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16 Jan 2007

sexuality research: do we flash a 'stop' sign?

If parents are able to choose the sexual orientation of their children, should they be permitted to? Should research enabling this be stopped? Alex Au has more on the recently reported controversy about 'gay sheep' experiments.

These vexing questions erupted at the beginning of 2007 when the UK Sunday Times published a feature titled Science told: hands off gay sheep by Isabel Oakeshott and Chris Gourlay. The article highlighted "gay sheep" experiments - where researchers seeked to "change the sexuality of 'gay' sheep" - conducted in Oregon, USA.

The experiment, conducted by Oregon State University and Oregon Health and Science University, has not been successful at changing the behaviour of the homosexual rams in any meaningful way. Many gays and lesbians hailed this research as ''proof'' that homosexual orientation had a biological basis, a useful counter to the common homophobic belief that homosexuality is socially acquired.
However, it was soon ripped to shreds for its inaccuracy, containing as it did the false claim that the researchers had achieved some success in altering the sexual behaviour of homosexual rams.

Last year, lesbian tennis icon and gay rights activist Martina Navratilova issued a call for the research to be abandoned. "How can it be that in the year 2006 a major university would host such homophobic and cruel experiments?" the nine-time Wimbledon tennis champion asked in a letter addressed to the presidents of both universities, adding that LGBTs would be "deeply offended" by the social implications of the project.

Many other gay leaders took a similar position. UK gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, said, "[T]hese experiments echo Nazi research in the early 1940s which aimed at eradicating homosexuality. They stink of eugenics. There is a danger that extreme homophobic regimes may try to use these experimental results to change the orientation of gay people."

Unfortunately, all the outrage was misdirected. The work, done jointly by Oregon State University and Oregon Health and Science University, has not, repeat, not been successful at changing the behaviour of the homosexual rams in any meaningful way. They had earlier established that about eight to 10 percent of rams exclusively attempted to mount other males, and a further six to eight percent seem to be asexual. The scientists found that these outcomes depended on hormone levels in the foetal brain of sheep.

Many gays and lesbians hailed this research as "proof" that homosexual orientation had a biological basis, a useful counter to the common homophobic belief that homosexuality is socially acquired. If homosexuality was a biological trait, LGBTs argued, then the law should never countenance discrimination on this basis.

The scientists however, were not motivated by such issues; they were trying to improve breeding rates among sheep. To them, if 16 percent of rams failed to breed, it represented a loss to the farmer. Whether they'll ever be successful in turning any of these rams straight is not known. In any case, it's not even clear that they are pursuing this line of research at the present time.

Suppose, suppose...
But even though this instance was a false alarm, it nevertheless is an opportunity to examine the question of parents seeking hormonal treatment to ensure that their unborn child turns out heterosexual. Suppose one day it becomes possible, how will we feel?

Many may feel as Navratilova did - extremely upset at the potential "abuse" of such science. To prevent us from ever having to face such dilemmas, the natural instinct is to demand a stop to further research, as she and others have done. But is this realistic?

Certainly, public opinion can slow down research, usually through the cut-off of funding, as well as through creating such a stigma over a field of enquiry that few scientists would want to risk their careers pursuing it. But in the long run, human curiosity is unstoppable. Someone somewhere will embark on it, and sooner or later, we'll be faced with what is really a question of ethics, i.e. how should we use what knowledge we acquire?

Ethical questions are always complex and contentious. This one that is raised here boils down to what parents' rights are over their unborn child. It is easy for LGBTs to say parents should leave well enough alone, but very often, these same folks tend to support abortion rights; clearly, the gay community has lots of soul-searching to do.

Why so upset?
But why are gays and lesbians upset over the hypothetical prospect of parents ensuring that their offspring are straight? That's because we have created an identity and a sense of community. No community wants to see itself die out, nor even to be disadvantaged by steadily declining numbers. It is the most natural human instinct in the world.

