Category Archives: 70 Sexuality and gender

“Catholics For Equality” on Gay Bullycide

Catholics for Equality and Catholics for Marriage Equality
Issue Joint Statement to LGBT Youth

WASHINGTON – Catholics for Equality and Catholics for Marriage Equality, with all people of good will, lament the multiple tragic deaths of gay youths. As Catholics, we confess that our personal indifference and institutional church prejudices have contributed to the morbid despair of these and many other LGBT youth.

Our response moving forward must be both personal and political. We must personally include and affirm LGBT youth in our homes, churches, neighborhoods and schools.

Catholics for Equality and Catholics for Marriage Equality pledge active political support for The Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2010 (SSIA). The SSIA would amend the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (part of the No Child Left Behind Act) to require schools and districtsreceiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

LGBT suicide is not primarily a psychological issue, related to individual failure to cope, adapt, or access adequate services. It is a social issue. It reflects our collective failure as a society and a Church to affirm, nurture, and provide safe place for vulnerable persons to grow in truth and love.

Our message to LGBT Catholic youth is fourfold:

  1. The problems that drive you to despair are not your fault. Regardless of your struggles and thoughts of suicide, you remain the beloved child of God. That love never changes.
  2. Know that we love and cherish you as our own flesh and blood, united in one Body in the Lord. We are family. In family there is no other. You are not alone, and will never be abandoned. You may feel isolated, and wonder if there is hope. Believe that your LGBT and allied Catholic family are here for you. Many in it have been where you are. Let our love for you help you through the challenges you face.
  3. What must change are social attitudes, and our capacity as Church to understand, care and advocate for you. We have failed you. We have allowed anti-gay bishops to issue a steady stream of anti-gay pronouncements; to promote an anti-gay agenda in our parishes through literature, DVDs, petitions and political campaigns. Our silence has led you to believe that we agree with Church hierarchy. We do not. We recognize and respect your intrinsic human dignity.Our confessions: We have not treated you with sensitivity, as the Catechism teaches. We have sinned in our indifferent attitude to LGBT-affirming ministries, which should be made available in every parish, so that you would never for a moment have to think that you were the only one, or that there was no place for you in the Church of Jesus Christ. Please forgive us.
  4. We ask you to consider that “it does get better”. We pledge to you our personal support as Christians who share the baptismal gifts of faith, hope, and unfailing love. We pledge to you our political advocacy to make the promises of The Safe Schools Act of 2010 your reality.No matter what you are going through now, things will get better. God is not a bully. God loves you, and will continue to supply all of the graces you need to live an abundant life in Christ Jesus.

 

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“Speaking the Truth” on Catholic LGBT Inclusion

Regular readers here will know that the infamous CDF document on “homosexuals”, Homosexualitatis Problema (better known as then Cardinal Ratzingrer’s Hallowe’en letter), is not my favourite Church document.  Nevertheless, it does include some important features, which many people in the Catholic Church too easily forget.
In its closing paragraphs, the document reminds us of the words of Scripture: “Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth shall set you free”. It is disgraceful that the document itself ignores its own advice here, but no matter: the advice itself is sound, and there are an increasing number of Catholics, lay and clerical, who are making up for the CDF omission, by speaking the truth in love on LGBT inclusion in church. The latest to do so is  Jody Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), in an address October 21 at King’s University-College, a Catholic institution based at the University of Western Ontario. In doing so, he reminded us of the other neglected portion of the CDF letter – the exhortation to treat “homosexual” persons with dignity, compassion and respect.
I regret that the only report I have been able to find of Huckaby’s address is from Lifesite News, which is not usually renowned for its sympathy with progressive causes in general, or LGBT Catholics in particular. Nevertheless, they quote some sections verbatim, which are worth taking on board:

