There was a great huffing and puffing by the biblical-respectablists a couple of decades back when someone brought out a book for kids about a little girl living with her father and his partner, called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. Oh, the fuss about promoting unnatural ways. And yet all along it was as natural as penguins in a zoo. (I can’t seem to get enough of penguins and their ways, lately.) A pair of male penguins in a long-term loving relationship at Bremerhaven zoo, called, I’m thrilled to say, Z and Vielpunkt, were given an egg by their keepers and have nurtured it between them to chickhood. It’s four weeks old now, and doing fine. Gay partnerships are not uncommon in penguins in zoos. In the wild, it’s harder to say. I’ve seen penguins in the Antarctic wild – 100,000 or so on a beach – and there was really no way of telling which couples were single sex and which hetero without turning them upside down. Which neither you nor they would want. One parent of each pair sat in the usual miserable servitude, snapping grouchily at its just-out-of-reach neighbours, with an egg on its feet, or a chick huddled under a warm flap of skin, until its partner returned from feeding and freedom to take his or her or her or his turn.
Actually, there’s no mention in the news report of lesbian penguin partners, with or without chicks, so once again gay females seem to have gone unrecognised by the authorities – which allows them a certain freedom (as it did their human counterparts who were never legislated against): in the lesbian penguins’ case, not having an egg and parental responsibilities foisted on them by curious, experimental zoo keepers.
Animal gayness is, apparently, a great leap forward for the cause of non-reproductive sexuality, though you might think that the blow had already been struck many times for many centuries, most recently by the development of the contraceptive pill. Lots of animals, the experts are saying, have sex for fun, with the implication that maybe people do too – though the evolutionary biologists insist on calling it ‘social bonding’ and ‘establishing dominance’. Penguins do it, female bonobos do it in spades, I would very much like to think that rhinos and giraffes do it. Let’s fall in love.
But sex without consequence has always been an ambivalent human dream. In the 1960s and 70s, it really looked as if we’d made it. Contraception, easy remedies for venereal disease, a questioning of the nuclear family all suggested that sex could be an amiable way to pass the time as well as for reproduction – St Paul notwithstanding. But it didn’t last, as halcyon days don’t. Pleasure and companionship for their own sake always seem to have some consequence or other. Even gay penguins get landed with a new generation to bring up, and we all go: ah, how marvellously like heterosexuals homosexuals can be. They’re all right, then. There’s folk that can’t stand other people or penguins just having a nice time.