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
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.