On 20 January, the Nigerian online publication Leadership published a story about a woman’s struggle to understand the sexuality of one of her pets.
An unnamed “middle-aged woman” in “Lafia, Nasarawa State, publicly disowned her cat whom she had kept as a pet for seven years for what she termed ‘an unnatural sexual behavior’ which she finds disturbing and ‘a contradiction of the laws of nature,’” the story claimed.
“By this, the cat has made a record as the first cat to be so publicly declared gay and disowned by its owner,” the story added.
“The cat owner who expressed a strong belief in the divine purpose of creating male and female of every creature to fulfil an ordained purpose of procreation said, ‘anybody interested in this gay cat can have it because I have no further use of it.’”
News or satire?
I found it rather funny, and I presumed it to be satire. A few days earlier, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had signed a law restricting freedom of association and expression that, according to Human Rights Watch, “criminalizes public displays of affection between same-sex couples and restricts the work of organizations defending gay people and their rights.”
The ridiculous notion of a “gay” house cat being disowned read to me as a criticism of mass homosexual panic often provoked and exploited by desperate politicians who want to criminalize sex.
However, I am not well-informed about Nigeria, so I consulted an online acquaintance who is from Nigeria and has lived there as well as in North America.
He agreed that the story is probably not completely true and likely satirical. Vague news reports like this should be read as “both satire and real until either has been proven,” my acquaintance said.
In 2008, for instance, Nigerian sources reported that a cat allegedly turned into a middle-aged woman after being hit by a commercial motorcycle in Port Harcourt, a much larger city than Lafia.
Lafia is the capital of a largely agricultural state, so the story could also be ridiculing perceived superstitions held by rural people.
“Nigerian media can be unserious,” my friend observed. The author may have written the story “just to gain views or to mock how the law is being implemented.”
The story has taken on a life of its own, however, with mentions in The Huffington Post, a publication known for its fixation with celebrity “sideboob” photos (accidental, sometimes humiliating, exposure of a woman’s body), and Cosmopolitan, a magazine notorious for its ridiculous sex advice.
Both of these reports drew attention to Nigeria’s new law against same-sex marriage. My acquaintance remarked “I am only surprised how it took them a week to get the story. Western discourse on our anti-gay law has been a fail.”
Lesbian penguins and gay vultures
Nigeria is not the only country with gay-identified animals. In its report about the allegedly gay cat, The Huffington Post reminded us that Israel, of all places, is famous for its zoo birds whose mating habits in captivity do not fit scientists’ normal expectations.
Haaretz reported last December that, “Israel is famously tolerant of its gay community, by and large, for which two penguins at the Ramat Gan Safari park can bless their lucky stars.”
Tablet Magazine presented the same report under the headline “Lesbian Penguin Couple Calls Israeli Zoo Home” and ended referring to possible “animal pinkwashing claims” by critics of Israel’s documented propaganda strategy.
Despite Tablet’s headline, it is not clear if the penguins can freely choose their “home.”
Israeli website Green Prophet, which promotes Israeli environmental technology, went even further with a headline that described the penguins as “out.”
This is the term used to describe people who publicly disclose the gender identities of their desired sex partners.
“Unlike Gulf states nearby, and Kuwait which is hoping to start a gaydar test to ban gays from moving to the country, Israel is extremely tolerant when it comes to its gay community,” Green Prophet’s Karin Kloosterman begins her article. “So much that it’s promoting the ‘free’ love of its latest lesbian couple, two penguins at the zoo.”
Kloosterman appears suggest that the lesbian penguins made “aliyah” and settled in Israel from their native habitat in the southern hemisphere, because they would have been unwelcome in Kuwait.
But Israel is not only known for LGBT humans and lesbian penguins. In 1999, the UK’s Independent reported that a “pair of homosexual griffon vultures at Jerusalem Zoo have lovingly reared two fledglings of their endangered species.”
“The adult males, known as Dashik and Yehuda, built a nest last year and set up home together,” the newspaper said, but does not mention if the couple was accepting housewarming gifts. (Since same-sex marriages cannot be legally performed in Israel, we have to assume Dashik and Yehuda do not have access to those privileges.)
“In the spirit of gay liberation, they openly and energetically mated, but failed to produce a single egg,” as if “gay liberation” explains why two male bird organisms cannot sexually reproduce.
Animal stories are very common in journalism, and even famed naturalist David Attenborough cannot resist the trap of anthropomorphism to help curious humans understand the behaviors of other animals.
However, these reports about “gay” animals also politicize the treatment of allegedly “gay” animals to make culturalist arguments about how Arab and African societies view people who have homosexual relationships or are gender non-conforming and transgender.
The purpose is two-fold: to demonize Africans and Arabs and to naturalize modern western sexual identities.
Upon scrutiny, it’s hard to understand the value for sexual identity politics of portraying animals living in forced captivity as “gay.”
I don’t know any lesbians who would positively identify with the experience of forced captivity and non-consensual blood tests to determine their sex chromosomes, such as what happened to the so-called “lesbian” penguins in Ramat Gan.
Being outed in the media and exploited for Israeli propaganda is hardly liberating, either.
Perhaps some LGBTQ people could identify with the so-called “gay” Nigerian house cat who was disowned, but others might also see good reason to leave an overcrowded house where breeding was apparently totally out of control.
Projecting human sexual identities onto other animals also raises other questions: why is only gay identity among animals remarkable? I have never heard an animal described as “straight.” When people spay and neuter their house pets, is this not a horribly violent suppression of their sexual freedom and subjectivity?
Would anyone argue that child abuse among humans be excused because coots persecute and starve most of their hatchlings?
There are far more legitimate ways to understand and defend the choices people make about their personal, sexual relationships. One way would be to listen to them without forcing them to speak or assuming that others can or should speak for them.
People across the Arab world and Africa are sophisticated experts about their situations and needs, and they don’t deserve western concern that effectively presents captive animals and pets as stand-ins for them.