Gay sheep and human destiny.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 2 2007 7:08 PM

Brokeback Mutton

Gay sheep and human destiny.

Sheep participating in the sex-study. Click image to expand.
"I wish I knew how to quit ewe!"

Just up the road from Brokeback Mountain, closeted away in their own private Idaho, the gay sheep were getting it on.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Well, it wasn't exactly private. They were doing it in front of scientists at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station near the Idaho-Montana-Wyoming border. The scientists arranged the trysts. It's called "sexual partner preference testing."

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According to an article by researchers involved in the project, here's how it works. In a 15-by-10-foot "arena," a young ram is offered four choices: two ewes in heat and two rams. "The four stimulus animals are restrained in stanchions so that they can only be approached from the sides and rear." For 30 minutes, the unrestrained ram does as he pleases. The scientists count his "anogenital sniffs," "mounts," and "ejaculations."

A bare majority of rams turn out to be heterosexual. One in five swings both ways. About 15 percent are asexual, and 7 percent to 10 percent are gay.

Why so many gay rams? Is it too much socializing with ewes? Same-sex play with other lambs? Domestication? Nope. Those theories have been debunked. Gay rams don't act girly. They're just as gay in the wild. And a crucial part of their brains—the "sexually dimorphic nucleus"—looks more like a ewe's than like a straight ram's. Gay men have a similar brain resemblance to women. Charles Roselli, the project's lead scientist, says such research "strongly suggests that sexual preference is biologically determined in animals, and possibly in humans."

Roselli's interest is in the science. He figured the political upshot, if any, would be gay-friendly. After all, surveys show that if you think homosexuality is biologically determined, you're less likely to be anti-gay.

Roselli didn't just prove homosexuality in rams was natural. He tried to engineer it. In a 1999 grant application, he proposed "to determine [whether male-oriented] preference behavior can be artificially produced in genetic male sheep" by depriving male lamb fetuses of estrogen stimulation. Seven months ago, he reported that the experiment failed. The point wasn't to promote homosexuality. The point was to learn what causes it.

You'd expect conservatives to demand that the government stop funding this research. But science is tricky. If you figure out how to make sheep gay, you can probably figure out how to make them straight. And maybe you can do the same to people.

Roselli studies hormones, brains, and behavior. He works at Oregon Health and Science University, a medical institution. But his collaborator, Fred Stormshak, is an animal scientist affiliated with Oregon State University, which focuses more on agriculture and economics. Gay rams are "a costly problem for sheep producers because breeding rams are worth $300 to $500 each," Stormshak told OSU's agricultural newsletter a decade ago. "Outwardly, there is no way to tell whether a ram is male-oriented, so the producer runs the costly risk of buying an animal that will never produce any offspring."

Identifying gay rams wasn't enough. In 2000, Stormshak described an attempt to "alter" them. The idea was to "enhance their sexual behavior or performance" by making them act like straight rams. Three years later, Roselli told an OHSU committee that, among other things, "information gained about the hormonal, neural, genetic, and environmental determinants of sexual partner preferences should allow better selection of rams for breeding and as a consequence may be economically important to the sheep industry." OSU president Ed Ray says the research "may define biological tests that can be used to identify" gay or asexual rams, "thus eliminating their use for general breeding purposes."

Notice the lack of animus in these explanations. Breeders don't care whether rams are gay or simply unmotivated. All that matters is "performance." And when Ray talks about "eliminating" such rams from breeding, he leaves open the possibility of a happy old age munching grass. But you can smell the slaughterhouse.

Which brings us to the animals whose breeding we really care about: our children.

Passing on your genes is life's deepest drive. You don't just want kids. You want grandkids. An Israeli woman, with court approval, is already using her dead son's sperm to inseminate a stranger. I know a guy whose future mother-in-law put him through a fertility test before approving his marriage. Then there are all the parents who pressure their adult children to marry and procreate. In a recent survey, 73 percent of Americans said they'd be upset to learn that their child was gay. To many parents, "I'm gay, Mom" means "No grandkids for you."

Roselli offers lots of evidence that human homosexuality is linked to biological conditions, some of them genetic. If he figures out how to manipulate sexual orientation in sheep, will others try to manipulate it in humans? We already have. Doctors used to "treat" homosexuality with hormone injections. Some still do. This idea failed miserably in adults, but it might work in fetuses, since their brains are forming. And if we can't engineer sexual orientation, maybe we can select it. Millions of Asians have used modern sex tests to identify and abort female fetuses. If we learn how to recognize gay brains in development, look out.

But killing is the horror scenario. The more likely path is gentler. Science will gradually convince us that sexual orientation is innate, more like the color of your skin than like the content of your character. Condemnation of homosexuality as a sin will subside. Freed from the culture wars, we'll turn to the biological differences between race and sexual orientation: Homosexuality defies the aspiration to procreate with your mate, and it's easier to isolate and alter in embryonic development. Resentment will give way to pity. We'll come to view homosexuality as a kind of infertility—a disability, like deafness. The rhetoric of "acceptance" will shift from liberals to conservatives. We'll inoculate our offspring against homosexuality out of love, not hate.

The sheep researchers intend nothing like this. But they didn't foresee the initial uproar over their work, either. It has come from the left, not the right. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has tried to quash their research, falsely depicting them as bigots. PETA, like President Bush, thinks that bad ideas come from bad people, and you have to stamp out the whole lot.

But bad ideas—communism, eugenics, wars of liberation—don't happen because they're bad. They happen because, in the beginning, they're good. What we do with the biological truth about homosexuality, for good or ill, isn't written in our hormones or our genes. It's up to us.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.

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