The Naturalness of Homosexuality: Author Guest Post by Eliot Schrefer
In middle school, I’d often spend lunch in the safety of the media center. From where I sat reading, I remember fixating on the army-green library bindings of The Book of Knowledge encyclopedia set. How cool, I’d think, everything there is to know in the world is all in there, and all I have to do is open a book and find it!
In sixth grade, as soon as puberty hit, I realized I was attracted to guys. It was utterly clear. (The librarian had a very compelling poster of Tom Selleck up on her office wall, which clinched things.) But where did these feelings — that were so wrong according to everyone I knew — come from? Could I get rid of them? When I knew no one was looking, I pulled down the “H” volume of The Tree of Knowledge for my lunchtime reading to see if I could find some answers.
The author as a teenager
There I learned some really bad news: according to the encyclopedia, homosexuality is an aberration unique to humans, caused by too much attachment to mother or to father (no one was really sure which). It resisted medical intervention. End of entry.
That encyclopedia entry was crushing, because it accorded with the homophobia people around me were expressing in my Florida school (“It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”). What had gone wrong with humans like me, to bring us so far from what nature and evolution intended?
Queerness crops up in solitude, and the queer young person who’s suddenly wrestling with a secret has to find a way to love or at least accept their queerness, or they’ll wither. (42% of LGBTQ youth “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year” according to a major survey from The Trevor Project.)
Fast forward to now, when I’m 43, happily married to a man, and getting a M.A. in Animal Studies. Through my research, I’m meeting scientist after scientist reporting on same-sex sexual behavior in the wild. The 11-year-old me would have gasped to hear it, but it turns out that The Book of Knowledge is wrong.
A recent study from Nature found that over 1,500 different animal species exhibit significant same-sex sexual behavior in the wild. It’s not just homosexual behavior, either—animals will change sex, bond for their lifetimes with same-sex partners, or be intersex. Virtually all queer behaviors in humans have analogs in animals.
Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality is my (long) letter to all the kids facing a rising tide of politically motivated messaging that’s telling them they are wrong and unnatural. It’s a profile of ten different animal species that “queer” our misconception that animals all dutifully divide themselves into male-female pairs. Nature is far more diverse than that!
Among the chapters:
Dolphins: It’s long been known that “male friendship” is the structuring element of dolphin society, but not until 2006 did the foremost research site reveal how those bonds are formed—frequent male-male sex, on an average of 2.4 times per hour. Along the way in this chapter we look at early human societies like Ancient Greece or Feudal Japan, in which romantic male unions were political moves for powerful families.
Laysan Albatross: Around a third of Laysan Albatross nests are between females. They bond for life, and then have heterosexual sex outside of their union to get fertilized. (90% of birds are socially monogamous, meaning they bond for life, but only 25% are sexually monogamous.) Because female-female nests have twice as many eggs, this homosexual bonding actually increases the total number of offspring in each generation, leading scientist Jared Diamond to dryly wonder what males are for—evolutionarily speaking, of course.
Velvethorn Deer: 13% of white-tail deer (the most common North American species) are born intersex! Velvethorns grow antlers but never break out of their velvet covering, and have bodies closer to those of does. The velvethorns don’t join in the male or female groups, but instead strike off on their own, forming their own velvethorn societies, sometimes even adopting orphaned fawns. In the chapter, I use their intersexuality as a chance to discuss the question of whether an animal could ever be considered trans.
It turns out that these centuries of claims about homosexual behavior not existing in nature — that have led to death penalty statutes and widespread discrimination — were wrong. The absolute explosion of research into same-sex sexual behavior in the wild over the last 20 years establishes without a doubt that it’s natural. (The amicus brief that supported the striking down of the last anti-sodomy law in the U.S. in 2003 cited the wave of research into same-sex sexual behavior.)
Young queer people are recently under increased attack, and are quietly internalizing their wrongness and unnaturalness, with miserable consequences. Some will die from it. I wish I could tell each one that they don’t have the full story, that they are perfectly natural, and indelibly part of the animal kingdom—because of their queerness, not despite it.
About the Author
Eliot Schrefer is a New York Times bestselling author, and has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. His non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times and Discover magazine, and his novels include The Darkness Outside Us, Endangered, and the Lost Rainforest series. He is on the faculty of the Hamline University and Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA programs in creative writing, is getting a MA in Animal Studies at NYU, and reviews books for USA Today. Visit him online at www.eliotschrefer.com.
About the Book
This groundbreaking illustrated YA nonfiction title from two-time National Book Award finalist and New York Times bestselling author Eliot Schrefer is a well-researched and teen-friendly exploration of the gamut of queer behaviors observed in animals.
A quiet revolution has been underway in recent years, with study after study revealing substantial same-sex sexual behavior in animals. Join celebrated author Eliot Schrefer on an exploration of queer behavior in the animal world—from albatrosses to bonobos to clownfish to doodlebugs.
In sharp and witty prose—aided by humorous comics from artist Jules Zuckerberg—Schrefer uses science, history, anthropology, and sociology to illustrate the diversity of sexual behavior in the animal world. Interviews with researchers in the field offer additional insights for readers and aspiring scientists.