Elton John has made a life as a famous musician. From “Rocket Man” to “Candle in the Wind,” “Sacrifice” to “Can you Feel the Love Tonight” (from the Lion King), his piano playing and voice have entered many fans’ heads. Later in his life, while continuing to wow crowds in Las Vegas and elsewhere, he has also embraced a new role: as a gay father. The local Vegas newspaper occasionally runs stories about sightings of John, his partner David Furnish, and their progeny. Indeed, in January 2013, they welcomed their second son into their arms.
In an evolutionary spotlight, what might we say about gay fatherhood more generally, starting that conversation with Elton John’s own bright light? One consideration is that gay fatherhood is a small, but growing, demographic. About 14% of unmarried American male-male couple households have children, and about 4% of all adoptions in the U.S. are to same-sex couples. Another is that the way in which it is growing in countries like the U.S. is changing. In decades past, most gay fathers had become fathers through heterosexual marriage before separating and identifying as gay. More and more, however, gay fathers are becoming fathers in the context of same-sex partnerships. They’re adopting children. They’re sometimes employing surrogate women to gestate a possible biological child. This is the case with Elton John and his partner.
The science on gay fatherhood is relatively sparse, particularly from an evolutionary perspective. That’s despite the fact that this work piggybacks on a considerable body of research that has attempted to understand male same-sex sexual behavior. It has become clear that male same-sex sexual behavior in other animals is quite common. You may have seen the occasional story of gay penguins or monkey sex play as examples. Much of that same-sex sexual behavior can be interpreted with respect to dominance relationships, as a normal part of sociosexual development (e.g., rhesus monkey male play mounting) or is expressed when preferred partners (e.g., reproductive females) are not available. Many males engaging in same-sex sexual behavior reproduce at some point in their lives, but are not really considered gay fathers.
The real puzzle has been to account for the evolution of life-long same-sex sexual orientation from an evolutionary perspective. Scholars have reported on potential human “gay genes,” but findings have been inconsistent and account for a small amount of the cases of gay men. A number of studies find that the more older brothers a man has is associated with a greater likelihood of being gay. Another predictor of being gay is childhood gendered behavior: gay men often engaged in gender atypical childhood play (e.g., less rough-housing). Research on domesticated gay sheep suggests some parallels in brain mechanisms associated with a same-sex orientation. Among several studies of African hunter-gatherers, such as the Aka and Hadza, the concept of homosexuality, much less gay fatherhood, does not appear and is viewed as a strange concept by locals. But in truth the scientific jury is still out to identify a full evolutionary explanation, integrating developmental and mechanistic accounts, of lifelong gay male sexual identity.
One of the most striking aspects of gay fatherhood in humans begins with the recognition of sex differences in reproductive effort: males tend to specialize in mating effort (courtship, mating competition, sexual coercion) and females in parenting effort. These tendencies are widespread among mammals generally, even if humans are among the minority of species in which males also invest considerable parenting effort. Still, it can be informative to consider how gay men allocate their reproductive effort since they are not constrained by female choice (i.e., a female marital partner) in making mating and parenting decisions. One might naively imagine that, not facing constraints of female choice, gay men would invest entirely in mating effort. Instead, as Liza Mundy summarizes in a recent piece on U.S. same-sex marriage and parenting in “The Atlantic,” (theatlantic.com) gay male couples display mixtures of mating and parenting effort. Gay male couples tend to have more sexually open partnerships, often granting more latitude for sexual engagements outside of longstanding relationships. Gay male couples can be quite invested parents, with investments often more equally distributed between partners and divorce rates lower compared to U.S. lesbian couples. The fraction of gay parents relying on one income is similar to heterosexual parents, suggesting that a good number of gay fathers are effectively stay-at-home dads. Still, little work has attempted to understand why some gay men seek to become fathers and others don’t. We don’t know if birth order, childhood gendered behavior, or other factors could factor into developmental processes giving rise to gay fatherhood, or have a rigorous understanding for how to explain gay fatherhood within a wider, integrative evolutionary perspective.
We do know that the tug of paternity can be powerful—leading some gay men to overcome remarkable reproductive (e.g., needing to adopt or find a surrogate) and legal obstacles in the quest for parenting. That's something to sing about.
Gray, P. B., & Anderson, K. G. (2010). Fatherhood: evolution and human paternal behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gray, P. B., & Garcia, J. R. (2013). Evolution and human sexual behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Levay, S. (2011). Gay, straight, and the reason why: the science of sexual orientation. New York: Oxford.
Poani, A. (2010). Animal homosexuality: a biosocial perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.