“The somewhat charitable act of simply reminding gay and lesbian people that they are children of God is not the same as working to achieve justice and inclusion for them,” said Jody Huckaby.  “As children of God, they and we all deserve better.”
Huckaby, who was raised Catholic and attended Catholic colleges, appealed to the Church’s insistence on the dignity of every person and the duty to serve the disadvantaged.  He called for the Church to make the fight for homosexual rights a key component of its social justice work, on the same level as the fight against racism, sexism, and poverty.
In his talk at King’s, Huckaby quoted the Church’s teachings on homosexuality extensively, particularly the Catechism of the Catholic Church and various letters from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) while he was head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Discussing the Church’s call for homosexuals to practice chastity, Huckaby said that while the Church prohibits unjust discrimination, “the bottom line remains that for gay and lesbian people the only way to live in grace within the Catholic Church is to live celibately and with this as their cross to bear.”
“In fact, for those who choose not to be celibate, they are sinful and somehow playing a role in the discrimination that they receive,” he continued.  “Almost to the point that it seems that they might deserve what happens.”
After reading one section of the catechism he stated, “So this time around, we were taught that gay and lesbian people are intrinsically disordered, and that their actions – which one may argue, in this case, are indivisible from the person – are not to be approved.”
“All of the credible research indicates that being gay is not a choice, nor can one successfully change his or her sexual orientation from gay to straight,” said Huckaby.  “Therefore, no one should be made to feel that they have been forsaken by God because of one part of who they are.”
He condemned the Church’s vocal stand against “the battle for marriage equality,” citing various letters and campaigns from the U.S. Bishops’ Conference and various U.S. dioceses.  Further, he praised certain groups that have already been “building bridges of inclusion” within the Church, in his view, such as Dignity, the New Ways Ministry, and the newly-formed Catholics for Equality.
Huckaby was introduced by Fr. Michael Bechard, the college’s chaplain.  King’s principal, Dr. David Sylvester, defended the address when questioned by LifeSiteNews early last month.
As a Catholic who is challenging Vatican doctrine on same – sex relationships, Huckaby is hardly alone. The orthodox teaching of the institutional church has been criticized for decades, by theologians like the Jesuit (as he then was) John McNeill and Daniel Helminiak; by scripture scholars like William Countryman and Jack Rogers, and by historians like John Boswell, Alan Bray and Mark Jordan, who have demonstrated from historical records that present teaching is contradicted by the actual practice of the Church in earlier times.  
The teaching has also been widely challenged by organizations for lesbian and gay Catholics themselves, such as Dignity (USA), Quest (UK) and Acceptance (Australia) – and by Huckaby’s own organisation (PFLAG), by the pastoral outreach New Ways Ministry, and by the newer groups Catholics for Equality and Equally Blessed. More generally, research has repeatedly shown that most ordinary Catholics disagree with Vatican teaching. Collectively, Catholics themselves simply do not agree that same sex relationships are morally wrong, and in many countries (including the US), they are even more supportive of legal recognition of same sex unions than the population at large.
What I find striking about this address is not the familiar words or arguments themselves, but the venue – a Catholic college. Just as in so many Protestant denominations, formal theological discussion of the place of queer Catholics in the Church is starting to move beyond quiet discussion or mutterings among those most directly affected, and deeper into the formal structures of the Church. We have seen this in the cautious suggestions for reform, and a shift in emphasis from the homosexual “acts” to the relationships and respect and dignity urged by an increasing number of Cardinals and bishops, in a steady flow of important books by theologians who are not themselves gay, by the extensive list of learned papers delivered at this year’s Trent conference on theological ethics  – and by the number of Catholic colleges and journals which are increasingly willing to make space for these discussions. The move to more open discussion and reconsideration remains a minority one for all that. The lesson from the Protestant denominations though, has been that once open-minded study and discussion begin, minds are changed and movement occurs. If the reconsideration has not yet begun in the Vatican, we are not yet hearing of it – but I am certain that we soon will.

Recommended Books:

Sexual Ethics
Farley, Margaret: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics
McNeill, John: Sex as God Intended

Salzman, Todd A. and Lawler, Michael G: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)

Scripture and Homosexuality

Countryman, William L: Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today
Countryman, William L: Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church
Countryman, William L: Forgiven and Forgiving
Helminiak, Daniel: What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality
Rogers, Jack Bartlett: New Testament and Homosexuality
Scroggs: New Testament and Homosexuality

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"The Sexual Person": Bishops, Theologians Clash on Sexual Ethics

In 2008 two Catholic academic theologians at a reputable Jesuit university published a book, “The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)“,  on the Church’s sexual theology which represented a fundamental critique of its entire foundations. The United States Catholic Bishops have now launched a strong counter-attack, concentrating their fire especially on the authors’ section on homosexuality.

I am grateful to the Bishops for this attack: it has brought to my close attention a book that I was previously aware of, but had not considered too seriously. After reading some reviews and the extracts available at Google Books, I will now most certainly read it in full – and will later discuss its conclusions with my readers. As I have not yet had this opportunity to read the book for myself, I will not attempt in this post  to evaluate the content or conclusions. However, I have read the authors’ intent and methods as presented in the prologue, and can contrast these with the bishops’ disappointing response, which I have read and re-read in full.

Todd A Salzmann and Michael G Lawler are both married, faithful Catholics who are careful in this book to work strictly within the Catholic tradition. However, as married Catholics living in the real world, they are compelled to recognize the well-known fact that most Catholics simply do not believe or follow the orthodox Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. In response, they have considered the teaching in its historical development, considered the Scriptural foundations, and examined also the findings of modern science and anthropology.
The bishops reject their book primarily because they disagree with its findings. As married men with real-life experience of sexual love in marriage, the authors are able to bring some personal insight to their discussion.
The bishops reject the value of personal experience. Salzmann & Lawler recognize that sexual theological ethics are a complex web affecting many different aspects, including marital morality, cohabitation and the “process” of marrying, homosexuality and reproductive technology.
The bishops train their fire specifically on the easy target of “the gays”. The authors discuss the many disconnects and contradictions in the Vatican’s own abstract pronouncements, such as those of “Gaudium et Spes” on the unitive value of conjugal love  and the failure of the Magisterium to give this formal expression, or between the guidelines on scriptural interpretation, and the complete failure of the Magisterium to follow these guidelines when pronouncing on homosexuality.
Even in the prologue to “The Sexual Person”, the authors point to the dependence of the Catechism on the Genesis story of Sodom to condemn homosexuality, whereas  most Biblical scholars no longer believe that this was remotely the point of the passage.

The bishops respond,

In the final analysis, all interpretation of Scripture is subject to the authoritative judgment by those responsible for the Church’s deposit of faith.

In other words, scripture means what the Church decrees that it means.
The medieval scholar Mark Jordan has shown from an analysis of its rhetorical style, that the Vatican is incapable of rational debate, instead depending primarily on techniques such as simple repetition of its own mantras. So it is here: in the  24 page document constituting their response to what is clearly a thoughtful, reasoned and thoroughly researched piece of academic writing which draws on a wide range of sources and approaches, the US bishops can refer only to the writings of the Church itself.

