Monday, November 06, 2006

Bad science: curing gay rams to help intersex people

Dr. Charles Rosselli of Oregon Health and Science University is in hot water, along with his collaborator Frederick Stormshak of Oregon State University for getting federal grant funding to try and change gay rams to straight. PETA has launched a campaign of protest with the lesbian tennis star Martina Navaratilova urging people to write in to ask the 3 million in funding to be spent somewhere other than a sheep ex-gay program.

Rosselli and Stormshak have been receiving federal grant money for several years to study sexual orientation in sheep. About 200 rams a year are tested for sexual orientation, of which some are determined to be asexual, some either/or (what we would call bisexual) and some exclusively “male oriented” (the scientists never use the G or H word but say “male oriented”). Once the “male oriented” sheep are determined, they are immediately killed so that Rosselli can try and figure out what in their brain is different than other ram's brains. This led to their 2004 paper on “male oriented sheep” and their subsequent federal funding of a two-tiered approach; Rosselli will drug the pregnant ewes to prevent certain hormonal actions and continue to kill “male oriented” rams in order to try and prove a connection between the two while Stormshak is already putting hormone distribution devices in “male oriented” rams to try and alter the ram’s sexual preference to straight.

This strange study, currently funded to 2008, but expected to be refunded to 2013, was initially given an economic justification; that farmers with gay rams needed to know how to alter this loss of economic sperm. However, as the project has continued, Rosselli and Stormshak have expanded the potential application of their research to humans, including other forms of sexual orientation, like their 2004 contributions to New Scientist’s article on humans and asexuality. What worried PETA (And lots of gays and lesbians) on their last NIH application was the statement that the experiments on sheep will provide information and hypothesis to be used testing “the biological basis of sexual orientation in higher mammals including humans.” First they come for the sheep, eh?

Many feel these two have been unfairly targeted because of political reasons (read: those overly sensitive gays) and that they are just two scientists doing what scientists do, exploring the boundaries of knowledge by testing hypothesis. However, my problem is that this pair, Rosselli in particular is that they are excruciatingly bad scientists doing bad science with bad premises filled with cultural assumptions. Rosselli says he chose sheep to begin with because "Sheep are the only species in which a small percentage of males have been shown to exhibit an exclusive same sex attraction" That’s a particularly odd quote because it simply isn’t true, gay cats (International feline specialist David Taylor details gay and even transsexual cats), gay swans and particularly gay penquins occur with regularity within the species (indeed two books: Biological Exuberance and Evolution’s Rainbow list over 450 species with same sex behavior, including some mammals which have ONLY been observed in same sex matings). It also happens that quote is a word for word repeat of what Jacques Balthazart 2002 said about an earlier version of the same sheep project, started at Oregon Health and Science University with Kay Larkin (Rosselli assisted Kay and now has taken over the project). That study replicated in “male oriented” ram brains the research and outcomes of those done on gay men by the controversial researcher Simon Levay (controversial as in both bad science AND projecting cultural stereotypes in his assertion that gay men are “more like women” in brain biology and that to have a lasting gay relationship it needs to reflect The Birdcage, with one partner a supercamp femme).

Yet, in a blog interview Rosselli states he has no interest to cure homosexuality. When asked the intention of his research he states:

“Moreover, sexual behavior and sexual partner preference play a fundamental role in reproduction and psychosexual development. There are serious medical conditions that are the result of variations in sexual development, such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia and androgen insensitivity syndrome. These conditions may lead to problems of sexual function, social and psychosexual adjustment, mental health, quality of life and social participation. Understanding variations in psychosexual development that may affect these individuals requires reference to studies in non-human species that show marked but complex effects of androgens on sex differentiation of the brain and on behavior. A greater understanding of the biological underpinnings of partner preference may greatly assist in providing affected individuals with the medical services and support that they may desire.”

That sounded pretty good to me. Except one of the conditions he mentions “helping” made my memory tweak: androgen insensitivity syndrome, otherwise known as AIS or CAIS. AIS is an intersex condition, as is congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Overall, there are over a dozen intersex conditions; intersex at it’s basic means that a person’s biological gender markers fall outside what is typical for male or female. Before I go on to explain about AIS you should start asking yourself about the first and second sentences in the statement above, specificially why does this scientist think that studying sexual partner preference in adults will have any effect on conditions relating to gender and gender identity (unless you somehow think that gay men are really just psudo-females?).

