Ep. 7: Queer Ecology: When Nature Said “Gay Rights”


In this episode of Queer Science! the co-hosts sit down with “The Queer Biologist,” a.k.a Ren Weinstock, for a chat about queer ecology, reproductive centrism, and those pesky gay penguins!

Follow Ren on Instagram (thequeerbiologist)

Things Mentioned


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[00:00:00] Bri: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Queer Science! I’m Bri, one of your co-hosts, editor and co-creator of the podcast. 

[00:00:18] R: And I’m R, your other cohost, co-creator and resident artist of the show. Today, we’ll be talking about gay penguins, queer ecology, and why animals have sex. So, get ready for one of our more explicit episodes.

[00:00:31] Bri: Warning, adult language will follow.

[00:00:49] R: For those that don’t know, Queer Science is a podcast that explores the intersection of science, society and queerness in order to think critically about the ways in which science is done. We started this show last year in 2020, and now we’re back for our second season in 2021. We’ll be releasing episodes on a monthly basis. So don’t forget to follow us on social media and stay tuned. 

[00:01:12] Bri: All of our educational content is free and accessible, but we wouldn’t be able to do it without your support. If you like what you hear and want to give the host a little tip, be sure to subscribe to our Patreon for fun stuff between the episodes or donate to our GoFundMe.

[00:01:27] R: Our monthly patrons get access to cool stuff between the episodes like drawings by me and maybe even merch giveaways. But if you can’t wait until then you can buy shirts, stickers, mugs, and more right now through my store. Find the link, as well as all our social media handles and the show notes or on our website. 

[00:01:44] Bri: Now onto today’s episode. You might be wondering what we’re up to this time with such an interesting conversation. Well, for some context earlier this year, R and I chatted with Rren Weinstock, a non-binary scientist known on their Instagram as “The Queer Biologist.” When we spoke, they were working with sea turtles in Texas, but have since moved to Utah for their masters degree. Well, we started off talking about the ways in which social norms and identities are often projected on the animals and the impact this has on the queer community, we ended up covering a lot of topics and having maybe a little too much fun. One topic we wanted to focus on specifically was queer ecology. 

[00:02:25] R: I’ll be honest, I have never heard of that term before, but it sounded really interesting. As a queer person, whose favorite classes at university were all applied ecology, I wanted to know more. The three of us did some research and came together to record an episode about it. We’re excited to share the first part of our conversation we had with Ren as today’s episode. 

[00:02:46] Bri: Let’s start with an introduction from The Queer Biologist. 

[00:02:50] Ren: Hi, my name is Ren. My pronouns are they/them. I’m a non-binary biologist. I’ve primarily worked in coastal ecology and sea turtle nesting research and conservation. And I also have an Instagram account where I talk about being queer in biology and the whole journey of sort of being new to biology and trying to navigate that as a queer person. 

[00:03:13] Bri: A lot of today’s episode is centered around queer ecology, a term that refers to looking at ecology through the lens of queer theory.

[00:03:21] R: Okay. Wait. So, I definitely Googled queer ecology for this episode, but I didn’t know I was supposed to look up queer theory, too. 

[00:03:30] Bri: Well, even with the power of the worldwide web, it can be tricky to define. Queer theory won’t fit into just a few simple sentences, but I’ll summarize it as best as I can without getting too deep here. Queer theory questions social norms and challenges, dualistic or binary categorizations, such as homosexual versus heterosexual and male versus female. 

[00:03:53] R: So, basically it challenges the ideas that being heterosexual and cisgender is the norm. Isn’t that called heteronormativity and CIS normativity?

[00:04:04] Bri: Yes, exactly. Now try to imagine how things would change when approaching ecology that way.

