Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Pride Month 2024: God (or Nature) Makes Queer Creatures - Get Over It

This post is this year’s edition of my occasionally “annualish” Pride Month blog. I will link the others at the bottom of the post. 




Mother Nature is Queer AF.


Queer. As. Fuck.


This is not actually debatable - it is supported by overwhelming evidence, countless examples, and centuries of observation. 


If you are a religious person (like me, although things are…complicated), then you likely also believe that, at some level, a divine being or entity ultimately created queerness - and that means that God created and continues to create LGBTQ+ people. 


To be clear here, I believe in evolution, and consider it the means by which God creates the diversity of Nature. I also believe that the question of “why is there something rather than nothing?” is ultimately a matter for faith rather than science - it ultimately comes down to “because” no matter which way you go. 


For obvious reasons, this creates a problem if you believe that the existence of LGBTQ+ people is an affront to God. Either God creates people in order to hate them - in which case he/she/they is a monster. Or perhaps, just like other minorities - left handed people, autistic people, white-skinned people - they are just part of the natural way living things exist, and should be accepted and embraced just like others. 


Let’s start with queerness in nature, because much of this was suppressed by religious and political authorities for centuries here in the Western (meaning white) world. 




What is the default sex in nature?


Let’s start here, because I believe this is a foundational question that leads to everything else. It also is where life started, several billion years ago. 


The very first organisms - and indeed the vast majority of existing organisms - are single-celled, and do not reproduce sexually at all. 


What this means is that they do not have sex in the sense of male or female. They are non-binary


They are also, strictly speaking, asexual. That is, they do not reproduce by sexual reproduction, but by binary fission. They have no sex cells, they do not mate, they do not engage in anything that qualifies as sex. 


This is the default in nature: asexual and non-binary.


In another way of thinking, however, one could say that the default is female. Single-celled organisms are far closer to female in essence than they are to male. 


A female organism (once we get to sexual reproduction) contains all the necessary equipment to produce offspring, except some genetic material. This holds for binary fission: the original cell contains everything for reproduction, including all the genetic material. 


What is the biological reason for the existence of male organisms?


Males exist for one purpose and only one purpose biologically: to provide genetic material for sexual reproduction. 


This is not to say that males have no other functions in nature - that is a different issue from the reproductive one - and is specific to specific organisms, not universal like the provision of genetic material is. 


Males evolved in order to more easily create genetic diversity and enable evolution of traits. A single-celled organism reproduces clones of itself, unless a mutation takes place. This limits diversity both by requiring a wait for mutations, and by the reality that most mutations are harmful. 


In contrast, sexual reproduction means that genes get mixed at every generation - and offspring is not only different from each parent, siblings are different from each other. (With the exception of identical twins.) 


By separating off males from the default females, this gene mixing is enabled. 


What evidence do we still see that female is the default for life?


There are a number of ways we see our evolutionary history in our present. First, many organisms that normally reproduce by sexual reproduction are capable of asexual reproduction as well. Aphids do it more often than not, for example. Sharks and rays do it under certain circumstances. Even my beloved California Condors have been known to do it. 


You will never see a male reproduce asexually, because we (sadly) lack the equipment. But females are at least capable in theory of doing this. (One might say this is a central historical Christian doctrine too…just saying.) 


Reproductive technology at this time is apparently close to being able to successfully achieve fertilization of a human egg using female genetic material - making it possible for two women to have a biological child together. 


That’s one bit of evidence. 


Another is the fact that embryos develop with “female” as the default. If nothing interferes, an embryo will become female in form. In most cases, if the genetic pattern for an embryo is “male,” then the gene triggers the production of androgens, thus swapping the female default for the male form. If something interferes with this, say Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, the embryo will develop with traits of both male and female - we call this intersex, and I know people who developed this way. It’s actually fairly common in the human population - about as common as red hair. 


(You can read my more extended discussion of intersex traits in this post from 2016.) 


