Natural Families: The Wildlife Rainbow

(If you didn’t do so at the time, go across now to read some useful commentary on the artist, Paul Richmond, and on the wonderful detail incorporated into the image.)

The Rainbow Ark

Today, I want to explore some of the more serious message behind the image. Although “wildlife diversity” has become something of a buzzword in any modern discussion of environmental conservation, and we routinely accept that species diversity is one useful measure of the health of an ecosystem, and its protection a valid goal for its management, we usually fail to recognise that sexual and gender diversity is as much a feature of the animal world as it is of human societies. In recent years, lesbian and gay historians have begun to uncover much of our hidden history, and to show how often simple binary and heteronormative assumptions in looking at the past, or at non-Western societies, have ensured that observers saw only what they expected to see. Now biologists are showing how those same assumptions have led to some flawed beliefs about animal sexuality. These assumptions about sexual behaviour have led to the abundant contrary evidence from the natural world being either simply ignored, or explained away as “exceptions”, exactly as the widespread evidence for human homoerotic attraction has been ignored by historians or explained away as “deviance”, and so not “natural”.



Of three important books on the topic, Bruce Bagemihl’s “Biological Exuberance”, named in 1999 as one of the New York Public Library’s “Books to Remember”, was the earliest, and has attracted widespread critical attention and commentary. Same sex behaviour has been documented right across the animal kingdom, but in this book, Bagemihl concentrated on mammals and birds, providing extensive evidence of an extraordinary range of sexual behaviours, and specific profiles of 190 species. He shows how animals demonstrate all the forms of physical and emotional homosexual pairing known to man are also found among animals: masturbation, fellatio, mutual rubbing, and mounting on the physical side; male-male and female- female; casual affairs, long-term relationships, and “gay” parenting are all described, as well as non-procreative heterosexual intercourse. The widespread assumption that “natural” sexual activity is way off-beam.

One feature of human societies for which he does not find any evidence, is that of homophobia- violence or aggression against same sex couples or coupling. We are all familiar from endless wildlife documentaries with the ferocity of male competition and violence over mating ambitions, but there has not been any documented evidence of similar aggression around or by same sex couples. I am also particularly struck by the emotional dimensions of some of these relationships. In some cases, male pairs will form enduring long-term pair bonds, while engaging in heterosexual activity “on the side” for procreation. In some species, such as elephants and greylag geese, male pairs are said to endure even longer than heterosexual ones.

Two later books have further developed this theme. Volker Sommer’s “Homosexual Behaviour in Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective” examines more closely such behaviour among a range of species which engage in homosexual activity not just occasionally but “routinely”, which include birds, dolphin, deer, bison and cats, as well as several species of primates.

For me, the most exciting of the set is “Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People”, by Joan Roughgarden, published just last year, because she expands the scope of the two earlier books by incorporating studies of fish, reptiles and amphibians as well as birds and animals, and also brings the discussion back to humans. Professionally, the author is an acclaimed academic in evolutionary biology, but is also a male to female transsexual, who successfully combines scientific expertise with personal insight to re-examine the evidence in the light of feminist, gay and transgender criticism.

These are some extracts from a useful review by George Williamson, PhD, at Mental

Though her critique is wide-ranging, Roughgarden’s targets are easily named. At broadest, she indicts a number of academic disciplines ranging from biology and evolutionary science to anthropology and theology, for the suppression of diversity. An example of this suppression is the long-standing difficulty in getting information on animal homosexuality into the academic record. As she documents, such information has been ignored or ‘explained away’ to the present day. Of course, the charge of discrimination has often been leveled at Western culture’s concept of sex and gender, and neither this concept nor its critique are any longer unfamiliar. But Roughgarden’s case is refreshing in its particularity and detail. Conventional assumptions regarding the fixity and generality of gendered behaviors and roles, of their binate structure, of mating strategies, and even of body plan of the sexes very quickly begin to appear naive when faced with examples of fish that change gender and sex in the course of a life, all-female lizard species that clone themselves yet still have (lesbian?) sex, bird couples with ‘open’ relationships, primate species whose members are completely bisexual, and fish whose reproductive strategy involves the collaboration of three distinct genders. But such data are routinely discounted through the assumed normality of a male/female genderbinary. Much as the cultural projection of normative gender roles tends to push divergent sexual expression to the margins of the everyday social world, so has it tended to promote the exclusion of conflicting data in biology, or the pathologizing of expression in medicine and psychology. And this must have consequences, for such omissions invalidate the theorization of sexuality and gender, for example, in evolutionary theory. How could one accurately account for the evolution of sexuality, having left aside the data on same-sex relations or tri-gendered families?

Roughgarden recommends eliminating sexual selection from evolutionary theory, and instead proposes her own view, social selection. Courtship, she argues, is not about discerning a male’s genetic quality but rather about determining his likelihood of investing in parental care for offspring. Sex is not merely about spermtransfer, but rather about forming bonds within animal societies and negotiating for access to resources necessary to reproduce. Further, the evidence adduced suggests this negotiation goes on in within-sex relationships as much as in between-sex relationships, such as in a group of females who share parenting among themselves. So the picture of sex that emerges is that mating is about building social relationships first, and only secondarily about passing on genes. This explains why much more sex than reproduction happens, including much non-reproductive sex, and also allows a clear account of homosexual sex. The real beauty is that it does not require an explanation for homosexuality different from that for heterosexuality: both are about forming social relationships and negotiating access to resources. Differences in the prevalence of homosexuality in different animal societies can be attributed to differences in the relationships (between-sex, within-sex) which organize and distribute resources within those societies. Indeed, the prominent secondary sex characteristics, which at face value appear to be the basis of mate choice (the peacock’s tail, the predator’s size), may not be intended for the opposite sex at all.

A couple more of Roughgarden’s targets are worth mentioning. Psychology and medicine have had considerable influence in forming our ideas of normality in behavior and body morphology, and thus in legitimating differential treatment of those who deviate from the norm. Homosexuality, for instance, until recently was listed as a mental disorder in psychiatry; transexuality still is. There still remain groups offering to treat and cure homosexuality. Children born with atypical genitals (penis too small, clitoris too large, some of both sexes) are often subjected to reconstructive surgery to correct their ‘ambiguity’. Evidently, diversity is ‘not good’ in the eyes of the medical and psychological establishment. Having documented some of the disastrous consequences of these procedures, Roughgarden raises the reasonable question, “who really needs a cure?” She challenges some of the dubious bases provided for labeling these traits as diseases or genetic defects, and concludes that our tendency to pathologize difference is really what needs to be cured.

“Homosexuality” is not in any way unnatural. Homophobia, and exclusive heterosexuality, are.

See also:

National Geographic: Homosexual Activity Among Animals Stirs Debate
Youtube: Gay Animals

Homosexual Behaviour in the Animal Kingdom

The Natural “Crime Against Nature”


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