These days, headlines about gay penguins or genderqueer lions seem to pop up all the time. These circulate wildly, and are effective clickbait for curious (or outraged) straights and celebratory queers alike. But these headlines are only effective because of the assumption that nature follows the rules of heteronormativity. As it turns out, however, what we call “queerness” is the norm in nature, not the exception. From toads to nematodes, from dolphins to fruit flies, same-sex sexual behaviors are found in every corner of the animal kingdom. Once you look beyond animals to all of life on earth, well, things get even more queer.
Our frameworks for understanding nature are tangled up with histories of racism, colonialism and heterosexism. This means that the sciences of ecology, evolutionary theory and biology are not historically “neutral,” but can reinforce social divisions. For example, the way that queerness is often called “unnatural” hides the fact that binary gender and heterosexual reproduction are actually anomalies in most of the natural world, not the norm. Ultimately, these frameworks can help keep marginalized people away from the benefits of being in wild spaces.
The idea of “queer ecology” helps us break free from these histories and see nature in a new light. It’s like taking high school biology all over again, except this time getting to explore all the ways that nature itself is truly, deeply queer. This goes beyond the simple observation that being gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or trans is natural because other critters do it too. Instead of trying to shoehorn the wild abundance of life into scientific theories founded on racism and heterosexism, queer ecology gives us an entirely new lens that does not rely on a clear line between what is “natural” and “unnatural” at all.
Queer ecology seeks to abolish the idea of a “pure” nature altogether. Ironically, this allows us to get closer to those living things we learned to recognize as “wild,” “exotic,” or even “alien.” This also means that queer ecology shares important resonances with other traditions that push back against colonial scientific legacies, including anti-racist, indigenous and feminist approaches. Changing how we think about nature changes how we relate to the world around us, and can broaden and strengthen struggles for environmental justice.
Ready? Let’s get started!
Make Science Gay Again: Queer Ecology 101
Queer ecology can seem inaccessible to non-experts at first. Scholars like Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, Alex Johnson and the collective Institute of Queer Ecology are leading the charge. Much like the word “queer” in human uses, the term is used many different ways. I use it like a big umbrella that covers everything from scientific research into gender-swapping fish to Isabella Rosellini’s Green Porno series, in which she reenacts the mating habits of various non-human critters in quirky, delightfully obscene short videos. (I recommend the sadomasochistic snails!) Ultimately, any project that explores, centers, or celebrates sexual diversity across the natural world is welcome to the party!
Queer ecology goes beyond just sex. At its heart, the idea challenges a series of binaries that undergird modern sciences, and many other aspects of so-called “Western” ideologies. Some of these binaries are:
Nature // Culture
Female // Male
Sex // Gender
Race // Ethnicity
Animal // Human
Other // Self
Because it relies on these binaries to make sense, claiming that queerness is “natural” is ultimately unhelpful for ecological and social justice.
Take the distinction between sex and gender. Commonly used to defend the right to gender self-determination no matter what kind of body one was born with, this version of the binary has been put to heavy use in defending queer rights and lives. These fights have been essential to people’s survival. But these definitions also reinforce the idea that our “born this way” biology is somehow separable from our lived experiences. Spending any time in queer and trans communities quickly reveals how inadequate this binary framework is.
Even the seemingly most basic part of the chart above — the self/other binary — starts to break down as we learn more about our interdependence with other living beings. What does it even mean to be human, if more than half of the cells in our bodies belong to microbes? When you realize how deeply our “selves” include these buggy little “others,” the idea of drawing a clear boundary around the body-as-identity starts to break down even further. Queer ecology takes the lesbian “urge to merge” to a whole new level.
You might have noticed a seeming contradiction at this point. I have said that we need to be critical of science, and yet I keep citing scientific facts. What gives?
Queer ecology loves science! As Alex Johnson notes, ecological science “is inherently queer, being the study of the complexity of living organisms and their interrelationships.” The difference is that queer ecology asks for responsible science, science that understands where it came from and why that history matters.
It’s also important to note the difference between scientists, science writers who report on new research, and the way scientific ideas spread through general public discourse. Science writers are most likely to play on existing social biases to generate interest, shaping how the public understands new information. They often frame new research in the language of human stereotypes, like describing orchids that imitate female wasps as engaged in “sexual trickery” or mostly asexual ant colonies as “nuns in a convent.” In contrast, scientists are heavily trained in removing traces of bias from their writing — but this doesn’t mean those traces aren’t still there, embedded deep in their questions, assumptions, or methods.
