Monday, April 19, 2010

What do you mean by "gay?"

Last Tueday, Stephen Colbert interviewed Jon Mooalem, author of the New York Times article “Can Animals Be Gay?” which discussed observations of homosexual behavior in animals. In the interview, Mooallem summarized the findings: “There have been observations of same sex activity in about 450 different species.”

He goes on to give a few characteristic examples: “You've got female Koalas that will mount each other. You've got male dolphins who will penetrate each other in the blow hole.” The crowd groans and Colbert looks shocked. Mooallem adds, “We don't know how sporadic or how frequent this is.”

Mooallem is careful to counsel against hastily drawing implications for humans from animal behavior. Later in the interview, Colbert confronts Mooallem directly asking, “Are they gay or not?”

“Well let's talk about the word 'gay,'” Mooallem replies. “Gay is a sexual orientation. It's more than a behavior. How are you going to know if an animal is gay? How are you going to show that?”

“I would say, penetrating each other's blow holes might be one way to show that.” The audience explodes with laughter. Both Colbert and the audience think that blow hole penetration is so obviously a “gay” behavior that it is absurd to question whether dolphins who engage in the practice are gay.

But Mooallem is less convinced. “Is that dolphin perpetually attracted to other male dolphins?”

It seems to me like Mooallem and Colbert are dancing around the question “What does it mean to be gay?” We can ask this question about humans or animals. Listen to what they say and you can figure out what each of them means by “gay.”

First of all, it is interesting to note that neither of them seem to think that defining the word “gay” is at all difficult. At least when it comes to humans, both treat “gay” as well-defined. This doesn't seem to unusual. I think most people imagine that defining a word like “gay” is pretty easy. But as I started to think about it, things quickly became complicated.

From Mooallem's question about whether the dolphin is “perpetually” attracted to other male dolphins, he seems to define “gay” as “consistent same sex behavior.” Of course, later he says its an “orientation,” that is, it is “more than a behavior.” So how can we tell if an animal is gay? For Colbert, one example of a “same sex behavior” (such as blow hole penetration) is sufficient, but for Mooallem, the behavior must be consistent. I assume that the reason the consistency of the behavior is so essential for Mooallem is that one time could be a fluke, due to environmental stress, etc. But consistent same sex-behavior is indicative of an “orientation.”

However, while Mooallem and Colbert seem to disagree about how often an animal must engage in “same-sex behavior” in order to count as “gay,” they apparently agree on what counts as “same-sex behavior.” Two examples of same-sex behavior given in the interview are female-female pairs of albatrosses raising a chick with each other, rather than the somewhat more typical female-male pairs, and male dolphins penetrating each other's blow holes.

But should we count both these behaviors as “same-sex behavior?” In the Times article, Mooalem wonders whether “we may be grouping together a big grab bag of behaviors based on only a superficial similarity.” In the case of the albatrosses, the birds do everything together except have sex. In the case of the dolphins, they only penetrate each other's blow holes. Why should both these behaviors be considered “same-sex?”

Clearly when we talk about “same-sex behavior,” we are only talking about certain kinds of behaviors. We are not talking about any behavior in which two animals of the same sex engage. For example, in many species of horned animals, pairs of males fight each other, but we probably would not be inclined to call fighting between pairs of males “same-sex behaviors.” The two examples on the table are blow hole pentration and chick rearing. We have to assume that these behaviors have something essential in common. That is, on some level, they are the same type of behavior.

Perhaps the implied definition of “same-sex behavior” is “when a same sex pair does something that is typically only done by heterosexual pairs.” If blow hole penetration is assumed to be a version of sex, which is typically done by male-female pairs, then this definition covers both blow hole penetration and chick rearing (which is also typically done by male-female pairs).

But this definition too, leaves something to be desired. One problem is the word “typical.” Lindsay Young, the biologist described in Mooallem's article, found around 30% of all albatross pairs in the colony she studied were female-female pairs. If a third of a population is doing something, it can hardly be called atypical.

Perhaps instead of “typically,” we could say, “normally.” That is, there are certain behaviors that only heterosexual couples should do. A male and a female should raise a chick together, but two females shouldn't. A “same sex-behavior” is when a same sex pair does something that would only be normal for a heterosexual pair. To me, this implies that lying at the heart of the definition of “gay” is the idea that there are normal and abnormal sexual behaviors. Are Mooallem and Colbert implicitly defining “gay” as “engaging in abnormal sexual behaviors?”

How can we define normal? As Freud points out in Three Contributions to the Theory of Sexuality, the normalcy of a sexual behavior is sometimes determined by whether or not it counts as foreplay. Someone who wants to look at their partner naked before having sex is normal, but someone who finds total sexual satisfaction merely from looking at his or her partner would probably be considered abnormal. Other times, the normalcy of a behavior depends on location. Two men who lie on top of each other and roll around on the floor are considered normal if they are in a wrestling match, but might be considered abnormal if they are in a bedroom.

Is it possible to define the word “gay” without implying a clear-cut distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” sexuality?

This whole discussion does not even begin to address Mooallem's notion that “gay is a sexual orientiation. It's more than a behavior.” Mooallem seems to think that a behavior becomes an orientation when it is frequent, but don't we normally think of sexual orientation as something internal? Couldn't a person be gay without every acting on it? Think of people who are “closeted.” On the other hand, could someone who frequently engages in “same-sex behavior” be straight? Perhaps we would put certain prisoners in this category.

Furthermore, this discussion also does not address why blow hole penetration seems to be the archetypal example of gay animal behavior for Colbert and his audience. What's that about?

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