Yep, They’re Gay

4 minute read
John Cloud

Zoologists have known for many years that homosexuality isn’t uncommon among animals. (My own cat has raised suspicions ever since he tried to mount a cowering male dachshund.) But I was surprised to learn recently that male sheep exhibit homosexuality at least as often as humans: roughly 8% of rams turn out to have sex exclusively with other rams.

This little piece of faunal ephemera might otherwise have gone unnoticed outside the rarely intersecting subcultures of gays and shepherds. But a few months ago, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals launched a p.r. campaign on behalf of gay sheep. PETA claims that researchers in Oregon are killing gay sheep and cutting open their brains in order to learn how to turn gay rams straight. A few weeks ago, London’s Sunday Times picked up the story in an unnerving article that states the research “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.” The story has pinged around quite a few blogs since, and Rush Limbaugh and Martina Navratilova have taken their predicted positions. (Limbaugh: gay activists finally have a reason to oppose abortion. Navratilova: homophobes are murdering gay sheep.)

It’s a pity that a story with so much potential for moral indignation and bad sheep puns (ewegenics!) turns out to be wrong. To be sure, a group of researchers led by physiologist Charles Roselli of Oregon Health & Science University has killed about 55 sheep, homosexual and heterosexual, in order to study the neurological basis of sexual attraction. They have confirmed that test sheep are gay by allowing them to pick among males and females that have been restrained in stanchions to await sexual intercourse.

But Roselli says he and his colleagues never had any intention of creating a drug that will turn people straight. And while they have examined whether sheep sexuality can be altered with various treatments, that’s not the sole point of their work. Instead, like many other scientists over the past two decades, they are conducting basic research into the nature of sexuality by manipulating hormones in animals. (Such experiments were done on zebra finches–to see if females would pair with other females–as long ago as 1988.) A colleague of Roselli’s, Fredrick Stormshak of Oregon State, says a means of identifying gay sheep would be useful to breeders who need to ensure that males will reproduce, but the team hasn’t had much success. In its most recent experiments, the group used drugs to block the action of a hormone thought to play a role in making most sheep straight (in other words, this test was designed to produce more homosexual sex, not less). But the results were inconclusive.

The Oregon group’s work has shown, however, that gay rams have different brain structures from heterosexual ones, news that should cheer those who see homosexuality and heterosexuality as mere biological variations. (Another small but fascinating finding: all gay rams are butch–none present themselves sexually the way ewes do.)

As Roselli acknowledges in his papers, sexuality in humans is far more complex than in sheep. The whole notion that researchers studying farm animals could develop a “cure” for human homosexuality is a fantasy of the far left and the far right, which both value a gay-sheep “scandal” more than the messy reality that is Roselli’s work.

But one could have a good argument about whether adorable little sheep should be killed for sex research. As a gay man, I tend to believe the more we know about the complex interplay of biology and environment that shapes sexuality, the less time we will spend nourishing Old Testament anachronisms about sex.

The more pressing question for me is, What would happen if research like Roselli’s did lead to, as the Sunday Times imagined, “a ‘straightening’ procedure [such as] a hormone supplement for mothers-to-be, worn like a nicotine patch”? I hope scientists have better things to do, but would a Hetero Patch be so awful? It would allow bigoted women to get what they want–straight kids–and ensure that gay kids grow up with moms who, at the very least, didn’t try to prevent their existence. Gay people seem to fear we would die out if such a device existed. But the elaborate combination of genes, hormones and psychology that produces same-sex attraction has persisted, against all odds, through the millenniums. Gays have survived Darwinian selection, Nazis, the dulling effects of Will & Grace. I don’t think a little patch would ever keep some rams from wanting other rams.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at