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What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?$

Vinciane Despret

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780816692378

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816692378.001.0001

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For Queer

For Queer

Are penguins coming out of the closet?

(p.131) Q For Queer
What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?

Vinciane Despret

, Brett Buchanan
University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the relative dearth of research around animal homosexuality and its stark increase after the social revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. It explores the presence of both homosexual and queer behaviour in nature, making the case that sexual plurality and variance—on the level of individual activities rather than identities—are abundant in nature.

Keywords:   animal homosexuality, queer, plurality and difference, identity, gender

Queer: strange; odd. Slightly ill. Usage: the word queer was first used to mean “homosexual” in the early 20th century. … In recent years, however, many gay people have taken the word queer and deliberately used it in place of gay or homosexual, in an attempt, by using the word positively, to deprive it of its negative power.

New Oxford American Dictionary

Between 1915 and 1930, a group of penguins lived at the Edinburgh Zoo. Over the course of these years, a troop of zoologists meticulously and patiently observed them, beginning by naming each and every one of them. But first, before receiving their names, each of the penguins was placed within a sexual category: on the basis of a couple, some were called Andrew, Charles, Eric, and so on, whereas others were christened Bertha, Ann, Caroline, and so forth.

As the years passed, however, and the observations accumulated, more and more troubling facts seemed likely to sow disorder within this beautiful story. To begin with, one had to face the facts, as the categorizations were based on a rather simplistic assumption: certain couples were not formed by a male penguin and a female “penguine,” but from among all penguins. The permutations of identity—on the part of the human observers, not the birds—had a “Shakespearean complexity” to them. In addition to this, the penguins themselves decided to put their own stamp on things and make things even more complicated by changing their couplings. After seven years of peaceful observations, it was therefore realized that all but one of the attributions were wrong! A complete overhaul of the names was thus carried out: Andrew was rechristened as Ann, Bertha turned into Bertrand, Caroline became Charles, Eric metamorphosed into Erica, (p.132) and Dora remained Dora. Eric and Dora, who spent their days peacefully together, were now called Erica and Dora, whereas Bertha and Caroline, who were known for some time to be homosexual, were from then on known as Bertrand and Charles.1

These observations, however, were not going to damage the image of nature. Homosexuality remained a rare phenomenon in the animal world, and these penguins were probably just a few pathological cases observed here and there on farms and in zoos and thus assumed to be due to conditions of captivity—which fell into perfect agreement with human psychopathological theories that equated homosexuality with mental sickness. Homosexuality was definitely unnatural, as nature could testify. But it seems that, in the 1980s, nature had a change of heart. Homosexual behaviors were now everywhere. One was probably supposed to imagine, during these same years, disastrous consequences from the queer revolution and the American gay movements that would contaminate innocent creatures.

But the question should no doubt be posed differently: why hadn’t homosexuality been seen in nature until this point? In the book Biological Exuberance, Bruce Bagemihl considers a number of hypotheses following his long investigation reporting on species that had recently come out of the closet. To begin with, he says, homosexuality wasn’t seen because nobody expected to see it. There wasn’t a single theory available to meet the facts. Homosexual behavior appeared to be a paradox of evolution because, in principle, homosexual animals did not transmit their genetic heritage. This stems in fact from a very narrow conception of sexuality, on one hand, and of homosexuality, on the other. For the former, animals only mate due to the goal of reproduction. The strictest god would have succeeded in obtaining from animals a virtue that he had not been able to with any of his faithful humans. Animals don’t do a thing except if it is useful for their survival and reproduction (☞ Necessity; ☞ Oeuvres). For the latter, homosexual animals would be exclusively oriented toward partners of the same sex and, in this respect, would be proof of a strict orthodoxy.

Next, for those who observed behaviors oriented toward a partner of the same sex, a functionalist explanation could justify them perfectly well, and it had the merit of removing this behavior from the sphere of (p.133) sexuality. When I was a student, we learned in an ethology course that when an ape presents his or her genitalia to another and allows himself or herself to be “mounted”—I also heard this said of cows—it has nothing sexual about it; it is just a way of affirming dominance or submission, depending on the position adopted.

Lastly, another reason that has had considerable influence is the fact that researchers have only observed but a few homosexual behaviors in nature because they are so rarely seen. Not that they are rare, but that we don’t see them. Just like we rarely observe heterosexual behavior, because animals, who are very vulnerable in these moments, generally do it in hiding so as not to be seen, especially by humans, who are seen as potential predators. And since we see newborns emerge every year, nobody has ever doubted that animals have a sexuality, even if it is only seen on rare occasions. But rare does not mean “not at all,” and this concerns homosexual behavior as well. How is it that this has remained unmentioned for so long in research studies? The primatologist Linda Wolfe queried her colleagues on this subject at the end of the 1980s.2 On the condition of remaining anonymous, many of them admitted that they had seen such behavior, with males just as much as with females, but they were afraid of homophobic reactions and of being seen as homosexuals themselves.