[00:04:21] Ren: Well, I kind of want to like preface by being- by saying that like, something special is that like, when you google queer ecology, like all these resources come up and I am not an expert on queer ecology, and I don’t think you have to be an expert on queer ecology. Like I am queer and I’m part of nature and that’s like, I am expert on queer ecology, and I think that’s how, like anyone can relate to it. Um, but queer ecology is a multitude of things. It’s blending the ideas of queer theory with the scientific study of nature. And it’s like this literal unearthing of queerness that’s been hidden from us and like the study of nature. So, um, I was reading this cool article that was saying, hold on,

I pulled a quote from it, reading from my notes, I hope that’s okay. Um, queer ecology then is the study of dynamics across phenomenon, all behavior, all possibility. It’s the relation between the past, present and future. And I think something that’s cool about, like queerness and ecology is they’re both based in community. So, I feel like within humans, queerness is all about how you relate to each other and the community, and ecology is all about these different dynamics. And so, queer eology is sort of like bringing in the political identity and the messiness of queerness and inserting that into nature, and so that we’re all sort of swirling together in it. And I think, a lot of nature has been, we’ve created these concepts of like nature and wilderness that are so separate from us. But queer ecology is all about like getting rid of that human exceptionalism and getting rid of these binaries, and dualistic ideas. And just recognizing that nature is full of all these paradox, um, paradoxes, however you say that word and that, yeah. Queerness is everywhere in nature and that we should just be accepting it for what it is and looking at nature as a whole. 

[00:06:13] Bri: This make me wonder, do animals have a sexual orientation? Do they have identities? 

[00:06:18] Ren: Yeah, it’s such an interesting question because animals, like they have these societal structures. And so they must have some sense of self and how they fit into their own quote-unquote communities. And so that must give them a concept of like, from what we might define gender and sexuality, perhaps. But I think also, it’s less about saying whether or not an animal has like a sexuality and more like getting rid of all of these categories and generals- in general, because, we can, putting all these categories together is like drawing these arbitrary lines. And especially not in science, not in nature and weird things happen all the time, and I think queer ecology is like about seeing. Sort of like the lies and those lines that we draw and being like, oh, well, like this person is saying that geese are straight, but I’ve watched geese, and I know that there’s some that aren’t and like, just getting rid of like those categories altogether, because I think in humans they’re so helpful for us. You get to like craft this language that allows us to like, figure out who we are and communicate that with each other. But in animals, I feel like, and nature in general has been like weaponized against queer people, queer humans, as this idea of like, what is natural and what isn’t natural. But if we just sort of like, let go of all these expectations and all this, like purity, ideals, like put on nature, we can see that like we’re queer, nature is queer. And like, we’re all just kind of like these messy beings existing together. 

[00:07:57] R: So, if we create like this binary system of gender or this binary system of sexuality of either you’re, like either you’re gay or straight, you’re either male or female, it makes things easier to comprehend, but it’s also eliminating the complexities of life. Like, to say that life is just black and white is removing all of the gray area and it’s removing like all the other colors too. Like you’re, you’re dulling it down essentially into something that is too simple. And it doesn’t encapture the whole experience of life. Like, to say that life exists in just one or two. Like, what about the things in between? What about the things that aren’t even numbers? Like, what, this whole, I don’t know. I sort of, that was the first thought that I had, is that humans try to simplify things.

[00:08:46] Ren: Yeah. And something I was thinking about while you were saying that was just like, how, like science as how, like how we see it portrayed a lot in, especially like Western ideals was like developed in Europe during this like enlightenment period where like everything and everyone, or like the ideals were being CIS and straight and white and wealthy and male. And so like, of course, when like, Darwin was doing his thing and like creating like the basis of like what we do science off of, like all those are ideals were like put onto nature too. And it’s like, well, no, like if we break away from that, we break away from these societal norms. We can see so much more of nature.

[00:09:28] R: It’s a changing the lens, the two view things, that for so long, we were viewing it under this certain set of, of social norms that are pretty much human centric. Like, everything’s based off of how this one particular part of the human population views the rest of the population and the rest of the world. So it’s kind of like changing the filter that you have on your glasses or on your camera or whatever you’re using to observe nature of being like, um, maybe we should think about this in a different way. Like this, isn’t the only way to do things. 

