Can Animals Be Homophobic?

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March 5 2012 6:34 PM

Can Animals Be Homophobic?

Anti-gay discrimination in the animal kingdom.

Male homosexual penguins
Two male penguin pair "Sechs Punkt" (Six Point) and "Schraegstrich" (Slash) cuddle at the Bremerhaven Zoo, where three male homosexual penguin pairs live in couple

Photograph by David Hecker/Getty Images.

In an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan on Sunday, former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron called homosexuality “unnatural,” and a behavior that is “ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.” We’ve heard that many species of nonhuman animals engage in gay sex, which calls into question the first part of Cameron’s statement. But what about the practice of shunning gays—can animals be homophobic too?

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Not as far as we know. Homosexual behavior has been documented in hundreds of animal species, but the same does not hold for gay-bashing. For starters, few animals are exclusively gay. Two female Japanese macaques might have playful sex with each other on Tuesday, then mate with males on Wednesday. Pairs of male elephants sometimes form years-long companionships that include sexual activity, while their heterosexual couplings tend to be one-night stands. For these and many other species, sexual preferences seem to be fluid rather than binary: Gay sex doesn’t make them gay, and straight sex doesn’t make them straight. In these cases, the concept of homophobia simply doesn’t apply.

Still, it’s possible that a social grouping of animals would ostracize a member for engaging in even a single act of gay sex. Indeed, members of nonhuman species have been known to shun members of their social groups on account of certain specific behaviors. A 1995 study described a young adult chimpanzee that refused to grunt submissively and seemed to bully females; eight other males assaulted him and exiled him from the group for three months. It’s not inconceivable that unwanted sexual advances, homosexual or otherwise, might warrant the same harsh treatment; it simply hasn’t been documented.

What evidence we do have suggests that no such policing of sexual behavior exists. A male dog mounted by another male dog might reject the coupling, but there’s no sign that it takes any more offense than would a female that’s not in heat. In some primate species, young females will take umbrage at advances from males of their father’s age, probably as a defense against incest. But while they may scream and run away, the rest of the group doesn’t seem to get riled up about it.

Researchers believe that gay sex is even rewarded in certain species. For bonobos, sexual activity serves as an instrument of social harmony: It reinforces bonds and keeps the peace. For instance, when a female bonobo migrates into a new group, she often ingratiates herself to the clan’s other ladies by having a lot of sex with them. Far from being shunned, this homosexual behavior is welcomed. And former Stanford researcher Joan Roughgarden has argued that among male bighorn sheep bisexuality may be the norm; those that don’t participate end up as outcasts.

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Explainer thanks Frans de Waal of Emory University and Christopher Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality.