IN THE EARLY 1990s, a young scientific illustrator named John Megahan got a call to work on a secret project: an encyclopedia of all known scientific observations of homosexuality in nature. The book, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, was the masterwork of biologist Bruce Bagemihl, who had spent years combing through scientific studies, textbooks, scientists’ personal journals, and archives, and cold-calling hundreds of living wildlife biologists in search of well-documented cases of same-sex mating, parenting, courtship, and multivariate, rather than binary, expressions of sex (like intersexuality and sex-changing) in the animal world. His list grew so long, he had to limit his book to just mammals and birds. Very few of the observations included photos (some had been documented before the invention of the camera), so Bagemihl wanted one of the nation’s finest zoological illustrators to bring the described behavior to life.
That’s when John Megahan got the call. Megahan would go on to spend years on the project. He made hundreds of drawings, black-and-white technical illustrations detailing everything from female gulls that mate, nest, and raise chicks together to gray whales engaging in “penis intertwining.”
Thumbing through the book’s pages, it’s hard not to giggle. This is the Noah’s ark you never heard about. There are male giraffes necking (literally, that’s what scientists call the courtship behavior); dolphins engaging in blowhole sex; and rams and grizzlies and hedgehogs mounting one another in such intricate detail you can almost feel their fur or fangs or spines.
But awe creeps in too. Somewhere around page 453 maybe, with the kangaroos, or page 476 with the bats, or nearing page 700 after the umpteenth species of warbler. How were we not told?
The deeper I’ve fallen down this rainbow-colored rabbit hole, the more I’ve come to understand that my shock at the breadth of queerness in nature is a symptom of a horrible miseducation, of centuries of science bullying the abundance of queerness off the record, of an internalized homophobia that sometimes still whispers in my ear that I, a queer woman, do not belong on the tree of life. Bruce Bagemihl’s book with Megahan’s illustrations accomplished a kind of feat of alchemy. They took two millennia worth of outliers, scooped them all together, and in so doing revealed that which had been labeled as “unnatural” to be natural. This book helped to shift a scientific paradigm; its width is humbling, its bibliography, muscular. It taught me how the seemingly humble act of compilation can be a kind of activism.
I’m not alone in seeing the book this way. When Biological Exuberance was published in 1999, reviewers called it “revolutionary,” “monumental,” and “a landmark in the literature of science.” It was listed as a Best Book of 1999 by Publishers Weekly and the New York Public Library. It would even go on to be cited in a brief for the Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003) as a scientifically rigorous refutation to the belief that homosexuality was a “crime against nature.”
The story of this book, this honking tome that helped shatter a scientific misbelief, is somewhat well known. Lesser known is the story of the straight man from Idaho who spent more than a thousand hours quietly illustrating the queerness abundant in nature so that the human world could finally see it.
For a deep dive on the science of queer animals,
check out Radiolab‘s episode “The Seagulls.”
Illustrations by John Megahan
Lulu Miller: What kind of work do you do these days? Can you describe a little of what’s on the wall behind you?
John Megahan: Let’s see. Well, a couple of landscape paintings. The big one that’s very colorful is a picture of Yellowstone. See the ocean picture? That’s Cape Flattery. It’s up in Washington State, right on the coast, on the very northwest tip.
LM: Wow, they’re so colorful. You work with light in these gorgeous ways. The artwork I’m here to talk to you about today is . . .
JM: Very different.
LM: Black-and-white. Do you do both?
JM: I do both, yeah. This book was done how many years ago? Twenty-five years ago? Twenty-four? My art style then was mainly black-and-white. A lot of the drawings that are in here are scratchboard drawings. You use ink on a white clay surface. You can put black ink on and then scratch through and get white lines, or you can just draw black lines onto the white clay. It’s like pen and ink on steroids. It’s a real fun style.
LM: Yeah, it’s gorgeous. Do you have the book?
JM: I’ve got the book right here.
LM: This book that you’re holding, what is it called? If you had to describe what’s inside, what is it?
JM: Biological Exuberance. Inside is basically a description of the sexual behavior of a wide variety of animals, explaining that not only is there heterosexual behavior among the animals but also all kinds of homosexual behavior. It’s an opportunity to show clearly and concisely, or as clearly and concisely as we can, what actually happens out in nature.
LM: Pretty much everything in this book has been scientifically observed cases of homosexual mating, pairing, or courtship. It’s kind of like a . . . what would you call it? A compilation?
JM: Almost an encyclopedia of homosexual animal behavior.
LM: How did this book come about? How did you get involved?
JM: At the time, I was a freelance illustrator working in Oregon. I had been advertising nationally as an illustrator. I got a call from St. Martin’s Press, and they told me that [biologist] Bruce Bagemihl wanted to talk to me. He’s a very sharp, incisive person—one of the most intelligent people I think I’ve ever talked to. He asked me if I was uncomfortable doing these kinds of drawings because many are R-rated, and I told him no. I’d been working as a biologist for years. I’d worked as a veterinary technician and collected semen on show dogs. Anything like this really didn’t bother me that much.