Luckily, following cultural shifts in LGBTQ acceptance, research on queer animal behavior is starting to take off — giving us some great new science on queer critters.
Queer Intimacy in Non-Human Animals
It’s a shame that the stereotypical sex talk is referred to as “the birds and the bees.” Not only are these poor creatures helping parents avoid the responsibility of talking to kids about S-E-X, this naming does actual birds and bees a disservice by roping them into heteronormative frameworks that have nothing to do with their lives. After all, birds of all kinds form same-sex pairs and raise chicks just like their hetero-paired peers, and bees… well, as Hugh Raffles writes about entomology (the study of insects): “We need more queerness! We should remember the bees. The supposedly sexless sisterhood of the bees. Sipping and sucking in the darkness of the hive. Touching and taking, rubbing and writhing.” Birds and bees indeed!
Because there has been such extensive research on birds in particular, they can help us see where traditional biases creep into science. Pairs of female gulls and laysan albatrosses are readily found in the wild, taking turns mating with males outside the pair to produce young to raise together. Because female-female pair bonding is more common in these species when there is a relative “shortage” of males, the authors of both studies reduce the birds’ choices to a reproductive strategy. The fact that homosexual pairs still exist in “balanced” populations, albeit in lower numbers, remains unexplained.
Another experimental study done with zebra finches tested this idea by artificially manipulating the proportion of males and females in a captive population. They showed that skewing the sex ratio of the birds did increase both male-male and female-female pairings, depending on which sex was more common. Both the male and female same-sex pairs showed the same bonding behavior as mixed-sex couples: they stayed physically close together, preened each other, performed nest and courtship displays, and had sex.
Then the finch experimenters went further. They showed that after male-male pairs were bonded, reintroducing females to the group was not enough to break the existing partnerships. Once finches go gay, they never stray! Importantly, this experiment lends support to the idea that there is more to bird life than breeding, and that the social aspects of bonding might be just as important. (A few male birds did take on a “secondary” female partner, forming triads, and one pair “almost broke up” but pulled through in the end. Unfortunately, the researchers didn’t test the strength of the female-female bonds, but one can easily imagine a finch-based reenactment of the Kids are All Right.)
The idea that sexual activity might be about more than just making babies is hard for people who were raised in contemporary U.S. American culture in particular, with its focus on abstinence-only sex ed and heavy legislation of uteruses and the people who have them. Even for folks who understand that humans might seek sex for a huge variety of reasons, it can be hard to translate that understanding across that big nature/culture gap that exists in typical thinking. But our friends the finches, along with delightfully promiscuous bonobos, sexually playful dolphins, or female fish that prefer males that have had sex with other males, all chip away at that anthropocentric frame.
Because scientists carry their cultural biases into their work, most research approaches these kinds of queer traits and behaviors as problems to be solved. An opening sentence from one paper suggests that the evolutionary logic of choosing mates of the “opposite sex” is “obvious.” Obvious to whom? Unsurprisingly, some of the things that classic scientific theory finds hard to understand are near and dear to queer communities. These evolutionary “puzzles” include any sexual behavior not linked to reproduction, and altruism, which means helping others with no direct benefits to one’s own (or one’s offspring’s) survival. Sounds like a day at the local LGBTQ community center to me.
Starting from the assumption that homosexuality is an evolutionary disadvantage, many scientists have run in circles trying to explain away how such “maladaptive” traits appear so widely throughout the natural world. Some, especially historically, claim that animals can become “perverted,” that queerness across species is pathological. One scientist in the 1970s creatively suggested that male-male fellatio in primates might be caused by nutritional deficiencies (might I suggest a parallel probiotic hypothesis for cunnilingus?). Many assert that same-sex behaviors are caused by the stress of captivity, rather than occurring in wild populations (despite mountains of evidence to the contrary). Some think animals are so dumb they can’t tell the difference. Most common is to explain homosexual behavior away as a kind of misfired attempt at heterosexuality, suggesting that animals are “practicing,” or acting like that one weird Aunt who always asks you which one is “the man” in your relationship.
Two researchers from UC Riverside argued in a 2009 article that evolutionary biologists need to think about same-sex sexual behavior in non-human animals as more than just a problem to be solved. They wrote that “same-sex sexual behavior is both a trait that is potentially shaped by selection and a force that shapes selection on other traits.” In other words, rather than just trying to uncover the mysterious origins of homosexuality, researchers should also consider how same-sex sexual activities shape ongoing evolutionary processes. We’re here, we’re queer, we’re an evolutionary force!
