As it’s Pride month (not only in Congleton but across the world), the excellent Radio Lab podcast recently looked at same sex relations in the animal world. It came up with some surprising facts, not only to me but to the queer presenter who made the episode, meaning I didn’t feel quite so stupid for not knowing what followed.
The programme looked at early scientific evidence for same sex relationships in nature, the background being that most laws opposing such relationships date back to Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274, so a long, long time ago), who came up with the idea that same sex relations were not natural (spoiler: he was wrong).
His reasoning seems to have been that God was the author of nature and thus what is natural is good; he argued that sperm was for breeding children and any other use of it was not natural. If you Google him, you’ll see that very clever people spend many happy hours arguing in dense prose what he meant so perhaps no-one really knows, or whether he knew his argument was flawed.
That he was wrong was proved a long time ago: same sex relationships are common in nature; no species that has been looked at does not behave in this way.
The podcast focused on the work of Dr George Hunt, of the University of California at Irvine and his wife Molly, who in the 1970s was dumped on the remote Santa Barbara Island, an uninhabited rock about 40 miles southwest of Los Angeles, and left to count seagull eggs.
She found that while most nests had three eggs, some had six, way more than the birds usually laid. One in 10 of hundreds of nests had more eggs than they should have.
The Hunts trapped one unfortunate pair of six-eggers and euthanised them to see what made them tick. The first bird opened was a female … and so was the second.
These females were not just roommates, as Radio Lab put it: they mated, one taking the role of the female and one the male, complete with the respective and very different calls, ending the ritual by kissing each other on their rude bits, as happens with male/female pairings. They then went off to get fertilised in the normal way and hatched their eggs together. (Some websites said the gulls were male and the eggs sterile, both untrue).
They were the first female-female pairings recorded in the natural world but not the first observed: post-Aquinas, when scientists observed such pairings they branded them perverse, a word that only changed post Charles Darwin, when evolution demanded that animals mated and produced young to benefit the species; anything involved with same sex relationship was “unnatural” in the sense of it not being fit behaviour for evolution to occur.
Rolling forward to the 70s, so entrenched was that view that the Hunts couldn’t get their paper published and were repeatedly asked for more data until, in June 1977, their findings appeared in the science journal Nature, and the world went crazy.
Quite how insane people went is illustrated by the fact that when I told my wife all this, she started singing Lesbian Seagull – a real song originally written by Tom Wilson Weinberg but later recorded by Engelbert Humperdinck, inspired by the Hunts’ gulls. (To repeat: not lesbian, which is a human construct, just seagulls).
Ironically the seagulls were an anomaly: DDT and other chemicals had selectively targeted male birds, leaving a shortage, and when DDT was made illegal, male numbers bounced back and the “gayness” ended, nature having no more use for it.
However, the seagull paper prompted an explosion of research and a veritable parade of queer animals started marching onto Noah’s Rainbow Ark, same sex pair by same sex pair (again, it’s clearly wrong to call the animals “gay” as to them it’s normal behaviour).
Among them were giraffes (necking, licking, nuzzling and some genital stimulation); gazelles; sheep (as many as 8% of rams in a population exhibit a sexual preference for other rams); chimps; bonobo (roughly 60% of all bonobo sexual activity occurs between two or more females, and a scientist told Radio Lab that female bonobos do it face to face and make a lot of noise); Amazon river dolphins (who are pink and cavort in non-reproductive ways, using snout, flippers and genital rubbing, without regard to gender); mallards (male-male bondings being as high as 19% of all pairs in a population), orangutans (and all great apes); clownfish (all born male and will turn female if the alpha female in the group dies – clownfish can dissolve their testes and grow ovaries); whales; seals; bottlenose dolphins (the males bond for life and have sex two and a half times an hour it has been observed, so jumping through hoops every hour in Seaworld must come as something of a relief); rattlesnakes (and many other snakes); bats (upside down, in flight, apparently); swans (a quarter of black swan mate pairs consist of two males, who mate with a female, chase her away once she lays the egg then raise it themselves); blackbirds, and worms and slugs. New Mexico whip tail lizards are only female, simulate sex and reproduce asexually.
Sexual fluidity also exists, as with clownfish and snakes but it is also wrong to call these transgender or any other word that relates to the human condition, which are our constructs. The animals are just doing what they do.
There are also evolutionary benefits involved, as same sex relations can strengthen bonds between animals (so less fighting among males) and improve hunting co-ordination, and so benefit overall pack health.
White tailed male deer who prefer other males are known as velvet horns, because their horns stay velvety. They roam in packs and are healthier than your average deer (again, no fighting) and take in orphaned fawns, also benefiting the species.
All this science is ignored by people who claim reproductive sex is the only natural form, ignoring the actual science, though why it’s not less well-known is something of a mystery.
Radio Lab concluded that same sex relations and gender fluidity are part of our “our heritage as animals”.
Of course, as Radio Lab pointed out, gay people should not need science to prove that they are normal people, but neither should they be told that same sex relations are not “natural” – they clearly are.
So, enjoy your local Pride parade – Congleton Pride is 22nd July; Sandbach Pride, 2nd September; a date for Alsager Pride is yet to be announced; and in Biddulph, The Royal Oak Pub is staging a Pride day on 25th June – and remember that the hairless monkeys marching past are only a small part of a global gathering of animals preferring the company of their own gender.