He basically described the book as an encyclopedia of homosexuality, covering birds and mammals. I would have to take all these descriptions that biologists had seen and turn them into drawings. That was the tricky part. A lot of these things had no photographs, nothing other than a verbal description from a biologist, so I had to read what the biologist had written and try to translate that into a visual image.
LM: And so he pitches this idea . . . Did he talk about its importance? About why he wanted to do it or how long he’d been working on compiling it?
JM: I think he had been working on this for years. This is his life’s work. And I think he wanted to do it as a contribution both to science and society. It’s an important topic.
LM: Did you have any sense of . . . trepidation? Or a sense of like, Oh, boy, this could be controversial? Or, What am I getting myself into?
JM: No. Some thoughts along those lines, but I didn’t have any trepidation. It was something I wanted to do.
LM: Why do you think Bruce wanted to have illustrations? Why not just words? There are all these scientists, all these studies. It’s legit; it’s real. Why add the illustrations?
JM: Well, I think it helped bring the book to life. There were a lot of cases where there were no photographs; it was just written descriptions of this stuff. So having something visual to relate to helps.
LM: In the mid-1990s, when you were starting to work on this, was there a lot of doubt that homosexuality takes place in the natural world? Was there a sense that this was something people were aware of, or did it feel new even to be bringing it out?
JM: It felt new. It was something that I was not aware of and had not really considered before, so I was personally fascinated by the subject.
All these things that are compiled in here were the notes and observations of scientists. For years they’ve been seeing this stuff, but usually just in side notes. And they published very little about these subjects. This is the one publication that pulled everything together into a single document.
LM: That’s interesting. It’s taking the side notes and the things that were listed as deviant or abnormal and saying, Wait, when you actually put them all together, maybe they’re not.
Do you remember any drawings, or the journeys to a drawing, that were funny or hard or complicated?
Illustration by John Megahan
JM: Well, a fun one for me was the hand signals by chimpanzees. We spent quite a bit of time working on this illustration. We actually studied the symbols that they use in sign language publications.
LM: There’s a sideways wave and there’s one that almost looks like you’re dribbling a basketball, which is apparently an invitation for sexual interaction. There are ones that seem to be telling the partner what to do: turn around, position yourself, spread your legs. Were you watching videos? How did you get so precise with these? It’s so cool. It’s like a language—like sex talk.
JM: Bruce basically gave me rough sketches of what he wanted on these. And so I had a rough idea of how to go about this. And then I think I asked my wife, Anne, to move her hand about in various ways, and then I turned her hand into a chimpanzee hand.
LM: Do you remember if there were edits on this one or did he pretty much like what you were doing?
JM: I think he liked what I was doing. We did go back and forth quite a bit, though, on getting the gestures just right.
LM: And what about any others? Do you want to share maybe one or two where he gave you some edits?
JM: Let’s see . . . I think the courtship of the hedgehog was one. It’s page 471.
LM: Okay. So we’ve got courtship and sexual activity between female long-eared hedgehogs. And it’s like three panels where they’re kind of . . .
It definitely did not stay a day job.
It became a work of love for me.
JM: “Courtship and sexual activity between female long-eared hedgehogs.” We’ll go in order. The top one is “sliding.” The middle one is “arching posture.” And the last one is “cunnilingus.”
LM: And then you illustrate this. Female-to-female cunnilingus in hedgehogs. Like, just another day at the office.
JM: Well, that one was actually rather interesting because at the time, my wife and I had moved from Oregon to Michigan when I got a job at University of Michigan. And I came here with the agreement that they would give me time in the office to work on these illustrations. And I was in the middle of doing that particular drawing, and I was sworn not to tell anybody what was going on. This was supposed to be a secret project.
LM: So you couldn’t tell University of Michigan what the project was. You couldn’t say, “I need time to do my gay animal sex drawings.”
JM: I told the director what was going on and that I needed time to finish this book. And he was great. He was fine with it. But I couldn’t tell anybody else.
So while I was in the middle of that particular drawing, a graduate student came walking into the office. And she looked at the drawing, and looked at me, and she said, “Is that hedgehog sticking its nose up the other hedgehog’s butt?” And I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was mumble something about, “Oh yeah, this is kind of a little project I’m working on.” And I covered it up quickly and sort of hid the drawing. But yeah, that was awkward.
LM: Wow. And did this one have any notes from Bruce or was it, once your grad student was gone and you could finish it, okay as is?
JM: I think we had to revise the positions on this one a couple of times, but yeah.
LM: Did you have any moments where your sense of nature started to change? Did you feel drawn into the world in any way? Or did it just stay a day job?
