In the early part of the decade, our gay flagbearers appeared to be Roy and Silo, two swishy penguins from the New York Zoo who fell in love, got it on and stayed together for six years. Zookeepers gave them an egg that was unlikely to hatch without help, and the pair adopted and raised the chick, a little penguin named Tango. She was, as it turned out, a dyke.
The story became the raw material for And Tango Makes Three, a dewy-eyed children’s story about gay parents and adoption. The book has the distinction of being the most challenged book in the US for three years running, according to the Library Association of America. Thank you, family values.
The religious right and gay lefties again went toe to toe at the release of March of the Penguins, another excuse to discuss the relative family-destroying potential of those lovable, flightless birds.
There have been other gay penguin love stories. Vielpunkt (he’s German) and his partner Z adopted an egg at the Bremerhaven zoo in 2009. The egg hatched, and they are looking after the chick. No zoopocalypse yet.
Many gays and lesbians find these stories heartwarming. I enjoy them because gay penguins constitute yet another scientific fact Bible literalists have to renounce in order to keep their moral ducks in a row.
But it’s not all sunshine and creationist-baiting. The darkness gay penguins reveal in the hearts of the religious right is also our darkness. No joke. Indeed, our feathery friends Roy and Silo, Vielpunkt and Z, and now Tango and Tanuzi lay bare our own insecurities, the fault lines in our reasoning.
Many of us hunger for a biological basis for same-sex attraction. Scientific analysis of our brains, our inner ears, our mothers’ wombs, of gay twins separated at birth — some, but not all, of the evidence suggests queer sexualities might be hardwired. Great, we say. I was born gay. I can’t help it. The dismal failures of Christian reorientation camps show us that, when it comes to sex, we can’t change who we are.
Unfortunately, “I can’t help it” is a piss-poor argument. Instead, how about an argument that says Canadians’ sexual practices are extremely varied, and all of their consensual iterations are part of the human sexual rainbow. Could we say, for instance, that there is a biological basis for kink? Why would it matter if there were?
Alternatively, what if scientific studies began to show that gay impulses were a byproduct of chemical imbalance, solvable with a monthly shot? Terrifying, right? It may well happen one day, so let’s get rhetorically prepared.
I’m worried that biological arguments for same-sex acceptance mask more than a little discomfort with the topic of gay and lesbian sex. Lurking in the corners of the argument may be a fear of saying “I want it,” a fear of expressing our desires as simple desires. Lust as lust, love as love.
Try this one on for size: I’m proud of who I am, sex life and all.
And anyway, selecting arguments from the natural world sets us up to reach dumb conclusions. Do we look at hamsters that eat their babies and say that’s natural for humans? It’s a ridiculous old fallacy. It’s medieval. Historically, the argument has been that gay sex is a “sin against nature” because it’s neither widely mirrored in the animal kingdom nor is it procreative. We dismiss the latter; why would we adopt the former?
And yet we so often do. Such arguments made it heartbreaking when Silo left Roy (no kidding) for a female penguin named Scrappy. It didn’t last and when things when south, somehow we breathed a sigh of relief — as if the penguins’ love lives had any bearing on us and our struggles.
Penguins are cute, no doubt about that. But let’s exercise a healthy dose of skepticism the next time someone tries to use Roy and Silo to defend our sexuality.