The book was prompted by the recognition that most Catholics simply do not accept the orthodox sexual ethics of the Catholic Church. There is nothing in the bishops’ response to suggest that it will change anybody’s mind (or sexual behaviour).

The bishops’ full statement is here.

This is what some others have said about “The Sexual Person”:

“This superb volume courageously explores Catholic teaching on sexual ethics. The authors’ exploration of the biological, relational and spiritual dimensions of human sexuality engages Catholic teaching respectfully, critically, and creatively. The book is a significant contribution to both sexual ethics and moral theology generally.”
-Paul Lauritzen, Director, Program in Applied Ethics, John Carroll University.
“This book is a much-needed contribution to the contemporary Catholic discussion of sexual ethics. The authors utilize the most recent sociological and psychological data to supplement their careful parsing of the Catholic theology of sex, gender, and embodiment. It is a work that manages to be highly theoretical while addressing everyday concerns about premarital sex, contraception, homosexuality, divorce and reproductive technology.
Salzman and Lawler embrace the model of theology as dialogue, and as a result, their treatment of borh traditionalist and revisionist views about human sexuality is constructive and helpful. They succeed in moving a seemingly stalled conversation forward”.
-Aline Kalbian, associate professor, Department of Religion, Florida State University.
“A bold and brave book! Tightly argued and well documented, this book lays out an understanding of human sexuality that expresses the profound work that theologians do on behalf of the Church in order to find ever better understandings of what the Church teaches in light of the witness of scripture, the tradition, and our understanding of human experience.”
-Richard M Gula, SS, The Franciscan School of Theology. Graduate Theological Union

This is from the publishers’ blurb posted at Google Books:

In this comprehensive overview of Catholicism and sexuality, theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler examine and challenge the principles that any human genital act must occur within the framework of heterosexual marriage, and must remain open to the transmission of life. Remaining firmly within the Catholic tradition, they contend that the church is being inconsistent in its teaching by adopting a dynamic, historically conscious anthropology and worldview on social ethics and the interpretation of scripture while adopting a static, classicist anthropology and worldview on sexual ethics. “The Sexual Person” draws from Catholic tradition and provides a context for current theological debates between traditionalists and revisionists regarding marriage, cohabitation, homosexuality, and reproductive technologies.. This daring and potentially revolutionary book will be sure to provoke constructive dialogue among theologians, and between theologians and the Magi
sterium.

The bishops may disapprove, but this will not prevent this important book attracting careful attention from the growing band of Catholic theologians not tied to their apron strings, and from ordinary Catholics who place a search for truth above simplistic rule-book Catholicism.

I will have more on this once I have been able to source and read a complete copy.  For a taster meanwhile, I list here the table of contents:

Prologue
One:     Sexual Morality in the Catholic Tradition: A Brief History

Historicity
Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome
Sexuality and Sexual Ethics in the Catholic Tradition
Reading Sacred Scripture
The Fathers of the Church
The Penitentials
Scholastic Doctrine
The Modern Period
Conclusion

Two:     Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Traditionalists

“Nature” defined
The Revision of Catholic Moral Theology
Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology
Traditionalists and Sexual Anthropology
Conclusion

Three:  Natural Law and Sexual Anthropology: Catholic Revisionists

Revisionist Critiques of Traditionalist Anthropologies
Karl Rahner: Transcendental Freedoms
Revisionists and Sexual Anthropology
Conclusion

Four:    Unitive Sexual Morality: A Revised Foundational Principle and Anthropology.

Gaudium et Spes and a foundational Sexual Principle
The Relationship between Conjugal Love and Sexual Intercourse
Multiple Dimensions of Human Sexuality
Truly Human and Complementary
Conclusion

Five:     Marital Morality

Marital Intercourse and Morality
NNLT and Marital Morality
Modern Catholic Thought and Marital Morality
Marital Morality and Contraception
A Renewed Principle of Human Sexuality and Contraception
Conclusion

Six:       Cohabitation and the Process of Marrying

Cohabitation in the Contemporary West
Betrothal and the Christian Tradition
Complementarity and Nuptial Cohabitation
Conclusion

Seven:  Homosexuality

The Bible and Homosexuality
Magisterial Teaching on Homosexual Acts and Relationships
The Moral Sense of the Christian People and Homosexual Acts
The Morality of Homosexual Acts Reconsidered
Conclusion

Eight :  Artificial Reproductive Technologies

Defining Artificial Reproductive Technologies
The CDF instruction and Reproductive Technologies
Parental Complementarity, Relational Considerations, and Social Ethics
Conclusions

Epilogue

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The Real Mama Grizzlies: Lesbian Moms?

