Homosexual behavior* in animals has always been observed by both biologists and lay people, but it was not until the 1990s that science began to take it seriously. Since Bruce Bagemihl’s seminal 1999 book “Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity,” the behavior has been observed in 1,500 species and is well understood in 500.
Until recently, the behavior and its inferences was dismissed due to observer bias, or assumed to be a prelude to ‘real’ heterosexual behavior. According to Bagemihl: “the animal kingdom [does] it with much greater sexual diversity – including homosexual, bisexual and non-reproductive sex – than the scientific community and society at large have previously been willing to accept.”
Paul Vasey, animal behavior professor at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, says:
“They’re engaging in the behavior because it’s gratifying sexually or it’s sexually pleasurable. They just like it. It doesn’t have any sort of adaptive payoff.”
Said Petter Bøckman, academic adviser for the Against Nature? exhibit held at Oslo’s Natural History Museum in 2007:
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.
That exhibit then traveled to five other European cities. One of its aims was to “help to de-mystify homosexuality among people … we hope to reject the all too well known argument that homosexual behaviour is a crime against nature.”
Sex, courtship, affection, pair bonding, and parenting among same sex animals have all been observed. Exclusive homosexual orientation appears to be rare, although it is found in domesticated sheep, with about one in ten of rams (males) refusing to mate with ewes (females). A 2009 review of existing research showed that same-sex behavior is a nearly universal phenomenon in the animal kingdom, common across species.
The idea of ‘gay’ animals has been widely picked up in media reports. The most famous case being of Roy and Silo, a male pair of chinstrap penguins in the Central Park Zoo in New York City who in 2004 successfully hatched and fostered a female chick named Tango from a fertile egg they had been given to incubate.
Silo later took up with a female penguin, Scrappy, and both are still thriving at 25 years old at the zoo. A 2010 study by France’s Centre for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology found that homosexual pairings in penguins is widespread, but they don’t usually last more than a few years.
Their story became the basis of the illustrated children’s book “And Tango Makes Three” (see cover), which has gone on to be one of the most challenged books in American libraries.
Many other stories of ‘gay’ penguins have since appeared in the media and become the source of heated debate, with the religious right citing Silo’s move to Scrappy as Exhibit A on their side of the ‘nature/lifestyle’ argument. The ‘nature/potential crime’ implications are decidedly political. Homosexuality in animals was cited in the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down the sodomy laws of 14 states.
Click through for more stories of homosexuality in animals, like Bison, Bonobos — and Dragonflies >>>
*’Exhibiting Homosexual behavior’ is the correct scientific term.
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