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 again torn apart by a fierce row. But this time it wasn’t over Brexit.

“90% 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.”

Can it be true? Are giraffes homosexual in the same way as humans?

In 1999, Bruce Bagemihl published his book, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, which claimed that animal sexuality is as complex and 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.”

Can animals really be gay?

Born this way?

Of course they can, say some. For too long, we have ignored homosexuality in the animal kingdom, or dismissed it as unusual. 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 varied as ours.

But is that really 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, argue others.

You Decide

  1. Can animals be gay?

Activities

  1. Write a definition of the word “sexuality”. Compare your definition with those of others in your class.

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, or building nests as a couple.
What do we not know?
Why homosexuality exists in the natural world. It seems that different species of animals use sex for different purposes — not just for having babies — like establishing a hierarchy, or strengthening social bonds.

Word Watch

Authentic
Genuine; not fake.
Cites
To mention something as proof for a theory or a reason that something has happened.
Exhibit
Show; display.
Heteronormative
A world view that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.
Reproductive sex
The process of creating new organisms, such as babies.
Bias
Prejudice for or against a certain group.
On a par
At the same level as.

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