Yet, human history is replete with examples of communities dying out. There are no more Carib people in the Caribbean, while numerous North and South American tribes have met the same fate. In every country, minority languages and dialects keep dying out as a dominant language extends its hegemony through state education and the mass media. With the passing of any language, an entire culture, including its store of folklore, is lost.

This mirrors the way in the 50,000 years since modern humans first appeared, we have steadily reduced bio-diversity in our environment. Extinctions of plants and animals as a result of human encroachment have been as rapid as during the time when the dinosaurs died out, believed to be the result of some global catastrophe.

Humans have an unrelenting desire for uniformity, for the simple reason that uniformity yields greater efficiency. That's why we don't follow local time, but work within prescribed time zones. That's why governments mandate that cars should drive on a certain side of the road and all of us think it's a very good idea. That's why worldwide, we have virtually settled on a uniform numeral system, and the Internet wouldn't work if we didn't have a uniform protocol. And when you think of it, it is quite remarkable that despite the fantastic variety of animals on this Earth, most humans have basically reduced our diet to just beef, pork, lamb, chicken and a selection of fish.

It takes work, when we are social animals preferring to live in communities, to have to deal with other individuals who are different from us in disconcerting ways. It's hard to deal with people who only speak a different language, who follow a different religion, or who have different value systems. Likewise, there is a tendency to use sexuality as another conflict boundary.

Broadening consciousness
But it doesn't have to be so. Against the current of relentless standardisation, there is also a counter-current of a steady broadening of human consciousness. Where once we might have thought nothing of genocidically extinguishing or enslaving an entire tribe or even race, today we can imagine a world - in some distant future, of course - where people should be able to live together regardless of colour. In some ways, we no longer see diversity as something that must necessarily be reduced; in fact, we are beginning to see the value of bio-diversity, for example.

That, in my view, is how this debate about sexuality research should be approached. So long as homosexual orientation is seen as undesirable, science will eventually be used to extinguish it. Rather than try to stop science, the better approach is to interrogate the value system that motivates people to extinguish difference.

At the same time, it is also worthwhile to open a debate about what rights parents have over their children. Many people today take it as given that they have complete rights; that children are extensions of their biological selves. This may be too simplistic, and ethically problematic. It is also culture-dependent, like how women were once seen as the property and legal extensions of their husbands.

Thus, rather than behave like King Canute commanding the tide to recede, gays and lesbians shouldn't adopt a luddite stance against research, real or imagined, but use this opportunity to ask searching questions about where our common humanity is headed.

Reader's Comments

1. 2007-01-16 22:11  
IF people can use science to change homosexuals, why not they use the science to change Cruel Hearts into Kind and Caring Hearts?

Changing One's Orientation is as if trying to change their hearts, their feelings...

Wonder if after a millon years, will it happen...
2. 2007-01-16 22:22  
Answer: If parents get to choose the sexuality of their children then we too, as gay parents, can have those same rights (technologies). Lets have gay children. How would straights feel then? We'll clone and modify a billion gay Brad Pitts :-) (I quite like Brad :-). Actually, can I try changing the real Brad Pitt gay?) Turn the question round.

This is a rather strange question to ask though really Alex. There's more damging issues affecting us all as human spirits. We've all damaged our planet beyond repair. Personally I feel this planet has few years left, so if its comprised of 99% idealist straights with crap dress sense, cant dance, kids that all look like Dolly the Sheep then good luck to them when that next ice age, solar flare, nuclear war, bird flu, human whatever virus hits town.

As a yogi (and Physicist at heart), my spirit lives on in the universe. All our spirits live on as part of the entirity. The energy, our spirits, our matter will always exist. (The Law of Conservation of Matter states that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only redistrubuted). Stop worrying about the future. Live well now, enjoy now, love now.

How about a positive question Alex?

p.s. Can the news be more pictures and less words, please :-) My head hurts reading all that.
3. 2007-01-16 22:58  
jejo.. this sounds more like an editorial and not news... but you want more of a pictorial... which defeats the whole purpose of this column altogether...

In any case, I am wondering if every parent is able to determine the sex of their child, and ultimately more parents choose to have more gay children... what would happen to human reproduction?

