Endless Forms Most Beautiful – Celebrating Pride at the Linnean Society
To mark Pride Month, we created special Linnean Pride flags using images from our Collections, including birds representing freedom and colour; snakes, butterflies and moths that represent transformation; and flowers.
Published on 30th June 2023
The existence of queerness in nature can be a touchy subject because other organisms don’t understand queerness or identify in the way we do, erasing the need for categorisation. ‘Nature is not restricted by our human ideas of strict binaries of behaviour or biology’ is a more scientifically accurate statement. And that our ideas of what nature or biology should do is rooted in our societal biases. In fact, those biases have, at times, hampered our understanding of nature.
In order to illustrate some of these biases, we are running, in collaboration with The Royal Parks, the event ‘Outside the Binary’, to discuss and celebrate the way nature defies strict rules.
To mark Pride Month, we have also created our Linnean Pride flags using images from our Collections. Matching the colours was admittedly our first priority but choosing treasured items from our Collections with appropriate symbolism was also important.
We sincerely hope that you find the flags both beautiful and meaningful.
Nature has been pivotal to this famous symbol of the Pride movement from the very beginning. The original Pride flag, designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978, was designed to give the queer community its own symbol that was associated with joy. The rainbow was chosen for its symbolism of hope, in contrast to the reclaimed pink triangle, which had its origins in Nazi concentration camps. And the colours, according to Baker’s friend Charley Beal, were chosen to represent the spectrum of colour in nature. “We needed something beautiful… something from us,” said Baker.
The colours of the original Gilbert Baker flag are: hot pink for sex, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for magic, dark blue for serenity, and purple for spirit. Most people are more familiar with the six-colour version, as hot pink and turquoise were difficult fabric colours to obtain for people making their own flags at home, so those bands were later dropped from the design.
Same-sex interactions are common in animals, recorded in over 1500 species, from damselflies to bats, giraffes to lions. There have been instances in birds of same-sex pairs staying together for years, including penguins, albatrosses, gulls, and pelicans. Many successfully raise families.
The flag continues to evolve, with the Progress variant including additional stripes to represent the trans community, people of colour, and those who died of HIV/AIDS, groups that can be forgotten when LGBTQIA issues are discussed. The purple circle and yellow background of the intersex community was added to the progress flag in 2021.
For our rainbow, originally designed to represent the entire community, we used images from across the natural world, including birds representing freedom and colour; fungi which can have 28,000 different biological sexes; snakes, butterflies, and moths which represent rebirth and transformation; and flowers, used to signal to other queer people for centuries.
Created in 1999, the trans flag represents the transgender community, those whose gender does not match their gender assigned at birth. This includes lots of different identities, including non-binary, gender-fluidity, and agender among others.
When Carl Linnaeus set about describing the seahorse, he misidentified the male as the female. Male seahorses have a true pregnancy, complete with a placenta and the ability to provide nutrients and oxygen to their fry throughout, all controlled by the same genes that control mammalian pregnancy. Many other fish species like the UK’s cuckoo wrasse and the clownfish change sex during their life.
About 1.7% people are intersex, where your chromosomes, hormones, or physical biology doesn’t exactly fit with the expectations of your assigned gender at birth. This is the same percentage of people who have red hair! Many of us grew up with the idea that biological sex is a strict binary, and nature shows this is not the case. Some plant species are both male and female in the same individual, as are many invertebrates. Bilateral gynandromorphs are animals that are male on one side, female on the other. There are spectacular photos of such individuals, from butterflies to cardinals.
Our intersex flag features a pipefish, a relative of the seahorse, and a Barbary lion. Lionesses which grow manes and exhibit more male-typical behaviours are known, behaviours and traits thought to be due to these lionesses producing more testosterone than usual.
Asexual and aromantic flag
When we talk about these orientations in humans, we mean feeling little to no sexual or romantic attraction, respectively. We have examples of this in rams, where 2-3% show no interest in mating or sex at all. There are lots of examples of parthenogenesis or asexual reproduction in nature, from bacteria to plants to animals including snails, reptiles like the all-female whiptail lizards, and sharks. Asexual reproduction was even recently recorded in crocodiles and birds!
Especially in online spaces, mythical creatures are symbols of the queer community. Unicorns are popular, and dragons were common symbols in the online asexual communities. The griffin on our flag is in homage to that.
Bisexual and pansexual flag
In humans, bisexuality and pansexuality refer to being attracted to multiple genders (which word a person prefers is down to personal preference and semantics) while in biology bisexuality refers to organisms that are hermaphroditic. Many flowers are bisexual in this context. But animals exhibit bisexual behaviour too. Chilean flamingos are one, as are bottlenose dolphins and bonobos.
Much like nature, from which the original flag was derived, the queer community continues to grow and change. And much like how we need biodiversity in nature to thrive and survive, we need biodiversity in our human communities too.
By Danielle Crowley, Education Officer