Ep 199: What the Science Says About Sexual Identity

Eliot Schrefer, author of Queer Ducks, joins us to shine a light on how same-sex relationships and gender fluidity occur naturally in the animal kingdom—and how to use this knowledge as a conversation starter about sex and gender in your home.

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Full show notes

Talking to kids about gender and sexuality isn’t easy. Maybe you want to start the conversation but don’t know how to approach it, or maybe teens are dropping some terminology about their identity that you don’t quite understand. These days, kids seem to have an entirely new language to label their sexual preferences and gender, and it can make parents feel confused or alienated. Not to mention, it can be pretty awkward to discuss sex, no matter who or what our kids are interested in!

But starting this conversation signals to kids that you accept them–which can be incredibly powerful. A recent study by the Trevor Project found that 42% of gay teens have considered suicide…and in many of these cases, parents didn’t even know their own child was gay. Whether your teen is out and proud or struggling in silence, they’ll certainly benefit from an open conversation around sexuality and gender in your home.

So how can we get our teens talking about sexuality? Well, we can start by reminding them that it’s totally natural! This week, we’re sitting down with Eliot Schrefer, author of Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality. Eliot is a New York Times bestselling young adult novelist and book reviewer for USA Today. While getting a Masters in Animal Studies at New York University, Eliot learned the fascinating ways that the natural world defies heterosexuality and gender binaries–and decided to write a book about it!

In our eye-opening interview, Eliot dives into how various species exhibit homosexuality and gender-bending behaviors in the wild! We also talk about how we can start breaking down heteronormative narratives for our teens, and how we use certain language to help teens feel comfortable opening up about their own gender and sexuality.

Gender and Sex In Other Species

We’ve all likely been raised to believe that humans are the only species that exhibits homesexual tendencies…but that couldn’t be further from the truth! In fact, according to Eliot, there are around 1500 different species in the animal kingdom that have significant same-sex interactions in the wild. We often don’t see this in nature documentaries because most animals are sexually monomorphic, meaning they look the same to humans regardless of their gender. However, these creature are definitely involved in same-sex relationships, according to scientists. 

But why would animals behave this way? Isn’t their main goal to reproduce and pass on their gene pool? Eliot explains that while reproducing is significant to these animals, they’re also interested in the oxytocin–the feel-good chemical that motivates animals to bond and floods the brain during sex. This oxytocin can lead animals to have intercourse with those of the same sex, to not only feel good, but also form strong social ties within their community that can give them a competitive survival advantage.

In our interview, Eliot and I discuss various species who have both same-sex and reproductive sexual relationships. Eliot explains that some species like bonobos, our closest primate relative, actually have more female-on-female sex than reproductive, male-on-female intercourse. Similarly, male bottlenose dolphins will mate with females to reproduce, but only form long-term partnerships with other males–having sex over 2.4 times an hour while the females raise the baby on their own!

There are lots of other examples same-sex relationships among other species, which we discuss in the episode. Eliot explains how some animals break the gender binary, while others have asexual same-sex partnerships! All of this occurs naturally in the animal kingdom, reminding us that nature isn’t heteronormative or cisgender. Eliot and I talk about how we can work towards helping kids understand that their identities are also natural and not something to be ashamed of.

Should We Censor Sexuality?

Growing up in a different generation, we were rarely given helpful or even accurate information about homosexuality. In the episode, Eliot shares an anecdote about growing up as a gay youth, trying to find more resources or confirmation about his own sexuality. Instead, he found damaging and confusing information that made him feel as though he had a defect! This hurt his confidence and self-esteem for years, and kept him from coming out to his friends and family. And although resources have certainly improved, there’s still work to be done, Eliot explains.

In our interview, we discuss recent legislation which attempts to restrict the inclusion of gay and trans identities in children’s school curiculum. The logic behind this is to keep the existence of gay or transgender individuals out of kids heads, so that they won’t be “swayed” to change their own identiies, says Eliot. The underlying assumption is that questioning our sexuality is unnatural…but the prevalance of same-sex intercourse across species begs to differ, says Eliot. It’s inherent within all the members of the animal kingdom we coevolved with, he explains, and isn’t something you should stop any kid from learning about.

That might prompt us to ask a question oft researched in the late 20th century–is there a distinguishable gene that indicates if is someone gay? Eliot shares some research from the 1990s that tested the genes of fruit flies and claimed to have discovered the “gay” gene–but this study was conducted and sensationalized during a time of high anxiety over the gay population…and was later debunked. Modern research which examines the sexuality of identical twins separated at birth has found that sexual preferences are determined by a mix of genetics and cultural factors…and that there is no identifiable “gay” gene. Eliot and I dive further into this research in our interview!

All this scientific information might interest a teen who is questioning their own gender or sexuality. Eliot and I are helping you understand the best way to approach a conversation about all this with a teen, even if you don’t know where to start.

Helping Teens Feel Accepted

When kids start busting out words we’ve never heard to describe their gender or sexual preferences, we can feel intimdated or out of touch. Words like “demisexual” or “genderfluid” might have us scratching our heads, wondering if we’ll ever understand. It can make us want to avoid the conversation altogether! Eliot says that even he struggles with this occasionally, despite being the author of several books about sexuality and being a part of the lgbtq+ community himself.

However, he urges us not to pull back when we find ourselves confused by a new word, but instead push through and understand what it means for our kids’ identity. It can be incredibly significant to our teens if we just make the effort to understand and accurately use these labels, Eliot says. These words give teens a shorthand to communicate who they are, and help them start to build a strong definition of their purpose and place in the world.

Eliot explains that kids aren’t often ready to open up right away. They tend to slowly start dropping hints about sex or gender, to see if parents react judgmentally. If you shut down a discussion about a gay TV character, for example, your kid may not feel comfortable opening up about their own sexuality later down the line. Eliot recommends being as accepting and open as possible for all discussions about gender and sexuality. You can even start with a conversation about same-sex interactions in the animal kingdom, to show kids that your presence is a safe space to discuss their own identity.

In the Episode…

My interview with Eliot was not only delightful but full of fascinating information about sexuality and gender in the natural world. On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:
  • How the meaning of the term “queer” has evolved
  • Why animals can’t identify as transgender
  • How fish can change genders at a moment’s notice
  • Why many animals are not monogamous
If you enjoyed listening, check out Eliot’s website, eliotschrefer.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram at @eliotschrefer. Don’t forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
Eliot Schrefer 🌈
Eliot Schrefer 🌈
Author, science writer, tea drinker. Prof @hamlinemfac @FDUWritingMFA, NYT bestseller, Printz Honor, Stonewall Honor, 2x Nat'l Book Award finalist. Sh-RAY-fur.
Ep 199: What the Science Says About Sexual Identity
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