Sarah Palin, With Bear
Sarah Palin’s understanding of wildlife appears to be no better than her tenuous grasp of social history.  Mrs Palin has been very much in the news over her enthusiastic promotion of a band of crazies  thoughtful, conservative candidates who agree with her own views on education and “traditional family values”.   The women in this band she likes to describe as “mamma grizzlies”, most recntly Christina O’Donnell in Delaware.
The problem with the conservative view of the “traditional” family and its values is that has little relation to history, and is in fact a relatively modern invention. The problem with her adoption of mamma grizzlies as her model is that they too scarcely embody the “family values” she claims to support.  Real life mamma grizzlies do not live or mate in the nuclear families she so admires. Rather, they mate in promiscuous, polygamous groups, then raise their young as single mothers – or in collaboration with other females, as family units headed by two women.  The closest human counterparts to real-life “mamma grizzlies” are lesbian couples, with kids – not exactly Christian O’Donnell.
Bruce Bagemihl in Biological Exuberance describes the family structure of grizzly bears, based on an analysis of 18 published, peer-reviewed academic papers. He notes that while grizzlies (and Black bears) are largely solitary creatures, they do sometimes form short-term social groups around specific food sources. Mating is indiscriminate and polygamous, with both males and females mating with multiple opposite sex partners for conception. After mating, the males have no further part in child-rearing.
Consequently, many grizzly mammas raise their young as single parents – unless (as many do) they team up with another female for co-operative parenting.

The two mothers become inseparable companions, travelling and feeding together throughout the summer and fall seasons as they share in the parenting of their cubs.. ……. A bonded pair jointly defends their food, and the two females also protect one another and their offspring (including protecting them from attack by grizzly males). The cubs regard both females as their parents, following and responding to either mother equally; bonded females occasionally also nurse each other’s cubs. If one female dies, her companion usually adopts her cubs and rears them as her own.

Sexual activity is not always exclusively for procreation and not always between opposite-sex partners; the partners in procreation are usually opposite-sex (not always – some lizards reproduce from female pairs), but the parties in biological parenting and child-rearing are not always the same; and there are instances where same-sex parents have clear advantages over the alternatives, especially where the alternative is not “one mom and one pop”, but a single mother, as in the case of the Grizzlies.
 
There are thousands of animal species that are known to have homosexual relationships, some even more frequently than heterosexual relationships (for example bighorn rams, female bonobo chimps and male giraffe). Many other animal species, especially birds, form same-sex parenting couples, by adoption or surrogacy. In human societies, there are likewise numerous examples where standard practices include same-sex relationships in addition to opposite sex-marriage – and the evidence from research is that just as in the animal kingdom, same-sex couples are at least as capable of good parenting, and sometimes even better, than opposite – sex couples.

 

Related Posts on Animal Sexuality:

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Books:

Bagemihl, BruceBiological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)

Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

Naphy, William GBorn to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

Roughgarden, JoanEvolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

James Alison on Coming Out

The shape of daring imagination: coming out and coming home
We started to look this morning at what it is like to be scandalised, and the beginnings of moving beyond scandal. And I’d like to go back to the little boy, or little girl, and share with you what I have learned to pray for. It took me a long time to be able to pray for this, but I think it’s the prayer the little nine-year-old wanted to pray. It’s a prayer for four things: a home; a heart; a husband; and a ministry. I tried to think of an H word to fit the other three Hs, but ‘hinistry’ didn’t sound very good [laughter]. It would have been nice if we could talk about the four Hs, but we can’t. Home, heart, husband and ministry – obviously, change gender perspectives at will. And of course, if we live with our desire scandalised, these are four things that it’s very very difficult to imagine. They’re obviously good things – which of us does not want a home? Somewhere where we have a sense of belonging, where we’re recognised, where we are called by name, where we are received with joy – where we are received as we are, with joy, rather than being received on condition we pretend to be someone else. But home is a difficult thing to imagine when you’re scandalised: it’s a difficult thing to imagine that one’s desire for home, is good. So, imagining the arduous good: what might it be like recovering that little-boy longing, that little-girl longing for home, and making it real, or making it more real for ourself and for others? A heart: one of the things of the scandalised heart, is the sense of not belonging anywhere, and actually, not being sure that I can even rely on my feelings. Is this only me, or is this something we have in common? Having been regularly, and apparently religiously, taught to distrust my feelings on the ground that they were wrong – and of course that’s devastating. That means, you don’t really have a heart; or in as far as you do have a heart, it’s a heart which might be toxic to other people. ‘Be careful how you love them since you will only do them harm’. And how very very difficult it can be for us to receive a heart, the possibility that our love might be healthy, might not be frightened, might be able to imagine itself as building people up – this is a little-boy or a little-girl desire, and recovering it is central to the life of faith. A husband, or a wife: the little boy or the little girl longed for someone they could be with for ever. And how quickly voices of impossibility rushed in, to say, ‘No! Not possible! Never! You’re wrong even to want that’. And how difficult it is to recover the possibility that such a thing might be good, and possible, and blessed. Fighting off voices of impossibility, in terms of scandal – insisting, so as to be able to imagine the arduous good. Scandal closes down the possibility of imagining the arduous good. Ministry: as a little child, with a vocation, to exercise some ministry in the life of the church. Some ability to share the good news, to be part of something good, and positive, that shares the life of God: ‘yes, but only if you pretend to be someone you’re not’; yes, but so long as you don’t tell the truth’; ‘yes, but’, ‘yes, but’, ‘yes, but’ – the scandalised mind. The arduous good – imagining what it might be like to discover that we are exercising a ministry, starting from where we are; that such ministries are compatible with having a home, a heart, and a husband, whatever form that takes. And that it’s not wrong to want all these things – just like a greedy little child. How easily we are scandalised off from wanting all these things, like a greedy little child. Learning to imagine the arduous good…:
And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city, there was a judge, who neither feared God, nor regarded man”.

