Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes sexual activities “against the order of nature,” even if conducted voluntarily with man, woman, or animal. Many politicians and a number of religious leaders claim homosexuality is unnatural and welcomed the Supreme Court judgment. LGBT activists rebut it by citing references to animal homosexuality to prove its naturalness.
There are two issues here: Is homosexuality natural? Should nature be the guiding force of human behaviour?
Section 377, drafted in 1860, has its roots in Victorian English morality and understanding of nature. Sex was thought to be mainly for procreation, and any form of non-reproductive sex was taboo.
For many years, biologists didn’t report homosexual behaviour in animals because they were embarrassed or didn’t want to be embroiled in controversy. Dr. George Murray Levick, a surgeon and officer in the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910, was so scandalised by the homosexual behaviour of Adélie penguins, he wrote a part of his notes in code in the Greek alphabet. Only 100 copies of his manuscript, Sexual habits of the Adélie penguin, were printed for private circulation and expressly marked in bold typeface ‘Not for Publication.’
Even though biologists continue to have a rough time when they report same-sex behaviour in animals, we now know such behaviour is widespread. Almost every creature that reproduces sexually also performs same-sex. But assuming anything that occurs in the animal kingdom is good is a slippery slope.
Devising laws based on this fallacy is worse. Orangutans, penguins, and a whole lot of other animals rape. Large cats kill their own kind. Mallard ducks commit necrophilia. These are all arguably natural, basic instincts. But we abhor such behaviour. Many people adopt others’ children, a rare event in the animal world. Some birds have to be tricked into incubating and rearing cuckoo chicks. Perhaps we shouldn’t look at the entire animal kingdom, but instead examine our closest primate relatives, bonobos.
Bonobos hardly ever fight within a troop, or declare war against a neighbouring one. They resolve any potential conflict-prone situation with sex. Sex can be female-female, male-female, or male-male. All members of the species are bisexual. Yet, the widespread conflict in most human societies makes us seem aggressive like chimpanzees. Is one of these behaviours more artificial than the other?
Which animal sends its children to school? Does any animal leave its home range to travel to another side of the planet to reside for weeks in a contrived ritual called holiday? No animal looks after its old, weak, and non-productive parents and grandparents, nor does any creature practise contraception and abortion. Are these unique behaviours artificial and contrived? Should they be criminalized?
Clearly, there are some condemnable natural acts and some commendable unnatural ones. Can we infer moral lessons from nature? No. The natural-as-good label may be appropriate for shampoo but not for the way we behave. Humans aren’t extraterrestrials. We share an evolutionary heritage with other living creatures on this planet. When homosexuality and bisexuality occur widely in nature, it’s no surprise it occurs in humans as well.
According to the ninth edition of Black’s Law Dictionary, ‘nature’ is: “(1) A fundamental quality that distinguishes one thing from another; the essence of something. (2) A wild condition, untouched by civilization. (3) A disposition or personality of someone or something. (4) Something pure or true as distinguished from something artificial or contrived. (5) The basic instincts or impulses of someone or something.”
Do same-sex relationships exist in the wild, untouched by civilization? Yes. Is homosexuality artificial or contrived? No. Is homosexuality a basic instinct or disposition for some? Yes. Then, how can anyone conclude homosexuality is against the order of nature? No animal is homophobic. So if anything is against the order of nature, it’s homophobia.