Birds of the Same Feather: Gay Penguin Play Cancelled by Austin Independent School District


What is it about the idea of gay penguins that seems to get parents up in arms and schools all twisted around? This week, the Austin Independent School District in Austin, Texas cancelled ten performances of a play called, And Then Came Tango, which is based on the true (and often controversial) story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who raised a baby together. 

The play was written by a graduate student at the University of Texas who was set to meet some of her degree requirements by staging it for elementary students. District officials, however, became concerned after the student and her cast put on the play for second graders at Lee Elementary School in Austin last month. Some officials felt that the topic was not appropriate for young students and suspended future performances before deciding to cancel them completely. 

In a letter announcing the decision, the district’s fine arts director explained:

“The subject matter communicated in the play is a topic that Austin ISD believes should be examined by parents/guardians who will discuss with their elementary school age children at a time deemed appropriate by the parents/guardians.”

The play’s author strongly disagrees with the decision arguing that her show is about family which is in keeping with what state standards say students should learn in second and third grade.  In a press release she went on to say:

“Family is an entire colony of penguins, a young girl and her single mom, a zookeeper and the animals he tends, and two male penguins and their adopted egg. As these family structures are threatened in the play, we learn the power of voicing your opinions and standing up for your beliefs, no matter how old you are.”

Some parents were disappointed that their children would not have the opportunity to see the play. One mother in Central Austin argued that the district overreacted:

“The more that kids are encountering various symbolism and representations of family structure, the more normal it becomes.”  

John Wright, a senior editor at dallasvoice.com, which describes itself as the premier media sources for LGBT North Texas, posted the numbers and email addresses of senior district officials and suggested parents and community members call to lodge their disappointment with the decision. 

Of course, some far right organizations in the area were pleased with the school district.  The president of the Texas Values group, for example, said:

“We define marriage very clearly in the state of Texas. So if you have a play that tries to push and promote a different marriage definition, which is clearly illegal, it leads students to ask questions about it, and it leads to the discussion of sex.”

Last time I checked, however, the definition of marriage applied exclusively to humans and no state actually issued marriage licenses to any of our feathered or furry friends. I continue to be amazed, therefore, about how upset people get about gay penguins.  You see this is not the first time that these very birds have been at the center of a controversy. 

A Controversial Couple

Roy and Silo are two male Chinstrap Penguins who live at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. Though zookeepers say they never saw the two birds engaging in sexual behavior they did witness them performing behaviors typical to penguin couples. For example, the two would bow to one another, vocalize to each other, and entwine their necks (which is a mating ritual). Zookeepers also watched the two penguins build a nest together and seemingly try to hatch a rock that looked like an egg. When they realized this, the zookeepers gave the couple a real egg (which they got from a heterosexual couple who had two eggs and could only raise one).  Roy and Silo nurtured the egg until it hatched, and zookeepers named the baby girl, Tango. 

Their story became the basis of a children’s book written in 2005 by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.  The book has won numerous awards including the American Library Association Notable Children’s Book in 2006, the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh Award in 2005, Nick Jr. Family Magazine Best Book of the Year in 2006, and Bank Street Best Book of the Year in 2006.  Despite this warm reception in the literary world, it has also been the subject of numerous controversies.  In fact according to the American Library Association it was the most challenged book of 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010.  (It was knocked down to number two in 2009 by Lauren Myracle’s series that includes ttyl, ttfn, l8r, g8r.) 

In 2006, for example, parents in Shiloh, Illinois objected to the book arguing that any discussion of sexuality is too mature an issue for kids. The executive director of the Illinois Family Life Institute suggested that schools should not be acclimating young children to “new social experiments.”  The superintendent, however, supported the book saying:

“My feeling is that a library is there to serve an entire population. It means you represent different families in a society—different religions, different beliefs. That’s the role of a school library.”

Many of her colleagues across the country, however, have not been nearly as supportive. That same year, the superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Public Schools had the book removed from the library despite the fact that no parents had complained.  He had been made aware of the book by a Republican County Commissioner who explained: “I am opposed to any book that promotes a homosexual lifestyle to elementary school students as normal.”  The superintendent appeared to agree, sending a memo to school principals announcing his intention to ban it, stating

“First, it is a picture book that focuses on homosexuality. Second, we did not feel that such information was vital to primary students. Next, we did not believe the book would stimulate growth in ethical standards, and the book is too controversial.” 

Later, however, he acknowledged that he had not gone through the appropriate procedures and agreed to allow a school board committee to review the book and his decision.  

In 2008, the superintendent in Loudon County Virginia made a similar decision to ban the book after the parents of a student at Sugarland Elementary School argued that it was inappropriate for children. This time the district followed a formal process: the principal convened an advisory committee made up of administrators, teachers, and parents; the committee reviewed the book and deemed it acceptable; and the principal agreed.  The complaining parents, however, were not appeased, and appealed the decision which meant the process started all over again with a different committee. This committee also found the book to be appropriate and recommended keeping it. The superintendent, however, overruled the two committee decisions and pulled the books from the elementary school shelves arguing that it might not be developmentally appropriate for some young students.  The book remains on the shelves in middle and high school but can only be taken out by staff at the elementary level.