Hence, why would parents both gay and straight want to even bother choosing their childs sexual orientation for that matter? Each individual parent determined their own orientation without having their parents do that for them... so should the same right be accorded to their children?
4. 2007-01-16 23:53  
Alex's question was hypothetical navasak, so, therefore, was my answer. I hope such events never occur. I wish I never said anything now :-) Stupid news anyhow. bleh

And, the column is headed "News". The world is optical as well as textual. Yeah? So, more pics please ! :-) Just my comment.
5. 2007-01-17 00:54  
I would be upset too if my scientist friends suggest that they can change my sexual orientation. It implies that I am a mistake. I don't feel it has anything to do with preserving a community leh.
6. 2007-01-17 09:45  
Haha.. if homosexuals can be changed to heterosexual, why can't the reverse be done? Would scientist do that please?
7. 2007-01-17 09:55  
I have to agree to Alex that we should and need to re-examine our values and belief system, instead of stopping the advance of knowledge.
Standing on the ground of fellow scientists, especailly those involve in the field on animal husbandry / reseach; improving fertility, optimising reproduction while maximising production of the animals are crucial on a economic standpoint.
Although scientists have developed AI (artificail insemination) techniques to help acieve such objectives; such techniques are known to be expensive and labour intensive. In addition, human will never be able to accurately detect when an animal is "on heat" and most of the time, the "horny" period of the female animal is just too short to be captured to optimise conception.
I understand why they are looking into genetic modification.
As the article has pointed out, scientists and the world at large, are begining to accept that homosexuality is biologically influenece but such findings obviously do not work in favor of the current belief system.
We know that, if these scientists ever succesfully "correct" the behaviour of these gay rams genetically, someone or groups will wrongly use these findings for power and economic gains.
Changing mindset and belief is a tough job. We have seen how tough is to change the mindset of the gay community itself, talk about changing mindset of others who are against us. It is going to be a long road ahead.

8. 2007-01-17 11:10  
I think that you misunderstood what those LGBT community worried about and why they worried. It was less to do with "do not want to see GAY community dying out", but more "protect the human diversity and the spirits of pursuing equality among different groups of people".

Besides, we talk about abortion rights, it is more about the rights of doing bodies of women - it is NOT parents' rights - Although when we talk about leave a child as he/she is, we are really talking about parents' rights. so, PLEASE DON'T CONFUSE THEM.

9. 2007-01-17 17:46  
get them to invent a switch in the head of every human being (I) equals gay and (0) equals straight. (like the binary code). Add on a clapping function for triggering the switch just like lights in a room..... and sing

if you're a gay and you know it, clap your hands. (sing to the tune of if you are happy and you know it clap your hands)

imagine a concert performance with lots of applause.
10. 2007-01-17 18:17  
Sorry, those numbers are already taken


Please try another combination.
11. 2007-01-18 01:35  
what about -1?
12. 2007-01-18 02:24  
Maybe "-1" is a lazy top?

...but seriously, responce #6 is an excellent point... I know loads of straight boys I'd love to see turned gay. How about we all pitch in to a trust fund to pay for that scientific research? Money well spent, I'd say.
Comment #13 was deleted by its author
14. 2007-01-18 18:24  
To turn someone gay, you don't need gene therapy or any fancy scientist. You merely need to get them drunk, or promise not to tell any of their friends! Much faster and cheaper!
15. 2007-01-19 12:47  
I don't believe homosexuality will ever die out. There are too many ways to 'turn' a supposedly straight person, so even if biologically, a person is prevented from being homosexual, there are other ways culturally and socially to change a person's sexual orientation. Moreover, who's to say that in the distant future, homosexuality may become more widely accepted and prevalent..
16. 2007-01-20 11:23  
Don't they have better things to do?
Don't we have better things to read about?
Jeez man......someone's gotta set the bar for online content.
17. 2007-01-22 05:13  
Have nothing much to say but am suprise how these arguments between both parties are alike to those in the movie X-men III. Very interesting indeed.

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