Another weird fact here: while mammals develop sex as the result of chromosomes, many reptiles have no sex genes - sex is determined by incubation temperature


But the very fact that female is the default development pattern is strong evidence of female being nature’s default. 


One more, from the world of insects. Social insects - bees, wasps, ants, termites - consist mostly of females. The queens, of course, but also all of the workers, soldiers, and so on. Males exist solely for fucking. 


Here is where it gets even more interesting. In those organisms, males are produced from unfertilized eggs. That is, they are produced asexually, and have only half the genetic material as females. And, if you think about it, they can be produced magically at any time, so they truly are created as needed for reproduction - a microcosm of the original evolutionary process for sex. 


Speaking of Intersex, how common is it in nature?


Very common. Virtually every organism that reproduces by sexual reproduction has been found to have intersex individuals. Sometimes, these are incredibly striking in appearance, like this bird, which is male on one side and female on the other. 


There are many more examples, but suffice it to say that due to the very nature of sexual reproduction, there are many ways that sex can be on a spectrum, rather than a binary. 


So, are intersex organisms hermaphrodites? 


Actually, no. And for the love of all that is holy, never call an intersex person that - it is considered a slur. 


Intersex organisms display traits that do not neatly break down into male or female - they display traits of both, or traits that are “in between.” 


In contrast, a true hermaphrodite is able to function as either a male or a female in any given sexual reproductive act. 


What organisms ARE true hermaphrodites?


The easiest to understand - and the most common to observe - are most plants. The overwhelming majority of the plants we see around us are hermaphrodites - they produce both the male reproductive cells (pollen…achoo!!) and the female reproductive cells - the ovaries that turn into seeds. This includes flowering plants and conifers, but not the plants that reproduce using spores - those are even more weird. 


If you think about most flowers, they have both stamens (with pollen) and a pistil, with the ovary at its base. Many flowers self-pollinate, and many others can and do pollinate within the same plant - one flower pollinates another flower on the same tree, for example. 


In other cases, another plant is required. For those of us who have grown cherries, we know to consult a pollination chart to be sure we have compatible varieties to cross-pollinate each other. 


Oh, and there are some other fun variations on this theme - I told you Mother Nature was queer AF. 


Squash plants have male flowers and female flowers. The female ones have ovaries that look like tiny squash - but they only develop if pollinated. 


Kiwi fruit, and mulberries, have male and female vines and trees respectively. A “fruitless” mulberry tree is nothing more than a male one. It just produces the pollen that makes me sneeze, not the berries. But tree sexing (like chicken sexing) can fail, and every so often, you find a female tree, and all the mess that makes. 


What about animals? Are any animals true hermaphrodites?


Oh, so glad you asked! Invertebrates in particular tend to be this way. 


Earthworms, for example, can take either the male or female role in reproduction. Or occasionally (in some species) self-fertilize as well. 


Slugs and snails are also hermaphrodites, and can take either role - in fact, usually they take both roles in a given mating event. 


Also, their penises are as long as they are, mating is by stabbing each other with their dicks (ouch!) and sometimes things get stuck, and they end up chewing their own dicks off. (Really double ouch!) Nature is….queer AF. 


There are plenty more, but those are my favorites. 


This is all really weird. Have any other crazy examples?


Did you know that sex isn’t a fixed characteristic? Some animals change sex over their lifetimes. 


You’re kidding me, right?


Nope. A number of species can change sex depending on conditions. But there are also organisms that start out one sex, and change to another later in life. 


For example, Clownfish - those photogenic crowd pleasers - start out life as male. If they live long enough and get big enough, they change to female. So, to be clear, Nemo was really out looking for his mother…although maybe she was his father originally and became his mother…Mother Nature is queer AF.


But it goes the other way as well! Here in California, every scuba diver is familiar with the Sheephead. For many years, “Oscar,” a 3 foot long male, was a well-known denizen of the Casino Preserve off Catalina Island. You could count on him coming around and following you, hoping you brought him some frozen peas. 