In light of these reasons, therefore, one can legitimately think that the queer revolution changed things. It opened the idea that forms of conduct that were not strictly speaking heterosexual could exist, and it encouraged researchers to look for them and speak about them. Hundreds of species now participate in this revolution, from dolphins to baboons, as well as macaques, Tasmanian geese, Mexican jays, gulls, insects, and, of course, the famous bonobos.

At the same time, animal sexuality benefited from what I would call their “cultural revolution.” After having been excluded, animals can now claim to be within the order of culture. They have artisanal traditions (for tools or weapons); fashionable songs (with whales, for instance); practices of hunting, ways of eating, medications, and dialects that are specific to groups from now on christened as “cultural”; and practices that are acquired, transmitted, abandoned, or undergo waves of invention and reinvention. As such, sexuality is now a candidate, and this includes its homosexual dimensions. It also carries the mark of cultural acquisition. (p.134) The ways that acts are performed—for example, among female Japanese macaques—demonstrate these differences: some practices appear to be more popular within some troops, and they evolve over time, with some inventions tending to supplant other ways of doing things. Some “traditions,” or models of sexual activity, can be invented and transmitted across a network of social interactions, moving between and within groups and populations, geographies and generations. According to Bagemihl, sexual innovations in a nonreproductive context have contributed to the development of other significant events from the point of view of cultural evolution, most notably in the development of communication and language as well as in the creation of taboos and social rituals. Among bonobos, twenty-five sign-language signs have been found to indicate an invitation, a desired position, and so on. These signs can be transparent and their meaning immediately decipherable, but some of them are more codified and require that the partner already know them to understand them. The gesture of inviting a partner to return, for example, is in one group executed by making one’s hand turn in toward itself. Their opacity and stylization invite one to think that there are abstract symbols here. The order of the gestures, which is equally important, leads to the hypothesis that animals may be able to use syntax. In terms of the organization of relationships, they seem to be marked by complex codes. According to Bagemihl, rules guiding how to avoid others are, with certain species, relatively different if it consists of hetero-versus homosexual relations; what seems to be not permitted with one sort of partner might be permitted with another.

To focus on the diversity of these practices, as Bagemihl does, is an explicitly political issue, and one with many positions. On one hand, this diversity takes sexuality out of the natural domain so as to situate it within a cultural one. It’s an important issue and one that constitutes a choice. It is not just a case of removing homosexuality from the sphere of mental pathologies or from legal domains—in some U.S. states, it still continues, as we will see. Bagemihl will refuse the hand stretched out to him, the allies who could have strategically helped to depathologize and decriminalize homosexuality. In the outstretched hand there is this simple proposition: if homosexuality is natural, it is therefore neither pathological nor criminal. The argument for its unnaturalness has also been used during a trial by a judge from Georgia—in the Bowers v. Hardwick case. Caught in the act of (p.135) homosexual relations, Hardwick was sentenced, and the unnaturalness of the act was used among the arguments justifying the accusation. Naturalizing homosexuality could take care of a lot of things. For Bagemihl, even if homosexuality is natural, it cannot be figured into the equation “what is natural is right.” Nature does not tell us what ought to be from what is. It can feed our imaginations but not compel our actions. It is worth noting, in passing, the irony of this story. Despite this refusal, Bagemihl’s book will be invoked, in 2003, during a trial that featured the Texas court system versus two homosexuals, Lawrence and his partner, who were caught in bed together by the police following a report of a nighttime disturbance of the peace. On the grounds of the previously mentioned judgment, that of the Bowers v. Hardwick case, they were prosecuted for homosexuality. The Texas judges, however, refused to follow the case law set by the precedent judgment and refuted, on the basis of Bagemihl’s book, among other reasons, the argument of naturalness.3 At the end of the trial, the antisodomy law was considered to be anticonstitutional.4

The author of Biological Exuberance had another, less theoretical reason for refusing to record homosexuality as a fact of nature. Bagemihl is not only homosexual. He is queer. To quote him, what interests him is “the world as ‘incorrigibly plural.’ … It suffers difference, honoring the ‘anomalous’ and the ‘irregular’ without reducing them to something familiar or ‘manageable.’”5 The meaning of being queer cannot be better defined. It is a political will. And this political will does not only concern humans. It concerns the world around us. It concerns our ways of entering into relations with this world and, among these relations, of knowing and practicing this knowledge. Bagemihl measures the risks of accepting whether homosexuality is natural. It seems to be the object of biologists to try to resolve this paradox, and he knows very well which biologists are already on the case: it’s the sociobiologists. They have, in effect, buckled down with an insatiable appetite for this new problem: it’s another case that will come to illustrate and expand their theory. It will be even more “all-terrain” [tout-terrain]; the world will be sociobiologized. For the theory of kinship has a solution entirely found in homosexuality, though it rests on a strict conception of an orthodox homosexuality. Of course, homosexuals do not transmit their genes to their descendants, so normally they ought to disappear because of a lack of descendants carrying this (p.136) gene—it goes without saying that homosexuality is genetic. Homosexuals, however, direct their attentions and their abundant leisure time (because they don’t have any dependents) toward their nephews, who are carriers of an identical part of the genetic heritage. It is therefore through these latter descendants that the gene continues to assure its propagation. This type of biology is political, not only in the sense for which we usually reproach it—these theories can easily be retranslated into misogynistic, racist, eugenic, capitalistic, and so on, theories—but in the sense that, to put it simply, these theories animalize, insult, and impoverish those for whom they pretend to take account. In other words, sociobiological theory—to recall the words of the psychologist Françoise Sironi—is an abusive theory. Every behavior is reduced to a genetic purée; beings become blind imbeciles determined by laws that escape them—and that prove to be disturbingly simple. No more inventions, no more diversity, no more imagination—and yet, if they still persist, it’s because they have been selected to allow us to spread our genes. One cannot be both queer and a sociobiologist.