And if you think the gains we’ve made in the human same-sex marriage debate has dampened the outrage over love amongst our permanently tuxedoed friends, think again.  Schools in Rochester, Minnesota were still debating this issue in March of this year just months before voters in the state “beat back a ballot measure that would have amended the state constitution to declare marriage as between a man and a woman.” (I wonder if the ballot initiative would have had more or less support if it were about birds?)

Rochester had been arguing about the book since the fall of 2011when two parents at Gibbs Elementary School complained about its presence in their child’s media center.  Administrators responded by having the book removed from shelves but a 13-member “reconsideration committee” reversed that order saying that it violated the district’s policy on access to education materials. In March, they reached a resolution specific to the family that made the complaint—one of the parents must be at school whenever their child checks out books in the future.  Everyone else’s children, however, will have access to the penguin tale. 

Animal Attraction

So what is it about these gay penguins that makes people’s head spin? Obviously, the age of the intended audience has a lot to do with it. People are always more uncomfortable talking about anything even remotely related to sex (and I would argue that two male bird raising a chick is only remotely related to sex) with younger kids. But I think the discomfort goes deeper than that.  I think those who are uncomfortable with homosexuality in humans—among whom they can argue it is not an innate charactersitic but a conscious choice made to serve a political agenda—are made more uncomfortable by homosexual behavior in animals who are just acting on instinct. If it’s instinctual in penguins, monkeys, tigers, or bears (oh my), it might actually just be instinctual in people as well. 

Focus on the Family, in fact, made a point of reminding people that And Tango Makes Three does not tell the whole story:

“It’s very misleading and it’s a very disingenuous, inaccurate way to promote a political agenda to little kids. The penguin’s heterosexual behavior was widely reported in national news.”

It’s partially true. Roy and Silo did not live happily ever after. Though they were together for six years and raised Tango, the couple hit hard times just before their love story was published.They were kicked out of the nest they’d built together by a more aggressive pair of penguins. Without a home to call their own, they drifted apart and Silo took up with a female penguin who had recently moved into the neighborhood (she was imported from Sea World). Roy took the break-up hard and was said to spend much of his time sitting in a corner, staring at a wall.

Anti-gay groups seemed to take pride and pleasure in their split perhaps irrationally believing that these were the first and last gay penguins and that their break up proved something about homosexual relationships in general. In fact, there were four other same-sex couples at the Central Park Zoo alone and Roy and Silo’s adopted daughter, Tango, entered into her own same-sex relationship that last two years. And it’s not a phenomenon unique to the Big Apple. In Germany, zookeepers abandoned a plan to force same-sex penguins into heterosexual relationships (with imported females from Sweden).

Still, experts say that exclusive homosexuality is rare in the animal world and that it would be more accurate to refer to these animals as bisexual.

Bisexual. 

Uh, oh.

That may be the only thing that could make And Tango Makes Three—or the Austin play And Then Came Tango – even more controversial. 

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner

  • coralsea

    I have kept birds in my home for the past 25 years, and one sees all manner of combinations when it comes of setting up “housekeeping” and raising babies.  While same-sex “couples” are arguably more prevalent when the balance of the population is out of whack (girl finches tend to live much shorter lives than boy finches, apparently because egg laying, which they do whether they are actually raising babies or not, takes a lot out of them.  Thus, “older” finch populations have many more boys than girls), even when individuals of the opposite sex are available, some birds, whether male-male or female-female simply prefer each others’ company.   This may or may not be accompanied by “sex” behavior. 

     

    My conclusion, again, through a quarter of a century of having finches, is that some birds simply like other birds, and that this can transcend gender.  Surprisingly, considering how small they are, finches (and I have kept Zebras, Societies, Australian Shaft-tails, Lady Gouldians, Spice, Black Hooded Nuns and White Hooded Nuns) frequently display very distinct and complete personalities (and no, I am not anthropomorphizing).  They have their own friends, their own behaviors, their own food preferences.  They AREN’T little automatons.

     

    As for raising babies — the behavior tends to vary by species, with the Societies and Zebras being the most flexible in terms of parental roles.  Society finches of both sexes adore babies — any babies (which is why they are common foster parents) — and it isn’t unusual to see a couple of males sitting with and feeding babies.   Also, some males are just better parents, doing a better job of sitting with babies (or with the eggs before they hatch) or feeding.   On the other hand, some other parents, either male or female, find caring for babies boring, and although they WILL do the minimum to raise their chicks, they’ll do things like throw a piece of newspaper over them (really!) to keep them reasonably warm and then go off for significantly longer than it takes to collect food.  In some cases, this means sitting with their friends outside the nest for a while, gossiping and getting their nails done (well, the nails part is a stretch) before returning home to the little darlings shivering under the newspaper.

     

    Especially in the case of animals that live in colonies, “friendships” and baby rearing is often very flexible — just as it is with humans.  People who think otherwise, or who freak out because two male birds, who happen to like each other, behave like everyone else in the colony, don’t know much about nature and are weirdly paranoid.