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A wild, and gay, kingdom

Oct. 24, 2006
Courtesy The Research Council of Norway
and World Science staff

For eons, na­ture has been pranc­ing, flut­ter­ing and al­to­geth­er teem­ing with gay an­i­mals, pro­claim the or­ga­niz­ers of the first mu­se­um ex­hi­bi­tion on ani­mal ho­mo­sex­u­ali­ty.

Scientists have found ho­mo­sex­u­ality in near­ly 1,500 spe­cies, said zo­ol­o­gist Pet­ter Boeck­man of the Nor­we­gian Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Mu­se­um at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Os­lo, an ex­hi­bi­tion co-or­g­an­iz­er. The show, en­ti­tled “A­gainst Na­ture’s Or­der?” is to run through next sum­mer at the mu­se­um.

Boeck­man said the project, draw­ing on sev­er­al years of re­search by an ar­ray of bi­ol­o­gists, proves gay sex is in fact part of na­ture’s or­der. His ar­gu­ments ech­o the claim of gay rights ad­vo­cates world­wide that in hu­mans, too, ho­mo­sex­u­ality is nat­u­ral.

Same-sex mating is es­pe­cial­ly com­mon among herd­ing an­i­mals, and of­ten serves to re­solve con­flicts, Boeck­man said. 

“One fun­da­men­tal prem­ise in so­cial de­bates has been that ho­mo­sex­u­ality is unnat­u­ral. This prem­ise is wrong. Ho­mo­sex­u­ality is both com­mon and high­ly es­sen­tial in the lives of a num­ber of spe­cies,” he said.

The best-known gay an­i­mal is the dwarf chim­pan­zee, or bo­no­bo, one of hu­man­i­ty’s closest rel­a­tives. The whole spe­cies is bi­sex­u­al: sex plays a glar­ing role in all their ac­tiv­i­ties and de­fuses po­ten­tial vi­o­lence, Boek­man ar­gued, the usu­al meth­od of solv­ing con­flicts among an­i­mals.

“Sex among dwarf chim­pan­zees is in fact the busi­ness of the whole fam­i­ly,” he re­marked. “The cute lit­tle ones of­ten lend a help­ing hand when they en­gage in oral sex with each oth­er.”

Li­ons can al­so be ho­mo­sex­u­al, he ar­gued: ma­les of­ten band to­geth­er with broth­ers to lead the pride, and en­sure loy­al­ty by hav­ing sex with each oth­er.

Ho­mo­sex­u­ality is com­mon among dol­phins and kill­er whales, he said; with them, male-fe­male bonds are fleet­ing, where­as male-male pairings can last years. Gay sex be­tween dif­fer­ent spe­cies is not un­u­su­al ei­ther, he added. Meet­ings be­tween dif­fer­ent dol­phin spe­cies can be vi­o­lent, he said, but the ten­sion is of­ten bro­ken by a “sex or­gy.”

As a so­cial phe­nom­e­non, ho­mo­sex­u­ality is most wide­spread among an­i­mals with a com­plex herd life, he con­ti­nued.

Among apes, fe­ma­les cre­ate con­ti­nu­i­ty with­in the group, he added; this so­cial net­work is main­tained not on­ly by shar­ing food and child rear­ing, but through sex. “Among many of the fe­male apes the sex or­gans swell up. So they rub their ab­domens against each oth­er,” Boeck­man said, adding that an­i­mals have sex be­cause they have the de­sire to, just like hu­mans.

“We’re talk­ing about eve­ry­thing from mam­mals to crabs and worms,” he con­ti­n­ued. Some an­i­mals practice ho­mo­sex­u­al be­hav­iour rarely, he ela­bor­ated; others, in­c­lu­d­ing bo­no­bos, do it life­long.

This oc­curs also among birds that pair with one part­ner for life, as geese and ducks do, he not­ed: four to five per­cent of the cou­ples are ho­mo­sex­u­al, and sin­gle fe­males will lay eggs in a ho­mo­sex­u­al pair’s nest. Ho­mo­sex­u­al cou­ple of­ten seem bet­ter at rais­ing the young than het­er­o­sex­ual cou­ples, he added.

In col­o­nies of black-headed gulls, al­most eve­ry tenth pair is les­bi­an, he said. It’s very pos­si­ble for the les­bi­ans to be­come im­preg­nated, he added, though these in­di­vid­u­als should­n’t be con­sid­ered bi­sex­u­al.

“If a fe­male has sex with a male one time, but thou­sands of times with anoth­er fe­ma­le, is she bi­sex­u­al or ho­mo­sex­u­al?” he asked. This is much the same way as gay peo­ple of­ten have chil­dren, he not­ed.

