The Gay Animal Kingdom

I still don't have any additional details, but the initial newspaper report from the Jacksonville Journal-Courier is disturbing:

A Southwestern High School English teacher has been suspended after reports he had students in his classes to read an article about homsexuality in the animal kingdom.

Dan Delong of Carlinville acknowledged his suspension but declined to comment further until he spoke with his union representative.

Delong is said to have allowed students to read the article "The Gay Animal Kingdom" from the June 7, 2006, edition of Seed magazine. Seed magazine is a science and culture publication.

The article by Jonah Lehrer talks about the research of Joan Roughgarden, a biology professor at Stanford University who said she has documented homosexual societies among the more than 450 animal species.

School district secretary Pat Milner said a special School Board meeting has been set for 6 p.m. Monday at the district office in Piasa to discuss personnel/employee discipline.

Here, in case you're interested, is the controversial article.

UPDATE: Here's a Facebook page in support of Mr. Delong. And be sure to check out some of the comments below by his former students.

More like this

Really interesting article. I just wish people would understand homosexuality is part of our nature, but then again, I guess the opposition wouldn't even classify humans as animals. One step at a time I suppose...

Honestly, I'm not sure this article is appropriate for all high schoolers, just because the language is so graphic. Even if the kids were seniors, there were a lot of references to ejaculation and genitals for the mild mannered. I don't think it's the article's homosexual content was a problem, but rather the intense graphic language, which could startle some weak stomached readers. You have to sensitive to all the student's in your class. I thought it was a great article though! For the appropriate reader.

I am a former student of this teacher, and he was most likely trying to challenge the students to think critically about issues like this. It is a very small, rural district where homophobia and misinformation about sexuality and gender run rampant. He is also the only teacher in the school (that I have had) who actively tried to get students thinking critically. That being said, he was by far the best teacher I ever had- grade school through college. He was even better than all of my professors in college at getting me to challenge my own perception of the world.

I read somewhere else that the actual assignment for this article was to get students to analyze how authors formulate their arguments and analyze how the author's personal bias and agenda affect the piece (a great assignment for encouraging critical media literacy, by the way!).

Here are two facebook groups created by his former and current students to support him:

I'm severely disappointed in the handling of science room controversy by public school administration. It's impossible to get rid of terrible teachers who "teach" by assigning worksheets and giving textbook tests, while all of my favorite teachers have either left in frustration with administration or been fired for petty reasons. I am going into a career of science as a physician-scientist and my 8th grader science teacher, who was a very strong and positive influence on my life, was fired yesterday because a student complained of "sexual harassment" because he made a "That's what she said joke." I fear for the future of our nation when our teachers must be weary of every word they say while teaching to tests instead of encouraging scientific reasoning and critical thinking skills.

Largely good article, except Roughgarden makes a HUGE mistake by her attempt to toss out Darwin.

Sexual selection is entirely compatible with the existence of homosexuality; sexual selection is merely about reproduction and has little to do with the behavior of a population.

By Katharine (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink

I don't think Roughgarden is saying to toss Darwin out entirely; I think she's arguing that it's a mistake to project too simplemindedly from the reproduction imperative onto theories about social behavior.

By a man Zed (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink

It would seem that if we are all to some degree bisexual, then our problem as humans with the homosexual end of the spectrum is one of morals - or one with a culture that has made this a moral issue - a culture that then posits its morality as being derived from natural laws - with said laws then requiring that any biological behaviorisms that mirror our immoral deviances must be defective or deviant as well - i.e., unnatural - ultimately irredeemable as far as any spiritual destiny is concerned.
Hey, what can I say, I'm a carnivore.

Can't think of a better way to stimulate students to read something for comprehension than to forbit it, especially if it has to do with sexual activity.

As a current student of Mr. DeLong's class, I want to say this is all being blown way out of proportion. It is stupid and Mr. DeLong does not deserve to go through this. He is the hands down the best teacher I have ever had. He teaches English in a way that makes his students think critically and that has helped me so much this year. If he is dismissed from teaching, it will be a very bad decision on the schools part. Support DeLong!

