The diversity of sexuality in the animal kingdom has been largely kept quiet, it’s time to embrace the prevalence of same-sex activities in the wild, for science, but for society too.
“Historians will say they were just friends”. From Achilles and Patroclus to anyone Sapho ever came into contact with; across human history there are instances where historians’ own reservations concerning sexuality have come under scrutiny, and limited their ability to view relationships as anything other than heterosexual. We are all fairly familiar with these cases, but did you know that historians are not the only researchers guilty of such a bias?
Since the birth of science as we know it, researchers have had to overcome some stubborn societal beliefs such as the big bang theory, evolution, and whether the sun revolved around the earth or not. When used fairly, science has the potential to bring about incredible progression, with evidence-based work surely minimising biases, right? Yet, when it comes to the recognition of the incredible wealth of sexual diversity present in the animal kingdom, scientific research has historically let us down. Although, a recent surge of sexual diversity research over the past twenty years is assuredly righting this wrong.
The beginning of science’s relationship with homosexuality in nature may be tracked back to 1834, when August Kelch discovered two male beetles (of the Melolontha melolontha species) having sex. What could not be mistaken for anything else was hastily construed as a behaviour for which any other explanation was welcome. One French entomologist Henri Gadeau de Kerville, just 50 years later, decided to speak plainly on the subject. He stated that same-sex relationships were simply a preference enjoyed by some beetles. A sign of the times, he received backlash from his colleagues. And so, the trend of scientists noting their observations of same-sex relationships in nature, then being met with judgement and criticism, continued. As a result, some scientists prefer to ignore the observations entirely, forcibly denying some of the key elements of science; curiosity and discovery.
One example which contrasts the scientific craving for discovery against a prudent societal backdrop, is shown in the case of the explorer George Murray Levick. In 1911 Levick embarked on an expedition to Antarctica where he observed same-sex partnerships between wild Adelié penguins. Whilst keen to note the behaviour, he was seemingly working in conflict with his own beliefs, or in shame of how others might view his work, so he wrote his observations in Greek. Further to this, he cut his observations on same-sex behaviour from the official expedition report and printed just 100 copies of the full, uncut, report to be circulated privately. It was 2012 before the full, uncensored report was released to a much more receptive, modern audience. Perhaps more uncensored reports are still to come to fruition, even now.
When we are fuelled by limiting beliefs, our research can reflect this, potentially becoming stagnant and inaccurate. Thankfully, the progress made for LGBTQIA+ rights and visibility since the initial legalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom in 1967 has been matched with progress in research surrounding sexual diversity in the animal kingdom. Currently, over 1,000 animal species have been described as exhibiting same-sex relations. In fact, species expressing fluidity have been hypothesised as just as common or even more so than species that display only heterosexuality. Animals exhibiting sexual fluidity include Gentoo penguins, beetles, gorillas, chimpanzees, garter snakes, oystercatchers, dolphins, and domestic sheep.
Scientists have numerous theories on why many species engage in same-sex sexual behaviours. Perhaps they do it to diffuse social tensions, to better protect their young or (and this is my theory) because it’s fun! A favourite animal of mine, the bonobo apes, also show the importance of same-sex relations to maintain their own society. In this species, the females form incredibly strengthened social alliances through the release of oxytocin, a bonding hormone, during sex. In bonobos, female sex is the most common sexual activity displayed, creating a matriarchal society in which their strong female bonds are put first. It is from instances such as the bonobos, that researchers have come to suggest that bisexuality may be the natural state of animals.
For far too long, the supposed absence of same-sex relations in the animal kingdom has been used to the advantage of heteronormative beliefs and to reinforce stigmas and taboo. From as far back as philosopher and theologist Thomas Aquinas’ teachings on “natural law” to the Bowers v. Hardwick court case in Georgia, 1986, where sodomy laws that condemned homosexuality as “unnatural” were upheld, the perceived lack of same-sex relations in animals in nature was used to prove their cause. The upheld sodomy laws were finally ruled as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court and removed in 2003. Crucially, it was recent research on same-sex activity in animals that was cited in an amicus brief used by the supreme court that helped the laws’ removal. Clearly, the discoveries made not only strengthen our understanding of nature, but also help to emphasise how relationships that defy heteronormative ideas are incredibly natural, and have even been suggested to have an evolutionary advantage.
What Noah could never have predicted is that his ark should have been filled with bisexuals. Named the “bisexual advantage”, bisexuality has been heralded as the optimal sexuality by acting as a happy medium between two extremes, termed stabilising selection in ecology. Researchers such as Professor Vincent Savolainen of Imperial College London suggest that absolute heterosexuality can be limiting, with individuals poorer at forming social alliances. On the one hand, homosexuality in nature brings about no biological offspring. Bisexuality, on the other hand, lies between these two poles by having reproductive potential as well as benefiting from social survival strategies offered by same-sex relations.Relatively recent discoveries made are only the beginning of a new wave of scientists committed to research that stops shying away from the sexual diversity across the animal kingdom, breaks traditional expectations and uncovers what scientists have kept hidden over the past 100 years, and probably more. Yet, there are still more tracks to be made, Savolainen noted, “It’s still risky and unusual research that is difficult to support through traditional funding routes.”, and those interested are vital to new research; “We’re looking for organisations or individuals that believe in this research and are willing to take that risk.”