The New York Times Magazine offered a photograph of bunnies on the cover of its Easter Sunday edition, but the paper was asking a rather unusual question: "Can animals be gay?"
"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," reported Jon Mooallem. Well, that's a rather surprising statistic on many levels. It seems that researchers have been attempting to document these activities and to explain them. Thus far, there has been only a smattering of documentation and significant controversy over how to explain it.
Within most species, homosexual sex has been documented only sporadically, and there appear to be few cases of individual animals who engage in it exclusively. For more than a century, this kind of observation was usually tacked onto scientific papers as a curiosity, if it was reported at all, and not pursued as a legitimate research subject. Biologists tried to explain away what they'd seen, or dismissed it as theoretically meaningless - an isolated glitch in an otherwise elegant Darwinian universe where every facet of an animal's behavior is geared toward reproducing.
The magazine's cover story begins in Hawaii, where observers are documenting the behavior of albatrosses. One researcher, Lindsay C. Young, noted the existence of some single-sex pairs of the birds, some of whom have "been together" for several years or more. Are these lesbian birds?
Young refuses to speak of "straight" or "lesbian" albatrosses because these are human terms. Nevertheless, she does use the term" homosexual animals" to discuss the albatross colony. "This colony is literally the largest proportion of - I don't know what the correct term is: 'homosexual animals'? - in the world." She added, "Which I'm sure some people think is a great thing, and others might think it is not."
Well, at least one Denver-based gay group celebrated the colony's status, referring to the group's "extensive lesbian albatross parent community." Stephen Colbert reported the story on Comedy Central, referring to the birds as "albatresbians."
The whole enterprise of animal sexology is likely to raise some eyebrows. To her credit, Lindsay Young seems quite clinical, speaking of activities like "supernormal clutches" - hardly explicit. One fascinating aspect of this research is the fact that determining the gender of some animals can be rather difficult. When scientists observe two animals in a sexual behavior, they generally assume the pair to be heterosexual. One biologist referred to this as "heterosexist bias." Bruce Bagemihl said, 'There is still an overall presumption of heterosexuality. Individuals, populations, or species are considered to be entirely heterosexual until proven otherwise."
The magazine's coverage is both interesting and generally even-handed. As Jon Mooallem acknowledges, this is a relatively new area of animal research, but one that has attracted a great deal of attention. The reason is obvious - the issue of homosexuality is one of the most controversial debates in our culture. Both sides in the debate are vitally interested in the data, and even more interested in the interpretation of the data.
Those pushing for the normalization of homosexuality are eager to make the case that homosexual behavior is natural, or at least not unnatural. The documented existence of animal homosexuality would presumably help that case. On the other hand, opponents of the normalization of homosexuality have long pointed to the central biological fact that homosexuality does not lead to reproduction - which is the goal of every species.
The scientists making these observations are committed to an evolutionary worldview, so their findings on animal homosexuality have to be fitted within the structure of evolutionary thought. Given the non-reproductive aspect of homosexual behaviors, this poses a significant challenge. Put bluntly, homosexual behavior in any form seems to run counter to the logic of evolution.
Mooallem tries to explain:
Something similar may be happening with what we perceive to be homosexual sex in an array of animal species: we may be grouping together a big grab bag of behaviors based on only a superficial similarity. Within the logic of each species, or group of species, many of these behaviors appear to have their own causes and consequences - their own evolutionary meanings, so to speak. The Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden told me to think of all these animals as "multitasking" with their private parts.
The political implications of the issue are clear - those pushing for the normalization of homosexuality want to be able to point to research that would prove the normality of homosexuality in nature. This is where Christians need to think very carefully. Some believers will be tempted just to dismiss the research as bogus or irrelevant. This would be a mistake.
The world we know is a world that shows all the effects of human sin and the curse of God's judgment on that sin. Though the glory of God shines through even its fallen state, nature now imperfectly displays the glory of God. Because of the curse, the world around us now reveals and contains innumerable elements that are "natural," but not normative. Illnesses and earthquakes are natural, but not normative.
Evidence of homosexual behaviors among animals is just another reminder that we live in a fallen world - one in which every dimension of creation bears evidence of the Fall. This new research points all the way back to Genesis 3.
Efforts to claim a genetic basis for homosexuality are rooted in the assumption that our genes tell us what God's intention for us is. In a fallen world, that is a faulty assumption. Only the Word of God can tell us what God's intention is. We cannot derive our sexual morality from a laboratory - much less from observations of an albatross colony.
"What animals do - what's perceived to be 'natural' - seems to carry a strange moral potency," suggests Jon Mooallem. That is understandable, given the highly contested battles over sexuality that mark our times. Indeed, the Apostle Paul warns us that homosexual behavior is indeed "against nature." [Romans 1:26-27] But we did not gain that insight by observing albatrosses. We have that knowledge because God spoke it to us in his Word.