All Natural – Gay Penguins, Trans Lions, and Other LGBTQ+ Reps in the Animal Kingdom

From the children’s book And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins raising a baby together.  Image: Kids’ Animal Station

By Sophia Byl

Happy Pride! To anyone identifying as LGBTQ+ or exploring their identity, we see and respect you, not just in June, but all year round. Diversity is something to be celebrated, after all.  Unfortunately, how progressive people are varies between locations, with discrimination against the queer community still being very prevalent in some areas. In the Southern states, laws restricting LGBTQ+ rights and prohibiting the teaching of the subject in schools are repeatedly passed – no person should have those basic rights denied simply because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Government officials will  argue that homosexuality isn’t natural, that being transgender is a sin, in order to justify their outlandish proposals. 

What’s curious, though, is that taking a look at nature proves the exact opposite. Over 1,500 different species, from salmon to spiders,  dolphins to ducks, have been observed engaging in homosexual behavior. Biologist Bruce Bagemihl explains in his book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity that examples of homosexual behavior (besides actual intercourse) include courtship, pair bonding, and raising young, all of which have been exhibited by a wide range of creatures. These behaviors can also give certain creatures an edge over the competition. Marlene Zuk, a biology professor at UC Riverside, explains that even though homosexual animals can’t actually produce offspring, they can help by raising the babies of other animals of the species. It’s still a “contribution to the gene pool,” she says, and it “ensures the survival of the species”.

Evolution has led to many animals having sexes or genders beyond the binary as well. Hermaphrodites, for example, are organisms which possess both male and female reproductive organs. This is helpful for more solitary species like earthworms, where an individual has a low chance of encountering another organism of the same species, let alone one of the opposite sex. Having both types of genitals at the ready means the earthworm (or sea slug or snail) doesn’t have to play this 50-50 chance roulette whenever it meets a potential mate – or better yet, it can fertilize itself and avoid interaction with another earthworm altogether.

This description of hermaphrodites is closest to what we call being intersex. This is when your reproductive organs don’t exactly fit the description of male or female, so you’re somewhere in between. Of course, some humans are hermaphroditic as well; this usually leads to them being infertile, however.

Another example of nature not conforming to the gender binary is brought to us by the lions of Botswana. A couple years ago,  ecologists from the University of Sussex in England noticed a unique trait among certain female lions – some had grown manes, the most famous characteristic of a male lion. These lions had female genitals, but looked and behaved as if they were male. Besides the manes, these male-presenting female lions also roared, mounted other female lions, and killed cubs of rival prides, all behaviors observed exclusively in male lions up until now.

In humans, we know for certain that sex and gender are two different things. Sex is a biological trait, while your gender identity is psychological and can be different from your physical sex. While we don’t know if or how other animals perceive the notion of gender, we can say that these lions are trans, since they are biologically female but express male traits. 

This genderfluidity that nature presents to us goes hand in hand with the idea of animals being in non-heterosexual relationships. Only a couple of species are strictly monogamous, meaning that a pair will stay together for life. Promiscuity is pretty common and quite advantageous in the wild, and it makes sense when you consider how brutal it truly is. Passing genes down is the number one objective for nearly any organism out there.

One of the most famous homosexual partnerships in the animal kingdom was brought to the world’s attention in the early 2000s. The Central Park Zoo in Manhattan made headlines with its gay chinstrap penguin couple, two males named Roy and Silo. The pair would cuddle, court each other, and even try to steal other penguins’ eggs for their own. Eventually, their zookeeper gave them an abandoned egg to foster together, which they successfully raised into a baby known as Tango. Their story was publicized in many articles and books, most notably the children’s book And Tango Makes Three, which was the book most frequently challenged for censorship in schools from 2006 to 2010.  

This brings up one of the unfortunate parts about researching LGBTQ+ behaviors in nature. Due to the social stigma around the topic, scientists are afraid to get involved in the field because others may make assumptions about their sexual orientation, or anti-LGBTQ+ groups could speak out against the research and have it shut down. We can do something about this – researching these traits in animals could give us insight into why it’s advantageous and even how homosexuality evolved in human beings, and it should definitely be continued. Hopefully in the years to come, the LGBTQ+ community and scientific fields relating to LGBTQ+ studies see the respect they deserve.