Boxer Manny Pacquiao recently came under fire for his anti-gay comments during an interview with TV5, a Filipino television network, in which he voiced his assertions of heterosexuality.
“It’s common sense. Do you see animals mating with the same sex? Animals are better because they can distinguish male from female. If men mate with men and women mate with women, they are worse than animals.”
It’s a sobering reminder that behavior deemed not strictly heterosexual is seen by some as a crime against nature. But what does nature itself have to say about different orientations?
Turns out animals aren’t strictly hetero, either.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t much discussion concerning homosexuality in the animal kingdom until 2000, when biologist and linguist Bruce Bagemihl published “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.” The book gained a lot of popularity and was even cited by the American Psychiatric Association and other groups in a brief to the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas, a landmark case whose 2003 decision ultimately struck down the sodomy laws of 14 states.
In the book, Bagemihl discusses the documented evidence of homosexual behavior in about 500 species of one or more of the following kinds: sex, courtship, affection, pair bonding, or parenting in mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and insects.
For example, male black swans raise their young as a couple in order to provide better protection, involving females only in the mating process.
Male flour beetles not only get intimate, but creative. They mount other males and deposit sperm not only as a way to indirectly fertilize a female through a male recipient, but also to expel older, potentially low-quality sperm.
The Laysan albatross in Hawaii partner up for life, and about a third of these pairs are made up of two unrelated females.
Bonobos, described as our “over-sexed” relatives, engage in homosexual activity not only for the sheer enjoyment but because it also creates stronger bonds and reduces tension in the social structure.
Why has it taken biologists so long to investigate such behavior in nature?
Bagemihl addresses the problem of past researchers being too reluctant to report their observations for fear of ridicule or retaliation from an orthodox (and homophobic) academia.
“The present ignorance of biology lies precisely in its single-minded attempt to find reproductive (or other) ‘explanations’ for homosexuality, transgender, and non-procreative and alternative heterosexualities.”
It was automatically inferred that all animals were heterosexual, and scientists’ use of vocabulary such as “insulting,” “unfortunate,” and “inappropriate” to describe same-sex matings showed a decided lack of objectivity. In other words, they weren’t doing their jobs as scientists, allowing personal prejudice to affect their investigations.
But whether animal and human sexuality are compatible is up for debate.
The big question among scientists and researchers now is: does exhibiting homosexual behavior mean animals can be gay? The answer may remain buried under the problem of semantics.
Petter Bøckman, zoologist and academic adviser for the Against Nature? exhibition stated, “[Researchers] must realize that animals can have sex with who they will, when they will and without consideration to a researcher’s ethical principles.” In the animal kingdom, “common sense” seems to involve doing whatever it takes to survive — not internalizing a sense of shame or adhering to some specific moral code. The fluid state of sexuality is observably undeniable as well. Bill Nye pointed out that sexuality can be better understood as more of a spectrum, and that nature itself doesn’t discriminate between orientations.
Others, like Paul L. Vasey of the University of Lethbridge in Canada, advise against using animal behavior as a cut and dry blueprint for human society. He told the Daily Mail, “We shouldn’t be using animals to craft moral and social policy for human societies. Animals don’t take care of the elderly. I don’t think that should be a platform for closing down nursing homes.” In the same article, Professor Paul Harvey, head of zoology at the University of Oxford urges us to stay away from politicizing such studies. “It is a huge mistake to think studying homosexuality in animals gives us a greater understanding of human behavior,” he said. “If you want to know why humans are gay, ask a human.”
Though the presence of homosexuality in animals doesn’t necessarily prove one way or another that being gay is “natural” among animals or humans, we can at least address Pacquiao’s question with some certainty. Is heterosexuality in fact “common sense” in nature? Doesn’t look like it.