Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong: Part 1—The Gender Binary is the title of a lecture that Abby Hafer will give at the national queer organisation Samtökin ’78, tomorrow (Thursday) at 20PM. “You will hear about lots of queer animals, and other interesting things as well,” she promises and my curiosity is instantly awoken.
Wait are you saying that queer animals actually exist?
“Queer animals certainly exist! There are hundreds of species of animals who show queer behaviors of one sort or another. The list is very long, and growing all the time. There are also trans animals and animals that are intersex etc.,” she says but adds that the level of queer behavior depends on the species and the individuals.
“For instance, many animals will have sex with members of their own sex, but will also have sex with members of the opposite sex, at least enough to reproduce. This goes for seagulls and albatrosses, and non-human primates. For example, there are lesbian gulls and albatrosses who nest and raise chicks together, but have enough sex with males to be able to lay fertile eggs. Then there are skuas who often have nests with three adults raising chicks together.”
Abby says that interestingly, exclusively gay rams (male sheep) make up about eight percent of all male sheep. “These rams will forsake all contact with female sheep,” she explains. “I find it very entertaining that eight percent of them are gay because rams are considered to be a symbol of raging heterosexual horniness!”
“I find it very entertaining that eight percent of male sheep are gay because rams are considered to be a symbol of raging heterosexual horniness!”
A famous example of animals showing gay behavior were penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. “These two male penguins, named Roy and Silo (see a little bit further down on the right a photo of a similiar penguin), performed mating rituals and nested together, even sitting on a stone where the egg would be,” she says. “Eventually, the zoo keepers gave them a fertilized egg to nurture, and they hatched the egg and raised the chick, whose name was Tango. The couple have since broken up.”
While we talk I see that on the internet there are stories of pet owners who are shocked to find out that their pets are gay or show gay behavior, and some of them even take their animals to an expert in hope of a cure. Abby however is not familiar with gay pets.
“But I hope that pet owners love their pets enough to love them regardless of their sexual orientation. There is such a thing as a pet psychologist, often employed to help with pets who have psychological problems. For instance, if a pet bird started pulling off all its feathers, a pet psychologist or a good vet could probably diagnose that the bird is nervous and try to find out what is causing its behavior.
Where queer animals are concerned, a kind vet or pet psychologist could help, if help is needed. However, animals are far less likely to have religious hang-ups about queerness, because they don’t have religion that we know of. So they are spared that particular agony.”
It’s obvious that Abby is an expert on the subject, but how did her fascination with this particular aspect of the animal kingdom begin?
“I got started thinking about queer animals when I was studying biology in college back in the 1970s and the gay pride movement in the U.S. was underway. I remember an article one of my professors posted on his door, about queer behavior in wild seagulls.
Then there was a professor who sent me to the Smithsonian to look at a fish tank containing a particular species that has what was to me at the time a remarkable breeding system.
The fish stay together in a school that has one male, and many females. When the male dies, one of the females changes sex and becomes the new male for that group. It has since turned out that for many fish species, changing sex is a routine matter. For example wrasses who are a type of fish in which gender fluidity is common.
So bits and pieces of this knowledge have been with me for nearly forty years.”
Would love to find more about Icelandic animals
However, Abby says that the reason she’s talking about queer animals now requires a little explanation. Two things happened in the United States this year that made me want to raise my voice. One was a succession of “bathroom bills” in state legislatures; an anti-trans bills that made laws that required trans people to use the public bathrooms that matched their birth gender, rather than the gender with which they identify.
Things got very ugly, including in some cases, self-appointed (male) guardians standing at the doors to women’s public restrooms and only allowing in people who they believed were women. According to their own sexist stereotypes, of course. The bathroom bills also tended to include many other anti-queer laws, that the legislators simply included as a part of the bathroom bill.
The other thing that happened was the shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse, in Orlando Florida. Forty-nine people died and another fifty-three were wounded. After this, I realized that I already had the knowledge to debunk the gender binary, since I have for many years been debunking Creationism (the religious belief that the Universe and life originated from specific acts of divine creation) and Intelligent Design (ID, the pseudoscientific view that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection”).
So I put together a slide show and lecture that talks about the lack of a gender binary in nature, which of course debunks the whole idea that queer sex is somehow “unnatural”. I got to have a lot of fun looking up research in the field, and putting together slides with all the animals. There is a great deal of research in this field, and reading about it was a ton of fun. Keep in mind that I’m a biologist. This is the kind of thing that amuses me.”
Abby’s lecture is called Everything You Know About Sex is Wrong: Part 1—The Gender Binary. She has been putting it together for several months, and during that time, she has gotten offers of speaking engagements from a church, a science fiction convention and the American Humanist Association. However, she decided to do the lecture first in Iceland.
“A friend of mine at the American Humanist Association suggested that I should give a talk in Iceland because I was coming here on vacation, and put me in contact with people at Siðmennt. They were very interested, but requested the new talk, the one debunking the gender binary, rather than any of my talks that debunk Intelligent Design and Creationism, because you don’t have the anti-evolution political problem in Iceland the way we do in the U.S.”
“I put together a slide show and lecture that talks about the lack of a gender binary in nature, which of course debunks the whole idea that queer sex is somehow “unnatural”.”
But why Siðmennt? “Siðmennt is an Icelandic humanist organization, and humanists are very strong supporters of queer rights, and human rights in general. Humanists are not hobbled by the anti-queer writings found in many religious texts, or the anti-queer opinions given by many religious
leaders – like when the writers and supporters of the “bathroom bills” in the U.S. quoted the Bible as an excuse for opposing trans rights. Or like when the murderer at Pulse said that he was following the Islamic State.
Humanists do not need to square supporting human rights with what the Bible says, because the Bible does not guide them. This goes for all other religious texts as well. If you don’t believe in the supernatural, then the opinions of a supernatural being don’t matter.”
And now since you’re here, do you intend to do research on any of our animals? For instance, the Icelandic horse or dog or the “settlement hens”?
“I have not made any research arrangements since I am here on vacation, and will be touring around for about ten days. So far I have not met any Icelandic horses, dogs or chickens, and would love to do so. I would love to find out more about these animals!”