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.
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.
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.
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.