But can we really say that animals are “truly” homosexual, in the same sense as we can be? Bagemihl responds: but can we say this even of ourselves? Can we name, under the same term, the same realities, from the amorous youths of ancient Greece to the most diverse modes of being today? And can we say that, among animals, the entire range of forms of relations that organize between the same sex are “truly” the same (☞ Versions)?

It’s here that I find the coherence of Bagemihl’s project. Biology must respond to the diversity and exuberance of nature and beings; it must rise to the level of what is required of it. This reflects the bias of what he says about the scientific task: multiply the facts to allow a chance at multiplying interpretations. This is far from the “all-terrain” theories; the diversity of things will fertilize the diversity of interpretations. This is what he elsewhere calls “doing justice to the facts.”

Nature is invited to a political project. A queer project. It teaches us nothing about who we are or what we ought to do. But it can feed our imagination and open our appetites for the plurality of usages and modes of being and existing. It never stops recombining categories and re-creating, from the multidimensionality of each and every one of them, new modes (p.137) of identity. What is meant by being male or female, for example, can be found among many animals according to inventive modes that are similar to a multiplicity of ways of inhabiting a gender. One can find among certain birds—and sometimes even among members of the same species—two characteristic situations: on one hand, one can find females living an entire life as a couple, making a nest together each year, incubating eggs that one of the females has fertilized in mating with a male, manifesting regular courtship behavior toward one another, and yet never showing any mating behavior. On the other hand, one can find a male mating all his life with the same female, with whom he mates regularly and raises the young, but who, on occasion, mates with a male (and never does so again). How do you categorize this? Are these relations homosexual? Bisexual? Are these birds consistently female or male? Are these even good categories to take account of what they’re doing and who they are?

I recognize here a project that I was able to find in the writings of Sironi, based on her work with transsexual and transgendered people. The queer project that she supports roots itself within questions of sexual and gender identity, but its political aim is first of all tied to a practice that obliges us to think and that calls for thought. These two approaches, however, aim to transform habits, transform relations to norms, to oneself and others, and to open possibilities. So if this clinician’s will is to learn, along with those who address themselves to her, how to help them fight against the “abusive theory” that her colleagues exercise against them, to “free gender from its normative shackles,” and to support “its amazing creative vitality,” she relies just as much on them—those who are the experts of metamorphosis—to help us to think and imagine different “contemporary identity constructions.”6 “Transidentitary and transgender subjects have a function, currently, in the modern world. … Their function is to enable becomings, to show diverse expressions of multiplicity in itself and in the world”:7 to deterritorialize oneself, to open oneself up to new agencements of desire, to cultivate an appetite for metamorphoses, and to forge multiple affiliations. (p.138)


(1) Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (London: Profile Books, 1999), 95. The examples from the Edinburgh Zoo king penguins are drawn from this book.

(2) Linda D. Wolfe, “Human Evolution and the Sexual Behavior of Female Primates,” in Understanding Behavior: What Primate Studies Tell Us about Human Behavior, 121–51 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Cited in Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance.

(3) This notwithstanding, there is no mention of any reference to Bagemihl’s book; it is, however, confirmed by other sources: at the request of the court, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) was called upon during the trial to act as an amici curiae (friend of the court), a form of general council of experts for a given problem. Reference to Bagemihl’s book is included in the legal notice as potentially putting into doubt the unnaturalness of homosexuality. I have not had access to this amici curiae, but one of the most virulent homophobes, Luiz Solimeo, refers to it, which leaves me with little doubt of its existence. See http:/www.tfp.org/.

(4) The arguments that led to the decriminalization of homosexuality following the Lawrence affair can be found at http://www.bulk.resourece.org/.

(5) Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance, 262. [The idea of the world as “incorrigibly plural” is cited by Bagemihl from Louis MacNeice’s poem “Snow.”—Trans.]

(6) Françoise Sironi, Psychologie(s) des transsexuels et des transgenres (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2011), 14–15.

(7) Ibid., 229–30.