Homosexuality in humans is a hot-button issue that gets plenty of coverage, but same-gender sex in animals rarely makes headlines. The organizers of a new Norwegian exhibition on homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom hope to call attention to the often ignored subject.   

“People always come up with the argument that homosexuality is somehow against nature. And that’s not true,” said Petter Bøckman, the academic advisor for the "Against Nature?" exhibition at the Norwegian Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo.

Through models, photos, texts, and specimens ranging in size from tiny insects to enormous sperm whales, visitors can learn about a small selection of gay animals.

Scientists have observed homosexual behavior in 1,500 animal species, said Bøckman. Take, for instance, bonobos, one of our closest relatives and perhaps the most well-known homosexual animals. “They’re known to be rampantly bisexual,” he said. Killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, West Indian manatees, and giraffes have all-male orgies. Among black-headed gulls, scientists estimate that one in ten pairs is comprised of two females. Same-sex penguin couples have been known to have long relationships and raise chicks.

Homosexuality is most widespread among animals with a complex herd life. It functions as a kind of social glue for bonobos, who use sex to diffuse conflict—a marked difference from other primates that solve conflicts with violence. Homosexuality also plays a social role among other male animals, such as big horn sheep and lions.

But researchers have no idea what the advantage is, if any, of homosexual behavior among dragonflies, scarab beetles, or, as observed at least once, two male octopuses of different species.

“There are some surprising things going on in the animal kingdom, and a lot of these things we have no explanation for,” said Bøckman. He and others at the museum hope the exhibition will help break a long-held taboo against talking about, and publishing on, the subject. “We need more research,” he said.

The exhibition is long overdue, said Joan Roughgarden, a biologist at Stanford University and author of Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. She points out that in the U.S., museums, nature shows, introductory biology courses, and even peer-reviewed journals often shy away from mentioning homosexuality in the animal kingdom. “They’re not painting an accurate picture of life in the animal kingdom,” she said.

Roughgarden said the exhibition could help bring the phenomenon out of the closet. “I hope this is only the beginning,” she said.  

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2006.

Copyright Environ Press 2006