The Birds and the Bees - Within Genders, Without Genders, Across Genders
The traditional view of the animal kingdom -- what one might call the Noah's ark view -- is that biology revolves around two sexes, male and female, with one of each to a pair. The range of genders and sexualities actually found in the animal world, however, is considerably richer than this. Animals with females that become males, animals with no males at all, animals that are both male and female simultaneously, animals where males resemble females, animals where females court other females and males court other males -- Noah's ark was never quite like this! Homosexuality represents but one of a wide variety of alternative sexualities and genders. Many people are familiar with transvestism or transsexuality only in humans, yet similar phenomena are also found in the animal kingdom.
Many animals lives without two distinct genders, or with multiple genders. In hermaphrodite species, for instance, all individuals are both male and female simultaneously, and hence there are not really two separate sexes; in parthenogenetic species, all individuals are female and they reproduce by virgin birth. A number of other phenomena in the animal kingdom -- for which we will use the cover term transgender -- involve the crossing or traversing of exisiting gender categories: for example, transvestism (imitating the opposite sex, either behaviorally, visually, or chemically), transsexuality (physically becoming the opposite sex), and intersexuality (combining physical characteristics of both sexes).
A good example of the difference between behavioral transvestism and homosexuality is in the Bighorn Sheep. In this species, males and females lead almost entirely separate lives: they live in sex-segregated herds for most of the year and come together for only a few short months during the breeding season. Among males, homosexual mounting is common, while females do not generally permit themselves to be mounted by males except when they are in heat (estrus). A small percentage of males, however, are behavioral transvestites: they remain in the female herds year-round and also mimic female behavioral patterns. Significantly, such males also generally refuse to allow other males to mount them, just the way females do. Thus, among Bighorn Sheep, being mounted by a male is typically "masculine" activity, while refusal of such mounting is a typically "feminine" behavior. Males who mimic females specifically avoid homosexuality. This is the exact opposite of the stereotypical view of male homosexuality, which is often considered to be a case of males "imitating" females. It is also a striking reminder of how important it is not to be misled by our preconceptions about human homosexuality when looking at animals.