THE GAY RAT
Throughout the 1980s social scientists turned to biology to explain human sexual practices, while biologists found their own research paradigms influenced by new social acceptance and definitions of human sexual diversity. In 1981, researchers Alan Bell, Martin Weinberg, and Sue Hammersmith published a study called Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women. They had interviewed hundreds of homosexuals, obtaining information on past histories, family lives, and relationships with their mothers, fathers, siblings, and others. No single factor, however, stood out as the cause of homosexuality. Although they did not study biological components to homosexuality, the authors devoted a short chapter to the question of biology, noting that prenatal hormones could affect brain development.138 Similarly, medical researchers interested in human endocrinology and gender development both followed and contributed to the work on hormones and animal development, often interacting with the rodent researchers at symposia.139 Those more closely connected to the world ofneuroendocrinology had been pursuing the theory of prenatal hormone effects using human intersexuality—especially CAH girls and AIS males—as the human experimental analogs to androgenized or castrated rats and guinea pigs.
As new and more complicated accounts of human homosexuality began to take shape in public debate, researchers working on animal behaviors suddenly began to reevaluate their own experiments on rodent sexuality. When Beach insisted in the 1940s that rodents were inherently bisexual, he meant that females had the potential to behave like males during mating. That meant that they might pursue and mount another animal, no matter the sex. Similarly a male had the potential to exhibit a more typically feminine repertoire, including ear wiggling and lordosis. Since a male that exhibited lordosis might also mount vigorously and sire offspring, and a female that mounted might also mate and bear young, Beach conceptualized the underlying system as bi – sexual.140 At the time, Kinsey warned that applying the terms homosexual and bisexual to animals was ‘‘unfortunate,’’ leading clinicians to badly misinterpret the animal experiments.141 Indeed, over the decades, Kinsey’s concerns have been borne out. Studies of animal and human sexuality have been hopelessly confused with each other.
During the 1980s, medical researchers, proposing with some vigor the idea that human homosexuality resulted from prenatal exposure to the wrong quantity or quality of hormone, often assumed that the case had already been made for animals. But the growth of the gay rights movement contributed new terms to the national discussion. While the nature of gay life became more visible, deep fissures appeared in the animal work. Consider, for example, the idea that a male rat that exhibits lordosis when mounted by another animal performs a homosexual act, while at the same time, the mounting male behaves heterosexually. The analogy to humans would suggest that only one member of a male-male couple is homosexual, but usually we understand that when two men have sex, both are homosexual.142 The analogy holds for female rats—only the mounting female was seen as homosexual or bisexual. While this view of human female-female couples was typical during the 1920s, by the 1980s we believed both members of same sex-couples to be equally gay. Soon scientists hotly debated the wisdom of applying animal models to humans.143
During the 1980s, the terms sexual orientation and sexual preference became common stand-ins for the word homosexual. They seemed somehow more polite, more benign, and by avoiding the loaded term homosexual, they served the gay rights movement well. Rhetorically, it became possible to campaign against discrimination based on sexual orientation or preference. But these phrases embodied new concepts that in turn caused scientists to regroup. By the end of the ’ 80s experimental psychologist Elizabeth Adkins-Regan argued the importance of applying ‘‘sexual preference or orientation’’ to animal studies. She noted that most of the studies on hormones and reproductive behaviors in rodents simply did not test for sexual orientation or preference because the test animals were never offered a choice.144 Furthermore, choice tests themselves needed to distinguish between social and sexual preference. Animals living in all-female or all-male groups and mating only during breeding season, for example, might well prefer same-sex sociality, even though their mating preferences were strictly heterosexual.
As cultural consciousness about human homosexuality changed, so too did the rat experiments. My own survey of articles appearing in the journal Hormones and Behavior between 1978 and 1998 shows that the first article using sexual preference in its title appeared in 1983. The next showed up in 1987, and between then and 1998 another sixteen articles studying choice, preference, or orientation (in animals) appeared. To remedy the problem of studying rodent preference using an experimental design that offered the animals no choice, a group of Dutch animal behaviorists devised a new test system specifically for the study of sexual orientation in rats. They divided an open field cage into three compartments. In the middle compartment, the test animal roams freely and can choose to sit near (or sometimes to enter) one of two compartments, the first of which contains a sexually active male, the second a female in heat. Test animals choose to spend time with one or the other so – called stimulus animals, or can choose solitude. Should a male spend more time with a female, he would be heterosexual, while more time spent hanging out with the male stimulus would indicate homosexuality. In this setup, rats can also express bisexual or asexual choices. In the 1940s, rodents were ‘‘bisexual.’’ In the (gay) 1990s, rodents have ‘‘preferences’’ and ‘‘orientations.’’ Whether they mount or show lordosis is a separate story.145 Once again, we see that experiment and culture co-produce scientific knowledge,146 while such hybrid knowledge in turn shapes social debates about human homosex- uality.147
Hormone injection activates behaviors latent in brain organization
figure 8 . y: Overview of the design and interpretation of experiments leading to the organizational/activational theory of hormones and behavior.