January 8, 2010

Gay animals

Part four in a series about sex, gender and nature. In this post I look at the  world of gay animals.

The very popular documentary movie The March of the Penguins from 2005 was used by Christian fundamentalists to prove that in God's nature animals are heterosexual and monogamous. They had long argued that homosexuality was unnatural, and here was the proof.

The problem is that there is a lot of same-sex action among penguins. Same-sex behavior has been observed in close to 1500 species, and is well documented for 500 of them. There is in general a lot of "gay" animals.

All right, make note of the quotation marks. To use words like "gay" and "homosexual" when it comes to animals is complicated, as those words have a lot of human connotations that do not necessarily fit other species (or other human cultures for that matter).

Still, it makes sense to look at the phenomenon of same-sex sexuality among animals, because it broadens the scope of what can be considered "natural" in the original sense of the word.

What causes "homosexual" behavior among animals?

Sexual selection theory consider same-sex behavior a mistake, a deception or a disease caused by genes that decrease fitness in one sex but increase fitness in the other.

Among more "positive" theories we find indirect insemination, male over male domination, and "the practice hypothesis" (they are training for the real thing). Then there is the "sexually antagonistic selection" hypothesis: same-sex behaviour in males are favoured by selection because they increase the reproductive chances of their daughters.

Female Laysan albatrosses from Hawaii. Over 30 percent of the nesting pairs consist of two females. "They engage in mutual preening and even occasionally copulation, and, like female-male pairs, each year they raise a single chick." (Research by Lindsay Young, ref. New Scientist, Photo: Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures/FLPA)

Professor Joan Roughgarden over at Stanford, on the other hand, considers homosexuality a positive and natural thing in and for itself:

"Homosexuality, together with mutual grooming, preening, sleeping, tongue rubbing, and interlocking vocalization allows animals to work together as a team -- to coordinate actions and tacitly to sense one another's welfare." (2009, p. 245)

In other words, animals -- like humans -- use sex for bonding.

Macho gay big horns and effeminate straight rams

In Evolution's Rainbow Roughgarden describes many species with same-sex behavior. I am not going to go through all of them here, but find the macho big horn sheep of North America so fascinating that I just have to give you a taste of what the book has to offer.

The male and female big horn sheep are only together during the breeding season. A female is receptive only for three days and will not be mounted outside of these three days. The males solve this lack of sex by forming "homosexual societies". Almost all males participate in same-sex courting and anal copulation!

The few males who do not take part in this activity are known as "effeminate" males among big horn researchers. They look like the other males, but prefer to stay with the ewes:

These males do not dominate females, are less aggressive overall, and adopt a crouched, female urination posture. These males refuse mounting by other males.

As Roughgarden points out, this case turns the meanings of normal and aberrant upside down. In this case the researchers believe the effeminate male must suffer from some kind of hormone deficiency, in spite of the fact that they look the same as the masculine males:

"Now, why would being straight be a pathology, requiring a hormone checkup?" Roughgarden asks sarcastically. "According to the researchers, what's aberrant is that a macho-looking bighorn ram acts feminine! He pees like a female -- even worse than being gay!" (2004, p. 138)

The bonobo - our pansexual sibling

Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and the bonobos (or pygmy chimpanzees, Pan paniscus). We share 96 percent of our genes with them.

Chimpanzees behave the way they should according to the sexual selection theory. The males are aggressive, the females subordinate. Among the bonobos, however, the females have the upper hand, and they use sex as a way of dissolving conflicts.

Chimpanzee matings are front to back, with the male mounting. Bonobos, on the other hand, also enjoy the missionary position, although I doubt any missionary would find their sexual habits comforting.
Image: Female bonobos having sex.
 Live Like Dirt
All bonobos enjoy same-sex copulations, female-female as well as male-male. The young are also invited. There is a lot of French kissing, fellatio, reciprocal male-to-male masturbation, clitoris rubbing, rump-rump contact and penis fencing.

Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting write that the most regular masturbators in their studies are adolescents and adult females (de Waal 1997, p. 104):

"The latter is significant because of yet another uniqueness claim: from Frank Beach to Desmond Morris, scientists have declared female orgasms to be exclusively human. While people readily assume males to enjoy sex, many appear skeptical about females. This reflects the puritan belief, prevalent until early this century [20th century], that sex is a man's privilege and a woman's chore."

The female orgasm is important, as it may partly explain the prominent role of the female in bonobo society. The orgasm means that the female bonobos are as motivated for sex as the males. The fact that the female bonobos are receptive almost continuously (unlike their chimpanzee sisters), also means that sex can be used as a social tool during the whole year.

The reason for all this sex is that it facilitates sharing of food, leads to reconciliation after a dispute, helps integrate new arrivals and is used in the establishment of coalitions. As for humans, reproduction is just one of many reasons for getting close.

"For example, after one male has chased another away for a female, the two may engage in a scrotal rub. Or when one female has hit a juvenile, and the juvenile's mother has come to its defense, the problem may be solved by intese GG-rubbing [genito-genital contact] between the two adults. >Based on hundreds of such incidents, my study produced the first solid evidence for sexual behavior as a mechanism to overcome social tension. " (de Waal 1997, p. 109)

Why gay?

As you can see from these two examples of "gay" animals, the sexual habits of animals vary a lot. You can not deduce one and only one explanation for same-sex relationships in all animals, nor can you use the bonobo or the big horns to explain human homosexuality (at least not directly).