Books by James Alison
(Forthcoming)

Our Queer Primate Cousins

A favourite argument used by the religious right against homoerotic relationships, and by the Vatican theologians against any form of sexual expression outside of marriage and not open to making babies, is that such sexual activities are “against nature”, and that the “purpose” of sex is procreation.
Well, the people making these claims have never considered the actual evidence from , well, you know, – “Nature” itself, which shows the exact opposite. (But then, when did the Vatican, or the wingnuts, ever consider the trifling matter of evidence to interfere with their convictions?)

 

In the lively comments thread after an earlier post in this series, reader CS in AZ reminded me of a famous exchange with Anita Bryant:

This reminds me of Anita Bryant, back when she was on her anti-homosexul crusade … she said that homosexuality was unnatural and so repulsive that “even barn yard animals don’t do it” — then someone pointed out to her that barnyard animals in fact DO do that, with some frequency, as anyone who grew up around farm animals knows very well! LOL… well, she was only momentarily flustered, then she just pivoted 180 degrees and said, “well, that doesn’t make it right!”

 

Well no, but it sure as hell don’t make it wrong, either. On the subject of sexual ethics, “Nature” is entirely neutral. However, as so many self-righteous bigots attempt to introduce nature into ethical and political discussions, it is worth knowing just what “natural” sex really is (it’s also just fun to know.)

 

 

 

Bonobo females, with onlookers

 

In all the animal kingdom, those closest to us humans are the primates, who are generally divided into three classes – apes, old world monkeys, and new world monkeys. In all three of these groups, and in other mammals, birds, reptiles, birds, fish and even insects, homosexual and non-reproductive sexual activities have been widely reported in formal scientific studies. It is striking though, as Joan Roughgarden notes in “Evolution’s Rainbow”, that these supposedly “unnatural” sexual activities have been most widely reported among the primates, and especially among the apes, who are closest to us on the evolutionary scale.
 
So, in today’s lesson from nature, I want to consider just these. What do they tell us about “natural” sexual behaviour? Do they in fact indulge in what the theologians call “sins against nature”? Do they have sex which cannot produce babies? You betcha!
In some species, same sex encounters are actually more common than heterosexual activity. Among Bonobo Chimps, the most common form of sexual activity is between females, in a unique form of genital rubbing. Some evolutionary biologists have even speculated that the particular shape of their genitals has evolved to facilitate this.(Male same sex activities are also commonplace, but not to the same extent as females).

 

For Orang-Utans, Bruce Bagemihl describes homosexual activity as “characteristic” of younger males, but less common as they age. Gorillas live in small groups, some of which are “cosexual”, with a dominant mature male, younger males, and females, and some of which are all-male. In the all-male groups, homosexual encounters occur daily, and may exceed the frequency of heterosexual encounters in the cosexual groups.

 

What about “orientation”? Can we learn anything that might contribute to the vexed essentialist / constructivist debate for human sexuality? Without getting into a formal analysis, I was interested in Bagemihl’s accounts by two features: that in many of the species he describes, most individual animals practice both same-sex and opposite-sex activities, resembling the human descriptor “bisexual” – but individuals vary in the balance between them. Some are more primarily hetero, some more homo, which reminded me inevitably of Kinsey’s well-known thesis that we all sit somewhere along a bisexual scale. The other striking feature is that in many species (found among other primates as well as the apes), there are substantial variations between specific local troops. In some species where overall, same sex activity is commonplace, there are specific troops where it is much less so – and others where it is almost mandatory, immediately prompting parallels in my mind with human ideas about the social construction of homosexuality.

 

What about the specific sexual activities? Are they (at least the heterosexual ones)”geared to procreation”? Hell, no. For both same-sex and between sex activities, there is an extraordinary range of activities that have been observed. For full details, read Bagemihl’s book, but in summary these include the obvious opposite-sex copulation supposedly demanded by the “plumbing”, but also a great deal more. These include fairly conventional-seeming mounting, but without penetration or ejaculation, fellatio and cunnilingus, solitary and mutual masturbation, stimulation by a finger inserted into an anus or vagina, and activities less familiar or impossible for humans: anus to anus rubbing, clitoral penetration by females, and “penile fencing” by male Bonobos – while suspended from tree branches. I also bet you can’t do this: one female was described as masturbating herself with a foot, while using her hands to do the same to her partner. Many animals also use, or even make their own, “sex toys” – dildos and other objects for insertion into available orifices, and masturbation aids from leaves and fruits.

 

In another notable departure from Vatican descriptions, I was also impressed by the number of species where researchers observed more displays of simple affection between same sex couples than for opposite sex couples, and more frequent incidents of violence used to force submission (i.e. “rape”) in opposite sex couples. So much for the Vatican’s dismissal of “homosexual acts” as mere gratuitous self-indulgence, to be contrasted with (heterosexual) “loving conjugal relationships”. Onlookers are also less likely to disrupt or attack homosexual interactions than heterosexual ones: “homophobic” violence is less of a problem than violence directed at opposite sex mating.

 

Even where sex is of the standard, male-female variety including penetration and ejaculation,it is emphatically not exclusively directed at procreation. Heterosexual intercourse often continues almost right through pregnancy, and resumes soon after birth. In some species, young females reach sexual maturity, and begin sexual intercourse, several years before reaching full maturity and fertility – a period (known as adolescent sterility)where their completely “conventional” sexual activity cannot possibly lead to pregnancy. What then, is the “purpose” of sex?