[00:10:03] Bri: I love that analogy. Cause I feel like it’s just such a good example of the fact that like at the very beginning of the scientific process, whatever social context you’re in is going to shape the questions you ask. And I feel like literally like the glasses you’re wearing is, exemplifies that to a tee. So, thank you. 

[00:10:21] R: I was thinking of like, stage lighting, but glasses work too. 

Bri: Oh true!

[00:10:26] R: Yeah, I took technical theater in middle school and like, I’ve been sort of a theater nerd since the, uh, like you have the, uh, frontal lenses, which are the big spotlights and in the front, you can put on different color filters and that’s how you get the different colors on stage. So, I was imagining like, you pull out the blue and you put in the yellow. And like, how does that affect everything that’s on stage? Like that creates a different mood, a mood for the actors and everything. So it’s just sort of like, let’s say, uh, to go with the arbitrary binary of blue is boy, like everything’s been on blue filter. And so you’re kind of like going up in the scaffolding and going and finding a light. And, uh, usually it’s automated, but sometimes you still have to go up and actually like, change the filter. So you’re going up there and you’re like removing the blue filter. It’s like this, this little slate. Um, and like you take that out and then you’re putting in another color and that changes the whole dynamic of the stage. So like whatever’s happening in the scene whatever the actors are doing, whatever the music is going, like it changes completely. So I was imagining that kind of lens change, but glasses work too. That’s totally valid. 

[00:11:34] Ren: Yeah. And like the hard part is like, we can never fully take off that lens no matter what, like we’re always going to be viewing it through a lens. But I think the important part is that like, science is all about asking questions then being proven wrong and then like, accepting that you’re wrong and trying to find a closer answer to right.

[00:12:02] Bri: Earlier you were saying how query ecology kind of, um, changes that binary thinking of like, well, if they’re straight animals, there has to be gay animals then. And queer ecology saying they’re just animals and it’s fluid, and there are examples of all sorts of sexual and gender diversity everywhere in nature. But, um, I guess what is the importance or some examples of queerness that we see in nature, whether that’s in plants, animals, ecosystems, anything like, what is the importance of that? And what are examples you can think of? 

[00:12:34] Ren: I think the importance of it is that we’ve been told, ‘we’ the queer community, you have been told for so long that like we’re unnatural. When in reality, we can like see reflections of ourselves everywhere. And I think that just like reinforces how much we do belong on earth and how much we are a part of nature. Um, and some examples, let’s see, um, we have red squirrels, they’re seasonally bisexual. Geese, within geese we have like 12% of pairs are homosexual. And even when like, harassed, like, so like, two female and female, um, pairs, uh, but like even when harassed by males, they’ll like go back to their partners, um, after like mating. Um, we have deer, 10% are intersex. Primates are doing all sorts of queer things. Um, and then something that I was reading about was like plants reproduce through other beings, like they’re pollinated by bugs and birds.

And so like what kind of sexuality is that? Or like, how has that like, playing a factor? Uh, clownfish are, and a lot of fish species, actually, they umm, sex change. So, the way their instructions work, um, the female is like the top dog and they’re the biggest fish in that little community. And then when that fish dies, the next biggest male becomes the alpha female. So, they kind of like have this like, chain reaction. 

[00:14:06] R: So we were just discussing queer ecology, but then during our conversation, another important term was mentioned: reproductive centrism. 

[00:14:14] Ren: I am still not sure if this is an official term or one that I’ve picked up and really latched on to, but it’s an idea that I feel like we see in science a lot. And it’s sort of based in Darwinism and like this survival of the fittest. Um, and in science we see like this reproductive centrism, and the idea that like queerness in animals is devalued, unless it can be put into like, kin selection theory or this idea that like these queer paired, bonding, whatever, um, help the, um, they help the fitness because they’re taking care of like an offspring that has similar genes to them. And it’s like this idea that like, queerness must be so costly in animals that like there’s no reason for it to exist unless it was helping the fitness of a species, or it was like helping that species continue to produce offspring. And in society, we see it when we’re trying to justify like, queerness in people at the same way, when we’re saying like, oh, like queer, like queer people, like we, like, we can only value them if it’s like the gay penguins that are like producing this child. And like, we can make sort of put like our standards or we can put like societal standards onto queer animals and back onto people. It’s like this idea that like, oh, well, like your gay uncles are only helpful if they’re like raising like a child or something like that. And rather like we can just, get rid of that altogether and like, talk about this idea of like social selection that like, even if a animal is doing same-sex behavior or participating in like this messy idea of queerness, that they can still be a value to their species or into like the surrounding ecology, just buy like one, existing, and two, by like participating in this like cooperation and other relationships within the species. And that has just as much value as raising an offspring, 