These same researchers also noted that while homosexual behavior is widely documented in non-human animals, its frequency is probably vastly underestimated because there are a lot of animals out there where different sexes look exactly the same (this is called “sexually monomorphic,” as opposed to “sexually dimorphic” species like humans). When scientists look at these animals getting down, they simply assume that they must be doin’ it hetero-style. Curiosity is a high scientific virtue, but the heteronormative assumptions carried around by most scientists can cut that curiosity off when it comes to sex.
Extending Our Chosen Family
For truly diverse diversity in our queer natures, we need to get down in the muck with the biofilms and the slime molds, letting them guide us towards an understanding of life on earth that is not framed through hierarchical binaries. This helps correct the common (but very wrong!) assumption that evolution has direction or purpose, and that humans represent the ultimate expression of life on earth. These smaller beings couldn’t care less about our human cultural frameworks, binary or otherwise.
Microbes swap genes all the time, changing their very DNA depending on who is around them. This doesn’t count as “sex” because it’s not about producing new organisms, and only recently have scientists started to pay attention to how much this casual exchange of physical substance might be driving evolution. In the fungal kingdom, gametes (the cells involved in sexual reproduction) are described through the language of “mating types” rather than sexes. This is because there are different kinds of cells, but they are not “sperm” and “eggs.” Instead, these different gametes can come in many forms, with one species having more than 23,000 documented mating types. Talk about non-binary! Also in fungi, genetic “individuals” can physically merge or separate in different environmental contexts, troubling the easy ability to pin down just who is who, and which kind of who matters when. It’s like an Octavia Butler novel out there.
This is where the fundamental queerness of all ecology comes back in, with its deep attention to relationships between living things. Looking at the interactions between different kinds of life, Darwin’s tale of brutal competition for resources is tempered by an attention to “symbiopoesis,” or how organisms can be intimately involved in each other’s development, even at the supposedly most self-oriented genetic level. Hawaiian bobtail squid carry around light-emitting bacteria in a special pouch to emulate the moon, which helps them hunt at night. But they can’t grow the pouch themselves, even though it is a part of their own body — it is the bacteria that send the squid cells instructions on how to do this.
Returning to our friends the bees, what are they up to with all that pollination, if not cross-species sex?
Plants and insects have evolved closely together with a wild diversity of cross-kingdom relationships, in which both rely on the other for their own survival and reproduction. Figs and fig wasps are a classic evolutionary example, with hundreds of fig species each having their own special wasp, where both plant and insect need the other to reproduce. Acacia trees and the ants that live with them are another: the trees provide addictive food and specialized shelter in the form of hollow thorns, and in return the ants attack herbivores and even help regulate microbial pathogens on the plants’ leaves.
The lesson here for a queer ecology is that we should displace the idea that species boundaries are the most important way of dividing up or understanding the living world. Instead, we can learn to be curious about the quality of relationships between life forms that go far beyond a simple competition/cooperation binary. We can also let go of the divide that suggests only humans choose to join together with others for non-mechanistic reasons like companionship, comfort, or fun. This means extending that courtesy not only to other socially complex animals (like dogs and tigers) but also being open to a wider range of possibilities for things very different from ourselves, like what might be happening when a butterfly explores a beetle anus with its proboscis.
Queering nature means learning about our connectedness with all of the living earth. Here, the classic queer recognition of chosen family extends beyond humans, recognizing our kinship and interdependence with our companion animals, the foods we eat, our microbes, and others. It means taking pleasure in those connections, learning to recognize pleasure in others, and understanding how our human identities, gender expressions and sexual behaviors are only a small piece of the wide, queer living world.
Queer ecology asks us to open our curiosity to what Bruce Bagemihl calls “the magnificent overabundance of reality.” Breaking free from the historical biases of science allows us to move forward together with other life on earth, rather than thinking of ourselves as separate from or above it. That kind of hierarchical thinking has kept queer and other marginalized communities away from the benefits of being outdoors, and has led directly to the tangle of global environmental crises in which we find ourselves now. Learning from non-humans is a great way to undo these legacies. The living world is so much wilder than our wildest human imaginations, so get out there with your new queer science knowledge, and get curious.🌲
edited by carmen.
YES! I love this! Thank you!
I love this entire piece so much. So life- and connection- and wonder- and curiosity-affirming! (And it made me laugh out loud in several places.) Thank you!
I’m impressed enough with how well you communicated this that I created an account just to say so. Very nicely done; it’s often really hard to explain why critique of science is not, in fact, anti-science.
What a compliment! Thank you
This is great, thank you!
This is MAGNIFICENT <3
So exciting, thank you for this article.