Why The Gay Squid Actually Isn’t

Via Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

A species of deep-sea squid has been found to have a lot of gay sex. In a study called “A Shot in the Dark: Same-Sex Sexual Behaviour in Deep-Sea Squid,” researchers noted that the squid (Octopoteuthis deletron) are the first spineless masses of invertebrates found to mate equally with males and females — really, with any other squid they see.

It’s really easy to be excited about this, the same way it’s easy to be excited when people find gay penguins (!). Or lesbian koalas! Or gay black swans! Or gay big horn sheep! Or lesbian albatrosses! Bottlenose dolphins and bonobo chimps are the most common examples, possibly because they have a lot of other similarities to humans, and possibly because they are cute, but there same sex behaviour has been documented in over 1,500 species.

Finding “gay” animals is also an easy way to argue against homophobic creationists, because look, if the dolphins/bonobos/penguins are sometimes gay, then it must be OK that people are sometimes gay, too. This argument was used in a Supreme Court decision to strike down sodomy laws in 14 states. Looking at animal behaviour can also lead to an argument that being gay is genetic (though now we have human-based studies for that).

However, using terms that apply to human behaviour don’t fit when applied to animals. According to Lindsay Young, a scientist behind the discovery that many female albatrosses are into chicks, whether or not an animal is gay doesn’t have anything to do with her research: “‘Lesbian,” she told [the New York Times], ‘is a human term,’ and Young — a diligent and cautious scientist, just beginning to make a name in her field — is devoted to using the most aseptic language possible and resisting any tinge of anthropomorphism. ‘The study is about albatross,’ she told me firmly. ‘The study is not about humans.’”

We can’t use human terms to apply to animal research, because the squid isn’t actually bisexual in the way that we think of “bisexual,” it’s just doing what it needs to do to have the greatest chance of survival, which in this case is attempting to have sex with any other squid it sees, regardless of gender (which is difficult to determine in any case. Of the 108 squid captured for the study, scientists could only identify 39 of them.) According to the New York Times,

“Little is known about the details but it seems that the male ejaculates a packet of sperm at the mating partner, and the packet turns inside out, essentially shooting the sperm contained in a membrane into the flesh of the partner, where they stay embedded until the female (if the shooter has been lucky) is ready to fertilize its eggs. If males are the recipient of these rocket sperm, they are just stuck with them. It is the kind of mating that would make a good video game.”

While it’s probably possible to launch on an extended metaphor about how this relates to gay people, I’m not going to. Hendrik Hoving, the researcher behind the findings, “fended off that notion [of gay squid], reiterating that the squid has no discernible sexual orientation, and that a tentacled invertebrate that shoots sperm into its mate’s flesh really has nothing to do with human behavior.”

But there’s something much more important to celebrate when studies like this take place. One of the reasons that we keep “discovering” animals with same-sex behaviour is that for years, scientists would just not mention it (this is called observer bias). According to the New York Times,

“This kind of behavior among animals has been observed by scientists as far back as the 1700′s, but [psychology and neuroscience professor] Mr. Vasey said one reason there had been few books on the topic was that ‘people don’t want to do the research because they don’t want to have suspicions raised about their sexuality.’”

For instance, before Frans de Waal’s Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape was published in 1997, scientists who studied bonobos would never talk about sex, which bonobos engage in almost hourly, and would instead do things like publish a photo of two females having sex and write that they were being affectionate.

The flip side of the bias that makes us read two male penguins with an egg as gay also used to mean that scientists would omit same-sex behaviour from their results, or not even notice it. It’s one thing to be excited about a “gay” squid, but the really exciting thing here is not that the squid are having same-sex sex, but that scientists are talking about it.

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Carolyn is the NSFW Editor for Autostraddle.com. She is also a freelance copy editor and writer, and her work has appeared in Bitch, Xtra!, Jezebel, the Billfold, and other places. Find her on twitter.

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13 Comments

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    “Finding “gay” animals is also an easy way to argue against homophobic creationists, because look, if the dolphins/bonobos/penguins are sometimes gay, then it must be OK that people are sometimes gay, too.”

    Are people actually convinced by this argument? I guess the Supreme Court is, but you know, some animals eat their own young–that doesn’t mean it’s OK for us to do it.

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      I also think it could be an argument *for* homophobia: “If animals engage in abhorrent behaviour, it’s because they’re animals and don’t have a soul/Grace of God/weren’t made in His image like humans” ergo homosexuality = beastly and inhuman. *sigh* If you’re deeply rooted in Biblical homophobia, then you can use anything to support it.

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      Probably not, but people have argued/do argue that gayness is “unnatural” because animals never have gay sex, which is categorically false.

      I would tend to agree, however, that non-human animals aren’t really the best models for how we define or relate to our own sexualities.

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      In my experience in arguing with people opposed to homosexuality, 100% of the argument against homosexuality is irrational. Homophobia is a gut reaction people try to rationalize. Though they may veer into quasi-science as a counter-point, it’s not usually the foundation of their argument. The foundation of their argument is fear.

      In 16 years arguing with people, I’ve never had someone come back with “animals don’t have souls.” Probably because at that point they’re trying to make a quasi-scientific argument.

      A typical portion of the argument goes something like this: “Homosexuality can’t be natural because gay people can’t procreate naturally. Tolerance of homosexuality would lead to human extinction.”

      Human extinction? That’s a pretty scary thing. Counter-point: Homosexuality has been observed in other species of animals and has not been a cause of extinction.

      Homophobia is an irrational fear of homosexuality. It’s emotional. You’re not actually going up against a rational or scientific argument. They just try to make it seem that way, mostly because they’re also trying to convince themselves that they’re not just being an intolerant bigot out of fear. No, they’re being an intolerant bigot for the greater good of humanity. They’re trying to save humanity from extinction or annihilation by God’s wrath. They’re justifying and rationalizing their intolerance of a few by convincing themselves and others they’re trying to save the many.

      But you know, the majority of people actually aren’t that extreme with the apocalyptic argument. They’re in the middle struggling to pick a side, to pick the argument that feels the most right to them. You just have to help them overcome their fear.

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    cool!

    yeah, another aspect of this is that using animals to argue that gay sex is OK b/c it’s “natural” implies that things are only ok if they are natural. and obvs being gay is OK whether or not it’s natural.

    AND things like this always get me thinking about the extremely blurry line between what’s natural and what’s not. like arguably everything humans do is natural since we’re animals.

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