What evolution tells us about LGBTQ+ history
01 June, 2023
“We are not the makers of history, we are made by history”
- Martin Luther King
This month is Pride month. Having felt confused about my identity as a gay man for a very long time, I have recently started to break free from my internalised homophobia1 and begun exploring my own version of ‘who do you think you are?’; through the history of gender and sexuality diversity and the lens of science and evolution.
I do not claim to be an academic or expert in this area, but as a medical professional, science has always had a huge impact on my life. One of the most widely accepted scientific explanations for our human existence is the theory of evolution by natural selection 2, first proposed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century.
This theory suggests that humans and other animal species have evolved over millions of years through the process of natural selection, in which the most advantageous traits are passed down from one generation to the next. Of course, this theory itself has not been completely understood and is often misrepresented when it comes to LGBT existence. However, for this article I want to apply it in its most basic form i.e. if this hypothesis is correct, gender variety and homosexuality may not be a distinctly human behaviour or experience, but may also exist across the animal kingdom. Because, and as nature tells us again and again, their story is our story.
Diversity in gender and sexuality has existed in the animal kingdom for millions of years, long before the existence of humans. The evidence for this can be found in numerous species of animals that still exist, including birds, mammals, and some species of reptiles and fish.
Remember that famous scene from the movie Jurassic Park3 when Dr Grant finds dinosaur eggs in the forest? He goes on to explain how some frogs can change their gender. I didn’t realise at the time why this captured my attention, looking back now I know it was that acceptance of nature’s creativity and diversity that made me so excited about that scene.
As I went about looking for research in this area, I must say I felt underwhelmed by the paucity and quality of research I could find. However, I did find this article4 by Shami Sivasubramanian that gives seven specific examples of gender diversity. References are also seen in Dr Joan Roughgarden’s book, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People 5.
There have been supporters and critiques of both this article and book, but for me, they provided useful information and confirmation that gender diversity exists in the animal kingdom. Even more importantly, they confirmed that the issue is not that gender diversity doesn’t exist in the animal kingdom, but that we haven’t looked, or arguably chose not to look, as has been the case with sexuality in the history of human civilisations, until recently.
There is a much clearer picture when it comes to diversity of sexualities. Scientists perceive homosexual behaviour in animals in different degrees. This review finds Same-sex behaviour seen in nearly all animals6:
“It is clear that same-sex sexual behavior extends far beyond the well-known examples that dominate both the scientific and popular literature: for example, bonobos, dolphins, penguins and fruit flies," said Nathan Bailey, the first author of the review paper and a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology at UC Riverside. There is a caveat, however. The review also reports that same-sex behaviors are not the same across species, and that researchers may be calling qualitatively different phenomena by the same name”
In this article, Juanita Bawagan writes7:
“Same-sex behaviour ranging from co-parenting to sex has been observed in over 1000 species with likely many more as researchers begin to look for the behaviour explicitly. Homosexuality is widespread, with bisexuality even more prevalent across species. Juanita also suggests, in the past, homosexual behaviour was often ignored because it supposedly contradicted Darwin's theory of evolution. Scientists argued homosexuality was a sort of 'Darwinian paradox' because it involved sexual behaviour that was non-reproductive. Recent evidence however suggests homosexual behaviour could play important roles in reproduction and evolution.”
In the book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity Bruce Bagemihl describes same-sex behaviour (comprising courtship, sexual, pair-bonding and parental activities) having been documented in over 450 species of animals worldwide.8 And Poiani and Dixson in their book Animal Homosexuality: a biosocial perspective share a journey through the evolutionary, biological, psychological and sociological aspects of homosexuality, seeking an understanding of both the proximate and evolutionary causes of homosexual behavior and orientation in birds, mammals and humans.
It is therefore fair to say, that the evolution of gender and the diversity of sexuality in humans, is rooted in our biology and is shaped by a variety of factors, including hormones, genetics, and cultural norms and beliefs. This is supported in the articles Biological theories of gender9 by Dr McLeod and Neurobiology of gender identity and sexual orientation by Dr Roselli 10, and this book chapter ‘Sexual minorities and mental health: global perspectives’, by Bhugra et al. (Bhugra, 2022)11.
The diversity of gender and sexuality in the animal kingdom has important implications for our understanding of human sexuality and gender. While some may argue that these behaviours are simply learned or are the result of environmental factors, one thing is clear to me, that the existence of these behaviours in numerous species across the animal kingdom suggests they are part of a larger pattern of natural variation in sexuality and gender.
It is also worth noting that throughout history, societies have exhibited a wide range of attitudes towards diversity in gender and sexuality, with some cultures embracing diversity and others suppressing it. In recent decades, the LGBT rights movement has gained significant momentum, leading to greater visibility and acceptance for individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
This progress has been achieved through the tireless efforts of activists, members of the LGBT community and allies who have worked hard to challenge discriminatory views, laws and attitudes and to secure legal recognition for same-sex relationships and gender diversities.
In conclusion, gender and sexuality diversity is not limited to humans but exists throughout the animal kingdom. Our understanding of diversity in gender and sexuality in humans is informed by this broader perspective, and by the rich history of human cultures and societies. As we continue to evolve as a species, it is important that we continue to embrace and celebrate diversity in all its forms.
“The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
― Winston Churchill
Disclaimer: I am a cisgender gay man, chair of an LGBTQ+ special interest group, and run voluntary support groups for LGBT people.
- ‘Internalized homophobia’ represents “the gay person’s direction of negative social attitudes toward the self” (Meyer & Dean, 1998, p. 161). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2678796/
- Jurassic Park "Life Finds A Way" egg discovery scene- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dy-6I8f89K4
- https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/science/nature/article/2016/09/29/7-gender-bending-animals-animal-kingdom - note: this link no longer works, an alternative similar article is here