment”, if in the next generation it shows that there are just a handful of gay men and women in the world, that this treatment has proven to be the worst threat to our basic human rights this and every generation after.

    The World Health organisation needs to stamp this out before its made into something that can kill off a culture of people that has given to much to the world.

  23. James says:

    “If a baby has a right to homosexuality in the womb, then how can you in turn argue it has no right to life, especially given that the “treatment” for homosexuality is actually given to the mother and not the baby?”

    On the other hand, if all life is sacred and life in the womb should not be interfered with, then it will be hypocritical if pro-life people suddenly approve of genetically engineering or aborting babies, won’t it?

    While there are some gay activists who are ardently in favor of abortion, many work with these groups because they know they have absolutely no chance of getting support from the other side. I remember reading a few years ago about a gay pro-life group who wanted to march in a pro-life parade with a banner that said they were a gay pro-life group. The woman in charge of the parade not only refused to let them march, she called the cops and had them arrested.

    There is a great potential for pro-life groups to work with gays and lesbians, yet they never bother.

  24. Depends on how one defines “interfered with”.

    The vast majority of the pro-life people I know, myself included, do not have a problem with treatments for the baby in utero. Indeed, that would seem to fall nicely under the parents’ right to make medical decisions for their children.

    Personally, the reciprocity involved in this is what keeps it out of ethical nastiness for me. If you can prevent homosexuality in a child, you can also induce homosexuality in a child. Therefore, I say go forward; if parents want to make gay babies, they can, and if they want to make straight babies, they can as well.

    The reason the gay left fears this so much is because I daresay the number of gay babies people choose to produce will be far less than the number they choose to fix. And, as is typical when their numbers and potential influence are threatened, they jealously guard their turf, no matter how contradictory their actions.

  25. James says:

    There are a lot of people who would rather not experiment on babies, even if they are pro-life. I’m pro-life and I think it’s disgusting to use babies this way solely because their parents don’t want to have to deal with having a gay child. There’s too much unknown about this type of procedure.

    “The reason the gay left fears this so much is because I daresay the number of gay babies people choose to produce will be far less than the number they choose to fix. And, as is typical when their numbers and potential influence are threatened, they jealously guard their turf, no matter how contradictory their actions. ”

    I don’t see how not wanting babies to be experimented on and mutated is “guarding their turf”. If they were as desperate for numbers as all that, so desperate for an image of themselves, then why would so many of them adopt children with disabilities, children with AIDS? Wouldn’t they just sit around waiting to breed the perfect baby?

    So do you support this move only because some gay people support abortion, and therefore gay eugenics is some kind of “screw you” to them? If all gay people were opposed to abortion, would you still support these plans?

    And has there been any “gay right” who has supported this eugenics? I haven’t exactly seen ringing support for this anywhere.

  26. Shalin Gala says:

    OSU and OHSU’s Big Embarrassment

    Thank you for covering this important issue. Jim Newman“the PR rep for Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU)“disregards criticism of the unscientific and unethical gay sheep experiments because of nothing more substantial than the fact that it was PETA who brought it to light. PETA sent a detailed seven-page letter to OHSU’s counterpart, Oregon State University, with critiques authored by scientific experts and a prominent sexuality research society. Both universities have failed to address the key points that were raised in the letter.

    OSU and OHSU certainly wish that PETA had never spoken out so that the experimenters could quietly continue their “research,” which embodies the needless slaughter of animals, an affront to human dignity, and a colossal waste of precious taxpayer funds.

    Read PETA’s letter to OSU in its entirety here.