The fabulous kingdom of gay animals

A biologist offers the first vision of a tantalizingly diverse natural world: not all animals are straight arrows.


Susan McCarthy
March 17, 1999 12:41AM (UTC)

The scientist gasps and drops the binoculars. A notebook falls
from astonished hands. Graduate students mutter in alarm. Nobody
wants to be the one to tell the granting agency what they're
seeing.

A female ape wraps her legs around another female, "rubbing her own
clitoris against her partner's while emitting screams of
enjoyment." The researcher explains: It's a form of greeting
behavior. Or reconciliation. Possibly food-exchange behavior.
It's certainly not sex. Not lesbian sex. Not hot lesbian sex.

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Six bighorn rams cluster, rubbing, nuzzling and mounting each
other. "Aggressosexual behavior," the biologist explains. A way
of establishing dominance.

A zoo penguin approaches another, bowing winsomely. The birds look
identical and a zoogoer asks how to tell males and females apart.
"We can tell by their behavior," a researcher explains. "Eric is
courting Dora." A keeper arrives with news: Eric has laid an egg.

They've been keeping it from us: There are homosexual and bisexual
animals, ranging from charismatic megafauna like mountain gorillas
to cats, dogs and guinea pigs. There are transgendered animals,
transvestite animals (who adopt the behavior of the other gender
but don't have sex with their own), and animals who live in
bisexual triads and quartets.

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Bruce Bagemihl spent 10 years scouring the biological literature
for data on alternative sexuality in animals to write "Biological
Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity," 768 pages
about exactly what goes on at "South Park's" Big Gay Al's Big Gay Animal
Sanctuary. The first section discusses animal sexuality in its many forms and
the ways biologists have tried to explain it away. The second
section, "A Wondrous Bestiary," describes unconventional sexuality
in nearly 200 mammals and birds -- orangutans, whales, warthogs,
fruit bats, chaffinches.

Bagemihl's dry style is obedient to the precepts of scientific
writing. He explains why animals can be called homosexual or
bisexual, but not gay, lesbian or queer, and he follows the rules -- though "homosexual" frightens some who prefer terms like male-only
social interactions, multifemale associations, unisexuality,
isosexuality or intrasexuality. (Fortunately, as a book reviewer,
I am not bound by this rule. We're talking gay animals!) Yet the
book is thrillingly dense with new ideas, and with scandalous
animal anecdotes. In other words, an ideal bedside read.

It's not just about hot sex. Bagemihl includes nonsexual bonds.
Friendships. Female grizzlies sometimes form partnerships,
traveling together, defending each other, raising cubs together
and putting off hibernation in what seems to be an attempt to stay
together longer.

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Nor is it all cuddling and consensuality. Bagemihl chronicles
homosexual incest (foxes), rape (albatrosses) and homophobia
(white-tailed deer).

His favorites are beasts with "a special courtship pattern found
only in homosexual interactions." Two percent of male ostriches
ignore females and court males with a lively dance that involves
running toward your chosen partner at 30 mph,
skidding to a stop in front of him, pirouetting madly, then
"kantling," which includes crouching, rocking, fluffing your
feathers, puffing your throat in and out and twisting your neck
like a corkscrew. A male ostrich courting a female omits the
speedy approach, shortens the display, adds a booming song and may
include symbolic feeding displays. Male ostriches have not been
seen actually having sex, unlike male flamingo pairs, who mate,
build nests and sometimes rear foster chicks.

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Some homosexual animals have one-night stands and some have long
marriages. Gay and lesbian geese stay together year after year.
Bottlenose dolphins don't form male-female couples, but males often
form lifelong pairs with other males. Some are interested only in
males, but others are bisexual and happily indulge in beak-genital
propulsion and more with male or female alike.

Male black swans court and form stable pairs. With two males, they
are able to defend huge territories from other swan couples, which
sounds like a double-income-no-kids situation except that they
often manage to wangle some eggs from somewhere -- all right, they
steal them -- and become model parents, twice as successful as
straight parents.

