Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The love that dare not squawk its name.

Various forms of same-sex sexual activity, some of them long term couplings, have been recorded in more than 450 different species of animals by now, "from flamingos to bison to beetles to guppies to warthogs." Jon Mooallem does an interesting article on the topic, whose title is used as the title of this post, in this past Sunday's NY Times Magazine. A few clips, which don't do justice to the breadth of the article:
“There is still an overall presumption of heterosexuality,” the biologist Bruce Bagemihl told me. “Individuals, populations or species are considered to be entirely heterosexual until proven otherwise.” While this may sound like a reasonable starting point, Bagemihl calls it a “heterosexist bias” and has shown it to be a significant roadblock to understanding the diversity of what animals actually do. In 1999, Baghemihl published “Biological Exuberance,” a book that pulled together a colossal amount of previous piecemeal research and showed how biologists’ biases had marginalized animal homosexuality for the last 150 years — sometimes innocently enough, sometimes in an eruption of anthropomorphic disgust. Courtship behaviors between two animals of the same sex were persistently described in the literature as “mock” or “pseudo” courtship — or just “practice.” Homosexual sex between ostriches was interpreted by one scientist as “a nuisance” that “goes on and on.” One man, studying Mazarine Blue butterflies in Morocco in 1987, regretted having to report “the lurid details of declining moral standards and of horrific sexual offenses” which are “all too often packed” into national newspapers. And a bighorn-sheep biologist confessed in his memoir, “I still cringe at the memory of seeing old D-ram mount S-ram repeatedly.” To think, he wrote, “of those magnificent beasts as ‘queers’ — Oh, God!”

Different ideas are emerging about how these behaviors could fit within that traditional Darwinian framework, including seeing them as conferring reproductive advantages in roundabout ways...a single explanation of homosexual behavior in animals may not be possible, because thinking of “homosexual behavior in animals” as a single scientific subject might not make much sense...the point of heterosexual sex...no matter what kind of animal is doing it, is primarily reproduction. But that shouldn’t trick us into thinking that homosexual behavior has some equivalent, organizing purpose.

What animals do — what’s perceived to be “natural” — seems to carry a strange moral potency: it’s out there, irrefutably, as either a validation or a denunciation of our own behavior, depending on how you happen to feel about homosexuality and about nature. During the Victorian era, observations of same-sex behavior in swans and insects were held up as evidence against the morality of homosexuality in humans, since at the dawn of industrialism and Darwinism, people were invested in seeing themselves as more civilized than the “lower animals.” Robert Mugabe and the Nazis have employed the same reasoning, as did the 1970s anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant, who, Bruce Bagemihl notes, claimed in an interview that “even barnyard animals don’t do what homosexuals do” and was unmoved when the interviewer pointed out what actually happens in barnyards. On the other hand, an Australian drag queen known as Dr. Gertrude Glossip has used Bagemihl’s book to create a celebratory, interpretive gay animal tour of the Adelaide zoo, marketed to gay and lesbian tourists. The book has also been cited in a 2003 Supreme Court case that overturned a Texas state ban on sodomy and, similarly, in a legislative debate on the floor of the British Parliament.

James Esseks, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told me he has never incorporated facts about animal behavior into a legal argument about the rights of human beings. It’s totally beside the point, he said; people should not be discriminated against regardless of what animals do. (In her book, “Sexual Selections,” Marlene Zuk writes, “People need to be able to make decisions about their lives without worrying about keeping up with the bonobos.”) That being said, Esseks told me, polls show that Americans are more likely to discriminate against gays and lesbians if they think homosexuality is “a choice.” “It shouldn’t be the basis of a moral judgment,” he said. But sometimes it is, and gay animals are compelling evidence that being gay isn’t a choice at all. In fact, Esseks remembers reading a brief mention of animal homosexual behavior during an anthropology class in college in the mid-’80s. “And as a closeted guy, it made a difference to me,” he told me. He remembers thinking: “Oh, hey, this is quote-unquote natural. This is normal. This is part of the normal spectrum of humanity — or life.”

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