Can Animals be Gay?

First published at on April 6, 2010

They don’t drive Subarus, wear comfortable shoes, or listen to folk music. But are the female pair-bonding albatross discussed in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine lesbians?

Despite its provocative title, the essay “Can Animals Be Gay?” is one of the more thoughtful and nuanced treatments to have appeared in a while. It achieves this largely by ignoring the title-question and instead focusing on what scientific research into animal behavior does—and more to the point, doesn’t—tell us about humans.

These are the facts: Lindsay C. Young, a biologist studying a Laysan albatross colony in Kaena Point, Hawaii, discovered in the course of her doctoral research that a third of the nesting pairs there were actually female-female. Albatross typically pair off monogamously, copulate, and then collaboratively incubate the resulting single egg each year. Scientists who have observed nesting pairs generally assume—falsely, it turns out—that they are all male-female. (Albatross are difficult to sex by sight.) So Young and two colleagues published a paper explaining their surprising findings. From the Times essay:

“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.”

Like most scientists, Young and her colleagues were careful merely to share their observations, rather than to draw moral or political conclusions. But that didn’t stop folks from both sides of the gay-rights debate from drawing foolish inferences and alternately either praising or attacking her research.

Gay-rights opponents derided the work as agenda-driven propaganda. Gay-rights advocates, by contrast, saw it as new evidence for the “naturalness” of homosexuality and even as providing a justification for marriage equality.

The simple truth that both sides overlook is this: Research about animals tells us what other animals’ behavior is; it does not tell us what human behavior morally ought to be.

Notice the two key distinctions here. First, although humans are animals, they are not the same as other animals. That doesn’t mean that studying other animals can’t help us learn more about humans, often by suggesting hypotheses worth testing in humans. But species behave differently, and what’s true of albatross, or bonobos, or fruit flies frequently isn’t true of humans.

Second, there’s the distinction between the descriptive and the normative; between what is and what ought to be. The fact that animals (including human animals) do something does not entail that we morally SHOULD do it.

Which means that all of the empirical research in the world, as interesting and important and valuable as it is, won’t settle any moral disputes for us—at least not by itself.

I say “at least not by itself” because there are indirect ways in which this research may be relevant. Young’s findings, for example, provide a nice illustration of heterosexist bias among previous scientists, and there are more general moral lessons to be gleaned when we uncover bias.

Moreover, such research can undermine the premises of bad arguments used by the other side. (“Animals don’t even do that, therefore it’s obviously wrong.”) However, it’s worth noting that the arguments would be bad even if they were not based on false premises, since they still involve invalid inferences. (“Animals don’t cook their food either. What follows?”)

There’s also the undeniable fact that, whatever their logical flaws, these arguments have emotional resonance. As the Times essay notes:

“What animals do — what’s perceived to be ‘natural’ — seems to carry a strange moral potency: it’s out there, irrefutably, as either a validation or a denunciation of our own behavior, depending on how you happen to feel about homosexuality and about nature.”

But that’s just the point: the conclusion depends on “how you happen to feel.” The feelings are doing the work, not the logic.

When bad arguments are used in the service of good aims, what should we do?

Suppose Young’s study makes a parent less inclined to kick a gay child out of the house, because the parent (illogically) reads the study as proof that human homosexuality is “natural.” This sort of thing happens all the time, and I’m hardly inclined to call up the parent and point out his or her logical lapse.

There are, however, long-range consequences to such laxity. The same logical sloppiness that motivates this particular parent to do the right thing helps others to rationalize discrimination. Repeat after me: what other animals do is one thing; what humans morally ought to do is another. Only when we distinguish those questions can we make a sound case for equality.