Brendan O’Neill

Can animals really be gay?

The insulting cult of the gay animal

Can animals really be gay?
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Last week, at the select committee on the same-sex marriage bill, a lawyer for the Christian Institute revealed that a teacher had been disciplined for refusing to read to her charges a book about gay penguins. It is par for the course to teach kids about adult stuff through animal tales. So it makes sense that an educational establishment that wants to imbue children with respect for gay lifestyles would foist gay animals upon them. But what is striking today is how seriously adults take, or are expected to take, the idea that penguins and all other beasts can be properly gay.

In February an academic at the University of East Anglia made waves when he upbraided David Attenborough for focusing too much on hetero humping in the animal kingdom and failing to feature gay animal sex. Many gay rights activists and gay-friendly scientists seem positively obsessed. The belief is that if they can photograph two male penguins fornicating, or document the life of lesbian dogs, then they might finally prove that homosexuality is natural and put an end to all those nasty moral condemnations of gay humans.

How sad. How defensive. And how insulting. Do these anthropomorphic activists never stop to think how degrading it is to gay people that their lives and loving bonds are being compared with the instinctual shagging of puzzled birds and dogs?

The hunt for evidence of beastly homosexuality has become a serious intellectual pursuit in recent years. In America, scientists have overseen something called the Sheep Experiment Station, where basically — there’s no nice way to put this — a ram is put in a pen with two ewes in heat and two others rams while scientists watch to see which one it chooses as a mate. Apparently some rams opted for ‘ram-on-ram action’, as one columnist described it, which was held up as proof not that these rams were a bit bamboozled but that they were gay. As in, they consciously thought to themselves, ‘I am going to turn down this lady sheep in favour of that hunk of a ram lurking in the corner over there. Hello big boy...’

Scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Centre in California claim to have observed squids acting gay. Apparently, the Octopoteuthis deletron, a deep-sea squid, indiscriminately shoots sperm at both male and female squids that swim by. But is this gayness? I know lots of gay humans and, to the best of my knowledge, none of them stands around on street corners shooting their sperm at passers-by. There’s nothing in that squid’s behaviour that we recognise as ‘gay’; it looks more like your typical beast’s determination to breed, manifesting itself as a desperate flinging of sperm at any floating object that looks to be of the same species.

Some even campaign for the right of animals to have gay sex. In 2011, when Toronto Zoo split up its ‘gay’ penguins Buddy and Pedro, a group calling itself the Canadian Society for Gay Animals bombarded the zoo with angry phone calls. A gay online magazine called Queerty said the de-gaying of Buddy and Pedro was an attack on ‘queendom’. When, in the late 2000s, scientists in Oregon experimented with making allegedly gay sheep straight, there was outrage. Gay tennis player Martina Navratilova wrote to the scientists demanding that they ‘pull the plug on this appalling research’.

The idea that humanity should work out what is morally OK, and should look for a justification for human homosexuality, through observing the behaviour of beasts is seriously warped. After all, some animals are known to engage in necrophilia (again, probably as a result of confusion rather than fetishism), but surely no one would say, ‘I saw a penguin canoodling with its dead buddy and therefore I think we should throw open morgues and allow humans to engage in this natural behaviour, too.’ The search for gay beasts is intimately bound up with the search for a ‘gay gene’, for evidence that gayness is a genetic trait and thus society should not judge harshly those who possess it. The idea that homosexuality is genetic emerged in the late 1980s, at the end of a depressing decade for gay people. Following the Aids crisis and a new outburst of anti-gay moralism in political circles in the West, gay people were keen to find an easy, uncontroversial route to acceptance. Enter the ‘gay gene’. In the words of the Californian neurobiologist Simon LeVay, who in 1991 became the first scientist to claim he’d found proof that homosexuality was biological, the aim of proving that homosexuality is hardwired is to bring about a ‘rejection of homophobia based on religious or moral arguments’. That is, it’s about circumventing taxing moral debates in favour of effectively saying: ‘Gays can’t help the way they are.’

This embrace of homosexuality as biology represents a stunning about-face in gay politics. In the past, gay campaigners railed against the idea that they had a biological condition. In fact, it was those who were anti-gay who depicted homosexuality as biological. So in 1955, the British Christian theologian Derrick Sherwin Bailey described gayness as ‘an inherent condition’ with ‘biological, psychological or genetic causes’. Other 20th-century moralists talked about a ‘gay germ’.

Now the talk is about a ‘gene’ rather than a ‘germ’. But the retreat from morality to biology speaks to a serious crisis of confidence in the modern gay movement. The truth is that homosexuality isn’t natural; it is so much more than that. It is a uniquely human bond, born, like all of our bonds, from a mixture of desire, choice, love, and a yearning for companionship.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSociety