A non-fiction science book on animal sexuality might read like a dry textbook, but that’s not the kind of thing Eliot Schrefer wrote.
Schrefer’s book, Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality, is designed to be suitable for teenagers. It’s filled with comics and humor and accessible science about the diversity of sexual behavior in the animal world.
Each chapter is structured around a different animal accompanied by a one-page comic by Jules Zuckerberg. Schrefer said he wanted to change the narrative that science writing was only for academic purposes.
“There’s this sense of seriousness that comes with a textbook, and for a lot of young readers it’s their only exposure to science writing,” Schrefer said. “I kind of wanted to imagine that we’re sitting in science class going back and forth through notes, and it even comes down to the doodles.”
The comics depict a meeting of the Gender Sexuality Alliance where all the animals take turns showing up.
In the book, Schrefer writes that he is “well aware that this book is bound to be controversial”, but at the same time he wants to assure young people that it is quite common in the animal world.
“Some people will say, ‘Well, there are all kinds of things that animals do that humans shouldn’t do,’ right? That we shouldn’t cannibalize our partners after having sex with them. That we shouldn’t be living on canvases in nature. And that we can’t just choose which animal examples we choose to use. But that’s really rolling back the argument of the book. “
“I’m not trying to defend human behavior from certain ways that animals can behave. Instead, I’m trying to say that we can no longer assert that humans are alone in their homosexuality or in their LGBTQ identity. Instead, we’re part of a multimillion-year tradition within the animal kingdom of a variety of approaches to sex and a ton of benefits that come with it.”
Schrefer said he wished a book like this existed when he was younger when he felt alone in his identity.
“I think there’s a loneliness in human homosexuality. That there’s this idea that it’s something that happened recently to the species and that we’re alone in it,” he said. declared. “That queer people can find themselves and find community with each other and that’s the goal they should be hoping for, as we’re heavily integrated into the natural world. And that’s part of the message which I think is lost and that LGBTQ behaviors and identities are absolutely natural.”
Schrefer spoke with NPR All things Considered about some of his favorite animals featured in the book, challenging the idea of what a scientist looks like and what he took away from some of the interviews he did for the book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you have a favorite animal or one of your favorites that you could tell us about?
Well, the hardest part of starting to write this book was figuring out which animals to focus on. Bonobos are notorious for being promiscuous and the majority of their sexual activity is between females, so I knew they had to be there at first.
What is interesting about these animals, as you said, is that they are very promiscuous. I mean there’s almost that orgy way to the way they behave sometimes.
They are really quite new to science. We used to call them pygmy chimps and we just thought they were little chimps and that was it. And it wasn’t until the 90s and 2000s that we really started to study them and study sex, and in particular same-sex sexual activity in bonobos is a way to avoid conflict and to appease feelings after a conflict.
There is also a chapter that I found interesting on bulls. Many bulls are used for breeding. They are used to inseminate females, and sometimes the bulls need to get in the mood. The trainers help them get in the mood, and the interesting thing is that they often bring in other males to do it and it’s effective. Tell us why you chose this example.
I mean bulls aren’t just any animal in American culture so many sports teams are named after bulls and rams but bovids have one of the highest percentages of sexual behavior between people of the same sex within their populations. It has long been the cattlemen’s trump card to get a steer out to excite a bull to perform sexually.
In fact, there was one of the greatest sheep researchers, Valerius Geist, who studied the bighorn sheep. In the 1960s, he observed these big horns in the wild and found that they essentially lived in an all-gay society until they were six or seven years old. The males are the only ones who have frequent sex, and he hasn’t published about it. He wrote about it in his memoirs years later because he could not tolerate the idea that these, what he quotes as “magnificent beasts”, were homosexuals, and so he resisted post about it.
The book includes interviews you did with scientists, these little question-and-answer exchanges, I like that a lot. They not only added to the science of the book, but it was interesting that these types of professionals existed. Could you name one that you think is the most remarkable?
I wanted to broaden the impression children have of those who “get” to do science – that it’s not just about old guys in white coats. There is an upsurge of young scientists doing wonderful work on queer behavior, queer identities and animals. One person I spoke to was a gender-changing environmentalist who is still actively seeking her place in the larger world and looked forward to the days when she could be just with her binoculars in the field, mud ankle deep, just watch the moose.
Because at that point the complicated navigation of all those identities just disappeared and they were just part of nature. They didn’t have to explain themselves to the animals, and the animals had no idea judging or shaming anyone for the choices they made around their gender identity. I found it so moving that there is a peace to be found and a radical simplicity and acceptance within nature.