It is not what you would expect to see when you take your children on a Sunday outing to the natural history museum: a giant photograph of one male giraffe humping another, or two whales sparring with giant penises. This, however, is Norway, where — for better or worse — the normal rules do not apply. Three years ago the Government told the country’s museums and libraries that they should do more to contribute to social debates and dare to tackle taboo subjects.
Birds do it, bees do it . . .Martin Fletcher
Our correspondent reports from Oslo on a new exhibition that appears to debunk the theory that homosexuality is an exclusively human preference
The results of that order are now coming through. One museum is staging an exhibition that debunks the national myth that every Norwegian was an heroic Resistance fighter in the Second World War. A second is planning an exhibition on Vidkun Quisling, the ultimate Norwegian collaborator. A third has an exhibition showing how badly Norway has treated Gypsies.
But the Natural History Museum in Oslo has gone one better. As America’s religious right fulminates against homosexuality, Europe embraces gay marriage, and leading homosexuals such as Martina Navratilova denounce scientists in Oregon for attempting to make gay sheep straight, the Naturhistorisk Museum is stepping squarely into the heart of a controversy that dates back to at least AD1120 when the Church Council of Nablus described homosexuality as a “sin against nature” .
It is staging a government-financed exhibition in its august halls that shows that homosexuality — far from being unnatural — is actually rampant in the animal world. Against Nature? is the first exhibition in the world dedicated to gay animals, claims Petter Bockman, its bearded and ponytailed scientific adviser, who also happens to be the University of Oslo’s leading — and only — frog expert (there are not many amphibians, gay or straight, this far north).
The facts have been staring scientists in the face for years, Bockman says, as he stands in front of the gay giraffes. “It’s fairly easy to see because the giraffe’s sex organs are not what you’d call modest.” The problem, he contends, is that when researchers are confronted by such behaviour, they choose to ignore it. They claim it is irrelevant to their work, or fear ridicule or the loss of their grants if they draw attention to it. They prefer to describe two animals of the same sex frolicking with each other as “competition, a form of greeting, ritualised combat, things like that — even when we are talking full anal intercourse with ejaculation”.
The taboo was finally broken in 1999 when Bruce Bagemihl, a gay biologist at the University of Wisconsin, published a book entitled Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.
Bagemihl had scoured every scientific journal and paper he could lay his hands on for references to homosexuality in animals. Tucked away at the end of long and erudite texts, or consigned to footnotes and appendices, he found that homosexuality had been observed in no fewer than 1,500 species, and well documented in 500 of them. The earliest mention of animal homosexuality probably came 2,300 years ago when Aristotle described two female hyenas cavorting with each other.
Bagemihl’s book provided the inspiration for this exhibition, and any notion that homosexuality is a uniquely human trait is quickly disposed of. You are greeted by a pair of swans — the very symbols of romantic love — who turn out to be a female couple. “Up to a fifth of all pairs are all male or all female,” reads the accompanying text.
Then you come to the photograph of the whales “penis fencing” above which hang — for no apparent reason — two actual whale penises, both several feet long and looking like stretched and desiccated turnips. Some of the male whales meet year after year, says Bockman, while their relations with females are fleeting at best.
A model — the one that invariably draws most giggles from the exhibition’s younger visitors — shows a male Amazonian river dolphin penetrating another’s blowhole. “This is the only example of nasal sex we have in nature,” Brockman observes.
Up to a fifth of all king penguin couples kept in captivity are gay, we learn from a display of stuffed penguins wearing pink scarves. Hooded seagulls, sea otters, fish, kangaroos, fruit bats, blue jays, storks, pine martens and owls make guest appearances. So does the lowly hedgehog (ouch).
Male and female bighorn sheep apparently unite during the rutting season, but the rest of the year the males stick together and homosexuality flourishes. “The females are boring. Only the males do it,” says Brockman. Insects, spiders, molluscs, crustaceans — they’re all at it. There is an 1896 sketch of two male scarab beetles enjoying each other. There are even gay gutworms; we know that, Brockman says, because “ they have sex organs and since they are translucent, it’s easy to find out what sex they are”.
Round a corner and you are confronted by a photograph of two female bonobo chimpanzees lovingly rubbing their swollen genitalia against each other while their offspring look on. “Their whole life revolves around sex,” Brockman explains with his trademark enthusiasm. “They will throw themselves into group sex and gender doesn’t seem to be relevant. Even children will give a helping hand.”
