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Hetracil, for Real This Time

December 13th, 2007 · 15 Comments

Hetracil, a drug that supposedly “cured” homosexuality, was an elaborate, clever joke. But apparently, researchers at the University of Illinois have discovered the real thing… at least for fruit flies. As John Tierney wryly notes, it will be interesting to see whether the Leon Kass types denounce such technology as “meddling with nature” or “playing God.”

Of course, the reaction of the gay community will be interesting to watch as well. For perhaps understandable reasons, gay activists have staked a lot on the notion that sexual orientation is—whether by genes or early environment—biologically hardwired, not the result of any conscious choice. But of course, this meant that someone might one day come up with a biological means to artificially produce either orientation. If something like this ever reaches the market—still, to be sure, a far-off hypothetical—I’m guessing we’ll watch X-Men III play out, though (alas) with fewer mutant powers.

With respect to adults, this seems all to the good. If I were single, it might be interesting to try being gay for a few months. But children will present a difficult case. Doubtless there will be parents who—whether from homophobia, because they’re eager for grandchildren, or because they fear the discrimination gay kids and teens face—decide to ensure their kids are straight. If their numbers are substantial, that obviously creates a series of both personal and political problems for the gay community.

On the other hand, and perhaps I’m being excessively sanguine here, it could also have the result of eliminating the idea of sexual identity—a fixed, static “orientation”—altogether, in favor of a more protean, Kinseyan conception of sexuality. “Gay rights,” on this optimistic picture, cease to be the rights of some small, utterly Other minority group, and instead become rights each of us hold, and can imagine ourselves invoking, whether or not we actually decide to take a walk on the other side. Sadly, I doubt anything of the sort will be developed in time for someone to does James Dobson, which I would dearly love to see.

Addendum: I haven’t read it yet, but there’s a long article in a recent Mother Jones dealing with this very topic.

Tags: Sexual Politics



15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Grant Gould // Dec 13, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Although this detracts not at all from the fascinating questions that a “hetracil” would pose, it’s worth nothing that what’s being changed in fruit flies is not particularly similar to any moderately accepted characterization of human homosexuality (at least if I’m thinking of the correct line of research here).

    The trait in fruit-flies is “gender-blindness” — a failure of the male flies’ ability to identify other flies as male using various pheromone receptors. Equating gender-blindness to homosexuality makes headlines, but it’s not exactly good science with respect to either fruit-flies or humans.

    (That said, I’d pay good money to see Leon Cass attempt to wrangle his way around a real Hetracil.)

  • 2 FS // Dec 13, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    The whole thing is very John Varley-esque.

  • 3 BostonSatyr // Dec 13, 2007 at 10:59 pm

    As a gay man myself, this is disturbing…after stressing for years that being gay is not a choice (i.e. changing “sexual preference” to “sexual orientation”), it’s troubling to hear the suggestion that we might be able to switch sides at will, by means of a pill, etc.

    And I can imagine that parent will in fact abort their gay children if it is a quality that is detectable in the womb, or even have it changed. We need only look to the number of children born with Downs Syndrome in America in the past twenty years. The number is drastically down, coinciding with the ability of science to detect this problem in utero.

  • 4 BostonSatyr // Dec 13, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    And Sanchez – if you ever do have the ability to go gay, I’ll be first in line to buy you coffee. After “a few months,” you won’t want to go back 😉

    All in good fun. Hugs to your girlfriend.

  • 5 Lee // Dec 17, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    I realize I’m late to the party, but I want to throw out this passage from On Liberty. Of course Mill didn’t have hetracil in mind, but it’s inspiring stuff nonetheless:

    If the claims of Individuality are ever to be asserted, the time is now, while much is still wanting to complete the enforced assimilation. It is only in the earlier stages that any stand can be successfully made against the encroachment. The demand that all other people shall resemble ourselves, grows by what it feeds on. If resistance waits till life is reduced nearly to one uniform type, all deviations from that type will come to be considered impious, immoral, even monstrous and contrary to nature. Mankind speedily become unable to conceive diversity, when they have been for some time unaccustomed to see it.

    (That’s from the end of the third chapter)

  • 6 Lee // Dec 17, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    Also, it is fun to consider the selection effects this will create when adults can freely chose to take it or not.