By SHSstudent (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink

"Honestly, I'm not sure this article is appropriate for all high schoolers, just because the language is so graphic. Even if the kids were seniors, there were a lot of references to ejaculation and genitals for the mild mannered."

Yes, I can't even count all the kids in my old H.S. that would get all queasy and uncomfortable with words like ejaculation or genitals.

I can't count them, because they did not exist. Seriously, if you've made it to 14 and are not mature enough to read the word genitals without having a fit, then your parents need to beaten.

It isn't reading about genitals and ejaculation that can get you into trouble.

The notion that sexual selection rules out "homosexuality" (if homosexuality means same-gender sexual activity) requires a presumption of monogamous pair bonding as a social norm. Individual gay people can have hetero-sex for the express purpose of having children.

By OneMoreStepBack (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink

I am slightly conflicted here. I do think this article is appropriate for high school students and do think the material is something they should read - but in a science class not English.

Broadly speaking I think there is a huge risk when teachers bring their politics into the classroom, and think this holds even when I agree with them.

The suspension is extreme and I doubt it would have happened if an English teacher had made students read a creationist text. But at the end of the day, English teachers are hired to teach English, not correct their perceived societal flaws.

It does sound like this teacher is a hugely valuable resource to the school. If it were up to me, I would retract the suspension and give a warning.

But the key point to me is that teachers don't have the right to use classrooms as venues for preaching their views.

Jack - Two of my children are former students of Mr. DeLong and as I see his situation being broadcast web-wide (due to his very determined and supportive current and former students) I do just think it's important for everyone to know that Mr DeLong would not, does not and did not use his classroom as a venue for preaching his views. I sincerely doubt he offered this article (or any of his many other reading assignments which in the past have also included the Bible) as an advocacy effort for anything. His goals are for students to understand that they can read and understand anything, develop critical thinking skills and teach students to develop an opinion and then defend that opinion effectively. In the 7 years I've known him, the only thing I've really heard him advocate on on a personal level is the importance of teaching students to use their brains and think for themselves - something his students are now obviously doing.

If I may derail the thread to the article itself... what happened to the study that showed a correlation between human male homosexuality and above-average female fertility in the same families, and the idea that this means male homosexuality is (at least in part) caused by a gene (or a combination of several...) that make(s) women more fertile and thus has (/have) a net Darwinian advantage? Was it refuted (Roughgarden acts as if she didn't know about it at all)?

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 31 Oct 2009 #permalink

The problem with Roughgarden's thesis is that she tried to discredit Darwin's idea with what is still apparently a small sample of animal behaviour. So more than 450 animal species exhibit homosexual behaviour, but how many animal species there are in the world? It's in the millions. That isn't to say you won't find more species that engage in homosexual activity (I'm sure that there are, and homosexuality is likely to be more pervasive in the animal kingdom), or that homosexuality isn't natural (I'm sure it is natural, and likely entirely congruent with Darwin's idea). However, whatever the problem there is with Roughgarden's thesis, it is completely valid for a teacher to allow his students to read something which challenges conventional wisdom so as to allow them to think critically about any issue, and entirely wrong for the school to suspend him.

A teacher who encourages critical thinking? A teacher who teaches rhetoric (the art of persuasive speech)? These two skills, writing persuasively and reading critically, are examples of what our kids aren't learning under "no child left behind." Please, please, come to my school district, Mr. Delong. I will greet you with both literal and figurative open arms!

The notion that sexual selection rules out "homosexuality" (if homosexuality means same-gender sexual activity) requires a presumption of monogamous pair bonding as a social norm. Individual gay people can have hetero-sex for the express purpose of having children.

It doesn't require that at all. That's just one very extreme way of putting individuals who have homosexual sex at a disadvantage. If some members of a population are expending energy and time courting members of both sexes while others are more selective and only court the opposite sex, there's a clear reproductive advantage to the latter even without monogamous pair-bonding.

