In the heart of Toronto zoo, an unsuspected relationship blossomed. For Pedro and Buddy, two male African penguins, it was love at first sight. Instead of following the zookeepers’ plans and pairing off with one of the many fertile females, the two males couldn’t keep away from one another. They were not interested in the females at all. During their days, the pair would exhibit all the behaviours of a reproducing pair, defending their territory, touching, grooming and relaxing together. As the sun set, they would retreat to their quarters to spend the night together. They were the poster couple for True Love.
Alas, their love was not to be.
Unfortunately for Buddy and Pedro, they had a major part to play in the survival of their species. African penguins are endangered and breeding programmes are essential in preventing the species from going extinct. In the eyes of the zookeepers, their strong genes and good health made them a catch, and they were separated so as to mate with the females. Their love would have to wait until after the breeding season.
In the animal kingdom, Buddy and Pedro are not alone. In fact, homosexuality is so common that it has been observed in almost every species of sexually reproducing animal, and has been scientifically documented in 1,500 species. All kinds of theories have been proposed as to why this behaviour is so common place in animals, including that it’s used to display dominance, form alliances, and gain protection and resources. However, it could just be for sexual pleasure. Who are we to judge?!
In the case of Bonobos, strictly heterosexual individuals would not fit in. A whole lot of their socialising revolves around sex, and anyone not keen on getting it on with both males and females would find themselves friendless and unable to breed. Black swans are an animal with homosexual partnerships, with a quarter of families having same-sex parents. Male couples have been observed to mate with females and then promptly chase the women away once the egg has been laid, choosing to raise the offspring together.
Homosexual behaviour is also common in dolphins, giraffes, and various monkeys. The animal kingdom doesn’t discriminate.
Unlike our animal friends, unfortunately us humans do discriminate. Even though homosexuality is relatively common, with 3.8% of the US population identifying as gay, for some reason homosexuality is ingrained in our culture as being ‘unnatural.’ Not only have these prejudices created an unnecessary amount of pain and anguish amongst the LGBT community, it has also made the evolution and genetics of homosexuality hard to study – it is still considered somewhat controversial. Religious leaders often protest this research on the grounds of it legitimising homosexuality, while other scientists worry that an understanding of the genetics that lead to homosexuality could lead to genetic engineering that prevents it.
That being said, there are several theories as to why homosexuality has evolved and remained in us humans, despite the fact that homosexuals did not pass on their genes in ancient times.
So let’s take a look back at our ancestors to find out why.
Our first theory is a purely genetic one. In 2012 researchers determined that the same gene that codes for homosexuality in men also increases fertility in women. In the group studied, the mothers and aunts of gay men were found to have more children than those without gay relatives. Therefore, they concluded that the homosexuality gene does not remain in the population due to homosexuality itself being a benefit to human evolution, but it remains in the population due to the higher fertility of the female family members.
Our second theory is one called the helper in the nest hypothesis. Interesting but slightly strange name aside, this theory is ultimately about kin selection, where an individual places energy into the upbringing of their relatives instead of reproducing themselves. Ultimately, homosexuals benefited their community by helping raise and protect their brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. Sounds exhausting.
Our third and final theory (and my personal favourite) is that homosexual behaviour just straight up helped our ancestors make friends, form social bonds and have a great time. In a time when resources were scarce and the world outside was dangerous, the formation of alliances were crucial to an individuals survival. It is believed that homosexual acts would help facilitate the growth of these all important relationships. Brings a whole different meaning to “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
So there you have it. Homosexuality is found throughout the animal kingdom and helped our ancestors survive to get us to where we are today. I don’t think there’s anything ‘unnatural’ about that.