hey your gay albatross

[Trigger warning. Explanation of post title.]

So. There's this big article in the New York Times magazine called "Can Animals Be Gay?" And it's…interesting.

I won't spend a huge amount of time sharing my thoughts, because I primarily just wanted to point to point to the article and open it up for discussion. But, briefly, here are four things I noticed and wanted to mention:

1. "Being gay" and "engaging in homosexual sex" are, at some points, treated as the same thing, and, at others, treated as two separate things. I was reminded of Mustang Bobby's old post, "He's Not gay," which explains, essentially, that "gay" is cultural and "homosexual" is behavioral. Which is not to say that non-human animals can't be culturally gay (or that they can be), but only to say that the question serving as the article's title can't be answered without first making that distinction—something most biologists who resist anthropomorphizing animals are probably loath to do.

2. Although the biologist with whom the author spends time in the field, looking at same-sex paired albatrosses, carefully explains that identifiable rape exists within the species and is distinguishable from consensual mating, the author nonetheless fails to make any distinction between what might be more accurately defined as rape and consensual mating when referencing "same-sex sexual activity" in other species:
Various forms of same-sex sexual activity have been recorded in more than 450 different species of animals by now, from flamingos to bison to beetles to guppies to warthogs. A female koala might force another female against a tree and mount her, while throwing back her head and releasing what one scientist described as "exhalated belchlike sounds." Male Amazon River dolphins have been known to penetrate each other in the blowhole.
Which mimics rape culture narratives about bestial and aggressive same-sex sexuality that underlines everything from Santorumesque "marry your horse" rhetoric to retrofuck military policy.

3. Despite the above failure, there's some very good stuff in the article about the history of humans imposing their own biases on their non-human animal subjects. For example:
"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, Bagemihl 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!"
Bagemihl is quoted in the piece noting that LGB people are "often better equipped to detect heterosexist bias when investigating the subject simply because we encounter it so frequently in our everyday lives," which I absolutely believe—and I'm pleased to see in the Times the idea that bias can be objectively determined, particularly by targets of a specific bias who develop by circumstance expertise in its expression.

4. And, on the flipside of that, we have an example of how, despite sensitivity to one bias, one may yet remain insensitive to others: Canadian primatologist and evolutionary psychologist Paul Vasey, who is gay, describes himself (no doubt quite rightly) as "more sensitive" to the way the world is organized, in terms of sexuality and the imperatives that shape its spectrum. And yet:
The point of heterosexual sex, Vasey said, no matter what kind of animal is doing it, is primarily reproduction.
Except, of course, for all the human animals for whom reproduction will never, ever, be the point of heterosexual sex.

It's surprising how many male biologists I've seen treat heterosexual (and bisexual but opposite-sex partnered) humans who fuck exclusively for pleasure as a rare anomaly, especially when I don't believe I've ever seen a female biologist do the same. (Which doesn't mean it hasn't happened.) And I suspect that it is, in part, because of the intractable assumption that male humans (of any orientation) are driven by an urge to "spread their seed," and because female human sexuality is regarded as passive, if it's regarded at all.

When women's sexual agency is ignored, and human sexuality is defined on the narratives for male humans, it's easy to see why someone might mistakenly assert that the point of heterosexual sex is primarily reproduction—despite the many heterosexual humans for whom the potential for reproduction is little more than unfortunate side effect of an otherwise fun activity.

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