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'New way of looking at nature': These naturalists explore queer ecology with geese, owls and more

Rebecca Johnson, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Lifestyles

CHICAGO -- As Raquel García-Álvarez guides hikers on a trail surrounding the Sand Ridge Nature Center, her remarks on flora and fauna are interrupted by geese honking. She explains, as curious onlookers admire the birds skirting the water, that there’s more to them than meets the eye.

Geese are known to display “homosocial behavior,” she said. For example, there’s been documented instances of two male geese pair-bonding with each other.

“Wildlife does not live within the context of us assigning them, ‘Oh, you’re gay, you’re straight.’ They show homosocial behavior because they use it to bond. It also just brings them joy,” said García-Álvarez, the policy and sustainability manager at the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

On a sunny September afternoon, about 20 community members embarked on the “Queerness of Nature Walk” at the South Holland nature preserve. Naturalists used plants and animals like geese to teach queer ecology, the idea that nature doesn’t always express itself in a binary way.

Lanie Rambo, a Forest Preserve naturalist, described queer ecology as “a new way of looking at nature” that acknowledges how sometimes labels such as gay or straight, and male or female, aren’t precise. She said people often “anthropomorphize,” taking human characteristics and applying them to nature.

“This is a bad idea, because nature is much more fluid. It’s much more flexible, and there’s a lot more going on than just these binary categories,” she said.

 

In fact, Rambo said there’s evidence that 1,500 animal species, from insects to mammals, engage in same-sex behavior. These relations weren’t historically recognized largely due to homophobia, she said.

“A lot of times when scientists saw these things, they’d say, ‘Oh, this animal is doing something abnormal or this is wrong. This is bad or this animal has gone crazy.’ That’s not necessarily true,” Rambo said.

Eliot Schrefer, author of the book “Queer Ducks (and Other Animals),” chronicled some of this history in an article in The Washington Post. Explorer George Murray described same-sex relations among penguins as “depraved” in 1911, and the Edinburgh Zoo director T.H. Gillespie said bisexual penguins “enjoy privileges not as yet permitted to civilized mankind” in 1932.

Some theories suggest scientists mistakenly misgendered animals engaging in same-sex relations, while others believe scientists overlooked the behavior to avoid censure from colleagues, Schrefer wrote. Emerging research also acknowledges that some animals have sex for reasons other than procreation, and it doesn’t necessarily affect their species’ ability to survive.

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