The XX Factor

Those “Gay” Lions Are Actually Queer, Thankyouverymuch

“Don’t put us in a box.”

Mark Dumont/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve got good news and bad news for those who had hoped that this viral set of photos—depicting what appears to be two male lions in the throes of gay sex—heralded the queer utopia.

Bad news first: The buzzkills at National Geographic have debunked accounts from Mic, the Huffington Post, and photographer Nicole Cambré that called the lions males. Apparently, it’s more likely that the bottom lion is a female with a mane, a common sight in Botswana, where Cambré took the photos on safari.

But there’s a silver lining to this traditional P-in-V love story—namely, that it’s not so heteronormative after all! A biologically female lion with a mane is a gender ninja, a masculine-of-center nonbinary lion, or some kind of fabulous drag king. This genderqueer savanna cat will not hem in its gender presentation to conform to your suffocating boxes or your feel-good assimilationist gay love story. This male top is actually maybe vers, and just because his sex partner isn’t femme doesn’t mean he’s gay. Just because his partner was assigned female at birth doesn’t mean he’s straight, either. Botswana’s lion scene has achieved a level of queerness the modern LGBTQ movement should strive to reach.

Thus, these lions portend a future we all knew was coming: the day when homonormativity reaches its mainstream apex, making gender, not sexuality, the foremost battleground for queer liberation. Here on the human branch of the tree of life, we are currently debating the validity of they as a gender-neutral pronoun, prompting a Word of the Year award from the American Dialect Society and changes in the style guide of a U.S. publication of record. Soon, most of us will dispense with the concept of a binary gender identity, if we haven’t already.

Meanwhile, the lion world has already moved on to debunking the notion of a biological sex binary. National Geographic notes that a genetic aberration or surfeit of androgens in the womb may have given one female lion the secondary sex characteristics of a male, which were then passed down and repeated across Botswana. Female does not mean the same biological thing, point blank, across an entire species or animal class. Female spotted hyenas, for example, have clitorises that are larger than the penises of their male counterparts, which help them exhibit dominance in a matriarchal social structure. Physical differences within biological sexes crop up in humans, too—intersex people provide several examples of how this can play out—but the idea of a biological sex binary persists even as we start to divorce gender identity from sexuality and sex at birth.

Jacob Brogan recently wrote in Slate that anthropomorphizing an animal can blind us to just how bizarre and wonderful its differences from humans might be. In the case of these two queer lions, we can learn something from our impulse to label them gay: Our conceptions of sexuality are still rigid and binary, despite some movement toward fluidity. With any luck, the figurative clitoris of radical gender politics will take a cue from the female spotted hyena and outpace the already engorged phallus of mainstream homonormativity.