AIS, which has seven levels of severity means that the body is incapable at some level of absorbing the hormone androgen (males and females have BOTH estrogen and testosterone/androgen in their bodies, just in differing levels, androgen is the dominant male hormone). What this means is that a sperm and egg meet, making an XY combination, the DNA creating small testes. However, because androgen cannot be absorbed (this is an inherited condition 66% of the time) the fetus follows the Eve Default, because all fetus are female, it is the washes of hormones and the changes which subsequently occur which make males. Thus, when a baby with Complete AIS (CAIS) is delivered, there is a normal healthy girl. The girl, complete with appropriate genitalia, will not have a uterus or ovaries, but rather internalized testes, along with an XY chromosome instead of the XX chromosome. The girl will develop normally through puberty, including breast development but without menstruation. It is either now or later that a doctor will be consulted, who with a consult to an endocrinologist, will determine the CAIS condition; which is usually followed up with a recommendation for removal of the internalized testes as they can become a significant cancer risk.

It is interesting that Rosselli chose AIS as his justification for helping because the condition leads to “problems of sexual function, social and psychosexual adjustment, mental health, quality of life and social participation.” Interesting because the number one problem for intersex people is the misconceptions and stigmatization placed upon them by society and doctors. And CAIS is THE intersex condition which most clearly demonstrates this. One of the problems with an intersex condition is early intervention in assigning gender identity. Hospitals used to use (and in some cases still do) a ruler in cases of ambigious genitalia (which occurs 1 in 2000 births), if the genitalia was X long on the ruler then it would be a clitoris and the baby would be “made” and raised as a girl; if it was Y long, then it would be a penis and the genitalia “corrected” to that assumption. It is these imposing of gender identities from the 1960’s onward which lead to so many cases of mental health difficulty as well as some sexual corrections in adult life to the appropriate gender identity. CAIS females, however do not have gender identity problems. They know they are female, everyone knows they are female. It is only when the XY chromosome normally associated with males becomes known that society starts imposing their binary preconceptions (if you think gender is only determined by chromosomes you can give yourself a wake up smack now; if you are a Christian and use the phrase “God doesn’t make mistakes” to justify this view, find yourself a really big bible to smack yourself with). CAIS intersex females are often used in medical shows like ER (season 6), Grey’s Anatomy and House (season 2) with a “surprise it’s a boy!” stereotype enforcing story. In House season two, House takes days to make a diagnoses normally performed by a competent GP in order that he can deliver the “you’re a boy” statement to the patient and “you’re a homo” line to the father who had sex with his CAIS daughter. Classy! (note that to the FCC if you imply straight teens have sex, you get fined $3.6 million, call someone a “homo” and get fined....nothing!)

Traditionally doctors have lied to their CAIS patients, often removing the testes under the guise of removing problematic ovaries, or simply saying they have a uterus problem and can’t have children. Of course, when the patients found out later as adults, THAT caused psychological problems. Some stories here, will illustrate the lack of respect doctor’s have had toward CAIS patients. Indeed CAIS used to be called Testicular Feminization (tell me you can’t hear the male oriented panic in that term). As regards to sexual orientation, one CAIS female reports that lesbians occur about 10%, the same percentage as the general population. But only ignorance places CAIS as anything other than females, they just happen to be an XY female. Indeed, It was because of conditions such as these that the Olympic committee dropped the “chromosome test qualification” in 1990, simply because 1 in 400 women were getting negative results; and having to face the media storm of “it’s a man!” before being cleared by doctors as females (ALL females competitors who tested negative in recent Olympics were cleared by doctors as females). Some competitors, after the initial negative test results were so traumatized, that they dropped out of sports entirely (like sprinter Eva Klobukowska who had XXY chromosomes; another intersex condition).

So why would Rosselli pick as justification, an intersex condition with completely stable gender identities, and with a sexual orientation spread the same as the rest of the population along with the other intersex condition CAH which in its mildest form occurs in 1 in 100 people? And how will his work help this litany of terms he gives that intersex people suffer from (you may recognize them as the same terms used to classify homosexuality as a destructive mental illness)? More importantly, how can a scientist who mixes gender identity with sexual orientation help intersex’s greatest problem, social stereotypes and misunderstanding (for those confused gender identity is what your gender is, male or female, while sexual orientation is who you are sexually attracted to – only very bad, bad science assumes that if you are attracted to Johnny Depp, you must be female, regardless of your gender).

