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So-called ‘Gay’ Penguins and the Complex Concept of Homosexuality

As I write this, a news article is currently circulating about two male penguins who have been incubating an egg at a zoo in Denmark. One article has the title “Gay Penguins Adopt Egg, Welcome Baby”. It’s prompted some to point out that whether these penguins are an example of homosexuality, is a matter of opinion. IE, for the egg to have been created, it would have followed from heterosexual sex, and if the two males who subsequently incubated the egg do not have sex with each other, the question arises of whether it’s accurate to describe them as gay. I would suggest it isnt accurate, especially since prior investigations have concluded that penguins engage in gay flirting rather than gay relationships.

The penguin news is interesting in part due to how different media outlets treat it, with some simply portraying the relationship as gay, and other articles pointing out that their zookeeper has stated that the penguins are not gay.

The lack of clarity on this topic, is perhaps indicative of the evolving perceptions we have of homosexuality. In decades past, homosexuality was perceived to primarily be about sex. But with all the media attention on political pushes for same-sex marriage, societal perceptions are changing to perceive homosexuality as being primarily about close paired relationships.

The essence of homosexuality has always been complicated. From a Biblical point of view, it was always about the sex. Sex between members of the same gender is consistently condemned (Leviticus 18, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6 etc) but close tender relationships between members of the same sex is sanctioned (David and Jonathan, Jesus and John). But in our everyday life, on the one hand we have same-gender couples who wish to marry, yet we also have men in successful heterosexual relationships who engage in gay sex on the side. And we have gay men who like to wear women’s clothes, but other gay men who dont. We have gay women who wish to have gender reassignment surgery and we have other gay women who dont. We have some lesbians who say they chose to be lesbian, and other lesbians who feel they never felt they made a choice. We have gay men who say their sexual orientation is fixed and despite their best efforts to change it they couldnt, and we have indications that for men their bisexualty was a mistaken phase. We have some men who have had gay sex, who call themselves heterosexual, and we have some men who have never had gay sex, who call themselves homosexual (because for them it’s the attraction that is the determinant). The penguin news is a reminder that although there can be some cross-over, variation in gender conformity is not the same as homosexual orientation, and the gender of someone you bond with is not necessarily the gender to which you are sexually attracted. And there are all sorts of permutations of those factors. But ultimately, I have serious doubts that it’s balanced to label those two male penguins as ‘gay’.

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2 Comments on “So-called ‘Gay’ Penguins and the Complex Concept of Homosexuality”

  1. Mike Pemberton says:

    Well, let’s skip the penguins and look at this

    A 1999 review by researcher Bruce Bagemihl shows that homosexual behavior has been observed in close to 1,500 species, ranging from primates to gut worms, and is well documented for 500 of them.

    Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, St. Martin’s Press, 1999

    A new review made in 2009 of existing research showed that same-sex behavior is a nearly universal phenomenon in the animal kingdom, common across species
    http://www.physorg.com/news164376975.html

    Why do you care WHAT the freaking penguins are labeled as? I’m sure those penguins only care about the egg and the offspring inside. I bet they have no idea that some people are worried whether or not they have sinned. I love the gay and the straight penguins and I really don’t see why you felt the need to go to many articles to find out “ARE THEY REALLY GAY?”

    • stasisonline says:

      Thanks Mike. Firstly I should clarify that I dont believe that animals sin. Although I acknowledge and understand that biologists categorise human beings as animals, on a spiritual level, I consider human beings quite separate. I believe that the Bible was written for human beings, and that there is a difference between righteous behaviour for human beings and behaviour for animals.

      I was aware of Bagemihl’s work, but I wasnt aware of the Bailey and Marlene Zuk study, and I find the reports of it very interesting! Interesting for some of the same reasons that the reports on the penguins are interesting; including that in my opinion it demonstrates media bias. In the article that you cite, it states “Same-sex behavior is a nearly universal phenomenon in the animal kingdom …”. As far as I can see, that is an overstatement. To me, ‘universal’ implies total prevalence, IE that approximately all species engage in same-sex sex. Similar wording is used in other reports, EG from the GLBT website pinknews (http://www.pinknews.co.uk/aroundtheworld/tag/marlene-zuk/). Most of the reputable news sites are more conservative in their reports though, EG Time magazine, who quantify it as “hundreds of animal species — including birds, reptiles, mollusks and, of course, humans — engage in same-gender sexual acts.” (http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1905237,00.html). POPSCI quantifies it as thousands rather than hundreds (http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2011-10/can-animals-really-be-gay). Yale Scientific is also reserved, using the wording; “… the discoveries of homosexual behavior in more than 10% of prevailing species throughout the world.” (http://www.yalescientific.org/2012/03/do-animals-exhibit-homosexuality/). Hardly “almost universal”. So what about the study itself – does it state that same-sex sex is a “almost universal” phenomenon in the animal kingdom? The report is available online (http://www.faculty.ucr.edu/~mzuk/Bailey%20and%20Zuk%202009%20Same%20sex%20behaviour.pdf) and nowhere can I see the word ‘universal’ nor similar wording. Rather I found fairly conservative wording, EG “It is clear that same-sex sexual behaviors occur in a wide variety of animal taxa …”. Again, hardly a clear sense of being “almost universal”. So my conclusion is that your source, and some others, arguably misrepresented the study. And that’s why my blog exists – to point this sort of thing out and to balance out the wider conversation.


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