 

Joan Roughgarden puts it neatly, in describing “at least six” situations that lead to sex among bonobos:

 

1. Sex facilitates sharing for example, reducing conflicts over food supplies) 2. Sex is used for reconciliation after a dispute 3. Sex helps to integrate new arrivals into a group 4. Sex helps to form coalitions 5. Sex is candy – females sometimes barter sexual favours to obtain gifts of food from males 6. “Oh, I almost forgot – sex is used for reproduction”

 

There’s something else she forgot – sex is fun.

 



Books:

Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)
Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People
Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective

Natural Law, Natural Sex, Natural Families.

A favourite argument used by the religious right against homoerotic relationships, and by the Vatican theologians against any form of sexual expression outside of marriage and not open to making babies, is that such sexual activities are “against nature”, and that the “purpose” of sex is procreation. Well, the people making these claims have never considered the actual evidence from, well, you know – “Nature” itself, which shows the exact opposite.  In a famous exchange, Anita Bryant once remarked that the things that homosexuals do were so disgusting that “even barnyard animals wouldn’t do it.” When it was pointed out to her that actually, barnyard and other animals do “do it”,  as is well known to farmers, she simply replied, “Well that still don’t make it right”. No, and it don’t make it wrong, either.  On sexual ethics, “Nature” is morally neutral.

“Anita Bryant, Reality Denier”

Some time ago I embarked on an investigation (which still continues) into just what we can learn from “nature” about sexuality and natural sex, reading up on sexual practices as observed in the animal kingdom, and also in non-Western and pre-industrial human societies from different periods and geographic regions. The results have been truly bewildering, and the time has come to share with you some of my findings and conclusions. In particular, there is clearly no single pattern of sexuality that can possibly be described as “natural” in all societies, human or animal.  What is “natural” depends entirely on culturally determined social practices, which vary extraordinarily.
In modern Western debates about gay marriage, we often hear arguments about “traditional” marriage, as based on the Bible, or on “Judaeo-Christian values”. The Biblical family was headed by a male patriarch, who controlled an assortment of wives, concubines, children and slaves, as well as his adult sons and their wives.
We commonly assume that most people are either “heterosexual” (the majority) or “homosexual” in orientation. But in many societies, men may be engage in sex with both men and women, either sequentially, at different phases of their lives, or at the same time. (In Chinese culture, there has always been powerful social expectations that men should marry and raise children – but that in no way prevents them taking male lovers as well. In a famous Chinese painting, two men are engaged in erotic play, while the wife of one watches from behind a screen. )


We assume that in a “traditional” family, the husband is male, the “wife” is female. In many traditional African cultures, numerous ethnographic studies have shown that the “husband” is the one with the wealth and the power. Where a woman was able to acquire sufficient wealth and could pay the bride-price, it was entirely acceptable for her  to marry wives, and take on the role of “husband”. (In these families, procreation and child-bearing were necessarily arranged outside of the family – but were raised inside it, and recognised the female head of the family as “father”. In one remarkable instance, Nzinga was a woman who came to the throne by military skill – but only men could be kings, so necessarily she was accepted as male. As king, she required a harem of wives – but as she was entirely heterosexual in orientation, she had no need of female wives, and instead kept a harem of male wives.(“Africa’s Female Kings and husbands”). Elsewhere in Africa, some wealthy men also included a male or two among their wives, valuing their strength for certain household tasks.
Nor do all cultures think only in terms of two genders. Commonly in South Asia, North America, and in some parts of Africa, societies accepted as a distinctive third gender biological males who took on female roles, or females who took on male roles (possibly but not necessarily included the corresponding sexual roles.) In the animal kingdom, especially among fish, there are many species with more than one gender, or where the physical appearances of some biologically male individual males resembles that of females or vice versa, or where individuals quite literally change biological sex, in an animal counterpart to human cross-dressers and transsexuals.
We also tend to assume that same sex interactions, where they occur, apply to a minority of individuals, or to a relatively brief period in their youths, before settling down to “normal” married life. But in some New Guinea societies, “natural” sex requires that as young boys, they first go through a period whereby they act as recipient partners in sex with older boys, because it is believed that the essence of manly virtue is contained in the semen – which they need ingest in regular doses before they can become real men. As they grow older, they adopt the active role in sex with younger boys, completely avoiding heterosexual intercourse until they are strong and manly enough to withstand the “debilitating” effects of women that they will be exposed to in marriage. In one specific group, the combined period of partnership with males typically lasts about thirty years, before he marries at around forty. In this culture, homosexual sex is certainly a far greater portion of a man’s life-long sexual experience than heterosexual experiences. For them, it is homosexual actions that are “natural”.
The Vatican claims that homosexual “act” lead people away from God.  Many societies take the exact opposite view, believing that “homosexuals” generally, and the third gender exemplars in particular, have extraordinary spiritual gifts. Frequently, it is they who will take on the roles of religious leaders or spiritual guides. (Is it any surprise that a disproportionately high proportion of Catholic and Anglican priests are believed to be gay?) In some places, this association of spirituality and male-male sex combines with a variant of the New Guinea practice – young men become  sexual partners of religious leaders in order to ingest their spiritual wisdom.
We also often equate “masculine”, macho virtues with heterosexuality, and homosexuality with effeminacy. Among both humans and animals, this is
not always so. For the ancient Greeks, the Japanese samurai, and many others, homosexuality was especially associated with the military. There have been times even in European history where “effeminate” dandyism was characteristic of rampant heterosexuality. Among bighorn sheep, most rams are exclusively homosexual in their activities, and the few that have heterosexual intercourse display remarkable submissive, behaviour – that in humans we might describe as “wimpish”.
It is also simply not true that in the natural world, even heterosexual sex is exclusively directed at procreation. Non procreative sexual activity is commonplace, including full intercourse during pregnancy, immediately after giving birth, or outside fertile periods Some primates females reaching sexual maturity, and begin sexual activities, several years before becoming fertile and capable of giving birth. Also common are  mounting behaviour without penetration or ejaculation, oral sex and masturbation (alone or with another). Some animals even make dildos and masturbation aids – or use natural objects for the purpose.
So what is the “purpose” of sex in nature?
Writing about Bonobo Chimps, Joan Roughgarden puts it neatly, in describing “at least six” situations that lead to sex :
    1. Sex facilitates sharing (for example, reducing conflicts over food supplies)
    2. Sex is used for reconciliation after a dispute
    3. Sex helps to integrate new arrivals into a group
    4. Sex helps to form coalitions
    5. Sex is candy – females sometimes barter sexual favours to obtain gifts of food from males
    6. “Oh, I almost forgot – sex is used for reproduction”
              Recognising the diversity of sexual and gender expressions in “nature” is not a licence for a code of “anything goes”. There still remains a need for a coherent system of sexual ethics, but the study of “nature” does not help us to find one. There simply is no sexual “law of nature”. To construct sexual ethics, we must look elsewhere.