Monogamous pair-bonding will make the advantage stronger, but even a weak advantage will become near-universal pretty quickly.

My first guess is that whatever genetic variations are responsible for homosexuality haven't been selected out, not because homosexual behavior is adaptive, but because these genes have another effect that is. If what David MarjanoviÄ refers to is true, that would seem to give that guess a little bit of initial support.

Wait. Explain this to me. There is an article that is at the same time critical of Darwin, not written by a crazy hate monger, and substantiated by empirical evidence? And a teacher is being suspended for introducing it in class? Really? In America?

Does this mean that homophobia trumps anti-darwinism-ism? I'm confused.

By FlameDuck (not verified) on 01 Nov 2009 #permalink

What next? Schools outlawing the book 'Biological Exuberance' from classrooms?

Jeez. The guy isn't in trouble for encouraging critical thinking, nor for questioning Darwin, nor even for broaching the topic of homosexuality in school. He's in trouble for including explicit sexual content in a high-school English class. Whether or not you personally think that's appropriate, by the prevailing community standards of most of the USA, it is not.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 01 Nov 2009 #permalink

Sven DiMilo, I have no idea what you mean by explicit sexual content, because I sure didn't read any in that article there. Did you for some strange reason got aroused by reading that article, or are simply too clueless as to what is meant by "explicit sexual content"?

hazh: It mentions "penis fencing", anal intercourse, ejaculation, and "lesbian orgies". It may not seem explicit, but for people where sex education is strictly verboten (allowable only as "abstinence only"), it is. It sounds like you're not familiar with the mindset of conservatives in the US.

By Midnight Rambler (not verified) on 01 Nov 2009 #permalink

I'd just like to add though, if I'd had a chance to do this kind of biological stuff in English class instead of the idiotic gibberish we had to read (Salinger and Camus), I would have like English a lot more.

By Midnight Rambler (not verified) on 01 Nov 2009 #permalink

Anyone that would honestly compare passing out a creationist text to giving students a SCIENCE article (which apparently was for literary analytical purposes anyway) is an absolute idiot.

By Christopher Evans (not verified) on 01 Nov 2009 #permalink

Jeez. The guy isn't in trouble for encouraging critical thinking, nor for questioning Darwin, nor even for broaching the topic of homosexuality in school. He's in trouble for including explicit sexual content in a high-school English class. Whether or not you personally think that's appropriate, by the prevailing community standards of most of the USA, it is not.

Uhm, these were seniors. You people are acting like these were elementary school children. These types of topics are covered in sex education for God's sake.

By Christopher Evans (not verified) on 01 Nov 2009 #permalink

Here in Stockholm the national natural history museum had an exhibition last year about homosexuality in the animal kingdom. It was open to everyone, never mind high school pupils and nobody complained. I took my son (who was five) to see it. He just got bored and asked to be taken to see the dinosaur fossils! - exactly what you'd expect, unless you are one of these homophobes that thinks exposure to the idea that homosexuality is simply one variety of natural behavior would be enough to turn any child into a raging homosexual activist.

-But the key point to me is that teachers don't have the right to use classrooms as venues for preaching their views.-

What preaching? that gay-actions in the animal kingdom exist? oh the horror.

More shocking than the fact that animals have...shriek...dirty sex... at all. Exactly when are we supposed to educate children about the facts of nature if not as part of their mainstream in school?

By Richard Eis (not verified) on 02 Nov 2009 #permalink

Stockholm Sigmund,

This is not Sweden. Here in the Land-Of-The-Free it is a crime to acknowledge your genitalia. A family in texas had their children taken away from them because they took family snapshots of the kids having a bath. If it appeared at a museum that receives any kind of public funding, that exhibition would have been protested and probably shut down, here in the Land-Of-The-Free.

By Ryan Biggs (not verified) on 02 Nov 2009 #permalink

Interesting article, but she went off the rails at the end when she claimed there's really no such thing as homosexuality in humans, and that all criticisms against her were because of who she is.