The exhibition then uses macaques and apes to introduce the unsuspecting visitor to the practice of “diddling”, in which the primates gently hold each other’s scrotums. It is a way of establishing trust, Brockman suggests. Certainly you would not allow yourself to be diddled by someone you did not trust. The exhibition gives short shrift to the idea that animals have sex simply to reproduce, and they manifestly do not consider gay sex sinful. They do it, Brockman suggests, partly for fun and partly because it serves as a “binding mechanism” for herds and flocks.
The more social the species, the more likely it is to engage in homosexual activity, the exhibition argues. “Many social animals have complex social systems where individuals seek out allies for help and protection. Sex is an important way of strengthening the alliance, also between animals of the same sex. In some animals, the whole species is bisexual, and homosexual relationships are prerequisite for joining a pack, making heterosexuality a disadvantage.” As with humans, the homosexual partnerships of some animals are often for life, not fleeting dalliances. Male flamingoes, swans and other birds will sometimes have one-night stands with females to produce eggs, then chase off the mother and rear the offspring with another male.
There is only one known example of animals rejecting homosexuals. Blacktail deer will drive away those of their species known as perukes, who do not shed their antlers because of a hormonal condition and tend to be homosexual.
The exhibition ends, predictably, with humans — though it rather prudishly refrains from showing pictures of gay men or women in the act. “Compared to the other apes, human homosexuality is neither extremely frequent, nor particularly rare, and in our species too the practice varies from one culture to the next,” it says.
There is also, prominently displayed, a quotation from Magnus Enquist, a professor of ethology at Stockholm University: “There are things that are more contrary to nature than homosexuality, things humans alone do — such as having religion or sleeping in pyjamas.” Bockman says he believes the exhibition should end the debate about whether homosexuality is unnatural. He readily admits it is “political” in intent, and even in Norway, where shoolchildren are taught about homosexuality from the age of 13, it has attracted huge publicity. But apart from a few lone voices on the religious right — one preacher hoped the organisers would “burn in hell”, another priest said the money would be better spent on curing gay animals — the public’s response has been overwhelmingly positive.
The museum’s attendance figures have soared in the month since the exhibition opened. It has received hundreds of e-mails from around the world, many from foreigners lamenting their own countries’ repressive attitude to homosexuality. The exhibition’s visitors book is full of similar sentiments. “Very interesting themes you are bringing up,” read one unsigned message, before adding: “PS, We had sex in the hall on the top floor of your museum.” Brockman was delighted. “Apparently someone got inspired,” he chuckled.
‘IT GIVES THEM PLEASURE’It looks like a good exhibition, though Against Nature? is an unfortunate name. Homosexual behaviour is not against nature, it is part of the repertoire of what animals do. That does not necessarily mean that you can compare it directly to human homosexuality.
Technically, a homosexual person is someone who has homoerotic fantasies and engages in homosexual sex. The distinction between what goes on in the brain and the behaviour itself is important: just seeing human behaviour does not necessarily say anything about the thoughts or fantasies behind it. There are people whose fantasies are homoerotic but who engage in heterosexual behaviour. There are people who have heterosexual fantasies but engage in homosexual behaviour — that happens in prison, particularly the men who do the penetrating: they never see themselves as homosexual and when they get out of prison they go back to heterosexual behaviour.
When we are talking about animals, because we don’t know the eroticism behind it, all we can say is they are engaging in homosexual behaviour. Even then, people have tried to explain away homosexual behaviour in animals as something else entirely. Homosexual behaviour between male mammals has been dismissed as boisterous; as for females, people have argued that they don’t know what they are doing, that they are just advertising their availability to males. There is a million of these sorts of explanations out there but not one holds water if, for example, you study Japanese macaque monkeys.
I studied a transplanted colony in Texas, and later a colony in Japan. Homosexual behaviour occurred during the mating season and followed the same rules as heterosexual behaviour. You don’t see brothers doing it, or grandmothers and granddaughters — there is the same avoidance of incest.
But I have seen males with erections sit next to females and be ignored, the female going off with another female. I have also seen female monkeys in early stages of pregnancy engaging in homosexual and heterosexual behaviour, which indicates that their sexual behaviour is not strictly controlled by hormones, and must be conscious behaviour.
Mammals have larger brains than other vertebrates, which means their behaviour is more complicated. It allows them to engage in more conscious behaviour, and to act on their desires. It allows them to seek pleasure, and this is what they are doing when they engage in homosexual behaviour. Trying to explain this behaviour as something other than homosexual behaviour is just another part of our prudishness.
Dr Linda Wolfe
The author is Chair of the Department of Anthropology at East Carolina University
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