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Queer Ecology: 8 Examples in Wildlife

Marley Flueger
June 9, 2023
queer ecology nature is queer commons app

Throughout history, dominant mentalities have shaped the questions we ask, the stories we tell, and the information we share about the world around us. As a result, we generally learn about nature through a heteronormative, cisgender lens.

This doesn’t just shape how we view the non-human world. It shapes how we view each other. For generations, dominant groups have weaponized notions of what is and isn’t “natural” to oppress and isolate folks who don’t fit inside rigid social norms. This includes the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups. 

Achieving a truly just and sustainable world means reshaping how we value and relate to all life forms. And when we look a little closer at nature, it’s clear: queerness, creativity, and fascinating evolutionary quirks are everywhere. 

Challenging dominant narratives about the natural world gives us the opportunity to tell new stories, ones that uplift and empower all living beings. In honor of pride month, we’re exploring how queer ecology can help accelerate the fight for an equitable future.

Queer ecology is a scientific theory that aims to bring together queer theory and ecology to shift paradigms away from binary, rigid and heteronormative ways of understanding nature towards interdependency and fluidity. — Ingrid Bååth, Climate Culture

What is queer ecology?

Queer ecology is a field of thought, research, and creative expression that acknowledges and celebrates the boundless diversity of nature. It draws on queer theory to challenge binary thinking in conventional ecology and heteronormative assumptions about the living world. 

To better understand what we can gain by exploring the intersections of queerness and ecology, it helps to understand the two as separate terms. 

Simply put, queer is an umbrella term for folks whose gender identity and/or sexual orientation falls outside dominant social conventions and protections (i.e., heterosexuality and cisgender identity). It’s often used to refer inclusively to the entire LGBTQIA+ community; but whether an individual identifies as queer is a matter of personal preference. More broadly, “queerness” refers to someone or something non-conventional.

Ecology is the study of the relationship between living beings and their environments. Ecologists observe and decode patterns in nature – including lifecycle and population dynamics, movement and migration, and competition and collaboration between organisms. Our understanding of ecological systems influences how we conserve land and wildlife, manage natural resources, design human habitats, and even how we plan our economies.

Conventional ecological thinking restricts our understanding of biology and nature – beyond, and including, gender and sexuality.  Queer ecology works to expand how we perceive and appreciate the infinite possibilities of what’s “natural.”

The project of queer ecology is to free other species from the script of the history in which they’ve been written about —mainly in a white/European, straight male, context —and kind of giving everything from other species to the people that are working in this practice: the agency to tell stories themselves. - Lee Pivinik (Institute of Queer Ecology), Atmos

Queerness and sexual diversity are nature’s “true nature”

Many folks think same-sex sexual behavior (SSB) is rare in the animal kingdom; but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Same-sex mounting, intercourse, courtship, affection, pair-bonding, and/or parenting has been observed in over 1,500 animal species. This includes giraffes, pandas, dolphins, chickens, geckos, cows, salmon, and even butterflies. 

Take Roy and Silo, for example. These two male Chinstrap penguins drew national attention when they successfully hatched and raised a chick from an egg they were given at Central Park Zoo. The world’s oldest living land animal is also queer: Johnathon, a 190-year-old tortoise in St. Helena, has partnered with another male tortoise for over three decades.

The living world exhibits monogamy, But it also exhibits orgies, gender transformation, and cloning. What, then, is natural? All of it. None of it. Instead of using the more-than-human world as justification for or against certain behavior and characteristics, let’s use the more-than-human world as a humbling indication of the capacity and diversity of all life on Earth. - Alex Johnson, Orion Magazine

8 Examples of queer ecology in nature

  • Sex Change in Clownfish: All clownfish are born male. A clownfish group is made up of a dominant male and female, and a few juvenile males. When the female dies, the dominant male changes sex to become the dominant female, and a juvenile becomes the dominant male.
  • Multi-sexed Fungi: The Schizophyllum commune has more than 23,000 sexual identities. To mate, a fungus needs only to come into contact with another and let their cells fuse together, making a large number of sexes possible.The Schizophyllum commune has more than 23,000 sexual identities. To mate, a fungus needs only to come into contact with another and let their cells fuse together, making a large number of sexes possible.
  • Queer
Tortoises: The world’s oldest living land animal is queer. Johnathon, 
a 190-year-old tortoise in St. Helena, has partnered with another male tortoise, Frederic (previously Frederica) for over three decades.
    Lions Without Lionesses: Both male and female lions have been seen to interact homosexually, though female-female sexual activity has not been observed in the wild. About 8% of mountings have been observed to occur with other males.
  • Gay Penguin Parents: In early 2004, Roy and Silo, a same-sex male Chinstrap penguin couple, drew national attention when they successfully hatched and raised a chick from an egg they were given at Central Park Zoo.
  • Bisexual Bonobos: Bonobo Monkeys exhibit homosexuality and bisexuality, with males and females engaging in same-sex and opposite-sex interactions. These behaviors foster social bonding and conflict resolution within their matriarchal society.
  • Matilija “Fried Egg” Poppies: Matilija poppies can reproduce asexually by cloning themselves, and bisexually, having both male and female parts within each flower.
  • Lesbian Laysan Albatrosses: Female Laysan albatrosses have been observed to form same-sex partnerships when males are scarce, demonstrating adaptability and the ability to contribute to the preservation of their species in the face of environmental challenges such as rising sea levels.
  • Male birthing seahorses: In seahorses, the male takes on the role of pregnancy, while the female focuses on egg production. This role reversal is thought to be driven by shorter birthing intervals and the potential for males to produce more offspring in a breeding season, highlighting the adaptive nature of seahorse sexuality.

acknowledging and embracing queer ecologies reveals possibility

There’s no status quo in nature, but “non-normative” behavior is often overlooked, avoided, or excluded from cultural narratives. This limits our understanding of the sheer diversity in the world around us. 

Queer ecology is about more than challenging notions of “normal” sexuality and gender identity. It’s about deconstructing binary, restrictive mentalities that harm or devalue anything outside the mainstream. The natural world is fluid, boundless, and ever-shifting – and so are we. 

Queerness and diversity are, and always have been, part of nature. Acknowledging and embracing this creates greater possibilities for queer liberation, the liberation of all marginalized folks, and the liberation of all living beings.  

How climate change affects the LGBTQIA+ community

LGBTQIA+ folks experience higher, sometimes far higher, than average rates of homelessness, joblessness, and violent victimization. These realities lead to reduced economic security and access to social support. As a result, queer folks may have fewer resources to adapt to and prepare for climate effects like rising temperatures, diminishing air quality, and extreme weather.

To secure a truly equitable world, it’s critical to re-examine and abolish social stigma and prejudice around “non-normative” identities and behaviors. In its place, we can choose to pursue a vision of the future that includes and pursues greater wellbeing for all life on Earth.

Queering our ecology means redefining what we value in the living world. When we celebrate the interrelation between all the diverse life forms in nature, it becomes part of our cultural mindset. We reshape limiting human systems by taking pride in our true nature.

Queer Your Environmental Education

These exceptional resources and essays dig deeper into queer ecology:

Marley Flueger
June 9, 2023

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