“Ex-gay” therapy for penguins. Who knew?

This just gets weirder and weirder.

An amusing little treat landed in my inbox yesterday, containing the answer to the question “where are the national anti-gay advocacy groups in the ‘Tango’ story?” It’s an alert from the James Dobson/Focus on the Family franchise “Citizen Link,” urging Dobson groupies across the nation to TAKE ACTION by mass mailing their boilerplate letter to our Superintendent.

They link, with great fanfare, to “the real story of the penguins,” as if Silo, who later went on to form a pair with a female penguin, Scrappy, is the newest poster child for the “ex-gay” industry (did he seek reparative therapy?) From the alert:

Candi Cushman, education analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said the book is far from a “true story.”

“It’s very misleading,” she said, “and it’s a very disingenuous, inaccurate way to promote a political agenda to little kids. What they’re not telling kids is that the supposedly gay penguin who is the star of this story later mated with a female penguin in real life.

They even add “It just goes to show: Penguins can change,” which made me laugh so hard I snorted coffee up my nose. Thanks a bunch, Citizen Link.

Only anti-gay activists would accept as unproblematic the notion that penguins, or any other non-human animal, can be “gay” or “straight.” Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. That knowledge is not something we have access to. We can’t interview them to assess whether they experience something like what we understand as orientation, we can only observe their behavior.

This is what Bruce Bagemihl, PhD, author of the authoritative book on the topic of same sex pair-bonding and sexual behavior in the animal kingdom, Biological Exuberance, says about the language challenge he faced in writing the book, which was intended for both an academic and lay audience:

With animals…we can often directly observe their sexual (and allied) behaviors, but can only infer or interpret their meanings and motivations…

…Virtually no terminology for animal behavior – particularly sexual behavior – is entirely free of human (cultural, historical, etc.) associations. When confronted with this situation, we have two options: construct an alternative vocabulary of relatively opaque labels and unwieldy circumlocutions that attempts to avoid such bias (but inevitably falls short of this ideal); or use the already available terms with careful qualification of their meanings and an understanding of their historical context, such that they become uncoupled from their anthropomorphic connotations. In Biological Exuberance, I opt for the latter.

The point here is that when academics refer to “homosexuality” in other species, it’s not really correct – but we don’t have an alternative vocabulary to talk about what we observe. We can’t possibly know whether other animals experience something like sexual orientation, and we shouldn’t jump to that conclusion.

The behavior illustrated in And Tango Makes Three, the bowing and singing and nest-building, is in fact penguin courtship behavior, for whatever that’s worth. Again, it’s behavior, not evidence of an internal orientation. What we know is that this pair exhibited a strong drive to parent a chick, so they were given one that otherwise would have died, and that chick is now a healthy adult.

“They got all excited when we gave them the egg,” said Rob Gramzay, senior keeper for polar birds at the zoo. He took the egg from a young, inexperienced couple that hatched an extra and gave it to Silo and Roy. “And they did a really great job of taking care of the chick and feeding it.”

That’s the story, and it is true. Anything more than that is projection.

The book And Tango Makes Three is not about orientation. Nowhere do the authors suggest that Roy and Tango are “gay,” or that they have a sexual relationship; what they have is a pair-bonding relationship, a phenomenon that is not at all uncommon between members of the same sex in a wide range of species. In this Daily Show clip we blogged a few days ago, the zoologist explains in a very matter-of-fact way that there are, in addition to Roy and Silo, two other same-sex pairs in the penguin house.

And Tango Makes Three is really about the strong drive to pair-bond and raise a chick. It’s about, from a child’s point of view, the strong desire to be part of a family, and that the important thing about a family is the way the members take care of each other. It’s about the love, nurturing and safety that family represents, no matter what the family looks like. That’s a very appealing message, and a very important message.

There is necessarily some anthropomorphizing involved, because that’s what is so compelling about animals, especially to children. Penguins in particular display a degree of sacrifice, devotion and cooperation in raising their babies that is very attractive to us as humans. That’s why March of the Penguins is so popular, but we don’t really know whether penguins experience what we understand as love, either.