[00:16:15] R: Every biology class I’ve ever been in talks about how success is equal to reproduction and the rate of reproduction of like, there’s never really discussion about, um, like what are the rest of the population do or like, um. I think is it’s orcas, I think that go through menopause, um, that, so like you have these, uh, orcas tend to be a matriarchal culture. There’s debate about whether or not they have culture. Um, which again is a whole other thing, uh, like banana slugs and oxytocin. But, um, so, um, when females get older, they go through menopause and this is, they thought it was only in humans, but it happens in orca, and I think it was another species. Um, so technically if we’re going by their reproductive centrism definition of success these grandmas essentially have no value, but because they’re a matriarchal society or a matriarchal culture, like they’re the ones that show where the feeding grounds are. They’re the ones like they lead the pod. They know how to respond to predators. They teach hunting techniques. Like it’s foundational to have this older, uh, female in the group, but they’re not successful. So it’s like. It’s that different, uh, I don’t know. It’s just sort of like, well, like she can’t give birth anymore, so technically she’s not successful to the pod, but like she’s the structure of the pod anyways.

[00:17:44] Ren: Right. And that’s like that whole idea of how, like, I feel like that’s like what we’ve done to like human women and like put it onto like orcas. Like, de-valuing like women as they age, if they are no longer, like can no longer get children, like society, like devalues them. And we just like, we’re like, okay, orcas now, like now we’re going to devalue them too.

Moving like a step away from like relationships and just like ecological value. Like we’re trying to get like populations to continue reproducing. So they’ll like be in the environment and the like interact in the environment. And I kind of made me think of, so I like work with sea turtles, um, a bunch, and many of them are endangered or threatened. And sometimes people will ask us, like, why don’t you just like, take the hatchlings and graze them, like in like this confined space. And then once they’re adults, they release them back out into the wild so that like, they actually have a chance of survival and we’re like, well, but then they wouldn’t be contributing to the environment. Like the whole point of like, species like going and like helping them stay alive and conserving their populations is so that they continue to like be in the environment and like eating the jellyfish, so they don’t become overpopulated in our waters, et cetera. And it’s like, it’s important that they’re there in the environment in general.

[00:19:05] Bri: Now it’s hard to have this conversation without bringing up the elephant in the room. 

[00:19:11] R: Uh, Bri, I think you mean the penguin in the room. 

[00:19:16] Bri: Yep. R knows exactly what I’m talking about. And this is something that I’ve had on my mind for a while. Gay penguins, and why media is so preoccupied with them. You’ve probably seen it before one zoo after the other announcing they have a new gay penguin couple 

[00:19:32] R: and yeah, it sounds cute and makes for a great headline.

But what does it mean when gay penguins become the poster child for sexual diversity in the animal kingdom?

[00:19:42] Ren: Gay penguins? What do we think about them? 

[00:19:44] R: I honestly don’t know that much about gay penguins. Like I’ve, I’ve remembered seeing like headlines, but like, that was the same as like any other news headline where I look at it and I’m like, huh.

And then I moved to the next thing because I don’t have the emotional mental capabilities to read the news right now. So, like, yeah, I know of them, but I don’t know, like, I don’t have any gay penguin, friends. Like I feel like I can’t say the word gay penguin. I don’t have that card. Like, uh, I don’t know. I mean, there are birds and there are aquatic birds and they apparently are gay.