I have to agree with Johanna. I would have thought my teacher was crazy if he or she had me read this in a high school English class, simply because of the sexual content. I think the teacher should have known that someone might have a problem with the article for these reasons, and that he was putting himself at risk for assigning it. I understand that he is not necessarily advocating anything or trying to be "sexually explicit" and that he wanted to get the students thinking critically, but I think it would definitely be more appropriate for a college class.

Just to give you a better idea of what is "questionable" at Southwestern High School...
Any student enrolling in a biology student class has to have a parent permission slip signed that states that sexual reproduction will be discussed. If the parent doesn't sign it, the teacher has to give an alternate assignment (like plant reproduction) any time the topic comes up, so that the students are not exposed to such "filth".

By SHS Teacher (not verified) on 02 Nov 2009 #permalink

I am a neuroscientist that has done 'gay' animal research that has been widely covered in the press, and have been quoted in several articles like the one discussed. THe first problem is that the media are like a game of telephone, where original statements tend to get twisted into increasingly bizarre and unrecognizable bits of 'information'. (The blogosphere, which although serving a useful purpose in some ways, tends to make this worse, incidentally, due to a proclivity for second-hand and often sensationalist reporting). I'll get back to this at the end of this post.

The second problem is that, when it comes to anything involving sex, logical thinking tends to fly out the window. Tragically, scientists are not immune to this phenomenon. Many researchers over several centuries have documented homosexual behavior among most different animals. It is clearly a 'natural' phenomenon. Of course, 'natural' does not necessarily mean 'adaptive', and thus the crux of the article under discussion. Why would homosexual behavior evolve? There are actually many possible answers to this which do not involve any challenge to Darwinian selection (and note that Darwinian evolution is only ONE among several mechanisms for evolution, and in any case it is a myth that any species must be 'optimally' involved). The idea that Roughgarden is challenging Darwin is extremely misleading and sensationalist. For example, it is obvious why pleasurable sex would be adaptive: If it's fun, you'll do it more, and have more offspring. Homosexual behavior could simply be an offshoot of the fact that sex is pleasurable. Like masturbation (which is not adaptive), or overeating (which is not adaptive). Homosexual behavior could be cemented in a population for adaptive purposes, like social group cohesion. In other words, I can do something that makes you feel good, and maybe get something in return. Sex is not necessarily always about reproduction. This is basically what Roughgarden is saying in the Seed article.

However, Roughgarden clearly has an agenda, and the Seed article lacks any semblance of deep thinking. The reasoning attributed to Roughgarden in the article is also deeply flawed. Just because something is widespread in the animal kingdom doesn't mean it is necessarily 'useful' or 'good' for the 'afflicted' species. Disease and birth defects are rampant among all species of life. Way more common than homosexuality. Does that make disease or birth defects adaptive? Of course not.

Things are not so simple as either side of the political debate would like them portrayed, and both Roughgarden and religious fundamentalists too often distort biology in pursuit of political reform, in my opinion.

In any case, it's tough to know whether the teacher's behavior was appropriate in the absence of better understanding of the context. A picture of a penis in a sex ed class would be perfectly appropriate. A picture of a penis on the wall in math would be a bit weird.

So how about a little more backstory in the blog, Jonah? Give us some context. This blog entry was nothing more than a troll.

PIASA, IL ( - Students and former students rallied outside Monday night's disciplinary hearing at the Southwest School District in Piasa, IL. They were there to support veteran teacher Dan Delong. Delong was suspended after giving a 10th grade honors English class an assignment involving a science magazine article about homosexual behavior among hundreds of animal species. Some parents complained.
From the local Fox news station:

The school board suspended the teacher and even called in state child welfare authorities to determine whether the assignment might amount to child abuse.

The protesting students say a minority of homophobic parents are threatening the career of a popular teacher. But parents opposed to the assignment say the controversial biology reading had nothing to do with the English class in which it was offered.

The pressure was so intense on the school board that it continued meeting behind closed the doors late into Monday night.