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How Can Zoos Teach Us About Sexuality, Gender, and Citizenship?

Many in the queer community may already know what gay bears and otters are, but what do you know about those bears and otters that are actual gay bears and others? With Amsterdam Pride coming up this weekend, the city’s ARTIS Zoo decided to get a little wild leading up to the canal parade. The zoo has for the past few years offered a special tour that focuses on the topic of sexual diversity in the animal kingdom.

In the guided-tour, patrons are taken to various exhibits in the zoo where they can see species who have mated with the same sex. This includes stops at the flamingos, penguins, and the famous male griffon vulture couple who raised a chick together, according to Vice.

The tour, which costs around $24, according to Pink News, was held last week and will have its final tours of the year this weekend. The zoo also held a lecture this week on sexual diversity in nonhuman animals.

“Nature is much more diverse in sexuality and sex than most people think.” Charlotte Vermeulen, a biologist at the ARTIS Zoo, said in a statement about the lecture. “This lecture during Pride Amsterdam is about creatures that are neither male or female, about animals that change sex, animals whose sex does not depend on their genetic material, and about homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom.”

“Since homosexual animals do not reproduce, this behavior may seem like an evolutionary paradox. But there are already 1,500 species of birds and mammals in which homosexual behavior has been observed, both between males and females. Homosexual and lesbian behavior among animals is no error. In many animal species it is part of their normal, species-specific behavior in nature,” Vermeulen explained.

Today, you can’t be on social media without post after post about cute and cuddly animals, and it seems like when animals are seen doing something kinda gay, the stories aren’t just put in meme-form but media outlets take the time to report on them.

This is true for lions, vultures, and penguins.

The reasons for homosexual behavior in these species can range from lack of opposite-sex partners, to pleasure, to forming social bonds and relieving tension in social groups, according to Deutsche Welle.

Bonobos are probably the most popular example. These close relatives to humans often engage in sexual activity amongst each other to stop fights or just to relax.

Animals that exhibit homosexual behavior seem to be a nifty piece of news that may twist what we perceive as natural and not natural. Surely if nonhuman animals exhibit same-sex attraction, sexual diversity is a perfectly normal thing right?

It gets a bit complicated, says Marianna Szczygielska, an incoming post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Szczygielska’s research has examined sexuality, gender, sexual politics, and race through the establishment of the modern zoo. Though she’s never participated in the tour at ARTIS Zoo, she has studied these kinds of excursions.

“The tour is an interesting event and besides being a fun part of the Pride program I think it has high political stakes,” she tells INTO. Similar tours, like one in Berlin, tend to happen in Western countries in places “that want to promote diversity and can benefit from it in some way.”

That benefit, Szczygielska claims, can lie in national identity building. Describing the history of zoos, she explains that they served to “showcase certain types of metropolitan identities from the 19th century in western European and North America.”

Zoos possess a dark past in and of themselves since the institution could only become what it is today through colonialism, racism, and the trafficking of “exotic” animals from colonies. This includes, Szczygielska notes, human zoos that were sometimes referred to as “ethnographic” tours or exhibitions.

Even if now the narrative focuses on preserving endangered species and educating populations about nonhuman animals, the history of zoos and their position in cultural practices can’t be ignored.

“The zoo is not just an innocent place to go on a Sunday evening,” she says. “It’s always been a space that showcases certain middle class and urban identities along with a kind of national pride with certain animals symbolizing it.

She mentions as an example the case in Russia from 2016 when a goat and tiger in a wildlife park in Vladivostok supposedly became friendly with one another. A local lawyer accused media coverage of the relationship as “hidden propaganda, as a public, active solicitation of homosexuality and information on it,” he said, according to the Independent.

The tour is something you might expect to see in an Amsterdam zoo but probably not in Moscow, she says.

“What we’re seeing now with these tours,” Szczygielska explains, “is a switch in how we think of modern citizenship where LGBTQ community members want to partake.

Using the argument about so-called queer animals is tempting because it may reinforce our attempts to normalize sexual diversity in humans. The idea is tempting, but Szczygielska warns that this could create static categories that are not fluid. It also feeds the “born this way” rhetoric, she says, but “nothing is pure nature and nothing is pure nurture.”

It comes down to human, and thus cultural, interpretation.

There are, however, still benefits to using these behaviors in nonhuman animals to understand human sexuality and gender.

“It naturalizes our LGBT or queer identities. For a long time LGBTQ people have really struggled with arguments against nature,” she tells INTO. Seeing it in other species allows us to say that it’s not an evolutionary mistake or an aberration.

In fact, it’s only recently that scientists have begun looking into same-sex behavior of different species, while opposite-sex behavior has pretty much always been observed and recorded.

“When you have nonhuman animals, a wide range of species performing same-sex acts, it kind of reclaims this realm of nature for us who identify as LGBTQ.”

It’s because of this that media might tend to be ready to pick up the story. It breaks with tradition and becomes proof that homosexuality is not unnatural, Szczygielska says.

Growing up, you probably didn’t see this behavior on Animal Planet, but today a popular meme reads something along the lines of  “Homosexuality is found in 1500 species. Homophobia is found in only one.” Children’s books are even written about these animals.

“The lesson we can learn from these animals is that it might confuse us more about what sexuality is for human and nonhumans and how we can see those blurry lines and distinctions [between identities or categories],” Szczygielska says. “It’s more interesting to see this diversity in the animal kingdom as making us ask what human sexuality and gender identity or expression can be.”

For her, gender should also be understood in regards to observing nonhuman animals, not just sexual behavior, especially as activists work to protect attacks against trans people.

“There are so many gender configurations” in the animal kingdom, Szczygielska says. “It could really change the game if we took those lessons [about diverse genders in nonhuman animals] seriously, but as humans we usually don’t.”


Alex Cooper