Of course, the part that was left out of March of the Penguins is that penguins don’t mate for life, the way that geese do, for example. A pair may stay together for a few years, then find different partners. That’s what happened with Roy and Silo, too. It’s not a stop-the-presses moment.

People getting all bent out of shape over this story need to chill out, and consider welcoming the opportunity to have a conversation with their children about what they believe. As the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression recently wrote to Dr. Hatrick,

No one is being forced to read And Tango Makes Three. But restricting student access violates the rights of children whose parents want their children to be taught tolerance and respect for diversity. The role of the library is to allow students to make choices according to their own interests, experiences, and family values.

Join the Facebook group Put the Penguins Back, and get connected with others who agree.

Parents are planning to attend the next School Board meeting in a show of support for returning And Tango Makes Three to general circulation, as recommended by both review committees. They are asking that folks wear black and white (nice touch).

Tuesday, February 26, 6:30 pm
LCPS Administration Bldg
21000 Education Court
Ashburn, Virginia 20148

Map of 21000 Education Court Ashburn, VA 20148, US

You do not need to speak. The objective is to visibly show support for this book and for the right to a diversity of ideas in our public schools. Please be there if you can, and spread the word.

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29 Responses to “Ex-gay” therapy for penguins. Who knew?

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  2. Jack says:

    “…made me laugh so hard I snorted coffee up my nose. Thanks a bunch, Citizen Link.”

    And all this time, I thought it was Coke you were snorting.

  3. David says:

    Naa, I don’t do soda. Too much sugar.

    Nice to see you, Jack. We missed you. Have you ever seen the book all this fuss is about?

  4. Jack says:

    No one is being forced to read And Tango Makes Three. But restricting student access violates the rights of children whose parents want their children to be taught tolerance and respect for diversity. The role of the library is to allow students to make choices according to their own interests, experiences, and family values.

    A beautiful sentiment. May I assume that “Lolita” and the works of the Marquis de Sade are to be found on the shelves in our High Schools?

  5. David says:

    A beautiful sentiment indeed, and the foundation of an educated and free society.

    I have not checked for the works you cite at LCPS. Can you describe their content? Are they recommended for high school age readers?

    Here is more, from the National Coalition Against Censorship, which tracks ideological challenges such as this one:

    School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to give in to pressure to suppress unpopular ideas or controversial language. The Supreme Court has cautioned that, “[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'” Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982)(plurality opinion). This constitutional duty applies with particular force in the school library, which, unlike the classroom, has “a special role…as a place where students may freely and voluntarily explore diverse topics.” Campbell v. St. Tammany Parish School Board, 64 F. 3d 184, 190 (5th Cir. 1995).

    Since And Tango Makes Three is recommended by elementary education professionals for ages 4-8, and the two LCPS review committees, one at the school level and one at the district level, comprised of principals, educators, librarians and parents, recommended that the book remain in general circulation, it would seem that there is no sound educational or pedagogical reason for removing it. That leaves ideological reasons, which, as you can see, are not constitutionally supportable.

    Have you read the book?

  6. Jack says:

    Only “recommended” books can be put on school library shelves, then?

    Your S.C. citation is, of course, meaningless, since it is a “plurality” opinion.

  7. David says:

    I think the age span that books are recommended for is one of the factors that acquisition librarians use, yes. As far as I know, all children’s and young reader’s books have this metric as a tag. A book recommended for ages 10-14 might be developmentally inappropriate for children ages 4-8.

    Meaningless? I think not. More interesting question: Are you making the argument that local school districts should be in the business of prescribing what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion?

  8. David says:

    You still haven’t told me what you think of the book. Have you read it?

  9. Jack says:

    No, I have not read the book. So what?

    Now, must ALL books that some (unelected) liberal educators think is “appropriate” be on the shelves of every elementary school library? The supervisor has both the right and the responsibility to remove books he deems inappropriate. You may vote him out in the next election. Better yet, why do you not try to get a law passed that takes that authority away from the superintendent? Then the issue will never come up in the future.

