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World Ocean’s Day x Queer Ecology: Queer like nature, Fluid like the ocean

Written and illustrated by RQ

Illustration of 3 penguins (two adults and one child) huddled together on an ice cap floating on the ocean.

In 2014, controversy stirred around the National Library Board (NLB)’s announcement to ban the children’s book “And Tango Makes Three”, about two male penguins that raise a baby chick together. Following public outcry about literary censorship, however, the decision was partially reversed, with the eventual outcome to move the book to the adult section. While And Tango Makes Three is not the only case of queer censorship in children’s books by NLB , it is perhaps the one with the most apparent links to queer ecology.

cover of the book, And Tango Makes Three.

And Tango Makes Three is, in fact, based on the true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo who had paired for two mating seasons and helped to incubate the egg of another penguin couple (and subsequently raise the chick, named Tango, for two and a half months).

Roy and Silo are not exceptions, however – observations of same-sex penguin couples are common both in captivity and in the wild. Neither are penguins the exception – same-sex animal behaviour has been observed in over 1,000 animal species, including primates. Meanwhile, we also observe other forms of queer sexuality in the animal kingdom – many types of fish change sex back and forth (the clownfish is one example), many species are male and female simultaneously (known as hermaphrodites), and male sea horses and pipefishes get pregnant. Mating behaviours also vary across mammals: jackals mate for life, bonobo chimpanzees and walruses have multiple partners, wolves and lions travel with their herds, hippopotamuses spend most of their time in same-sex groups and meet the opposite sex only for mating, while pandas are solitary creatures that seek out members of their species only for the purpose of procreation.

a bonobo (an African ape) hanging from a tree branch, an example of a primate with same-sex behaviour.

Queerness is not “unnatural and thus queer”, but in fact “naturally queer”, as queer ecologist Myra J. Hird suggests – it is through these observations of queerness in nature that we might begin to discover queer ecology, where ecology and biology can contribute meaningfully to discussions of sex and gender.

Queer ecology first arose from criticisms of early eco-feminist essentialism which drew on binary differences between males and females to theorise the oppression of women and nature (that “female is to male, as nature is to culture”). Queer ecology goes a step further to encompass other identities beyond male and female. It recognises that the dominant paradigm in which we live in today situates “natural” with what is male, healthy, heterosexual, able-bodied. Anyone else is considered “unnatural” – deviant and must be corrected.

One of the most common arguments upholding heterosexuality as “natural” is associated with the ability to procreate, in which natural sexual behaviour is equated with sex for procreative purposes alone. Just as the “naturalness” of procreation has been used to oppress women into their “true nature” of motherhood and home-tending, the “unnaturalness” of non-procreative sexual behaviour is used to accuse queerness of moral, physiological and psychological depravation. Queerness, like women, is thus associated with eroticism and being “against reason” – and therefore unacceptable in a modern society built on the misconception of a rational world and a rational nature.

Illustration of a penguin inside a trash can, with rubbish spilling out.

Yet, contradictions abound despite the modern desire for rationality: Accusations of queer sexualities as “against nature” seem to imply that nature is pure and should be valued. But we have seen that this is not the case; we are in the midst of an ecological crisis today because nature has been and continues to be devalued in our culture, just as queers are devalued.

Adopting a queer ecology lens thus involves critically examining the numerous (and contradictory) dualisms that exist in our current paradigm: culture/nature, human/nature, man/woman, mind/body (nature), reason/the erotic (nature), rationality/animality, heterosexual/queer are just some examples outlined by ecofeminist Greta Gaard in the article “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism”. Beyond sexuality and gender, queer ecology is about departing from binary thinking to embrace plurality and the reality that things do not, and are not meant to, fit into neat boxes.

Illustration of two separate groups of penguins. One group of three penguins, drawn in conventional black and white colours, face to the right. The other group of five penguins, each colored differently, face to the left.

In Roy and Silo’s story, zookeepers in New York’s Central Park Zoo had noticed the penguins trying to “hatch” rocks, and were inspired to give them a fertilised egg from another couple who were having difficulty hatching their eggs. With Roy and Silo’s dedication, Tango was hatched and raised.

Meanwhile, in Singapore this May, a revision in the Adoption of Children Act was passed in parliament. This revision makes it illegal for same-sex couples to adopt children or employ surrogates. The message, while not new, is clearer than ever: only families that adhere to the standard nuclear family structure of a married heterosexual couple and their child(ren) are accepted in Singapore.

The relative difficulty that the human species face in accepting queerness among members of our own species but not so much in non-human species is a stark reminder of the anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism that lies at the root of the climate crisis. For queer ecologists, this exclusion of human from nature is yet another dualism that must be debunked. Gaining inspiration from renowned gender theorist Judith Butler, Timothy Morton highlights that the environment is not a metaphysical, closed system:

“At the DNA level, the biosphere is permeable and boundariless: ‘the whole of the gene pool of the biosphere is available to all organisms’ [1]. Yet we have bodies with arms, legs, and so on, and we regularly see all kinds of life-forms scuttling around. Life is not Natural—it’s Life 1.0, so to speak [2]. If anything, life is catastrophic, monstrous, non-holistic, and dislocated, not organic, coherent, or authoritative. Queering ecological criticism will involve engaging with these qualities.

“Going up a scale or two, evolution theory is anti-essentialist in that it abolishes rigid boundaries between and within species [3]. Life-forms are liquid: positing them as separate is like putting a stick in a river and saying, ‘This is river stage x’ [4]. Queer ecology requires a vocabulary envisioning this liquid life. I propose that life-forms constitute a mesh, a nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level: between species, between the living and the nonliving, between organism and environment.”

Boundaries help us see what may not have originally been defined. But just as we understand our oceans with lines drawn by the land, still they are fluid, they wash into shores, chafe at rocks, seep into ground, vaporize into air, and form what we eat, drink and consume. The ocean is not so separate from us, and neither are we so separate from the life forms that the ocean (or the land and air and anything in between, for that matter) carries; this includes the penguins and seahorses and clownfishes and hundreds of other “queer” marine life.

Illustration of the ocean near the shore, with granite rocks protruding out of the ocean surface.

Notes (references from quotation):

  1. qtd. in Dawkins, Extended Phenotype 160

  2. Žižek, In Defense 440

  3. Cohen; Darwin, Origin 34–35, 163; Dawkins, Ancestor’s Tale 309–13, 569

  4. Quine


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