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Wednesday, August 15,2012

An unconventional truth

MSU prof raising funds for provocative new documentary on sexuality: 'This movie is going to be eye opening for people who don't understand progress.'

by ALLAN I. ROSS

A year after Al Gore famously mounted his scissor lift to stress the factual threats of climate change in “An Inconvenient Truth,” Oxford University conducted an international survey of people who had seen the film. Of those polled, 89 percent said it had made them more aware of the global warming problem, and an impressive 74 percent said that they had changed some habits because of the film. 

Despite the overwhelming evidence, however, climate change is still considered a debatable subject (see this week’s cover story). But if you want to dive into a really hot topic, let’s talk about that old moral, political and social impasse: homosexuality. 

However, Michigan State University neuroscience Professor Marc Breedlove thinks he can do for gay pride what Martin Luther King Jr. did for civil rights: give credence to a much-maligned minority to initiate real, positive social change. And he’s using the Gore doc as a template. 

“Can you believe that people were outraged in 1967 when those judges ruled in favor of intermarriage?” Breedlove says, referencing the landmark Loving v. Virginia case that legalized marriage between blacks and whites in America. “Forty years from now, you’re not going to find anyone arguing against gay rights, and those who are doing so now are going to be ashamed that they ever did. The only thing you could do in the ī60s to rid the system of the really racist people was wait for them to die, but we’ve been seeing that people are changing their minds about homosexuality. This movie is going to be eye opening for people who don’t understand progress.” 

The movie Breedlove refers to is “Whom You Love: The biology of sexual orientation,” a documentary that he hopes to make by raising funds on the website Kickstarter.com. His goal is to raise $50,000.

The film, aimed at a general audience, asserts that sexual orientation is a matter of biology and not choice. The material will be drawn from a weekly speaker series at MSU this fall that Breedlove has organized. A roster of prominent experts from the field of sexual identity science to be interviewed on camera and lead an interactive lecture at Wells Hall. Breedlove says he’s usually media-averse, but he was inspired after a recent speaking engagement.  

“I was invited to talk to a group of medical students at Sparrow Hospital on this subject, and I found it surprising that the medical field doesn’t know anything about this,” he says. “I became convinced that there was a wider audience for these findings. Then I read a Newsweek article about Kickstarter and it really got me thinking.” 

Kickstarter is an online tool that uses “crowd funding” to finance creative projects. Like other Kickstarter users, Breedlove made a short video pitching his idea and setting his funding goal ($50,000) and deadline (Aug. 22). He’s hoping potential investors will find his project among the website’s other ventures and commit to a donation amount, which could be anywhere from $1 up to the remaining balance of about $36,000 (he’s received $14,493 as of Monday afternoon). If he succeeds in reaching his goal, all backers’ credit cards will be charged at the project’s deadline and the movie gets its funding. If the project falls short, however, no one is charged and Breedlove will be back to square one. Whether he reaches his goal or not, Breedlove’s research speaks for itself.  

“We have proven that things that happen years before you’re even conceived play a role in your sexuality,” he says. For example: “One in seven homosexual men is gay because he has older brothers. It’s called the Older Brother Effect. It’s not learned behavior and it’s not genetic — it’s hormonal. You take these same men with the same genes being raised in the same culture, and if their mothers had had daughters before them instead of sons, they’d be straight.” 

In 2006, Breedlove’s research was picked up for a segment on “60 Minutes” called “The Science of Sexual Orientation.” In it, he demonstrated how he could make a male rat act like a female rat simply by depriving it of testosterone, and make a female rat not exhibit typical heterosexual mating behavior by injecting her with the same hormone. He was attempting to prove that sexuality can be a simple matter of the way the body responds to chemicals.

“I can make a given animal as masculine or feminine as I want just by controlling when they’re exposed to testosterone in the developmental process,” he says. “The big question is, ‘Is testosterone doing this to humans, too?’ Up to 1998, I was a skeptic, but in the years since, the research makes the fact inescapable. To my knowledge, no one looks at this data and argues. There is no debate within the scientific community — it’s settled.” 

Breedlove thinks that “Whom You Love” could get picked up by PBS or the Discovery Channel, cementing the shift in pop culture that has seen gay stereotypes in the media replaced by more balanced portrayals. 

“All credit goes to the brave individuals who are willing to come out,” he says. “This is a crucial time in the acceptance of homosexuality. A lot of Americans — including religious people — are struggling with their feelings about it. They’ve been raised with one set of ideals, but these are facts that are challenging everything they think they know.” 

Breedlove says the budget he has set for “Whom You Love” will be used to pay for the film crew’s production costs, as well as his speakers’ travel and lodging costs — “As well as a very modest honorarium.” He will also have to pay for the rights to other media clips — such as footage from his “60 Minutes” appearance — and the creation of original music and animation to make the film really come alive. MSU and several organizations there, including the Office for Inclusion, the College of Human Medicine and the LBGT Resource Center, have provided funds, and MSU has pledged to waive all bookkeeping and administrative charges for managing the money if he lands it. For a guy who calls himself tongue-tied and doesn’t like to see pictures of him or hear his own voice, why choose a movie as his preferred platform to spread his message? 

“I’ve had over 100 articles published in scientific journals, but they just don’t have the same impact that a single movie could have,“ he says. “The power of movies is that you can draw people in and challenge their thinking much more easily.

“My dream is that this documentary can serve as ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for people still harboring ill feelings about homosexuality. And public attitude affects public policy.”

Want to support?

The deadline to donate to the “Whom You Love: The biology of sexuality” Kickstarter campaign is Aug. 22. For more information on how to make a contribution, visit:

www.kickstarter.com/projects/marcbreedlove/whom-you-love-the-biology-of-sexual-orientation


“Whom You Love” lecture series

Mondays at 4 p.m. in Wells Hall room 115B

Sept. 10 through Dec. 10.

Free and open to the public

Full list of speakers and topics at whomyoulove.com

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