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Homo on the Range: Gay Marriage in the Animal Kingdom

By in Oslo

Two male giraffes in unequivocal pose, a lesbian swan couple, two male whales stimulating each other: a new exhibit in Oslo displays examples of animal homosexuality.

An image of two male giraffes getting a bit frisky.
Christoph Seidler

An image of two male giraffes getting a bit frisky.

"Normally," says Geir Söli with a smile, "natural history museums just show pretty boring things: rocks, stuffed birds and the like." Not so with the Norwegian zoologist's latest project. After three years of preparation, Söli and his colleagues from the Natural History Museum in Oslo have just inaugurated the world's first exhibit on animal homosexuality.

"Against Nature?" is the name of the exhibition in the red brick building on the edge of Oslo's Botanical Gardens. The question mark at the end of the title is of particular importance to exhibit director Söli. He wants to qualify the argument that homosexuality is against nature because, he says, the facts paint a different picture: homosexual behavior has been observed in at least 1,500 species, and in roughly 500 of these cases the findings have been well documented. "And that's only the tip of the iceberg."

All too often, Söli says, zoologists have simply ignored the homosexuality of their research subjects. Against the backdrop of a 4-meter-tall image of two giraffes in an unmistakable pose, Söli explains how the whole thing usually worked: In a study on giraffes in Africa, for instance, scientists classified the mere sniffing of a female by her male counterpart as "sexual interest." But when one male giraffe mounted another, the scientists recorded this as a "territorial fight" -- even when they observed an ejaculation -- because what must not be, cannot be.

Around 2,300 years ago, Aristotle had already described the remarkable behaviour of a group of hyenas: males flirting with males, females pleasuring females. But the idea of gay marriage in the animal kingdom never really fitted into the scientists' world view, and so was all too often ignored.

Not too far way, in Göteborg's Natural History Museum, an exhibition has been running since the beginning of June entitled "I love U," which presents, in laid back Scandinavian style, the mating and reproduction of all kinds of animals, including people. With a faint hint of Abba, the Swedish exhibitors illustrate "the winner takes it all" with a model of an egg surrounded by sperm. It's all about reproduction here -- up to now the only purpose for sexuality in the animal kingdom -- at least according to the traditional version.

The Oslo exhibit documents how reality has now caught up with the scientists: they observed whales, for example, rubbing up against each other with erect penises; a female dolphin gliding her fin into her partner's genital tract; or two male seagulls building a nest together. Scientists even discovered, to their great surprise, that approximately one out of ten couples in some king penguin colonies were homosexual.

The Joy of Animal Sex

"Biological Exuberance" is the name of a book published seven years ago by the biologist Bruce Bagemihl, which summarizes these types of cases. And "exuberance" is indeed the explanation for these observations, says Bagemihl. His somewhat controversial theory forms the cornerstone of the Oslo exhibition: animals enjoy sex, whatever the constellation may be. Geir Söli contends that this is especially true of more developed species like whales, dolphins, or primates. There is evidence everywhere of homosexual behavior.

Incidentally, the exhibit also shows cases where with a few tricks, homosexual animal couples can even raise offspring. Scientists have recently reported on parenthood among homosexual flamingos, vultures and storks, by means of borrowed eggs and "one-night stands." They have also found evidence of some same-sex relationships that last an animal's lifetime. "You can say what you will about homosexuality, but you can't say that it is contrary to nature," says Geir Söli, thereby answering in passing the question in the exhibit's title.

So far, there haven't been any large-scale protests against the exhibition -- it simply fits in too well with liberal Norway, where the government, by way of special subsidies, encourages the country's museums to get involved in the public debates. And so it should come as no surprise that it is above all families who crowd the dimly lit museum halls on the weekends. The merry sound of hollering children is constantly reverberating throughout the museum. "I am pleased that families continue to come here," Söli says. "We don't have any shocking images here, we don't want to hit anyone over the head."

The scientists from Oslo took a risk with their new exhibition, and they were rewarded for it. The house is full and is enjoying worldwide attention. So it is with good reason that Geir Söli and his colleagues are considering exporting their success at the end of the ten-month exhibition: "We are thinking about turning it into a traveling exhibition."

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