Just last week, a public school in Texas opted to shut down all extra-curricular clubs in order to prevent the formation of a gay-straight alliance at the high school. CNN marked early February with an opinion article on the “mixed messages” on homosexuality in the bible, which went viral, and elicited an equally controversial response. Mike Huckabee, taking a break from criticizing Natalie Portman, went on record as saying homosexual “behavior” is “unnatural.” In the fervor of the Gay Rights movement, it seems as if a day does not go by without a debate over homosexuality on the front page of the newspaper. Ethan Boyles, Senior at the University of Washington, said, “A lot of people have called the student-burgeoning LGBT movement the civil rights movement of our generation.”
First and foremost, I respect others’ rights to their own moral or religious beliefs. However, I ask that proponents on both sides of the issue respect the vernacular of science when preparing their sound-bites. My views on homosexuality and gay marriage aside, as a scientist, I can assure you: homosexuality is not unnatural. In fact, quite the opposite: researchers observe homosexual behavior across a wide array of phyla.
A zoo in Poznan, Poland has acquired, for instance, a gay elephant named “Nino” who refuses to mate with the females, and prefers the company of his male comrades. Of this, the councilor of the city of Poznan, Michael Grzes, said, “We didn’t pay 37 million zlotys [$11 million] for the largest elephant house in Europe to have a gay elephant live there.”
Yet, to Grzes’s dismay, Nino is not alone. Biologist Bruce Bagemihl, author of Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, has worked for years to catalogue gay organisms in the animal kingdom. On his list are giraffes, dolphins, whales, and manatees. The animal kingdom includes both gays and lesbians—sometimes within the same species. For example, Bonobos have lesbian encounters at a frequency as high as once every two hours. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, engage in “penis fencing,” which often culminates in ejaculation.
At the University of Illinois at Chicago, researcher David Featherstone genetically engineered fruit flies to engage in homosexual behavior. Featherstone and his team of researchers went on to develop a genetic “switch” to turn the behavior on and off, involving a gene they deemed “genderblind,” which may have regulatory effects on neurons.
Some are quick to point out that since homosexuals do not tend to procreate, a “homosexual” gene would die out rather quickly, but most evolutionary theorists suspect the story is more complicated than that. For instance, there could be a benefit to having some homosexual qualities without being fully homosexual in terms of sexual orientation. Many psychologists agree that sexuality, especially in humans, functions more on a continuum than a binary gay-or-straight system.
Regardless of how they got here, the evidence is clear: there are gay animals whether Mike Huckabee likes it or not. Said Peter Bockman, an academic adviser for the Against Nature? exhibit in Norway, “[Researchers] must realize that animals can have sex with who they will, when they will and without consideration to a researcher’s ethical principles.”
Hearkening to homosexuality being “natural” or “unnatural” undermines what is, at its heart, a political and religious issue. Naturalness, as I’ve described before in depictions of cannibalistic spiders and cross-dressing cuttlefish, has nothing to do with the moral quality of an act. Just because it’s natural doesn’t make it right. So, for the last time, I beg of all the political commentators: stop bringing biology into it.