My class yesterday was on ‘Are animals gay?’ I teach it because it is intrinsically interesting. Gay sex is not obviously an evolutionary winner (lots of theory, not much data, much ignorance, good stuff to teach about the workings of science). Moreover, when science figures out the biological basis for gayness (for surely there is one: there are gay sheep), drug targets will be revealed, meaning we could change people’s sexuality by swallowing a pill. The societal ramifications of that will be fascinating. Even better pedagogically, the subject is a great hook for asking whether scientists’ world views affect their science. Obviously they do. Scientists are people, and people with different perspectives ask different questions. That is why for most of the repressed last century, no one saw anything other than heterosexuality in the animal kingdom. It is why, more generally, we need diversity in the scientific work force. And of course, I teach gay animals to shamelessly exploit the students’ interest in sex to get them to think about science.
For the last couple of years, it’s worked really well. Yesterday, however, trouble set in early. Within the first couple of minutes, a student texted to say “THANK YOU for wasting my time and money with today’s lecture”, and five students stormed out. Later, when I had gone over the data (same-sex sex/couples are everywhere), I asked why the existence or not of gay animals is such a big deal to people. Not much reaction, so I read that comment out in class. General outrage followed. One student got very abusive about anyone who could send such a text – and the rest of the class clapped her outrage. So I had to lecture them on not being abusive, least of all in the face of abusiveness, and then I got a string of texts thanking me for doing the class, how interesting it was.
Was I right to read out that message, to pour petrol on the fire? I don’t know. During an exam revision session tonight, it was clear that the students had been impacted. Me too. That’s good, right?