The natural law of gay sharks


“I think that it’s … unnatural. I think that it’s detrimental, and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.” – Kirk Cameron, discussing his views on homosexuality with Piers Morgan.

Kirk Cameron certainly isn’t breaking any new ground with this viewpoint. In the Laws, written in 360 B.C.E., Plato considered same-sex sexuality to be “unnatural,” even calling for legislation banning homosexual acts, masturbation, and procreative sex. Later, in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas, drawing from his Christian beliefs as well as his grounding in Aristotelian philosophy and ethics, stated that the only type of moral (and “natural”) sex act is vaginal intercourse, since it can potentially result in procreation. These ideas are the foundation for the modern-day understanding of “natural law” adopted by the Catholic Church and other denominations, an understanding that for centuries has been used to criminalize, pathologize, and demonize homosexuality. 

How has this “modern-day understanding” of natural law affected LGBTQ rights? Let’s start with Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a Georgia sodomy law. In his written opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger described homosexual sex as an “infamous crime against nature,” concluding that, “[t]o hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching.” When sodomy laws were eventually overturned by Lawrence v. Texas (2003), Antonin Scalia, in a scathing dissent, wrote, “This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation,” concluding that the Court “has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda.” Obviously, while natural law has its roots in philosophy and religion, it has had an extraordinarily powerful influence in the political sphere. And today, natural law is one of the central arguments that’s used to oppose same-sex marriage rights.   

So how do you get around the “natural law” argument when advocating for LGBTQ rights? Well, one thing you can do is look to the natural world. And the natural world – the animal kingdom, to be specific – has numerous examples of behavior that is homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, autosexual/masturbatory, non-monogamous, polyamorous, hermaphroditic, fetishistic . . . need I go on?  

For simplicity’s sake, let’s limit our focus to homosexual or bisexual behavior. According to one source, non-heterosexual behavior has been observed in at least 1,500 species, and is well-documented in 500 species. The story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins who nested, brooded, and raised baby Tango at the Central Park Zoo, was immortalized in the popular (and controversial, in some circles) children’s book And Tango Makes Three. Bonobo monkeys engage in same-sex and opposite-sex activity. Female cattle frequently mount one another. Certain types of male bighorn sheep are known to scientists as “effeminate sheep” because of their sexual proclivities.  And dolphins – well, anyone who watches Glee knows that they are “just gay sharks.”

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth have been studying these “gay sharks” extensively – 120 bottlenose dolphins, to be more accurate. This March, they published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, where they documented periods of extensive bisexuality juxtaposed with exclusive homosexuality. This isn’t a radically new finding – homosexuality and bisexuality have been documented in several dolphin species, but particularly among bottlenose dolphins. However, the fact that this study has received national media attention is very interesting and timely, in my opinion. In fact, the last time homosexuality in animals was newsworthy enough for the national media was back in, oh, 2002, 2003 – coincidentally, when Lawrence v. Texas reached the U.S. Supreme Court docket. And it’s notable that evidence of homosexuality among animals was one of the compelling arguments that convinced a majority of justices to deem sodomy unconstitutional. In this political, social, religious, and cultural climate, where we have a senior Catholic cardinal who cites “natural law” in his comparison between same-sex marriage and slavery; where we have conservative political and religious leaders using the “natural law” argument in their North Carolina campaign to define marriage as between one man and one woman; where, despite his repeated infidelities, we have Newt Gingrich defending the sanctity of marriage based on natural law – it’s no wonder we’re seeing a resurgence of evidence supporting the idea that homosexuality and bisexuality are very much a part of nature. 

Noting the dolphins’ “complicated alliance relationships,” “intense” social lives, and “constant drama,” scientist Richard Connor, one of co-authors of the Proceedings report,  was quoted as saying, “I’m glad I’m not a dolphin.” Given the complexity, intensity, and constant drama surrounding LGBTQ issues in our society, I find that comment to be highly ironic.   

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2 Comments

Filed under bisexuality, human rights, LGBTQ, same-sex marriage, Uncategorized

2 responses to “The natural law of gay sharks

  1. Gary Hollander

    Another great post, Gayle. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary. So called “natural law” has been used to keep many inhuman and unnatural practices in place. For example, there are many natural law arguments against women’s reproductive rights and for racial segregation.

    Keep up the great thinking.

  2. Thanks! I’ve been wanting to write about natural law for a while, and the dolphin study (and Kirk Cameron’s comments) gave me that opportunity.

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