JM: It definitely did not stay a day job. It became a work of love for me, in a sense. I became really committed to it. Once we got going and I saw the scope of the project and what it was all about, I basically wanted to pay respect to these animals. I wanted to pay respect to the behaviors they were exhibiting. All my drawings were done very carefully to try to give that sense of respect to them.
LM: You mentioned you are straight, married to a woman, not part of the queer community, but did you feel any sense of “This could be meaningful or important to some people”?
JM: Yeah, definitely. This was a subject that very few people knew about. There was very little written about it. When I saw the scope of this, I realized that this could have some real impact. And I didn’t know where it might go, but I had a feeling inside that it was an important book.
LM: So many of our laws historically banning homosexuality have been based on the legal justification that it’s a crime against nature or that it’s deviant. And then a book like this with so many observations of homosexuality in nature . . . it detonated that particular legal justification.
JM: That argument was gone.
LM: You might be aware of this, but your book was cited in the APA (American Psychological Association) brief to the famous 2003 Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas. What do you know about it, and when did you hear about that?
Illustrations by John Megahan
JM: I know very little about it, but Bruce sent me a notice that this book was cited in front of the Supreme Court, and that was fantastic. I had hoped that it would have some kind of societal impact, but I didn’t dream it would come to something like that. So that was thrilling.
LM: And what was your sense of how they used it? You’re probably aware of the rough timeline. In the 1970s, some progress was made in the LGBTQ+ rights movement, and then there was kind of a clampdown with the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick case. Basically, it was upheld that gay sex, even in the privacy of your own home, could be a crime—the word “unnatural” was even invoked. And then almost twenty years later, your book comes out and, a few years after that, the legality of homosexual sex again comes before the Supreme Court after two guys were arrested for having sex with each other, you know, at home, in private, in Texas.
And then finally it becomes a constitutionally protected right to have homosexual sex. What was your sense of how the APA cited it? What was the gist of what the heck your book and your lewd drawings of animal sex were doing in the Supreme Court brief?
JM: This book basically points out that homosexuality is built into nature. You see it in all kinds of animals, and you see a wide variety of behaviors across the spectrum. So it sort of wipes out the idea that this is some aberrant behavior that’s not natural. It is natural. It happens all the time.
LM: How many hours do you think you spent sketching? How many hours was your pen to paper just rendering these stories?
JM: Oh, boy. I probably did about eight hours or more per drawing. So if you multiply that by around two hundred, some sixteen hundred hours. Or more.
LM: Did working on this book change your assumptions or your sense of what’s out there in the world and what’s natural?
JM: Yeah, definitely. It really opened up my eyes to the broad spectrum of behavior in the animal world. I come from Boise, and Idaho is very conservative. When I was a kid, being labeled a “homosexual” was the worst kind of label that you could possibly get. And everybody would call you a “homo” if you were a wimp or small. And I was small and kind of a wimp. I was not an athlete. So I was the one called a “homo” all the time.
This book basically points out that
homosexuality is built into nature.
LM: Did spending all this time seeing homosexual animals, thinking about them and rendering them tending to babies and giving each other pleasure, did that change your sense of what it felt like to grow up in Boise? How did those two relate?
JM: By that time, I had been through graduate school at the University of Oregon, and I had a couple of friends there who were homosexual. They opened my eyes to that world, because growing up in Boise, I really didn’t know anybody who was homosexual. You almost had the sense that these were bad people who were doing terrible things. And when I got to the University of Oregon, I met these people, and it was like, Wow, they’re normal people just like anybody else. By the time I did the book, I was already aware of that, but the book just opened up the doors wider and explored the idea of how natural this subject is.
LM: There are hundreds of illustrations in here. Do you think that this book captures most of what’s out there in nature?
JM: I don’t think so. When Bruce and I talked, he would hint that there was a lot more out there. That’s why we talked about a second and possibly a third book, but unfortunately those didn’t happen.
LM: Was the book ever banned anywhere?
JM: No. I’ve never heard that.
LM: I seriously wonder if it might get banned today in certain places. I really do.
JM: You have to wonder. But at the time, I was actually very surprised at the reception it got. It seemed to get a very good reception.
LM: Do you think this book was a part of shifting cultural and maybe even legal attitudes toward folks who are homosexual or queer or even transgender? Do you think this book was a part of that journey? Do you think it played any role?
JM: I really hope it did. It was cited in front of the Supreme Court—at least it made it that far. It’s a great feeling that it was accepted and has gone on to be the book it is.
Illustrations by John Megahan
Lulu Miller is the cohost of Radiolab, host of Terrestrials, and author of national bestseller Why Fish Don’t Exist.
John Megahan studied both art and marine biology with the intention of becoming a biologist. But after
graduation, he decided to see if he could make it as a freelance scientific illustrator and soon found himself
busy working for numerous biologists and corporate clients. In 1996, he was hired as the senior scientific
illustrator for University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. He’s been there ever since, creating artwork
for several different departments, occasionally teaching, and illustrating children’s books.