              See Also:

              Gay Soldiers? Role Models, at the Foundation of Democracy.

              Gays in the Military: Japan

              Animals Use Sex Toys, Too

              Same Sex Parents, Furred and Feathered

              Natural Law, Laysan’s Albatross,  and the Question of Evidence

              The Wildlife Rainbow

              Queer Bonobos: Sex As Conflict Resolution

              Exclusive Heterosexuality Unnatural?

              Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros


              Books:

              Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (Stonewall Inn Editions)

              Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization

              Naphy, William G: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality (Revealing History)

              Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People

              Sommer, Volker and Vasey, Paul: Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective

              Nzinga (1583-1663), Female King of the Mbundu.

              Nzinga is renowned in Black history for her courageous part in resistance to the Portuguese colonial power in what is now Angola.
              Her father had been the “ngola” or ruler (from which the Portuguese took the name for their colonial territory), and was followed in that position by Nzinga’s brother, Ngola Mbande. As a child, Nzinga had been greatly favoured by her father, who gave her the opportunity to watch him closely as he governed, and even went with him to war. Later, she was sent by her brother as envoy to the Poruguese governor at a peace conference,  in Luanda in 1622, aiming to have the Portuguese withdraw a fortress they had built on Mbundu land, return some of her brother’s subjects who had been captured, and to put an end to the marauding raids by bands of Portuguese.
              She was able to secure a peace treaty – which the Portuguese failed to keep. Her brother then committed suicide, leaving his son Kaza as heir, with Nzinga acting as regent.Instead, she had him killed, and assumed the throne herself. As ruler, she continued to resist the Portuguese in numerous battles, personally leading her army in war, and forming alliances with both the neighbouring African peoples of Kongo in the African interior, and with the Dutch on the coast. She maintained this resistance for over thirty years, until well into her sixties, before finally signing a peace treaty in 1657.
              The queer interest in Nzinga rests in her assuming the throne of her people, which traditionally could only be held by men. As she had occupied a position absolutely restricted to men, so she was necessarily regarded as male.  As a man, and as king, it then became important that s/he acquire a harem of wives. As Nzinga was biologically female, her wives then needed to be biologically male, who dressed as women and took female gender roles.
              In the African context, her story is not as extraordinary as it may sound. Ethnographic reports from all regions of the continent have shown that gender roles were traditionally less closely identified with biological sex than in the West, so that wealthy women who could afford it, could and sometimes did acquire wives, and take on the roles of “husband” – while some wealthy men included the occasional male among their “wives”.