But this very diversity is interesting, again because it helps us get around some of the sexual stereotypes of traditional evolutionary theory.

Why do the female bonobos enjoy each others company in this way? How can such a trait have evolved? Roughgarden points out that females maintain strong friendships with unrelated females, females control access to food, females share food with one another more often than with males, and females form alliances in which they cooperatively attack and even injure males.

"A female who doesn't participate in this social system, including same-sex sexuality, will not share in these group benefits. For a female bonobo, not being a lesbian is hazardous to your fitness." (2004, p. 150).

In this case same-sex sexuality is a social-inclusionary trait. Same-sex sexuality promotes friendship, and that may also increase survival. Given that these female bonobos also engage in "heterosexual" sex this can lead to more offspring.

It can be no question that "homosexuality" in animals is inherited, although not because of one single gene. (p. 155) And given that it can increase both fertility and survival, it does not necessarily go against evolution. (p. 156)

Now, the most important questions remain: What does all of this mean for transgendered people? That will be the topic of my final post in this series.

Here's a video with Rouggharden presenting her own theory:

Marcel Barelli‘s cartoon Dans la nature (In Nature) documents the diversity of animal sexuality and gender, proving  once and for all that nature does not care a bit about the binaries of bigots.


Roughgarden, Joan: The Genial Gene, Berkeley 2009. Click here for Google Books excerpt.
Roughgarden, Joan: Evolution's Rainbow, Berkeley 2004. Click here for Google Books excerpt.
Susan McCarthy: The fabulous kingdom of gay animals
Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting: Bonobo, the Forgotten Ape, Berkeley 1997. Click here for Google Books excerpt.


  1. Most men (masculine men actually) have a sexual need or attraction to men deep down without being effeminate or 'gay'. And so also, with animals it seems. Hence animals who have same sex activities should also not be necessarily 'gay'.

  2. @Kanojia

    I agree that the dichotomy homosexual/heterosexual is not as clear cut as many researchers would like us to believe.

    Indeed, the concept of homosexuality, as we use it now, is rather new. Previously the taboo was not against men being attracted to men, but against being the passive "bottom".

    As for animals, we have no idea to what extent they feel a unique "attraction" to one sex or the other. But we do observe same-sex behavior in many species - a lot of it. We even have male swans and penguins bringing up chicks as same-sex couples.

  3. @Jack,
    Nice post Jack. In animals, there is actually no question of an exclusive homosexual or heterosexual orientation. Because,bisexuality is the norm, more of a norm actually than we would in a civilization such as the west would even like to admit.
    And besides,why look at just animals? Men in non-westernized cultures also practice bisexuality and it is a recorded fact that for men in non-western cultures,it is the passive role that is 'gay' and they can still have sex with males and be 'straight' so long as they simply penetrate.
    I think that the emphasis that being penetrated is 'gay' is also a false social construct meant to simply disqualify men from manhood. Nothing more, because many macho males also exclusively love to get penetrated and many effeminate males exclusively top!


  4. The third genders who like males and the sexually aggressive females have been greatly empowered at the cost of men over the past few thousand years, although, the thing really picked up in the society, post industrial revolution, when the anti-man forces got enough resources to defeat men's spaces.

    Till the industrial revolution, the society, because of the power that men's spaces held, although had prepared the ground for the undue empowerment of these two groups over men, had still kept enough restrains on them, so that they were not free to use it against men.

    So, e.g., although men did not have the space to say they liked to be inserted by other men without losing their manhood, they could still have sex with men, and within men's spaces, it was not considered gay to like men, as long as you don't admit to liking being penetrated.

    Likewise, although, men had no space to say no to sex with women, without losing their manhood, there were so many restrictions on women's sexuality, and women were so strictly disallowed from men's spaces, that the sexually dominant women could not really exploit men.

    However, with the advent of science, the anti-man forces got just the weapons they needed to defeat the men's spaces. And for this, they removed the sexual restrictions from women so that they could control men's lives and they created the concept of homosexuality that could isolate male to male desire from men's spaces, and classifty it together with the third genders.

    I can site two concerted efforts by the so-called 'gays' to achieve this.

    One has to do with the introduction of the concept of 'homosexuality' itself.

    Around 150 years ago, a self-proclaimed third sex individual, who called himself "a female inside a male body" introduced the concept of homosexuality for the first time. His name was 'Karl Maria." He thus laid down the foundation for the straight-gay divide. Was he scheming against men. Probably not. He was just acting in self-interest. And he knew only as much abotu this world and about men as would appear at the outset.

    About 150 years later, another third gendered male who likes men, called, Simor le Vay, claimed to discover the 'gay' gene, giving biological/ scientific accreditation to the 'straight-gay' divide, by hook or crook.

    These third gendered males usually act in self-interest, unaware of the reality of male gender and sexuality or how it is going to affect the 'men' or the masculine gendered males who call themselves straight (whether or not they've enough heterosexual desires.)

    Feminist movements have aggressively fought for the sexual liberation of women. However, men have been assumed to be naturally (exclusively) heterosexual for the large part. Feminist movement has also been abused by the anti-man forces, and without really meaning to, by the sexually aggressive women, in order to destroy men's spaces by heterosocializing them, by introducing women into every male space -- as a part of 'women's rights.' To claim that there is no difference between men and women and that they are exactly the same, so much so that men don't need their own spaces is yet another concerted effort on part of the feminists.

  5. I have come across a blog site which explains the role of science in the modern era in distorting facts about nature, much like religion in the middle-ages.



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