Exploring the profound beauty of wildlife on a "Queer Planet"

A new documentary explores how animal sexuality has evolved to be about much more than just reproduction

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 6, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Two male lions meet and start to walk shoulder to shoulder with the same step. (Getty Images/Massimo Mei)
Two male lions meet and start to walk shoulder to shoulder with the same step. (Getty Images/Massimo Mei)

"Queer Planet," a new documentary now streaming on Peacock, opens with a pair of bighorn sheep, both males, who are literally butting heads. As they repeatedly slam against each other, viewers may assume we are witnessing a violent battle to the death. Perhaps the two bighorn sheep were fighting over territory or food, or maybe there was some ovine slight imperceptible to human eyes.

"The biggest hurdle to overcome with normalising the queerness of nature will always be those people who shout the loudest."

Except that isn't what's happening. In a move that epitomizes the entire experience of watching "Queer Planet," the filmmakers subvert the audience's expectations about nature documentaries — and, by extension, nature itself. It turns out the male bighorn sheep weren't rivals; they were sexual partners, engaged in what could be characterized as a lovers' quarrel.

Queerness is everywhere in nature, despite claims to the contrary, and "Queer Planet" underlines that sexual diversity isn't an anomaly. It's worth celebrating.

Take clown fish. The family unit shown in the 2003 animated movie "Finding Nemo" is, at first glance, reasonably close to the truth: Clown fish units include one female, one male and many juvenile males, all of whom take care of their babies together. Yet when a predator or other unfortunate event kills a female clown fish in real life, the dad changes sex into a female — as noted in a 2018 study titled "The truth about Nemo's dad" — and a juvenile male fish courts his former father so they can continue reproducing and protecting their offspring.

"They change sex, from male to female as they mature (so, yes, Nemo’s dad would become his new mom after his actual mom died)," said Bradley Trevor Greive, an author and naturalist who appears in the movie. While a child marrying their parent is morally appalling by conventional standards — and certainly is not Disney-friendly — Greive said that it is illogical to think nature would care about human concepts.

"Nature is a kaleidoscopic Karma Sutra – absolutely everything goes, and then some," Greive said. "Insects aside, one third of all animals are intersex, have both male and female sexual anatomy. Not that anatomy matters, the species of males don’t have a penis, some have four." Greive elaborated on species where females have no vaginas or three, or possess phalluses of their own. "Even many 'straight' species are not truly 'straight.' Barnacles possess a penis that is forty times their body size which, relatively speaking, makes it the biggest in the animal kingdom, and barnacles reproduce by sperm casting, which is basically masturbating into a hurricane and hoping for the best … And it works!"

There are plenty of other intersex animals. Box turtles, for example, will develop into females if their egg's ambient temperatures are high and turn into males if those temperatures are low. If the temperature hits a sweet spot, they become intersex — both male and female — yet still capable of bearing offspring. Thanks to climate change, however, more and more turtles are being born female, putting the species at risk for extinction. In addition to trans species, "Queer Planet" also showcases species with relatively high rates of homosexuality, such as the fact that 28 percent of wild King penguins will choose a same-sex mate for their initial coupling.

Queer PlanetLions (Courtesy of Peacock)

A documentary as bold as this one inevitably comes with political challenges. At a time of increasing violence against LGBTQ+ people, "Queer Planet" is not simply a nature documentary, although its vivid cinematography and deep-dish wildlife analysis makes it a fantastic watch for fans of that genre. There is an unavoidable political subtext in "Queer Planet," one with roots as far back as the days when Charles Darwin — who was the founder of evolutionary biology, but according to the documentary, also homophobic — downplayed and denigrated the sexual queerness he observed during his studies.

One can draw a direct line between Darwin's erasure of nature's queerness and the people who today claim the spectrum of gender and sexuality are somehow "unnatural." This supplied "Queer Planet" producer and director Ed Watkins with both an obstacle and a mission.

"The biggest hurdle to overcome with normalizing the queerness of nature will always be those people who shout the loudest," Watkins said. "The most vocal are usually those most vehemently opposed to accepting the reality of the natural world. And, even when they do, they point to other natural behaviors which humans find unacceptable as a reason to dismiss it." Watkins added that scientists and human rights advocates may not be able to "out shout" the reactionaries, but they can effectively rebut them by calmly displaying the scientific facts.

"Importantly, nothing in our documentary is confrontational, it is unrelentingly upbeat and positive," Watkins said. "I believe the best way to change people's perceptions is to show them the real world as it is, full of beauty, and diversity, and hopefully they'll see it too."

