Navratilova: Leave Gay Sheep Alone

Walter Armstrong

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova has teamed up with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to shutter labs in Oregon for conducting "cruel and homophobic" experiments on sheep that amount to nothing less than the practice of sexual eugenics.

"For the sake of the animals who will die unnecessarily ... and for the many gays and lesbians who stand to be deeply offended by the social implications of these tests, I ask that you please end these studies at once," the pioneering lesbian southpaw who holds the world's record in tennis titles wrote last week to the presidents of Oregon State University (OSU) and Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where the research has been ongoing for years.

OSU and OHSU scientists say they are studying the sheep to learn more about the possible biological basis of sexual orientation. Sheep are known in the animal kingdom for their high rate of homosexuality; as many as 8% of rams are "nonbreeders," favoring fellow rams over ewes. Every year researchers kill 200 of these "male-identified" rams, cut open their brains, and measure the size of their hypothalamus, which plays a crucial role in the production of hormone and other more obscure processes that may be central to the development of sexuality. In 2001, the scientists discovered that the hypothalamus of homosexual rams was smaller than that of heterosexual rams. This discovery replicated the original 1991 finding by British neuroscientist Simon LeVay made inhuman cadavers.

But the researchers took the next step, moving from basic to applied science. They injected hormones into pregnant ewes to see if they could prevent them from giving birth to homosexual rams; they also implanted hormone-regulating devices in male-identified adults to see if they could "correct" their same-sex desires. In order to determine whether a ram is male-identified, it is put in a breeding room where male and female sheep are tied down, offering it a choice of which to mate. Just as PETA slams the killing of animals to cut up their brains as murder, the animal-rights organization condemns these so-called preference tests as rape.

PETA has been nipping at the heels of the sheep researchers all year. It gave the OSHU lab a no. 8 ranking on its "America's Top 10 Worst Labs List" and mobilized 14,000 e-mails and letters last summer demanding an end to the experiments, charging that they are not only abusive and unethical but a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Then university administrators made the mistake of defending the studies by pointing out that the hormone treatments, if successful, could help ranchers save money by turning nonbreeding homo rams into studly hetero members of the herd.

In what fast became a game of political poker, PETA called the researchers on their "sexual eugenics" and then raised the rhetorical stakes, claiming that the researchers were, in the words of PETA's Shalin Gala, "attempting to apply their homophobic research on sheep to humans—and we find that completely offensive."

In fact, the researchers have repeatedly claimed that any application to humans would be unethical. "The bottom line is that our research is basic in nature," countered OSHU study head Dr. Charles Rosselli. "It is not aimed at 'curing homosexuality,' as some detractors have suggested."

But with Navratilova now in the game, PETA may have a winning hand. The tennis icon, who retired from the tour in September after adding, at age 50, another U.S. Open trophy (mixed doubles) to her collection, is a national figure whose pull-no-punches popularity spans most demographics. "Surely you can find a way to redirect the millions of public tax dollars being wasted on these experiments to a more fruitful venture," her letter ended. "Perhaps by funding a gay and lesbian community center to foster dialogue and acceptance for people of all sexual preferences?"