    “I think not.”

    On this, at least, we agree.

    “Are you making the argument that local school districts should be in the business of prescribing what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion?”

    Whom do YOU think should have that authority? Unelected “education professionals,” or those who are elected to represent those who elect them?

  10. Jack says:

    “But restricting student access violates the rights of children whose parents want their children to be taught tolerance and respect for diversity.”

    The parents can also buy the book themselves.

  11. David says:

    Obviously, Jack, you and I have no social life; frittering away a perfectly good Friday night this way. At least I am not testy about it.

    We have a large school system, with a complex division of labor. We pay highly qualified library professionals to make decisions about appropriate library acquisitions. They did their job. If our Superintendent (who is not elected, by the way) isn’t going to allow them to do their job, then perhaps our school budget could do without those positions (yes, I am being facetious). It’s not a matter of law, it’s a matter of policy, and the policy we have has turned out to have some serious omissions. Those will be addressed by the School Board we elected so that this kind of mistake isn’t made again. The bottom line is, no individual should have the power to make this sort of decision, and that will no longer be the case in the future. In the meantime, though, our county is being made into a laughingstock

    I find it hard to believe that you think library materials should be chosen through either micro-management by a School Board or by popular vote. Do we expect the School Board to choose the lunch menu and supervise the preparation of food, also, or do we leave that task to the professionals who have specialized training in nutrition and meal planning? Maybe we should have the School Board design our school buildings and manage their construction – after all, since they’re elected they will surely do it the way their constituents want them to.

    I suspect that you would not be happy if I went into one of your public school libraries, challenged a book that you think should be there, and filed appeal after appeal until I finally got my way. If that were to happen, you would be arguing that the Superintendent must be a “liberal,” or whatever you believe me to be, and that he shouldn’t have been able to overrule two review committees to make such a decision. I doubt that you would appreciate being told that you can just go buy the book yourself, either; that kind of misses the point.

    And, having been successful once, I could surely find more books that have ideas in them I don’t like and that I don’t want your children reading.

    But of course, I wouldn’t do that. I don’t think I have a special right to decide for every other parent what their child can read in a public library. There are plenty of books in the library I don’t agree with; so what? Instead of trying to get them removed, I could instead suggest that an appropriate book with a different viewpoint be added.

    You’ve entirely missed the point of my last question. Nobody should have authority to prescribe “what shall be orthodox” in matters of opinion, because that objective itself is anathema in a library. A library collection should reflect a diversity of opinions and viewpoints. In fact, the written criteria for selecting LCPS library materials clearly states this. Our Superintendent, unfortunately, has violated those criteria. That’s why people are angry.

  12. Jack says:

    First of all, an elementary school library is no place for matters of opinion to be foisted on children. They do not have the knowledge or logical capacity to form logical conclusions about such subject. That is why you want to get to them early — to influence their opinions before they can see through your logical fallacies.

    Adding a book with a different viewpoint is not sufficient, because elementary school children are not capable of making such distinctions. (This is also why the younger voters tend to vote Democratic — their frontal cortex is not completely developed yet.)

    Still, you have not answered the question — who should decide what goes into the libraries? At this point, the Supervisor has the ultimate authority. If you take it from him, in whom would you vest it? The school board? The individual librarians? And if you get an anti-Semitic librarian, who puts anti-Semitic books in the library, what will you do?

  13. David says:

    I’ve already said that no one individual should be empowered to make decisions about library materials. Acquisitions are determined by library specialists hired to do that job. They follow written criteria for selection, the relevant portion of which appears below:

    e. To provide materials on opposing sides of controversial issues in order that students may develop under guidance the practice of critical reading, viewing, listening, and thinking

    f. To provide materials that realistically represent our pluralistic society and reflect the contributions made by various groups and individuals to our American heritage

    g. To place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice to assure a comprehensive media collection of high quality appropriate for the students who use it

    These objectives apply to all grade levels. The notion that one could avoid exposing children of any age to matters of opinion is insufferably silly. Even the act of sending them to publicly funded schools is the expression of an opinion.