[00:20:28] Ren: Sometimes. Yeah. Yeah. I think like the interesting… I like… they’ll have like those male pairs and like, in zoos. And I mean, I’m sure in the wild too, but like… 

[00:20:41] R: No, it only happens in captivity. That’s where all the gay is, the gays are just put into zoos, like

Ren: *Laughing* Oh shit

R: We solved it. We solved everything. Just get rid of zoos and, no more queerness, ever

[00:20:56] Ren: Right. Yeah. Well, I think like, it was just like big fascination, of like gay penguins being this like, model for what like, appropriate homosexuality could be. It’s like, oh, like they’re the best parents. And like, oh, like, look like they’re raising those like offspring better than like the like different sex, like pairing. And it’s like, yeah, like. If we’re like translating to humans. Like yeah, gay parents are incredible. Like you’re right. But like also, like, we don’t need to like, be enforcing these like, heterosexual or like CIS hetero-norms on to penguins. Or like, we don’t need like penguins to be the representative of like, what, like monogamy should or shouldn’t be, should or shouldn’t look like, or like we can’t like only be accepting, um, queer people, if we’re only gonna let them look like what these penguins look like. 

[00:21:54] R: Yeah. Like they’re, the acceptable form of homosexuality, like that’s, you like still are bad and different, but you fit into our mold of what of what, like it’s acceptable in society. So we’ll allow gay penguins, but not dolphins. 

[00:22:11] Ren: Yeah. If you’re going to show me your gay penguin camera, I also want to see your camera on your like primates that are having like, you know, female sex. And I want to see your cameras on the clownfish that are changing sexes. And like, I want to see like all of your cameras and all the queerness that’s happening in your zoo.

[00:22:26] R: Onlyfans. That’s going to be the new thing that zoos are gonna have onlyfans. 

[00:22:32] Ren: *Laughing* I, like, I was just reading this bit about how like, orangutans like also use their fingers to penetrate sexual partners with like the vagina equivalent, which is like, also like, I think how sometimes we see like very queer sex within like human communities. And like, it kind of like, for some reason, I just like, kind of like, thought about like that like big beaming question, like what is scissoring?

And like, but like we see it in, like- we seen in like the, uh, what are those primates called?

Bri: Bonobos?

Ren: Yeah, we see that like Bonobos and like, we see like whatever, like fingering and like these orangutan, orangutans, and it’s just like, I feel like sex has become so stigmatized. And part of that like, ‘against the purity of nature’ thing where it’s just like, we could just like, allow ourselves to feel pleasure. I feel like this might be too R-rated for your podcasts. 

Bri: No it’s never too R-rated, we have an ‘E’ we can put an ‘E’ there, it doesn’t matter. *laughs*

Ren: Great *laughs*. Yeah but uh, something I was thinking about too, is that like, this is like a more personal note and like the way that like I quote-unquote, like brand myself on like platforms like Instagram or Twitter, or what have you, like, I feel like some people like see queer as like, I think I see it as like this very political identity.

Um, but some people see it as like a very like sexual based identity and like how I like, so like, follow a lot of like sex activists and like educators and like, I don’t shy away from like commenting on their things because I think it’s like seeing someone as like a whole person and like, not just like, chopping off those parts that like don’t fit in with science or like don’t fit in with like, what’s like socially acceptable. It’s like, oh, we could just, find happiness and like do a lot of learning everywhere, not just like in these specific parts for our lives. 

[00:24:37] Bri: for more information regarding what we discussed in this episode, be sure to check out our show notes. A transcript of this episode can be found on our website at queerscience.show. If you like this episode, you can tell us why by tweeting at us @queer_science, you can find us on Facebook as QueerScience! or follow us on Instagram @queer_sci. The Queer Science team believes that educational content should be accessible to all. And we are a small team of 20-somethings working to bring this podcast to our audiences for free. If you like our work, consider giving the co-host a tip by supporting us at patreon.com/queerscience.

You can also donate to our GoFundMe, which allows for us to afford microphones, recording software and website upkeep. We also have merch too, featuring the queer science logo and more original designs by our co-host, R. You can find out more by checking out our website at queerscience.show.