Flipping Heteronormativity the Bird

A while ago I wrote a post about a science experiment concerning bullying between and against (or lack thereof) blue footed boobys, arguing that many experiments and articles of this kind are inherently imbued with the desire to translate their findings to humanity at large, not just for its allegedly scientifically isolated implications.

An essay this week on “she-male” hawks in the New York Times didn’t even bother denying this trend. And while I appreciate the honesty, the article raises quite a few important points concerning gender, sex, and our social construction of both.

The experiment was designed to find out whether or not “she-male” hawks (biologically male hawks with ‘female’ plumage) are attacked any more or less in the animal kingdom than their implicitly more ‘normal’ he-male counterparts. The findings concluded, “they were not attacked or challenged by the other males. They also behaved like real females, directing their aggression toward females, not males. One surprise was that when it came to outside threats they were more actively aggressive than the he-males.”

The article concludes by noting the relevance of these findings for the American military, which still blatantly discriminates against gay, lesbian, bi and transsexual prospective soldiers. “The armed forces in the United States have come around to the idea that men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, can be soldiers, but they are still sticklers about plumage. Hot pink lipstick is not included in battle gear.” The author concedes to the fact that ‘plumage’ doesn’t necessarily mean no ability to fight just like any other ‘non-plumed’ person. Still, his use of language demonstrates many stereotypically visual concepts of what it means to not fit in to hetero-normative society.

First of all, by arguing that ‘she-male’ hawks can relate to the sensitive subjects within the *human* American military, the author is willingly inviting us to think about this in terms of a more general human existence. Like I said in response to the blue footed booby article, human beings innately make generalizations about the specifically isolated cases we witness and read about in order to better understand and make sense of the world around us. So for this author to say that “research into bird behavior does not usually have an immediate effect on society” is essentially saying the opposite. In merely stating the possibility of it having anything to do whatsoever with how we understand human society the author has already embedded in our minds the idea that what we witness in the animal kingdom can or already does correspond with human nature. This guy is, in the interest of inserting a relevant cultural analogy, the Leonardo DiCaprio to our blissfully unaware Cillian Murphy perspective.

Also of note in this article is the author’s definition of what it means to be a ‘she-male’. In using the classic icon of ‘pink lipstick’ as a means of reducing the non-hetero-normative existence we are reinforcing the idea of homosexual ‘otherness’ as well as a correspondingly passive and judgmental tone were anyone to actually use pink lipstick as a way of personal expression. Not all gay, bisexual, or transsexual (‘she-male’) men wear pink lipstick. And if they were to do so, who the hell cares? It’s unfair to use appearances as a means of ‘figuring out’ or ‘identifying’ those who are ‘different’ and it’s also categorically biased to assume that all men (and women for that matter) who may or may not belong to either group also therefore always do so. Unfortunately, this is the reality for a lot of people. While the author thankfully reminds us that his use of the pink lipstick metaphor intends to serve as a visual opposition to conventional masculinity, the mere mention of it provides the reader with still more associative connections between those who are ‘normal’ and those who, in contrast with their ‘properly normal’ gender roles, ‘abnormally’ wear said pink lipstick.

A third point of interest is this whole “‘she-males’ don’t get attacked in the animal kingdom” thing. How can we be expected NOT to relate this to our own existence? If we do, or if this is/might be the author’s intent, then the implication is that homosexual, bisexual, or transsexual men and women aren’t, in fact, singled out and targeted by the dominant hetero-normative community. Which, as most news headlines on or off-line would agree, is certainly not the case. Furthermore, the author’s emphasis on ‘real’ females and the corresponding surprise in a ‘she-male’ being equally aggressive as ‘normal’ he-males is also somewhat loaded. What gives this guy (or anyone else) the right to determine who or who is not a ‘normal’ male or female hawk, let alone (as the association goes) a human being? Why is it a ‘surprise’ that a male ‘dressed’ as a female should have any less of a capacity for survival?

Or maybe, when all is said and done, the real point here is that many animals, unlike the majority of human beings, are incapable of the same judgment, bigotry, and ostracism so common in our society. Maybe we can learn something from these birds, and perhaps my over-analysis of this author’s allusion to and construction of gender stereotypes is solely a function of paranoia towards how people fail to understand, appreciate and accept other people.

But despite my personal issues with red flags in this article, there is still a relevant question here for both the scientific and non-scientific community: when it comes to scientific research, what is really being said?