by Erik Baard
Cross-dressers are more often straight than gay, but there’s something irresistibly amusing about the fact that our language paired the words “garter” and “snake” for a species later discovered to be promiscuously homosexual in drag.
Well, at least chemically in drag. Male garter snakes (which live in all five boroughs in a variety of niches, ranging from dusty lots and wet drainage ditches to Last Chance Pond) awaken from hibernation in spring before the far-less-populous females in an attempt to secure best mating placement. Some males will then emit feminine pheromones and linger by the burrow entrance of a hibernating female. When males show interest, the imposter will lead them away and trick them into thinking their deed is done. The imposter will then cease emitting feminine pheromones and hurry back to the burrow to have his chance with the actual female.
Of course, with many more males than females, the process remains a bit messy. A happy couple will soon find themselves at the center of a huge “mating ball” (see the photo above, from the University of Oregon) of writhing males and a minority of females. Some researchers have even postulated that by tricking other males into thinking that they are female, an imposter might better survive the cold early spring, insulated at the center of such mating balls.
But homosexuality in “nature” is certainly not reducible to trickery. It’s varied and nuanced, and in higher mammals apparently most often centered on emotional bonding and pleasure. Yes, much as in humans. I do not doubt that many of our pre-human ancestors were homosexual and bisexual. Two years ago the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum restarted the periodic dialogue on this topic with an photographic exhibit of 51 such species called, “Against Nature.”
For me, the two most fascinating questions are why did homosexuality evolve and how did a sexual behavior coalesce in humans into a sustained and resilient Gay subculture? After all, while other species display homosexual behavior, only humans are Gay.
Many media stories about the 1,500 species in which homosexuality has been observed leap right to the phrase “gay animals.” As we look back on the weekend’s Gay Pride festivities, I think it’s important to bear (no pun intended but hey, I’ll roll with any bad pun) in mind a distinction between shorthand sexual definitions and a richer cultural and personal identification.