A female pair at a Laysan albatross colony in Kaena Point, Hawaii. (Lindsay C. Young)
The New York Times Magazine features an article teasingly headlined, “Can Animals Be Gay?” It’s a question central to many on both sides of the culture wars; and in revisiting the argument, the NYT has little new information to add. We’ve heard of the male penguins who raised a chick together in Germany, as well as Scientific American‘s list of animals who engage in same-sex behavior. What’s the new news?
Central to the NYT‘s premise is the research of biologist Lindsay C. Young, who has been studying a colony of albatross birds in Hawaii for decades. The albatross spends most of the year in solitude, but returns to the same spot in Kaena Point each November. Among Young’s surprising findings were:
Laysan albatrosses are one of countless species in which the two sexes look basically identical. It turned out that many of the female-female pairs, at Kaena Point and at a colony that Young’s colleague studied on Kauai, had been together for 4, 8 or even 19 years — as far back as the biologists’ data went, in some cases. The female-female pairs had been incubating eggs together, rearing chicks and just generally passing under everybody’s nose for what you might call “straight” couples.
Fairly interesting stuff. But Young herself wants to stay clear of the politics and focus on her scientific research.
“ ‘Lesbian,’ ” she told me, “is a human term,” and Young — a diligent and cautious scientist, just beginning to make a name in her field — is devoted to using the most aseptic language possible and resisting any tinge of anthropomorphism. “The study is about albatross,” she told me firmly. “The study is not about humans.” Often, she seemed to be mentally peer-reviewing her words before speaking.
So this seems a case of the author/NYT pursuing a reluctant scientist to weigh in on the culture wars. Is it fair to Young? To the fervent critics on both sides of the gay debate? One wants Young to come out and state whether she’s pro-gay or anti-gay, simply to bring her research out of the realm of clinical science into the more interesting arena of social attitudes.
In thinking about homosexuality, the question of nature versus nurture often comes to light. What seems more important to me, however, is not the “causes” but our attitudes about gays and lesbians (not to mention our often-forgotten transgendered and bisexual brothers and sisters). If we go about trying to prove our worth as LGBTQ Americans, we unspool a thread of endless argument. We’re not asking people to argue where our feelings and love for others comes from, but to accept and guarantee our rights to love whom we wish.
Science can’t afford the civil rights we seek. Seeking validity through this path seems like a dead end for LGBTQ advocates.
Filed under: biology, gay rights, albatross, biology, gay animal, gay rights, lesbian, nature vs nurture