Take your hands off my gender-bending fish

Posted: Sep 13, 2006 12:01 AM

Last week, scientists in Washington, D.C., made a shocking discovery: Certain species of male fish in the Potomac River are developing female sexual traits. No, the male fish weren't found congregating around a sunken television set watching reruns of "The View." They were, instead, developing immature eggs in their testes. According to fish pathologist Vicki Blazer, the trend is worrisome -- it provides evidence that certain harmful chemicals may be overly polluting the Potomac.

Across the pond, the British are experiencing the same problem. Approximately one-third of male fish in English rivers are changing sex due to pollutants. "This soup of oestrogen is responsible for causing these changes to the fish. It is abnormal. These fish should be male or female. The fact that we have got such a large proportion right across the country is not right," fretted Professor Charles Tyler of Exeter University.

I, for one, find Ms. Blazer's and Professor Tyler's antipathy toward gender-bending fish deeply problematic. What is it about a male fish experimenting with its sexuality that so disturbs hetero-normative fish pathologists? Why can't a fish simply do what is natural? How does a fish that swishes rather than swims bother us? Is it really our business if Big Mouth Billy Bass would rather be called Norma Jean?

Perhaps we should change our biology textbooks to teach tolerance of different types of Potomac fish. All of these bright-line sex distinctions are outmoded, a vestige of our patriarchal culture. We need to worry about science. We need to worry about genetics. We can't worry about your antediluvian value judgments.

This is biology, after all. Fish will be fish -- and they will be the kind of fish they're born to be. So what if the environment we create for them determines the sexuality of our fish? There's nothing wrong with variety, is there? How can we say that distinct male and female fish are better than queer fish, fish that move where the river takes them? Isn't tolerance better than rigidity? Only a Bible-thumping, gun-rack-on-the-truck, Confederate flag waver would claim that God created fish male and female, or that they have to stay that way.

So let's change our textbooks. Let's teach our kids to learn to live together with intersex fish in peace and harmony. And let's teach our kids that our society can be just like the society of the Potomac largemouth bass. We can learn a lot from nature -- free will is basically an illusion, so we are just as much products of our biology as the Elton Johns of the deep.

Let's live like the fish: an open society, free of value judgments. Old fish, new fish, red fish, gay fish -- we can all live together in the Potomac that is America. You don't see the other male fish beating up on the fish that are less athletically inclined, but great with fabrics and colors. You don't see fish worry about what other fish do in the mudflats. We should learn liberty from the fish. As fly-fisherman and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor put it in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life." And you had better believe that Justice O'Connor wouldn't exclude Potomac bass from her personal grant of American rights.

Propagation of the species, you say? If the male fish go intersex, the species will go extinct? Hey, man, take your hands off that fish's body. A fish's choice to procreate is its choice. You focus too much on spawning and too little on a fish's personal identity. It doesn't matter if the species dies off -- at least Hedwig the Fish will die fulfilled.

So next time you eat some fish and chips, think about your biases. Before you judge the intersex fish, remember: It's natural. The intersex fish don't hurt anybody. Fish deserve some happiness, too. And besides, you probably have one in your extended family.