October 13, 2022

Do animals have genders? Are there transgender animals? A scientist find some clues among chimpanzees.

Some people are trying to reduce gender to biological sex, appealing to “common sense” or even “science”. This is one way of dismissing gender variance and transgender people. The fact is that gender is a common term used in animal studies.

To simplify: In biology biological sex in animals most often refers to gonads (sperm or eggs), while gender refers to either (1) their behavior and (2) different variants of a specific biological sex. 

(In some animals males and females (as defined by sperm/eggs) may come in different “morphs” or phenotypes. There may be two distinct types of males, for instance, with different body types. Let us leave that aside for now.)

Traditionally the difference between sex and gender has been explained as sex being “biological” and gender “cultural”.

Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading primatologists, do not see it exactly this way. For him gender is the end result of an interplay between biology and culture. This is also the case for apes like chimpanzees and bonobos, and – as he sees – also humans.

This presentation is based on his new book  Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist, and some of his recent articles.

The continuums of biological sex and gender

Both biological sex and gender are complex phenomena.

Frans de Waal puts it this way:
‘Biological sex is divided into males, females, and a small in-between category. The deeper science delves into it, the more complex sex becomes, which is why talk of the “sexual binary” is a mere approximation.

Differences between the sexes are rarely black and white, de Waal argues Rather, they show a bimodal distribution (bell curves), which means that they concern averages with overlapping areas between them:
‘For example, men are taller than women, but only in a statistical sense. We all know women who are taller than the average man, and men who are shorter than the average woman. The same overlap holds true for behavioral traits, such as when men and women are said to differ in assertiveness or tenderness.’

“Gay” and “bisexual” animals

And yes, there is also a lot of same-sex sexual behavior among animals. Sexuality is not completely binary either.

de Waal puts it this way:
‘Homosexual behavior is well-documented throughout the animal kingdom. In some species, such as dolphins and bonobos it is so common that I prefer to label them bisexual: they don’t seem to have a clear preference for sex with one gender or the other.

‘In other species, homosexual behavior is less common than heterosexual behavior, but we know for penguins, sheep, monkeys, apes, and tons of other animals that such behavior regularly occurs, and not only in captive settings.‘ 

The simplistic idea that sex, and therefore gender, is there for procreation only is not true, not even in an evolutionary sense. 

Frans de Waal
Photo: chqdaily

Gender variance among chimpanzees

As far as gender goes, de Waal writes, it resists a division into two neat categories. It is best viewed as a spectrum that runs smoothly from feminine to masculine and all sorts of mixtures in between:

‘Gender is even more complex. In its most common definition, it is like a cultural coat that the sexes walk around in, a coat that changes from place to place and from time to time.

Gender is not divided into male and female, but into masculine, feminine, and everything in-between. There is great variability. Many individuals show elements of both, and some elude gender labels altogether.’

Over five decades working with apes, de Waal has known quite a few that acted atypically for their sex. These individuals form a minority, he says, but nearly every group seems to have one:
‘There are always males with less machismo than others, and always females who act tomboyish. Males who ignore the social hierarchy may be muscular giants, yet stay out of confrontations. They never reach the top, but also don’t sink to the bottom, because they are perfectly capable of defending themselves. The typical status game (and the social tensions and physical risks that it entails) is not for them.’

Transgender animals
Frans de Waal's new book.

Are there transgender animals (as in animals experiencing gender incongruence)? We have no way of knowing, de Waal argues, as we can’t know how they perceive their gender.

If we use the word transgender in its wide, umbrella sense understanding of gender variant, however, he clearly documents the existence of transgender or gender queer chimpanzees and bonobos.

What does this tell us?

So what does this tell us?

First of all: Gender, as in gendered behavior, cannot be reduced to biological sex. This also applies to a lot of animals. There is a lot of gender variance out there.

Secondly: We cannot know whether animals can experience gender incongruence or gender dysphoria, given that they do not speak our language. However, given that we have so much else in common with, for instance, apes, we cannot dismiss the notion either. What is absolutely clear is that gender incongruence is a natural phenomenon, easily explained from the sex and gender variance we find in nature.

Thirdly: Both biological sex and gender are best understood as some kind of spectrums of bodies and behaviors. Whether these are smooth and gradual gradients or best represented with bell curves is unclear. Bell curves allow us to construct some kind of “normalcy”, while smooth continuums do not.

“Unfortunately, we have no idea how common nonconforming individuals are, de Waal points out, “because scientists look for typical behavior. We like to form a clear picture of how females and males behave. We go for the peaks of the bimodal distribution while ignoring the valleys. Irregularities remain underreported.”

In any case it is clear that our understanding of “normal” is mostly found in our minds, not “out there”.

The vary fact that we find gender variance in our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, also tells us that such variations are natural and not the end product of some evil ideology.

The question de Waal does not answer is whether terms like "masculine" and "feminine" make any sense when they are decoupled from biological sex and vary between individuals, cultures and over time. We all sense that they refers to something real, but as soon as we try to define the concepts without using contemporary stereotypes, they slip between our fingers.

That will be the topic of my next article.

For more:

Illustration: Crossdreamers AI


  1. Well researched and presented as always Jack. People who by now refuse to acknowledge the difference between sex and gender (ie. conservatives)  are simply doing it out of willful ignorance. Not only does this graded behaviour span the entire history of human existence but of other species as well. It may not be the majority, but a statistically significant group nonetheless. Case closed.

    1. The difference in sex and gender is semntic. Transsexuals are erased by that gender nonsense. You either acknowledge gender as a synonim as brain sex, there is to say, neuroanatomy (neurological penis and testicles or neurological vulva with vagina) or you must explain then three separate things: anatomical sex, and brain architecture sex features. Transsexual men and women always were recognised by scientists as simply men and women who were LITERALLY born with brain wired for one sex features and have the opposite anatomy. Then feminists started all that gender non-sense. If you want to fight sexist stereotypes, go for that. No need for a separate words. Or, if you say "gender" and "sex" are different, explain transsexuals' experience. "Gender" used to by a synonim for a brain body map to not conflate it with sexist stereotypes. And yes, for majority of people "gender" in classic definition matches sex.

      It's not about behaviour. Passive submissive behaviour doesn't mean you're a woman or even feminine. It's sexist thing to say. It offends both women and gay/bi/straight bottom men. One for women are always submissive feminine bottoms, others for gay and bi bottoming men aren't men, but women. No.

    2. I understand what you are saying and in fact the spectrum of behaviour we can perhaps term as gender variance whereas transsexualism fits under the biological wiring reversal. Therefore the more performance aspects of femininity and masculinity need not involve medical intervention whereas for transsexuals it often does. Unfortunately today many conflate the two under the terminology of trans umbrella which groups gender variant people with those who suffer from often deep dysphoria which requires assistance to treat.

      In rhe end it's about tolerance for human behavour while being able to help those who truly need it.

    3. The point is that we should not expect human behaviour to be monolithic and by loosening social constraints we can permit people to be themselves.

    4. I find that Zagria has it right on her site by talking about gender variance as the umbrella encompassing all and under which fit trans people since not all gender variant people necessarily identify as trans

  2. Seriously, Villi Lapsi, it is transgender people who are erased by the gender equals sex narrative. Just listen to any TERF or right wing transphobe these days, and the message is always "sex is the same as gender". There is nothing simple about sex and gender. I am sure there is a biological "brain sex" component to the identities of transgender people, but the way that plays out is influenced by a lot of factors, as is the case also in cis people.


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