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Moment that mattered: The gay marriage bill is passed

“Anything like gay marriage that disrupts the notions of a traditional family unit will always cause fear among some people. One of the ways in which some sections of society categorise what is natural or normal for humans to do is by thinking about what other species do, and one argument that has run through homophobic discourse is that homosexuality is unnatural because it doesn’t exist in other species.

My research into the representation of sexuality in wildlife documentaries began when I came across some literature about homosexual behaviour in a range of animals and suddenly thought, I don’t remember seeing any of this on TV. This is significant because if they leave this kind of material out, not only does it misrepresent the science, but it also has implications for how we think about humans.

The most banned book in America is ‘And Tango Makes Three’. It’s a children’s book based on a true story: two male penguins in New York Zoo called Roy and Silo who went around as a couple and started trying to hatch a rock by sitting on it. The zookeepers gave them an egg that had been abandoned by another penguin. Roy and Silo sat on it, hatched it and raised the young penguin, which was named Tango.

Why is this the most banned book in America? It’s not because people are concerned about the representation of penguins, it’s because of the assumption that if you normalise homosexuality in other species it says something about homosexuality in humans. In the same way that Section 28 in Britain brought in this whole fear that you can turn people gay by telling them about homosexuality, there’s this fear that seeing cartoon penguins could turn people gay, which is fascinating.

An article about my research was coincidentally published just after the marriage bill went through. A lot of the commentators drew a link between the two, saying something like ‘well this [depictions of homosexual behaviour in wildlife documentaries] is the next absurd step for those interested in gay rights’. I got quite a lot of hate mail after this from people saying ‘I don’t want homosexual animals on television because I fear the effect it will have on children’.

I was presented with two arguments. Firstly that the documentaries are just trying to give you an overview so they have to deal with the majority. And if the majority of animals are heterosexual then that’s what you’re going to see. Of course, you wouldn’t do that in a documentary about humans, just exclude a minority. Second, that they are exploring evolution and that the way you tell a story about evolution has to be via heterosexuality.

I like to give an example to deal with this second point. Something like 40 per cent of black swans are in same-sex couples, but those couples very commonly have offspring. What happens is that if you have two males, one will go off, mate with a female, and then the two males will steal the egg and raise it as their own. And the survival rates of black swan offspring that are born to homosexual pairings are higher than of those born to heterosexual pairings. So actually that’s the story you should be looking at, that having homosexual pairings is a really successful evolutionary biological model.

Dr Mills’ paper, ‘The Animals Went in Two by Two: Heteronormativity in Television Wildlife Documentaries’ can be downloaded from

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