Pride at Sea: Salish Sea Orcas can be LGBTQ, too

Orcas, and really all of nature, remind us that life rejects rigid binaries in favor of dazzling, marvelous nuance and complexity.
June 2, 2023

Help us protect orcas

Ah, spring and summer — love is in the air, water, forests, and everywhere in between. Since Pride Month and Orca Month are both observed each June, we wanted to talk a little about, well, LGBTQ+ orcas. While each community celebrates Pride Month in their own ways, it’s time we all recognized something biologists have known for decades: animal sexuality is as complex as human sexuality (hey, we’re animals too after all).

Because LGBTQ+ identities have deep basis in human cultural, personal, and community identities, we of course can’t ascribe them to orcas. But we know that orcas, and most animals, don’t exactly ascribe to heterosexuality either. This quote from Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ book Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals says it better: 

“My hope, my grand poetic intervention here is to move from identification, also known as that process by which we say what is what, like which dolphin is that over there and what are its properties, to identification, that process through which we expand our empathy and the boundaries of who we are become more fluid, because we identify with (identify and both are in italics) the experience of someone different, maybe someone of a whole different so-called species.”

There are multiple Wikipedia pages dedicated to animals observed to display homosexual behavior. Mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, you name it. While it’s less common for an animal to be exclusively homosexual, nature shows us time after time that it abhors binaries.

Groups of male orcas regularly leave their mixed gender family groups to have, uh, “guy time.” They are observed swimming together, rubbing each other, and often have erections. In her book Listening To Whales: What the Orcas Have Taught Us, marine biologist and orca researcher Alexandra Morton notes “In the wild, sex play occurs wherever there are partners and plentiful food. Male sex play usually happens in the absence of females.” Females have also been witnessed in sexual encounters with other females. There is, of course, a lot more to queer identities than just how people choose (or choose not to have) sexual partners — but sex is mostly what’s been researched in animals, so that’s the limited frame of reference we get.

We should note that much of the United States’ conception of gender and sex binaries are relatively recent in human society. In fact, they were “created specifically in the context of Western empire as a way to naturalize slavery and colonialism.” If that sentence surprises you, we recommend checking out some Book Reports by gender non-conforming writer Alok Vaid-Menon.

So this June, as you celebrate both the importance of orcas in the Salish Sea and the LGBTQ+ community’s efforts to secure safety and equality, remember this: no matter who you are or who you love, it’s all natural!

Orcas are sacred to many Coast Salish Indigenous communities as well — The Lummi word for the Southern Resident orca is qwe ‘lhol mechen, meaning “our relations below the waves.” Learn more from the Indigenous-led organization Sacred Sea, whose mission is promoting ancestral knowledge and practices for the protection and revitalization of the waters, culture, life, and sacred sites of the Salish Sea.

There are plenty of LGBTQ+ advocacy groups in our region. In Whatcom County and Bellingham, some major Pride events are in early July (July 8th and 9th if you’re reading this in 2023). Whatcom Youth Pride also happens every year in June. 

Join us in protecting orcas and salmon as we work to build thriving communities that are ecologically sustainable.