              Albatross Same- sex Parents

              A key part of the argument against homoerotic relationships, fundamental to the Catholic Magisterium, to the religious opposition more generally, and to the supporters of so-called “traditional” marriage, is that same sex relationships are somehow “unnatural”, “against natural law”. This claim is entirely without foundation. What these groups have in common, apart from their conclusion, is a total disregard for the evidence.  Some research into the Laysan albatross neatly illustrates this.  The disregard of the need for evidence does not only apply to claims for natural law: exactly the same charge can be made against Vatican claims that “homosexuals” are motivated solely by  -indulgence, and that homosexual “acts” lead one away from God – claims that likewise do not stand up to scrutiny. For now, though, I am concerned only about the problem as it applies to the argument from natural law
              All albatrosses are large birds nesting in isolated colonies free from natural predators, which makes them easy to study (the birds are trusting and allow researchers to get up real close and personal). Much of their behaviour is well-known. For instance, in one colony at Kaena Point, Hawaii, there are about 120 breeding pairs, who gather for mating every November. They form long-term partnerships, and after copulation, lay a single egg, which they incubate in shifts, taking turns to leave the nests for weeks at a time to feed at sea. They form long-lasting, often life- long pairs, and were praised by former US first lady Laura Bush for their commitment to each other, and the example they offered as icons of monogamy. The obvious assumption that these monogamous pairs represent one male and one female in a neat nuclear family, though, turns out to be false. One third of the pairs are female couples, some of whom had nested together every year since right back to the start of data collection – 19 years.
              Ornithologist Lindsay C Young  has been studying this albatross colony since 2003, as part of her doctoral dissertation.  She says that the discovery of so many female pairs forced her to question assumptions she didn’t even know she was making.  This in itself was something of a breakthrough: observations of same sex behaviour or relationships in the animal world are not new, but too often in the past, biologists have simply ignored them, or attempted to explain these observations as aberrations.
              Joan Roughgarden quotes one notable scholar who claimed in 2000, at the end of a long and distinguished career,  that  “When animals have access to members of the the opposite sex, homosexuality is virtually unknown in nature, with some rare exceptions in primates”.
              But just the previous year, Bruce Bagemihl had published a book reviewing published academic research into over three hundred vertebrate species which engage in same-sex courtship and genital contact. In some of these, homosexual activity is even more frequent than heterosexual intercourse.
              In the case of the albatrosses though, the female pairs Young studied displayed same-sex relationships – not same-sex activity. They were female couples, conscientious parents, and engaged in just about all the activities together that other couples do – except for physical sexual intercourse. Instead, they would find a male albatross purely for copulation so that they could produce a fertilized egg.
              As female pairs, these couples were physically capable of producing twice the number of eggs that other pairs could. Each bird is capable of producing only one egg each year, and so most nests hold only one egg. Yet obrsevers have frequently noted  that some nests contain two eggs, in what the biologists call a “supernormal clutch”. Early attempts at explanations speculated that perhaps some individual brds were after all capable of laying two eggs, or that some inexperienced younger females were inadvertently “dumping” their eggs in the wrong nests.. Harvey Fisher, he researcher who proposed this dumping hypothesis in 1968, after seven years of daily observations, justified his conclusion in part with the observation that “after all, promiscuity, polygamy and polyandry are unknown in this species”.
              It simply had not occurred to anyone to consider that the nest might hold two females.
              That was until Brenda Zaun, a biologist studying Laysan albatrosses forty years later, observed that year after year, it was the same nests which yielded double eggs. When she sent feathers from a sample of the two-egg breeding pairs and sent them to Lindsay Young  for laboratory DNA sex testing, Young simply disbelieved the finding that every brd was female, and assumed she had erred in the testing procedure.
              She repeated the tests, and got the same result.. To be sure, she then went back to the field and sexed every bird in the colony, and found that 39 of 125 nests were of female – female couples: 19 where double eggs ahd been seen, and an additional 20 with single eggs.
              This example is not about “lesbian” birds, or about avian “homosexual” intercourse. However, it does illustrate how easily even professional observers have in the past mistakenly applied heterosexist assumptions to their observations, which have led to completely false assumptions. Testing these assumptions against evidence leads to  very different conclusions.
              The albatross female couples also illustrate how in the natural world, procreation and pair –bonding can be quite distinct. Albatross pairs, including female couples are monogamous, mutually devoted couples and careful parents: but in some cases, the physical act of copulation is only about fertilizing an egg and nothing more.
              Although these albatrosses do not show signs of sexual activity by the female couples, many other species do. Bagemihl listed over three hundred such species in 1999, Joan Roughgarden and, Vasey and Sommer, have since listed many more, across all branches of the animal kingdom.  The evidence is clear: in the animal kingdom, same sex relationships and homoerotic sexual activity are no less “natural” than left-handedness.
              This does not in itself make homosexuality morally “right”, but it does show that “natural law” cannot be used to argue that they are wrong. On sexual ethics, the “law of nature” is simply neutral.
              Sources:
              Can Animals be Gay?” (New York Times)
              Books:

              Related Posts on Animal Sexuality:

              Bisexual Snails

              There is a widespread myth out there that homoeroticism is somehow “against nature” because “animals don’t do it”.  The argument is deeply flawed on numerous counts:  Are we to model our behaviour on the animal kingdom? If so, why was the church for so long opposed to the male -behind heterosexual sexual position as (“animal like”), insisting instead on the completely unnatural missionary position? Why argue  that animals “Don’t” do it”, and simultaneously that it should be avoided because animals (the hare, the weasel, the hyena) DO “do it”?
              The whole idea of “against nature” is a key part of the Christian church’s development of opposition to same sex relationships, but is full of weaknesses in logic as well as empirically verifiable evidence.
              I am in the midst of preparing a lengthy post demonstrating how flawed the argument is. In the meantime, by serendipity I have come across the following story in New Scientist magazine, on the omnisexual appetite of the rough snail. Remember, that logically a single counterexample is enough to demolish an argument such as “all animals avoid same sex activity.” This counterexample eliminates that claim at a stroke. Other counterexamples, which I will present shortly, will demonstrate the more modest claim that exclusive heterosexuality is somehow “normal”. What is abnormal, in the global context, is exclusive, compulsory heterosexuality .

              Males track females by following their mucus trails, and will attempt to mate with pretty much any snail they encounter, regardless of whether it is the correct sex or even the same species. They mate with males just as often as they do with females – though they do give up such copulations sooner.