Nope, These Birds are Not Lesbians

ChartoriginalAnnalee Newitz in io9:

Female Laysan albatrosses have a habit of building nests together and sharing child care responsibilities. Does this make them lesbians? Scientists say no. Still, there have been dozens of news headlines trumpeting the discovery of gay marriage among albatrosses. Now, to fight back, two scientists have done a study on how often the media misrepresents animal sexuality. Their findings are hilarious.

Writing today in Nature, biologists Andrew B. Barron and Mark J. F. Brown explain the scope of the problem:

The vast majority of studies reporting sexual contact between pairs of males or females were presented in media articles as documenting gay, lesbian or transgender behaviour. This is not innocuous – these are terms that refer to human sexuality, which encompasses lifestyle choices, partner preferences and culture, among other factors.

More worryingly, studies that invoked atypical sexual behaviour through genetic or hormonal manipulation were reported as inducing gay or lesbian behaviour or changing the animals' sexual orientation, even in the case of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, which has males and hermaphrodites, rather than males and females.

Humans have spent thousands of years heaping cultural ideas on top of our behavior. So when a human says she's a lesbian, it can mean a lot of things that are fairly complicated. When an animal has sex with another animal of the same sex, it doesn't really mean any more than when they have sex with an animal of the opposite sex. It's simply a variant on sexual behavior.

Barron and Brown call out one headline from New Scientist as a perfect example of this issue of translating dry scientific headlines into more exciting (but incorrect) ones:

For example, ‘Female-limited polymorphism in the copulatory organ of a traumatically inseminating insect' became ‘Bat bugs turn transsexual to avoid stabbing penises.'

The problem? Transsexuality is a human category.