There's a certain temptation to leaf through the book shouting
"Caribou? Gay! Red-necked Wallaby? Gay! Golden Plover? GAY GAY
GAY!" But of course it's not that simple.

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All bonobos and 1 percent of ostriches participate in homosexual
activities -- so within the animal kingdom there is tremendous diversity of sexualities. Moreover, the world is full of animals who are
straight. But we know so little about the sex lives of most
animals that we must be cautious in our assumptions. Many
creatures have never been seen having sex of any kind. The black-rumped flameback has been observed in male-male mating, but never
male-female mating. Yet presumably they don't buy baby flamebacks
at the corner store.

As for why some animals are bisexual or homosexual, Bagemihl gives
the subject brief, annoyed discussion: Obviously it involves both
nature and nurture, both environment and biology. He notes that
different groups of Japanese macaques have different levels and
kinds of homosexual behavior -- which he interprets as a cultural difference.

Besides showing the prevalence of alternative sexuality, Bagemihl
tells a fascinating story of the suppression of this vast body of
information. "Zoology is a very conservative profession," and
focusing on animal homosexuality is not the road to success. One
researcher documented homosexuality in sheep, but didn't publish
until she got tenure.

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Surprisingly often, observers don't know what they're seeing. If
males and females look alike, researchers assume that when they see
animals mating, they are seeing a male and a female, and the one on
top is the male. Thus, the penguin Eric, later renamed Erica. If
they switch positions, no doubt it's just confusion.

Often, it's plain that animals are engaging in homosexual behavior
-- short of wearing gay pride T-shirts, there's no way those
walruses could be clearer -- but the observer can't fathom it.

One unusually candid biologist wrestled with the realization that
the bighorn rams he studied frequently had sex with each other, and
weren't just showing nice wholesome aggression. "To state that
the males had evolved a homosexual society was emotionally beyond
me. To conceive of those magnificent beasts as 'queers' -- Oh
God!"

Bagemihl ridicules ingenious explanations researchers have given
for why animals might appear not to be straight arrows. It's
dominance. It's a contest of stamina. It's barter for food. It's
aggression. It's appeasement. They're confused and don't realize
that they're both the same sex. It's a way of reducing tension.
They're just playing! And my favorite: It's a greeting.

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Dominance is the most popular excuse, with animals portrayed as
jockeying for status with the ferocity of assistant professors,
when they're only fooling around. "At times, the very word
dominance itself becomes simply code for 'homosexual mounting,'
repeated mantralike until it finally loses what little meaning it
had to begin with," Bagemihl writes.

Captive animals are subjected to the prison comparison: They're
like prisoners in an unnatural situation, so that's not real
homosexual activity in that cage. While some captive animals adopt
an "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're
with" philosophy, others decline to have sex with animals they
don't care for. When it comes to animals in the wild freely
choosing to pirouette, or give the Really Big Greeting, this
explanation collapses.

The idea that animals can't tell each other's gender and
accidentally have sex or form homosexual pairs has the age-old
appeal of making animals look really, really dumb, but doesn't hold
up in the face of evidence that animals know quite well who they're
hitting on.

Sometimes it just seems better not to bring it up. One researcher
discovered homosexual mounting in white-tailed deer, yet when an
800-page book on white-tails was published, the researcher co-wrote
the chapter on behavior with no mention of it.

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A report on killer whale behavior that described homosexuality in
male orcas was reissued as a government document for the U.S.
Marine Mammal Commission with those passages -- and only those
passages -- deleted.

Popular books by scientists often include material that doesn't
make it into journals. The authors relax, drop the jargon, tell
anecdotes, speculate. But, seeking sympathy for the animals they
love, most scientists balk at describing bisexuality and
homosexuality in the animals. Will people be less likely to save
the gorilla if the gorilla has a gay lifestyle?

