Gay giraffes, lesbian bonobos and angry humans

Strange but true: The row broke out when a senior MP claimed “90% of giraffes are gay”. © Alamy

Can animals be gay? It’s a question behind a fierce row. Some biologists think sexuality in the animal kingdom is as complex and diverse as that of humans. Others think the claim is nonsense.

Last week, the Labour Party was once more rent asunder by a fierce row. But this time it wasn’t about Brexit.

“Ninety per cent of giraffes are gay,” declared Dawn Butler, the Shadow Secretary for Women and Equalities, at an event for LGBT website PinkNews. “Let’s just accept people for who they are and live as our true, authentic selves.”

But the comments incensed Lachlan Stuart, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s senior advisers.

Taking to Twitter, Stuart cited several studies showing that giraffes only use same-sex behaviour to assert authority over younger males. “Is there any truth to this claim? In short, no, there isn’t. It is a ludicrous, offensive, homophobic claim,” he fumed.

Which of them is right? Can giraffes be homosexual like humans?

Until relatively recently, naturalists often dismissed gay animal behaviour as hormonal confusion or a fluke of nature.

But all that changed in 1999 when Bruce Bagemihl published his book, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, which painted a portrait of animal sexuality as complex and as diverse as human sexual behaviour.

He pointed out that homosexual behaviour has been observed in more than 1,500 species, from parrots and lizards to badgers and lions. His book cites that 94% of male giraffes exhibit homosexual behaviour (point to Butler!).

Dr Natalie Cooper agrees that same-sex behaviour in giraffes is not always aggressive, with some male pairs showing tender affection even when female partners are available. However, she insists that it would be a mistake to describe giraffes as gay.

“Giraffes don’t have a sexual orientation,” says Dr Cooper. “That’s a human thing.”

In almost every single instance, animals who engage in same-sex activity will also mate with opposite-sex partners. This “bisexuality” even applies to groups like the female Laysan albatross that often form life-long “marriages” to rear chicks.

“It is not the case that you have lesbian bonobos or gay male bonobos,” says researcher Paul Vasey. “Many animals are happy to engage in sex with partners of either sex.”

But there is one lone exception: the domestic sheep.

In any sheep flock, up to 8% of the males will always prefer other males even when fertile females are around. Brain scans have revealed that these sheep have similar brain differences to those seen between gay and straight men.

Can animals really be gay?

Born free?

Of course they can, say some. For too long, we have ignored homosexuality in the animal kingdom, or dismissed it as a strange anomaly. This is down to our culture’s heteronormative obsession with reproductive sex. Remove that bias, and it is clear that animal sexuality is just as nuanced and diverse as ours.

But many others question whether that can possibly be true. Animals are just following their basic instincts, regardless of a mate’s gender. You wouldn’t put animals mating on a par with a romantic relationship between human adults, so why should sexuality make any difference? It’s a meaningless, harmful comparison, they argue.

You Decide

  1. Can animals be gay?
  2. Is it offensive to compare animal and human sexuality? Why or why not?

Activities

  1. Write a definition of the word “sexuality”. Compare your definition with those of others in your class.
  2. Find an example of an animal species that includes same-sex families. Create a one-minute presentation, including information about the species and how they rear their young.

Some People Say...

“Animals are born who they are, accept it, and that is that. They live with greater peace than people do.”

Gregory Maguire, US novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Homosexual behaviour in animals isn’t purely about sex. Female western gulls regularly engage in courtship rituals: tossing their heads, offering small gifts of carefully chosen food, or building nests as a couple. Although as many as 94% of male giraffes display same-sex behaviour, only around 1% of females do.
What do we not know?
Why homosexuality exists in the natural world. Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that the goal of evolution is always successful reproduction. However, different species of animals use sex for different purposes: for example, establishing a hierarchy or strengthening social bonds.

Word Watch

Rent asunder
Torn apart.
Authentic
Genuine; not fake.
Ludicrous
Ridiculous or unreasonable.
Homophobic
Showing hatred or discrimination against gay people.
Hormonal confusion
It was previously supposed that these animals were “misreading” the hormonal signals of their partner and, consequently, mistaking their sex.
Laysan albatross
The chicks are conceived with male albatrosses that already have female partners.
Bonobos
A great ape; one of humanity’s closest living relatives.
Brain differences
Some studies have found that a part of their brain called the hypothalamus, which is known to control the release of sex hormones, was smaller in the homosexual males than in the heterosexual males.
Heteronormative
A world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.
Nuanced
With different shades of meaning and forms of expression.

Subjects

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