But Oscar wasn’t always Oscar. Like the others of the Wrasse family, Sheephead start out life as females, and only become males once they reach a certain size. 


But there are still only two sexes, right?


Um, no. While most organisms that reproduce sexually use a binary, for the simple reason that it is the simplest way to get diversity, there are some rather crazy exceptions. 


The Fungi Kingdom is definitely the strangest of our groups of organisms. For a long time, they were classified with the plants, until a better understanding of genetics showed that not only are fungi very different from plants, they are actually more closely related to animals


Most fungi are capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction - sometimes in alternating cycles, sometimes in response to environmental factors. But some are even weirder than that. 


As a kid, most of us played “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” that circular game for resolving minor disputes. Fans of The Big Bang Theory probably know the more advanced version, “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock.” 

Or, if you want to get even crazier, there are some rather wild variants with far too many to easily remember.


The ultimate rock, paper, scissors : r/coolguides


Now, just imagine this for mating: the Schizophyllum commune fungus has 23,000 different variants on sex cells - that’s essentially 23,000 different sexes. Some can mate with others, some are incompatible. I cannot imagine drawing that chart. 


You can find similar multi-sexed organisms throughout the creatures that are on the borderline of evolution - where asexual reproduction first gave way to sexual reproduction. 


As organisms further evolved and thrived, sexual reproduction mostly dwindled to a simple sex binary. 


This makes a lot of sense: when you are first starting out, “incest” - reproducing with another who is too genetically close - is a problem. The multiple sexes can reduce this significantly by requiring more diversity. But in a world with millions of individuals, there are far more choices, and incest is statistically less likely. 


That’s a lot of diversity when it comes to sex and reproduction. But what about homosexuality?


Leaving aside plants and fungi because most have both male and female reproductive systems, and thus, by definition, are having queer sex, the answer to that is quite clear:


Many - perhaps most - animals are known to have homosexual sexual behaviors. This includes invertebrates such as insects and spiders and sea stars. 


It is common in all of the invertebrate families: fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. It is particularly widespread among primates - the group that includes humans. It occurs with both males and females throughout the animal kingdom. 


Speaking of primates, since primates are largely social animals, same-sex sexual activity is linked to social interactions and structures. There is strong evidence that same-sex sexual activity is linked to the building and maintaining of social bonds. 


The thing is, scientists have known that animals had gay sex for centuries. But there was a resistance to admitting this - and strong pressure from political and religious authorities to suppress the knowledge. The justification was that letting people know what nature was really like might lead to the “decay of public morals.” 


Even now, a documentary on homosexual behavior in animals is causing conservatives to lose their shit


In other words, if people knew that homosexual behavior is natural and normal throughout the animal kingdom, it would be harder to justify the persecution, marginalization, and murder of LGBTQ people. 


As far as humans go, same-sex sexual activity is well documented in every culture and every time in history, all the way back to the beginning of human civilization (and thus the means of writing things down.) Different cultures have had different ways of understanding and treating LGBTQ people. Some of have been quite affirming. Others, like the Greeks and Romans, tied all sex to hierarchy, thus making some homosexual acts approved, and others disdained. (It’s all about penetration meaning power, so the more powerful could and should penetrate the less powerful - men penetrate women, freemen penetrate slaves, older penetrate younger, military leaders penetrate footsoldiers, etc.) 


The point here is that there is nothing new about homosexual activity - it has always existed. There is also nothing “abnormal” about it - it is common throughout the animal world. What changes and has changed is the social consequences. We humans love to find excuses to look down on other people, and all minorities have been victimized this way. Sexual minorities, by virtue of being less common than the cishet majority, are particularly vulnerable to this, because their percentages in the population are fairly constant, and will never become the majority. 


But just because something is a minority trait doesn’t make it evil. More about this later. 


We’ve talked about sex and sexuality. What about Gender?


