Homosexual and bisexual behaviour is observed right across the animal kingdom, but we’ve only found homophobia in one species so far. What are our wild counterparts getting up to, and exactly how long has all this monkey business been going on?
As far back as the 13th century philosophers and theologians were busy ensuring we were well equipped to feel terrible about our sexual and emotional desires or righteous enough to throw judgments around about other people. Even today some people claim that acts of homosexuality must not be approved as they are contrary to what is considered to be their definition of “natural law“.
While humans have fussed over our own ideas about morality for centuries, the animal kingdom seems to be considerably less fussy. When it comes to sex among other animals, male or female, anything goes! This leads me to wonder: exactly what constitutes “natural”? And why has mankind turned a blind eye to the not-so-heterosexual sex lives of all other creatures great and small?
“Did you know that dolphins are just gay sharks?” – Brittany from Glee
In 1999 Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl published Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. Meticulously researched, Bagemihl offers scientific evidence of homosexuality in more than 450 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and other animals worldwide.
Seven years later The Natural History Museum in Norway opened Against Nature?, the first ever museum exhibition dedicated to gay animals displaying a selection of more than 1,500 species where homosexuality has been observed.
The growing list of species never seems to end. Even Wikipedia’s “List of animals displaying homosexual behaviour” may never satisfy standards for completeness!
So what is it these beasts are up to that constitutes homosexual behaviour anyway? According to Bagemihl’s research, this involves copulation, genital stimulation, mating games and sexual display behaviour between animals of the same sex.
“Fly with me lesbian seagull to my little nest by the sea” – Lesbian Seagull, Engelbert Humperdinck
A News Medicalarticle for researchers notes “The most well-known homosexual animal is the dwarf chimpanzee, one of humanity’s closest relatives. The entire species is bisexual. Sex plays a conspicuous role in all their activities and takes the focus away from violence, which is the most typical method of solving conflicts among primates and many other animals.”
Also according to the article, a band of male lions leading a pride can ensure loyalty and strengthen their bonds by often having sex with each other. For dolphins and killer whales, the coupling of males and females is temporary, while between males a pair can stay together for years. Although encounters between different species of dolphin can be quite violent, the tension is often broken by what is described as a “sex orgy”!
Even the humble penguin can cause a mighty ruckus. In 2006 the BBC reported how activists protested a German zoo’s plans to test the sexual orientation of six male penguins after displaying homosexual traits in the absence of female penguins. Over at Central Park Zoo in Manhattan, a love story reported in The New York Times involved two long term inseparable chinstrap penguins, Roy and Silo. Desperate to incubate an egg together they put a rock in their nest and sat on it. After finally being given a real egg to hatch, penguin chick Tango was born and reared together by the doting surrogate fathers.
“If homosexuality is not a choice, but a result of natural forces that cannot be controlled, can it be immoral?” – Dinitia Smith, Feb. 7, 2004 – The New York Times
Despite scientific observations of male-on-male animal action as far back as the 1700s, very few books have been written on the topic. Socially prevalent religious doctrine of the day meant some people were reluctant to research it for fear of their sexuality being questioned. Those researchers who did notice same-sex activity were guilty of tainting the evidence with “observer bias” based on their own ideas of morality, downplaying acts of sex as simply affectionate behaviour.
Petter Bøckman, academic adviser for The Norwegian Natural History Museum’s Against Nature? exhibit stated “Many researchers have described homosexuality as something altogether different from sex. They must realise that animals can have sex with who they will, when they will and without consideration to a researcher’s ethical principles.”
“You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel” – The Bad Touch, Bloodhound Gang
Greater acceptance of homosexuality in our culture is finally allowing us to appreciate and record more widespread evidence in other species too. In the “1,500 animal species practice homosexuality” article in News Medical Petter Bøckman is quoted saying “To turn the approach on its head: No species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all, such as sea urchins and aphis. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual. For them, homosexuality is not an issue.”
So it seems that same-sex behaviour is pretty much a universal phenomenon in the animal kingdom, being highly common across species. Perhaps sex for pleasure isn’t so morally reprehensible in the end. After all, surely a little of what you fancy does you good?
1. Unreasoning fear of or antipathy toward homosexuals and homosexuality.
Curiously, from all the research I’ve managed to gather on the topic, one thing remains abundantly clear: fear, prejudice and socially negative behaviour towards same-sex attracted beings is totally unique to us as humans.
No matter who you enjoy having sex with, one benefit that humans have compared to other species is our technological and medical advancements. With even more HIV prevention strategies available to us, as well as fast and convenient testing services, it’s never been easier to maximise our pleasure and safety. Knowing about PEP, condoms, PrEP and TasP means you can get up to as much monkey business as everything else is out in the wild.