    Out gay people today are more interesting than the general population because to be a member of their set you have to have, by definition, gone against a strong social norm to follow you inclinations.

    Now just imagine a world in which hetracil is widely available. Suddenly being an out gay means not only following your inclinations, but even refusing to change your inclinations. What an interesting group of people that would be!

  • 7 MikeT // Dec 17, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Make no mistake about it. From a biological point of view, homosexuality is not a good thing. It is a defect in an organism that makes its normal behavior unconducive to ever reproducing. On just a biological level, I don’t think you could fault a parent who want to cure such an obvious defect in their child.

    People give homosexuality a pass when it comes to calling it a defect, but what if it were another sexual preference that was a deviation from being attracted to sexually mature members of the opposite sex? You’d see few people arguing that such a cure isn’t an unqualified good for the person who has to deal with them.

    It’s fine for someone to choose to remain homosexual, but it’s also perfectly fine for two parents to decide to tinker a little with their child’s DNA for the sole purpose of fixing genetic defects, in order to give their child a healthier, happier life.

  • 8 MikeT // Dec 17, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    And I can imagine that parent will in fact abort their gay children if it is a quality that is detectable in the womb, or even have it changed. We need only look to the number of children born with Downs Syndrome in America in the past twenty years. The number is drastically down, coinciding with the ability of science to detect this problem in utero.

    Wouldn’t the most effective way to prevent this selective abortion be to declare abortion without medical necessity to be illegal? Getting upset about the motives behind the abortion is just splitting hairs.

  • 9 Lee // Dec 17, 2007 at 10:17 pm


    It is not clear that homosexuality is a biological mistake in the sense of a maladaptation.

    We often interpret natural selection as operating at the level of the individual, but nature is more subtle than that. Sometimes it is more helpful to think of it at the genetic level. And at this level the existence of a gay gene (or whatever inherited factor) is interesting but not inexplicable by natural selection. It could well be adaptive.

    How? Here’s one way.

    A few years back researchers found that female maternal relatives of gay men tend to be more fecund than the average gal (Proceeding of the Royal Society 2004). The cartoon idea is that the factors endows the women in the family with super-heterosexuality, but occasionally gives sons homosexuality. The upshot: it could be that this inherited factor is a boon to inclusive fitness on the whole.

    That is one way that homosexuality may not be a biological mistake. You may say that if natural selection had its druthers there’d be extra fecundity without homosexuality, but that is stretching the intentional metaphor too far.

    And anyway, it’s not as if what you perceive as nature’s intention is normative.

    Also, it’s not clear that individuals care much about having as many grandkids as possible. If that were true all men would donate to sperm banks and sire hundreds.

    More likely people just do not want their kids to be different for the same reason that they don’t want their house to be a weird color: “What would the neighbors think??”

  • 10 JJ // May 20, 2008 at 5:19 am

    I’d like to see a pill to turn Heteros gay.
    With the population out of control, do we really need more breeding vermin?

  • 11 Francocoon564 // Nov 6, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Mankind is screwed by its own success. Biology is a big damned mess! These guys in white coats get tinkering w/ you and it’s bed time for bonzo! We were better off when nature was kicking our ass. I will say this, pill or no, you take the most flaming homosexual on the planet, kill off the other males, and I guarantee you he’ll repopulate the species. Nature is a ho.
    Still it might be nice for an “effiminate” child to have a choice. Shouldn’t be a threat to other gays, no one would make them take the pill….still I think most would take it. Eugenics alas is here to stay. We have to just roll with it. As for now I still like girl’s butts.

  • 12 Lesborama // Feb 10, 2010 at 11:06 am

    The time has come for a pill to cure stupidity!

  • 13 RedSoy // Mar 8, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    You should read “Changes”, a novel from Neil Gaiman. It asks interesting questions.

  • 14 anonymous // Sep 15, 2011 at 2:20 am

    Will the pill cure fetishes like diapers balloons and furry costumes?

  • 15 anonymous // Sep 15, 2011 at 2:22 am

    I hope it does.. I’d take anything.. I wish i was only gay or even better a foot fetish.. I hate my life.