“More­over, a part of the an­i­mal king­dom is hermaphroditic,” hav­ing both male and fe­male sex or­gans, he not­ed. “For them, ho­mo­sex­u­al is not an is­sue.”

The theme of an­i­mal ho­mo­sex­u­ality, he said, “has long been taboo” among sci­en­tists, who of­ten mas­quer­ade the touchy sub­ject by giv­ing it oth­er names. 

He cit­ed one sci­en­tif­ic de­scrip­tion of mat­ing among gi­raffes, in an ar­e­a where nine in ten pair­ings oc­curred be­tween ma­les. “Every male that sniffed a fe­male was re­ported as sex,” he said; but anal sex with or­gasm be­tween ma­les was por­trayed as a dom­i­nance, com­peti­ti­tion or greet­ing be­hav­ior.

It’s time to start calling it what it is: sex, Boeck­man in­sists.

“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.”

Animals masturbate, too, he observed.

“There are plen­ty of an­i­mals who will mas­tur­bate when they have noth­ing bet­ter to do. Mas­tur­ba­tion has been ob­served among pri­ma­tes, deer, kill­er whales and pen­guins… both ma­les and fe­ma­les. They rub them­selves against stones and roots. Orangutans are es­pe­cial­ly in­ven­tive. They make dil­dos of wood and bark.”


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For eons. nature has been prancing, fluttering and altogether teeming with gay animals, proclaim the organizers of the first museum exhibition to address the topic of animal homosexuality. Homosexuality has been observed in nearly 1,500 species, said an exhibition co-organizer, zoologist Petter Boeckman of the Norwegian Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo. The exhibition, entitled “Against Nature’s Order?” is to run through next summer at the museum. Boeckman said the show, drawing on several years of research by an array of biologists, proves gay sex is not against nature’s order. His arguments echo the claim of gay rights advocates worldwide that in humans, too, homosexuality is natural. Homosexuality is especially common among herding animals, and often serves to resolve conflicts, Boeckman said. “One fundamental premise in social debates has been that homosexuality is unnatural. This premise is wrong. Homosexuality is both common and highly essential in the lives of a number of species,” he said. The best-known gay animal is the dwarf chimpanzee, one of humanity’s closes relatives. The whole species is bisexual. Sex plays a glaring roll in all their activities and distracts them away from violence, Boekman argued, the typical method of solving conflicts among animals. “Sex among dwarf chimpanzees is in fact the business of the whole family,” he remarked.”The cute little ones often lend a helping hand when they engage in oral sex with each other.” Lions can also also homosexual, he argued: males often band together with brothers to lead the pride, and ensure loyalty by having sex with each other. Homosexuality is also quite common among dolphins and killer whales, he said. The pairing of males and females is fleeting, he added, while between males, a pair can stay together for years. Homosexual sex between different species is not unusual either: meetings between different dolphin species can be quite violent, but the tension is often broken by a “sex orgy”. As a social phenomenon, homosexuality is most widespread among animals with a complex herd life, he said. Among apes the females create continuity within the group, he added; this social network is maintained not only by sharing food and the child rearing, but also through sex. “Among many of the female apes the sex organs swell up. So they rub their abdomens against each other,” Boeckman said, adding that animals have sex because they have the desire to, just like we humans. “We’re talking about everything from mammals to crabs and worms.… Among some animals homosexual behaviour is rare, some having sex with the same gender only a part of their life, while other animals, such as the dwarf chimpanzee, homosexuality is practiced throughout their lives.” This occurs especially among birds that pair with one partner for life, as geese and ducks do, he noted: four to five percent of the couples are homosexual, and single females will lay eggs in a homosexual pair’s nest. Homosexual couple often seem better at raising the young than heterosexual couples do, he added. In colonies of black-headed gulls, almost every tenth pair is lesbian, he said. It’s very possible for the lesbians to become impregnated, he added, though these individuals shouldn’t be considered bisexual. “If a female has sex with a male one time, but thousands of times with another female, is she bisexual or homosexual?” he asked. This is much the same way as gay people often have children, he noted. “Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic,” having both male and female sex organs, he noted. “For them, homosexuality is not an issue.” The theme of animal homosexuality “has long been taboo” among scientists, Boekman said, who often prefer to masquerade the touchy subject by giving it other names. He cited one scientific description of mating among giraffes, in an area where nine in ten pairings occurred between males. “Every male that sniffed a female was reported as sex,” he said; but anal sex with orgasm between males was portrayed as a dominance, competitition or greeting behavior. “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.” Masturbation is also common in the animal kingdom, he said. “There are plenty of animals who will masturbate when they have nothing better to do. Masturbation has been observed among primates, deer, killer whales and penguins… both males and females. They rub themselves against stones and roots. Orangutans are especially inventive. They make dildos of wood and bark.”