    It’s clear that you are unfamiliar with the process in place in Loudoun County (and yet you are willing to freely expound upon it). The written policy was followed, and it allowed a single individual to make a decision that contravened the recommendation of two review committees comprised of both education professionals and community members. The policy is broken, and will now be fixed.

    If a single parent complained about a book that you and others felt should be in the collection, and it was removed in the manner I have just described, would you not want recourse built into the policy so that you could challenge that decision and have the book returned?

  14. Jack says:

    “To provide materials on opposing sides of controversial issues….”

    In order to begin to assess the merits of opposing side of controversial issues, one must have both facts and logic. Elementary children have neither. It is facts and logic, not controversial issues, that should be provided to elementary school children.

    “If a single parent complained about a book that you and others felt should be in the collection, and it was removed in the manner I have just described, would you not want recourse built into the policy so that you could challenge that decision and have the book returned?”

    First, are there NO OTHER parents in Loudoun County that have a problem with this book?

    Second, there WAS recourse built into the policy. You were on the losing end of that recourse, and so want the method changed. Had it been the other way, and the book was originally banned, then the Supervisor reinstated it, you would be quite happy with the method of recourse that was available to you.

  15. Jack says:

    I would also like to say that the presumption should be to NOT have such books in elementary schools.

    “But restricting student access violates the rights of children whose parents want their children to be taught tolerance and respect for diversity.”

    Nonsense. The book is available elsewhere. Go to a public library.

    At a SCHOOL library, however, the parents are not there to provide counterpoint when their children are reading books that are contrary to their moral and religious beliefs. However, it is usually parents who take their children to public libraries. At a school library, parents may not even know that such books exists, or that their children are reading them, and there is no opportunity for them to present their side.

  16. David says:

    Jack – you are simply factually incorrect on all counts.

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  18. Jack says:

    Brilliant riposte. There’s nothing like a blanket statement with no facts to back it up.

  19. David says:

    Right, and this reveals one of the deep flaws in the policy as written. If there were recourse for other parents to challenge this outcome, the School Board wouldn’t be spending time fixing the broken policy.

    Jack, I’ve already addressed these points. There’s no reason to go over the same ground again and again.

  20. Jack says:

    There WAS recourse. The parent took it, and won. You only consider the policy “broken” because you lost.

  21. David says:

    Wow, you really don’t understand this at all. “We” couldn’t have “lost” because there is no provision for that to occur. Duh. Everyone else recognizes this omission (just one among many things wrong with our policy), including LCPS and our SB.

    Policy is not an exact science. It often has to be revised when it is discovered to have flaws and omissions.

  22. Jack says:

    Then go ahead and change the policy. Why are you so hung up on THIS book?

  23. David says:

    I think that ought to be clear by now. It’s a high quality, age-appropriate book with an important message – the value of all kinds of family – that kids should have free access to alongside the other books appropriate to this age group.

    If a particular child’s parent disagrees with the message of this or any other book, they can use it as an opportunity to explain their viewpoint to their child. That’s what the rest of us do. There is nothing special about this parent; we all find ideas we disagree with in our children’s books.

  24. Jack says:

    The problem is, David, that we do not agree on what constitutes a family.

    So, when there is a controversy about a book, what say we put it to the parents, and if the parents don’t want their children to read it, it is not available to the children?

  25. David says:

    Indeed, there are a variety of opinions on the topic.

    What you are demanding is that only yours be included in the content of our public school library collections.

    Think about that.

  26. Jack says:

    Yup. That’s right. I’m demanding that the world-wide definition of family, which has been in use for thousands of years, not the one of your fantasy world, be taught to my children.

    I have NO problem with the book’s being in a public library.

  27. Jack says:

    David und Johann, Sie haben bespammt sein.

  28. David says:

    Yes, the spam is becoming much more assertive lately.