Gender is a social construct. It is a performance. It is looking, doing, acting, and being in a way that signals one’s sex. Unlike sex, which is tied to reproduction, gender is tied to culture. A trait may signal “male” in one culture, and “female” in another. 


Just as one example, long hair tends to signal “female” in our culture…or more accurately, the culture of a period of time roughly from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s in white America. But look back before that - the founding fathers had long hair. Native Americans have considered long hair a signal of “male” as much as female, as have other cultures. 


This reality holds true in a whole range of behaviors and signals. Clothing and other appearance-related traits. And also behaviors: who cares for children, who plays certain musical instruments, who prefers which foods, and so much more. To unpack the cultural valence of gender in even our own time, let alone throughout history, would be a lifetime study. 


At the core of this is the belief that genitals are destiny, and that one’s role in society is based primarily on one’s reproductive role. Thus, clear social signals indicate where one fits in society. 


Do animals also perform gender?


Sometimes, yes. Most courtship behaviors are a gender performance, for example. They have nothing to do with reproductive function, but are a way of signaling gender and fitness. 


Interestingly, animals do in fact perform cross-gender behaviors as well. These fall into two categories. One is that animals will pretend to be the other sex for specific reasons - perhaps to gain access to a mate behind the back of a dominant male, or to avoid an assault, or to protect offspring. Or to avoid being eaten. (Even plants engage in this sort of cheating…) 


The other category, though, is individual animals may act in a way that we humans might call transgender. An animal will behave as if it is the opposite sex as a permanent trait. This is fairly rare, but it does exist. 


However, scientists hesitate to consider any of this “gender” in the way we as humans understand it, simply because animals do not have “culture” the way we do. Unlike animals, human gender expectations vary widely across cultures, as noted above, whereas “transgender” behavior in animals doesn’t vary, and isn’t connected to varied cultures within an animal species. 


That said, the fact that there is evidence of a “male as far as reproduction, but female by behavior” among animals is some indication that the existence of transgender humans is no anomaly, but has a biological cause. 


So, you are saying that transgender people are intersex at some level?


Yes, that is my opinion - while our science does not yet understand neurological wiring well enough to even begin to connect biology to psyche, I believe that at that level, transgender people are a form of intersex. They have brains wired as a different sex than their bodies. I could be wrong, but given our current state of knowledge, it seems to me to be the best explanation. 


I wrote more about this in this post


Back to gendered behaviors, what can Nature teach us about cultural gendering?


Animals get cited by people all the time as examples of “how humans should behave.” Growing up Fundie, I certainly heard the examples of certain birds who are monogamous held up as a pattern for human behavior. 


Of course, it turns out that birds like Condors are, like humans, only “monogamish.” I can’t find it now, but there was a bit of bird drama in our local Condor population a few years ago, when a female dumped her longtime partner for another, younger male. 


While monogamy is one area, the other that tends to be abused by Fundies in defense of their cultural agenda is that of childcare. 


Does mom or dad care for offspring?


It depends, right? For most insects, the parents die before their offspring hatches. The same is often true of fish, reptiles and amphibians, who leave their eggs to hatch alone. 


Birds and mammals, however, are warm blooded, and need to nurture their offspring at least some amount of time. But who is to do it?


Most birds share the duties - definitely not the thing that patriarchists like to point out about birds. In fact, some of their materials even lie about it, pretending that the male birds go out and find food, while the female birds sit on the eggs. This is not how it works - for the most part, the parents alternate. 


For mammals, there is a lot of diversity, just like there is regarding promiscuity. Cats are highly promiscuous, and only the mother cares for the offspring. But even that is an oversimplification, as any of us who have seen a male cat take a kitten under its paws know. 


Wolves, on the other hand, form family groups (“packs” are just that - related individuals, with the “alpha male” the one most of us call “dad”) to mutually care for offspring. 


For primates like humans, multi-generational groups tend to care for children - the “nuclear family” is actually an aberration of modern post-industrial times. 