Dr. Christine Wilkinson — a National Geographic Explorer and researcher from the University of California Berkeley's California Academy of Science who is interviewed in the film — said that "Queer Planet" is hardly breaking new ground, at least when it comes to the underlying scientific facts it presents. The movie exists not to share undiscovered revelations, but to explain that the queer truth about nature has already been thoroughly documented — and encourage viewers to examine why this is not common knowledge.
"There is plenty of scientific literature documenting same-sex sexual behavior and sex-changing in animals," Wilkinson said. "I recommend reading 'Biological Exuberance' by Bruce Bagemihl if you want an encyclopedic approach, or 'Queer Ducks' by Eliot Schrefer for something more fun and accessible."

Wilkinson has spent much time studying spotted hyenas, another of the many species highlighted in "Queer Planet." They are shown living in female-dominated societies, with hyena girls possessing clitorises so large that at first glance they can be mistaken for hyena penises.

"As someone who has spent a lot of time studying spotted hyenas, they definitely hold a special place in my heart," said Wilkinson. "Their intricate social structures, largely female-led societies, formidable intelligence and, of course, their adorable bear-like ears all make spotted hyenas a personal favorite for me."

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"I believe the only way to make the general public more aware of the fact that same-sex behaviour, and many other queer behaviours, are normal in the animal kingdom is to keep showing people real stories, backed up by real science."

While female-dominated hyena societies may not strike some as technically "queer," the same cannot be said of the countless male lions who spend most of their time in all-male groups called coalitions. Demolishing the myth of the happy male lion ruling a pride with a harem of females, "Queer Planet" explains that most male lions will actually spend the majority of their lives with each other. This results in extremely close bonds that often last a lifetime, with male lions regularly cuddling and mounting each other to display affection.

Giraffes also have very high incidences of same-sex behaviors among males, with one out of four wild matings occurring among males mounting each other — even when they have access to females. Bonobos are even more sexually open than giraffes, with "Queer Planet" explaining that bonobos seem to deal with all of life's twists and turns by turning to sex — whether it's for eating food, resolving conflicts, feeling bored or occasionally, yes, actually trying to reproduce.

"Over 1,500 animal species engage in same sex behavior, and countless more in a wide variety of queer lifestyles, so it was quite a lengthy list!" Watkins said when explaining how the filmmakers chose the species they would profile for the documentary. "In the end, we opted to feature those animals that allowed us to highlight the incredible diversity of the natural world, and for which we could tell memorable and visually stunning sequences, backed up by published science. Flamingos, penguins, lions are all very charismatic, so they went in, but we also wanted to feature some of the lesser-known and loved species like cuttlefish, ants and slugs."

To do this, the makers of "Queer Planet" trekked across the globe, obtaining the best footage nature can offer in all its queerness. Perhaps the most difficult animals to profile were flamingos. As Watkins explained, the majority of "Queer Planet"'s footage was filmed directly by Watkins, with his assistant producer George and researcher, Chris. This meant that the lush images of elegant pink birds — introduced as "flamboyant flamingos," unpacking their often-lifelong same-sex relationships — weren't easy to capture.

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"We filmed those in Yucatán, in Mexico," Watkins recalled. "Each day we had to hike for about an hour through shallow, hyper-saline marshes and lakes, with all our equipment, to reach the nesting sites in the dark. Then set up our hides and sit in the sweltering sun until noon, when the birds rested, to leave. It was hot, dirty, smelly work. George braved the conditions for the longest, but the results were worth it."

Numerous other examples in the film include how macaques in Japan are "extremely lesbian," often choosing other females even when male partner are available; that male seahorses likewise tend to form lifelong same-sex relationships, with the males delivering birth from pouches; and that a majority of organisms on coral reefs are hermaphrodites, with over 500 species changing sex at least once in their lifetimes and others having both sexes.

All of this science and documentary work emphasizes how normal, natural and wonderful it is to be queer.

"I believe the only way to make the general public more aware of the fact that same-sex behavior, and many other queer behaviors, are normal in the animal kingdom is to keep showing people real stories, backed up by real science," said Watkins. "I've been making wildlife documentaries for over a decade, and I can count on one hand the number of times a queer wildlife story has featured, despite the overwhelming evidence that it is widespread. It was one of the key drivers behind getting this film made."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Animals Bonobos Gay Animals Giraffes Lesbian Animals Queer Planet Science Trans Animals Wildlife