It seems that Rosselli and Stormshak fall into that group of retro male scientists who like viewing the world and human population as what “should be” normal and then trying to alter anything else. That a sheep study, started to connect gay ram brains to gay human brains and the “female” aspects thereof, has now morphed into trying to change hormones in sheep of same sex orientation in order to help human intersex conditions from the terrible and horrid life of…being intersex (from Rosselli’s point of view anyway), then yes, yank this funding. I shudder to think what “correction” Rosselli has in mind for AIS women, much less the rest of LGBTI people. And quite honestly, if I wanted the federal government to fund misinformation, they might as well give it to NARTH or Exodus, whose misunderstanding of gender identity/sexual orientation is so skewed that they think the cure to a lesbian is high heels, a nice cocktail dress and a make-over. Or better yet, why not give $40,000 (about what the Federal Govt. has funded each gay ram), to each time a straight man beats to death a transsexual women yelling, “You fag, I’m not a homo!” – Or wait, was that the kind of boneheaded ignorance we were trying to eliminate instead of perpetuate?


kathz said...

any readers of this blog who don't think this research is sinister should think some more. What other conditions will mad scientists choose to correct or eliminate: a genetic tendency to dissidence, perhaps - or DNA from a particular ethnic group. This kind of research, which tampers with what people naturally are, is C21st eugenics.

GayProf said...

Of course, the other issue is that humans are projecting on our ideas about sexuality and sexual categories onto animals. Sheep probably aren’t thinking about a gay/hetero binary, I am guessing.

As for CAIS, many parents conspire with those doctors to keep their children’s chromosomal composition a secret. Tell me that’s a healthy family.

Sober @ Sundown said...

You have such a wealth of interesting information. I enjoy reading your blog....

Penny Painkiller said...

Did you see the movie X-men 3? What with the cure for mutanthood and all?

In my diary at a web community I'm
in I compared that to the talk about finding a cure for homosexuality. The parallell is good, both homosexuality in the real world and mutanthood in the X-men fiction is a state that some percieve as a disease, a dangerous medical condition that should be at least strictly monitored and controlled, and that others percieve as simply a natural part of their person, and nothing that should count against them in any way. Imagine that some medical researchers come up with such a cure. If you are gay, or anything other than perfectly straight, you can go to a hospital, have some injections and wake up later, straight as a nail. I do not personally belive that this is possible, sexual preference and gender identity is a good deal more complicated than what can be fixed with the contents of a syringe or two.

How would this be received in society? And more importantly, could we trust governments of the world to allow homosexuals to choose for themselves to take the treatment or not? For those who control the police and medical authorities, it would be very easy to have those found, or even suspected, to be homosexuals compulsorily treated with the "cure". And what if another agent was added to government inocculation programs without public knowlege?

To quote the crazy bald nazi gun nut in Falling Down: "Think about it!"

Anonymous said...

I am a parent of a CAIS daughter, she is now 2 years old and we were blessed enough to find out about her condition the day after she was born. I have a wonderful Endocronoligist that has helped me so much throughout the entire time. I have had doctors suggest that I should not have children anymore in case this happens again... and have also had them say that genetic testing could be done in vitro in case I wanted to terminate the next pregnancy. That kind of thinking makes me literally nauseous. I could only pray that my next child is as wonderful and bright as my daughter. People need to get a clue.

Elizabeth McClung said...

It does seem odd that scientist and doctor's seem drawn to "correcting" and variation - when often it is those people of "variation" which go one to lead lives that are extraordinary - ones which enrich the lives of many - I think if everything was "corrected" in vitro (or anything not "perfect" terminated) humanity would have lost those bright lights, which they abuse in ignorance but unknowingly rely on.

Anonymous said...

Nothing to do with the post- thankyou for writing such a thoughtful blog.


Crazy and inane greens they are the biggist anemies of the enviromentalist then developers and polution ever will be

Queers United said...

thanks for holding roselli accountable, this research continues and is homophobic and cruel.

Anonymous said...

so, the point of the research is to understand the biology underlying sexual orientation. they have observed anatomical differences in the brains of male-oriented and female-oriented sheep. they then try to perturb their anatomy with hormone treatment to see if they can change the sexual orientation. this is all under the hypothesis that sexual orientation is biologically based, rather than a choice. therefore, having a different sexual orientation is no different than having different hair color. no scientist would think of "fixing" gay or straight people by changing their orientation. the stigma of mad scientists is ignorant and should be left to the movies.