Did you know that an estimated 1,000+ species in the animal kingdom engage in homosexual behaviors? To learn more about this captivating fact during Pride Month, I spoke with Dr. Christine Wilkinson (she/they). As a local conservation biologist and carnivore ecologist, much of Wilkinson’s research focuses on human-wildlife conflict and coexistence. Still, her passion for a second topic is undeniable. “If I had a whole other career’s worth of time,” they told me, “I would study all the queer animals and get more information about them.”
Last June, under the moniker The Scrappy Naturalist, Wilkinson launched an engaging and informative Tiktok series, Queer is Natural. Featuring quick, pun-filled videos, it highlights species who engage in same-sex coupling or whose sex roles aren’t what you learned about in basic biology. From spotted hyena to flour beetles, Wilkinson has showcased and celebrated 23 fascinating species to date.
DR WILKINSON: To be honest, my core family members are very conservative and homophobic. I’ve heard them and others call queerness “unnatural,” and weaponize that against the LGBTQIA community. My goal with the series was to go against that, and to demonstrate that queerness — such as homosexual behaviors and gender bending — is found throughout the animal kingdom. And it’s not necessarily a rare behavior. It exists in thousands of species and is even extremely common for some species as well. I wanted to make a series that made the naturalness of being queer inarguable by bringing the science to the forefront.
While the series is coming from my lens as a wildlife scientist, we shouldn’t have to put these sorts of media out there to prove that queerness is natural. Also, scientific framings in this realm have a lot of dangerous potential roads and have already been weaponized in the past. People trying to find the “gay gene” aren’t necessarily doing it for the good of queer people, for example. So, a caveat is that we shouldn’t have to use these scientific lenses to receive basic rights, dignity and equity for LGBTQIA people, since queer rights are human rights.
DR WILKINSON: There are actually a lot! I picked out a couple.
The western gull is one example. It’s famous because it’s been featured in Supreme Court cases as a justification for queer rights. Which again, it’s unfortunate that we need to justify this using the natural world, but it’s amazing that this gull is able to represent! We have western gulls, of course, in the Bay Area, but it was in Southern California in the 1970s that researchers studied this behavior. Off the coast of Santa Barbara Island, they found many gull pairs — 14 percent of them! — were female-female couples raising double clutches together. These couples were having amazing biological success compared to heterosexual couples. This is a really neat example of queer behavior having a net reproductive benefit.
Another one that was fun for me to find because I see them all the time was the Anna’s hummingbird. There’s quite a lot of male-male courtship that goes on. Males will hang out with other males who have nice nectar and display sexually for them. It’s less than 10% of the time, but it’s consistent.
Since we love our marine animals in the Bay Area, I’ll share that harbor seals and elephant seals also both exhibit homosexuality. Males will mount each other; they’ll do all sorts of things. They’re not just displaying but also really trying to mate with each other — unsuccessfully, obviously. No penetration ever happens, but not for lack of trying. That’s a very common thing, especially for harbor seals, but also in elephant seal colonies.
DR WILKINSON: A sad surprise — and it shouldn’t have surprised me — was that it’s pretty hard to find scientific papers about these things. A lot of it is anecdotal, and some of it is buried or ignored. In the first video in the series, I highlighted a study on homosexual behavior in penguins in the South Pole in the early 1900s. The topic was considered so embarrassing at the time that the research paper was hidden in the basement of a natural history museum in England until about 2012.
Another interesting surprise was learning that ranching communities have understood homosexual behavior in cattle for ages. They use it for artificial insemination and other husbandry techniques. A lot of what I could find out about these practices was in white papers and reference books for ranching, which was wild and really exciting. I’m like, how many other examples are out there?
DR WILKINSON: I think species that exhibit queerness can give us a really wonderful access point to a frame of thought called queer ecology. This framework puts forth that, despite what western science says, nature — including people — does not actually fit into any given box or set of boxes. I think a large part of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislation is tied to the western world’s need to categorize everyone into binaries and boxes. People then use these categorizations in harmful ways to accumulate power over others and stoke fear about anyone who exists outside of them. Queerness in the animal kingdom can show us examples of how those binaries and boxes don’t actually exist. We have trouble seeing it within our own species because of our own issues and veils.
DR WILKINSON: There’s an entire textbook written on this topic! If you ever want an encyclopedic amount of information about queer animals, I recommend the book Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl. It mentions a thousand-plus species, and goes into detail about many of them. It also includes many cool connections with indigenous cultural histories and stories as well. Another great option is YA nonfiction book called Queer Ducks (and Other Animals) by Eliot Schrefer.
Christine Wilkinson (she/they) is carnivore ecologist, conservation biologist and science communicator. She is passionate about incorporating multiple ways of knowing in order to understand and meet the needs of people, wildlife and their surrounding environments. You can find Dr. Wilkinson on twitter, instagram and tiktok.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) protects open space on the Peninsula and in the South Bay for the benefit of all. Since its founding in 1977, POST has been responsible for saving more than 86,000 acres as permanently protected land in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties. Learn more