Many animals do even weirder things - seahorse females lay their eggs in the male’s pouch. He incubates them, before giving birth. This caused great confusion for scientists for many years - they thought the males were females who gave live birth. 


So, there really is no “lesson” to be drawn from the animal kingdom regarding human culture. 


So, all of these gendered expectations are really just culture?


Yes. That is why they vary across place and time. There is no right way to divide up activities such as childcare, hunting, and farming, let alone more advanced activities such as navigation, teaching, care of the sick, and so on. 


All of these are cultural, not biologically based. They are unique to humans, who have the ability to reason and decide what is best for them, their families, and their cultures. 


So, let’s wrap this up:


Sex is not a binary, even within sexual reproduction. 


The default in nature is either asexual or female.


Homosexual activity is common and normal throughout nature. 


Gender is a performance related to sex, but is a uniquely human cultural trait.


Mother Nature is queer AF.


If you believe God created Nature, then you cannot escape the conclusion that God created LGBTQ organisms, which are part of Nature. 




What does all this mean?


First and foremost, it means that we cannot simply exclude LGBTQ people on the basis that they are “unnatural.” 


In fact, they are quite natural, common throughout the natural world. 


As I mentioned above, we humans have a nasty tendency to want to set up hierarchies, and exclude people we deem to be “lesser.” To this end, we dehumanize people who are in the minority, or who otherwise lack social, political, or economic power.


Historically, LGBTQ people have been an easy target, and have suffered forms of oppression up to and including genocide. 


In general, religious people have been more willing to do this, because the belief that “God told me to” is incredibly powerful. It justifies every atrocity, while making you feel good about doing it. 


The problem, however, is this:


Who are we to say which parts of nature - and humanity - are worthy?


We can exclude any group we want, arbitrarily, right?


Left handed people are of the Devil, right? We actually used to believe that. (See: “Sinister.”) 


Twins are of the Devil and should be abandoned. Humans have believed that too. (And that at least has some evolutionary basis: if mom is starving, two babies will die where one might survive.) 


Red-headed people are not to be trusted. Yep, we did that. 


People with disabilities can be abandoned to die. Been there. 


Intersex infants should be murdered. Yes, there is a history of that too. 


Short men should earn less money. This is actually a fact in our society. 


Black people should be enslaved by white people. The origins of our national sin of white supremacy. 


This is how we humans behave. We exclude and hate and fear and justify our evil behaviors by saying “God told me to do it.”


When we decide that a particular subset of fellow humans are “evil” because they were created differently from us, we are blaspheming - we are telling God that he/she/they made a mistake, screwed up, failed in making humans (or the natural world in general) the wrong way. 


And note, blaming LGBTQ people on “the fall” has the same problem. We are deciding that some parts of what God created is “natural” and good, and other parts are “due to the fall” and bad. 


But it all comes down to us wanting to hate and fear and exclude some of our fellow humans - don’t blame God for this. We do this. 


Part of my journey over the last two decades has been to take full responsibility for my beliefs. I refuse to hide behind “God” anymore. Every time we read the Bible, or engage in any other religious activity, we are interpreting. What we choose to believe says everything about who we are, what kind of people we are. 


We. Choose. What. To. Believe. 


Choose wisely. 


Nature - what God created if you believe - is queer. It is queer AF. And God said that it was good. If we really believe that, we need to embrace queerness the way we do the rest of nature. 



Past Pride Month Posts and Related Posts:


2023: The Root of Anti-LGBTQ Bigotry is Misogyny


2022: Neurodiversity and Intersex as ways of understanding the LGBTQIA+ Experience

2021: Possible Christian Responses to LGBTQ+ People

2020: The Moment I Became a “Side A” [affirming] Christian

2016: (unofficial) If You Support Anti-LGBTQ+ “Religious Freedom” Laws, You Aren’t Really Different from Omar Mateen


List of books by LGBTQ authors I have blogged about. 

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