Bonobos are a partial exception. Recently a fair amount of
information about bonobo sex lives has come out. Bonobos are new,
bonobos are smart -- and it's hard to keep a camera on bonobos for
longer than a minute without recording a sexual act of some kind.
Yet popular books about the language capacities of bonobos, like
Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's excellent "Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the
Human Mind," leave the impression of a pure-minded primate egghead.

The lexigrams Kanzi and others are taught to use are not about sex.
Yet see Page 67 for a thought-provoking diagram of hand gestures
used during bonobo sex, ranging from "come here" to "move your
genitals around." These signs, used by captive bonobos, were
discovered by Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues. It's one of the
classic errors in teaching animals language -- not letting them
talk about what interests them. "Let's not discuss what you want
to do with Panbanisha and Sherman. Let's talk about using the key
to open the box and get some candy. No, actual candy."

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As for the perennial issue of tool use, an entire category of tools
has gone unmentioned -- tools animals make and use to masturbate.
Dolphins and porcupines masturbate with objects, and primates regularly
modify objects into suitable sex toys. A female orangutan bit pieces of
liana to the right size, a male orangutan made an orifice in a large
leaf, and a female macaque had five methods of making toys out of leaves
and twigs. If an ape discovered electricity, but used it to power a vibrator,
we'd be unlikely to hear about it.

Zoology adheres to a "folk model" of homosexuality as perverse,
unnatural and bad, Bagemihl argues, and is far behind the
humanities in recognizing it as a legitimate subject of inquiry.

Bagemihl formulates the charmingly named theory of biological
exuberance, of which homosexuality is one manifestation. He wants
to unlink biological analysis from the idea that reproduction --
and hence, heterosexuality -- is all. Biology must accept the
apparent purposelessness of sexualities, he argues. Sexual
pleasure is "inherently valuable" and "requires no further
'justification.'"

In support of this view, Bagemihl cites celibate animals, animals
that exhibit shocking indifference to reproduction and species
where sex is rare and difficult. He all but proves reproductive
sex doesn't happen.

But of course reproduction does take place and must take place for
natural selection to occur. (If creatures lived forever, they
wouldn't need to reproduce, nor would they evolve.) The riddle is
how a process driven by reproduction produces nonreproductive
creatures, but it's not a very hard riddle, and indeed abundance,
flexibility and exuberance are part of it.

Evolution is history. The forces of evolution operating in the
past may have produced a creature that is fast, fierce or able to
do calculus, but those forces don't direct a creature once it is
born. Penguins who mated with other penguins of the opposite sex
are the ones who left descendants, and every penguin is descended
from penguins who committed at least one heterosexual act, but that
doesn't mean this penguin, here and now, will commit only
heterosexual acts. The capacity for pleasure that encouraged its
ancestors to reproduce is available wherever the penguin chooses to
direct it.

Successful life forms are characterized by diversity, so changing
environments don't wipe them out. That diversity often extends to
sexuality. Thus bisexuality and homosexuality are characteristics
not of twisted nature, but of generous nature.

So what if animals are gay? Are people vindicated in our diverse
sex lives by diversity in animals? If they put us on trial, can we
bring as character witnesses lions who make the Sign of the Great
Tawny Beast with same-sex lions? (And they do. Unless that's just
a greeting.) No, not unless we would bring those same lions to
testify that killing your new significant other's children is a
useful way to free up their time for you and your future children.
Animals do all kinds of things that we frown on for ourselves.

But we can bring the lions to testify that there's nothing
unnatural about human sex lives, that bisexuality and homosexuality
are not among those twisted human inventions, like income tax, or
graduate school, or step aerobics, that have no close analog in the
wild.

As Bagemihl says of this widely expressed idea, "What is remarkable
about the entire debate about the naturalness of homosexuality is
the frequent absence of any reference to concrete facts or
accurate, comprehensive information about animal homosexuality."

There's no longer any excuse. At more than 750 pages of profusely
illustrated, carefully referenced information, this is the ideal
book to slam down on the fingers of anyone who says homosexuality
isn't natural.


Susan McCarthy

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

MORE FROM Susan McCarthy


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