December 7, 2022

Transgender people, evolution and sexual mimicry

Are trans and queer behaviors examples of "sexual mimicry"? 

Anonymous asked me the following over at tumblr:

"Sexual mimicry occurs when one sex mimics the opposite sex in its behavior, appearance, or chemical signalling. It is more commonly seen within invertebrate species, although sexual mimicry is also seen among vertebrates such as spotted hyenas. Sexual mimicry is commonly used as a mating strategy to gain access to a mate, a defense mechanism to avoid more dominant individuals, or a survival strategy."


Gender variance in the animal kingdom

The concept of sexual mimicry is an attempt by some evolutionary biologist to explain gender variance in the animal kingdom.

I know of many female dogs who will gladly hump a bitch in heat. Heck, they may even embrace a human leg in order to get attention or whatever it is female dogs try to achieve by this kind of behavior. It might not be sexual at all in that context. 

The feminine looking morphs of flycatcher birds look like females because they try to trick females into having sex with them, under the radar of the watchful "real males" who look like males. Or so the theory goes.

I find these explanations lacking. They are clearly based on a strict binary of sexual behavior in animals. So deviations from that strict pattern has to be explained as variations that helps these individuals get offspring.

I doubt the female flycatchers are so stupid that they do not recognize a "feminine" male. And even if they do not, they would have to be classified as "lesbian" or "bisexual" birds, which does not give them much of an evolutionary advantage, either, if we follow the traditional way of thinking about this.

Chimpanzee tribes are ruled over by a male. Bonobo tribes are governed by females. Bonobo female leaders are not "mimicking" males. They are learning from previous female leaders. They may use physical violence to control a rebellious male, for sure, but for the most part they use sex.

Is the large penile-clitorises of the aggressive and dominant female spotted hyenas a kind of sexual mimicry? That is:  Have they developed such clitorises to look like males? But why would male penises be a sign of dominance, if the males are submissive? I am not dismissing the possibility that at some time, some females developed such clitorises to display some kind of masculinity. But as far as sexual selection goes the more obvious explanation is that the males like them like this. Or maybe the large clitorises are a side-effect of a large does of testosterone in the womb? 

The fact is that we do not know. What we do know is that there is a lot of variation, even among mammals, and few of these variations are "rational" or "optimal", so to chose the stereotypical "agressive male dominate submissive female" as the default is a cultural choice, not a scientific one.

These are not strict binaries

I think it makes much more sense to see all animals, males and females, morphs and binaries, as the end result of a mix of a lot of sex and gender traits, traits which encompass both looks and behaviors.

Sure, the humping of a female dog might have the same origin as the one of a male dog, and that behavior does help male dogs impregnate females. But that does not mean that a similar behavior cannot have a different, although related, function in female dogs. Maybe it is a sign signifying a specific desire, sexual or otherwise? Or maybe humping has become a sexually associated behavior in all dogs? Or a way of bonding in general?

As for human beings, being a "top" or "bottom" is a relevant issue for members of both sexes. In other words: Being "passive" or "active" are scripts found in both men and women,  since we come from the same genetic basis. We share the same genetic code. Which behaviors are triggered in real life may be based on everything from hormones in the womb to cultural imprints.

Mating strategies

Anonymous writes:

Sexual mimicry is commonly used as a mating strategy to gain access to a mate, a defense mechanism to avoid more dominant individuals, or a survival strategy."

This made me think about the lives of transfeminine people and trans women. Being seen as a man and dressing up as a woman is not a good mating strategy in conservative communities, to say the least. You will be provoking more "dominant individuals", which may actually cost you your life.

If this was merely a story about "survival of the fittest", there would be no trans people. Yet there is a lot of sexual diversity and gender variance, both among animals and among humans.

The real mimicry

That does not mean that there is no "mimicry". Even young kids try to copy the behavior and the presentation of other people of their gender. Play is clearly a way for them to prepare for a future as a gendered being. 

In this respect transgender kids are not different from cisgender kids. All depending on personality and the openness found in the environment, they will also try to explore the gender expressions of people of the same gender. Trans girls may copy women, trans boys men and nonbinary kids will be inspired by any trait or behavior that fits their personality.

However, rampant homophobia and transphobia may make this hard or impossible. Often trans kids are forced to play the role of their assigned gender, to the point that many suppress their real gender. This is why so many of them come out to themselves and others later in life.

Survival based on diversity

I think we have to turn the whole "survival of the fittest" idea upside down. You do not have to be "the fittest" (as defined by culturally defined gender stereotypes) to have offspring. All you have to do is to survive long enough to find someone who wants to have sex with you. And given that there is so much variance, there is probably someone for everyone, somewhere.

Keep also in mind that traits are most often caused by a combination of a lot of genes, some of which come from the "biological male" and some from the female. This is why so many straight people have queer kids. This endless remix of life will throw up a lot of queer individuals, and that is a good thing, because the survival of our species requires us to have different people who can address different challenges.

Sexual variation and gender variance makes our species stronger, not weaker. The whole "dominant aggressive male" narrative is caused by biology reflecting sexist human stereotypes and not the other way around.

See also:
Are there gay animals?
Do animals have genders? Are there transgender animals? A scientist find some clues among chimpanzees.
Are there transgender animals?
Joan Roughgarden on social evolution

Photo: Paul Goldstein/Cover Images/Newscom


  1. Here you touch upon the nature versus nurture discussion Jack and I have asked myself often to what degree gender variance (at its apex transsexualism) contains both elements and in what proportions. Certainly gender behaviour is learned and we quickly understand what is acceptable and what is frowned upon. I despise reductionist arguments by conservatives who simplify this issue as simply plumbing because the evidence clearly suggests otherwise

  2. I think the problem that even the framework of what constitutes mind, body and cultural influences is itself quite ill defined which makes grasping this issue akin to holding water within clasped hands. All the more then to promote tolerance rather than castigate but alas the mindset which creates a conservative is not equipped for grey tones ergo the recent backlash in the US.

    Your last articles have dealt with observance of gender variance beyond humans which further lends credence to its being an expected subset of existence.


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