Birds and Bees

Gays make headway at veterinary convention

The mood in the basement ballroom of the downtown JW Marriott seemed fairly sedate Sunday afternoon, July 15, as Joan Roughgarden of Stanford Univesity presented her lecture, ”Sexual Diversity in the Animal Kingdom.” But there was more going on than met the eye. In a sense, there was a revolution playing out on two fronts.

The more obvious of the two was Roughgarden’s talk, challenging the ”sexual selection” leg of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution.

”It’s locker room bravado projected onto animals,” said Roughgarden, a transgender woman who authored Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People, pointing to commonly held notions of sexual selection based upon ”cheap sperm” and ”expensive eggs.” Citing research into several species, she poked holes into the rule that males of a given species compete with other males for choosy females, in order to sire as many offspring as possible, while females are more guarded about sexual liaisons, holding out for what they perceive to the be above-average male genes for fertilizing their eggs.

The natural world Roughgarden sees is one filled far more with various species cooperating and negotiating, in a sense, to create the most favorable conditions for offspring, whether that means male seahorses receiving the female’s eggs or the female of a particular bird species preferring to parent in a nest with two co-parenting males. The exceptions to the Darwin narrative, says Roughgarden, are too numerous to be considered just exceptions.

The more one ponders Roughgarden’s research, the more revolutionary it seems. But it was the setting of her lecture that illustrated the second, smaller revolution. Roughgarden’s talk was the keynote lecture of the Lesbian and Gay Veterinary Medical Association’s annual meeting, running concurrently with the American Veterinary Medical Association’s annual convention, held in Washington July 14-18.

Since its founding, the San Francisco-based LGVMA has been working to increase gay and lesbian visibility in the AVMA. At this convention, though not in San Francisco, the LGVMA had something of a home-court advantage with three of its leaders based here: Michael McElvaine, the group’s current president; Tim Withers, past president; and Chip Wells, a current board member and past treasurer. All three helped found the group in 1993, which today has about 150 members.

”It was an incredibly major event in several respects,” says Wells. ”It was the first time that I’m aware of at an AVMA conference that the issue of sexual diversity in the animal kingdom has been discussed.”

Wells calls Roughgarden’s presentation ”a call to arms” for scientist to be truthful about their observations.

”This was our first time to be so high-profile,” says Wells. ”We’ve been advised by the AVMA, ‘Please don’t rock the boat.’ To a certain extent, we’ve always kept a low profile because it served our purposes.”

That new ”high profile” included inviting all 8,000 AVMA convention attendees to Roughgarden’s talk by including postcard invitations in their welcome bags, with the AVMA’s blessing.

”In the past, we’ve sort of flown under the radar,” says Withers. ”This was the first time we’ve advertised to the broader convention. Before LGVMA existed, the AVMA was very culturally conservative. Most of it was very rural, agricultural. Fifty years ago, most veterinarians were white men.”

Withers notes that during the first years of LGVMA, when it would post flyers at conventions for happy hours and other events, they would often be torn down. In more recent years that response has greatly decreased. He notes that while the AVMA leadership has tended toward conservative and ”slow to recognize and follow trends in society,” the membership has grown more progressive, which has given LGVMA more chances to promote its cause.

”There had been a couple of angry or homophobic letters to the Journal of the AVMA. But those provided us an opportunity to respond and present another point of view. It’s opened people’s minds.”

For more information about the LGVMA, visit them online at www.lgvma.org.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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