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.
How To Stop Caring what Others Think
Because we have to spend 24/7 inside our own minds, we tend to see ourselves as the center of the universe, says Thibault. We think everyone is watching us, judging us, and even laughing at us as we go through our daily life. However, we often fail to realize that everyone is caught up thinking the same thing about themselves! Thibault reminds us that people are usually so worried about their own lives that they aren’t paying very much attention to what we’re doing. While we’re still thinking about our embarrassing slip up the next day, they’ve likely forgotten about it, he says.
Thibaut encourages us to question how much time we spend thinking about others’ actions. Sure, we might be frustrated that the grocery store clerk forgot to give us our discount, but by the next day we’ve moved on! We tend not to dwell on the mishaps of others–meaning others likely don’t dwell on our mistakes either! Thibaut recommends prompting teens to think about this when they’re ruminating over a presentation or a romantic rejection. Gently reminding them that it’s not the end of the world can go a long way, Thibaut explains.
Sometimes, the belief that others are judging us simply comes down to miscommunication. Since we tend to center ourselves, we often assume people are making fun of us…when really they’re not even thinking about us at all! When someone doesnt follow your daughter back on social media, she might think it’s a diss and feel deeply hurt…when maybe that person just hasn’t logged on in a few days! De-centering ourselves and refraining from assumptions can help us stop caring what others think and lead happier lives.
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![/restrict]
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. Remind your teen of the power of specific identifiers:
“[When] you find the word and the term that expresses you most clearly, you can very quickly establish with a peer, a new friend, someone you meet in a coffee shop, someone who’s on the car ride to the field trip, or whatever. By saying that set of terms, you have a shorthand within a few seconds to get to the heart of the way you exist in the world, whereas with a smaller set of terms, we actually can’t express ourselves nearly as well. It takes longer for someone to really figure out who you are.”-Eliot Schrefer
2. Communicate the special freedom from judgment the natural world offers:Members Only
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: Talk to me about this new book you have coming out. It’s a really interesting and unique topic. How did you come up with this idea and end up turning this into a book?
Eliot: I’ve been writing YA fiction for a long time, but I’m also getting a Master’s in Animal Studies at NYU part-time. And so, in the coursework, we had a lot of visiting scholars come through and they talk about, usually biologists or specialists in a species, and when they were talking about their individual species, they would frequently mention that dolphins or geckos or what have you would exhibit same-sex sexual behavior, but there was just within the animal was their expertise. And I realized, what is going on here? Because from the evolutionary biology point of view, the assumption would be that that’s actually an evolutionary dead end, right?
Andy: Yeah, yeah.
Eliot: Because if an animal pairs off with an animal of the same sex, they’re not producing offspring so their genetic pool doesn’t continue into the next generation. So, I wanted to read more about it. So I was looking for a work that actually looked at the reasons for this and what it means for human sexuality and human identities and the book wasn’t out there. So, I had that moment of like, “Oh no, that means I have to write the book.”
Andy: Am I being called right now?
Eliot: Yeah, exactly, exactly. There’s a hole in the world and I guess I’m stuck now. I have to write it and write a book to fill it. And so, I spent my 2020 researching all the various articles that have come out and Nature just did a study two years ago of the field, the state of the field around this issue and found that 1,500 different animal species have significant same-sex sexual behaviors in the wild, and it’s just ticking upwards from there. And this is insects all the way up through more advanced creatures like primates and apes and, of course humans.
Eliot: So, I did a deep dive into the material and then the struggle was not finding enough to write about, but pairing it down. So, I focused on 10 different animal species that each help us unpack something about the human sexuality as well. So, we use the bonobos to look at the ways in which bisexuality operates in the animal world. And then with bottlenose dolphins, we look more at the male unions that they have, and also intersex animals like deer and sex-changing animals like fish. It was a deep dive into the wild diversity of the natural ways that animals express who they are, both through who they have sex with and also changing sex and having non-binary sexualities.
Andy: That is so interesting. And that is such an area of animal life that, well, surprisingly is just not on the Discovery Channel or… Yeah, it’s interesting reading some of these things in your book and seeing how prevalent same-sex unions are, or you talk about penguins, and I think it was like over 20% of penguin couples are same-sex couples. And I was like, “Wow, that’s a lot. Why do we just not even talk about this? Why do we have entire documentaries about penguins that just don’t really go into this?”
Eliot: The majority of animals are sexually monomorphic, which means males and females look the same to human eyes.
Andy: I have no idea, a penguin’s a penguin.
Eliot: It’s really hard to tell them apart. Yeah. And so that documentary, March of the Penguins, which was such a hit especially around this idea of this noble family, the nuclear family, right? The two penguins raising a chick through the extreme adversity just to keep the family safe. A third of those partnerships that we were looking at were most likely same sex based on the data. But of course, March of the Penguins didn’t include that information, or maybe even the researchers didn’t know about it.
Andy: As you point out in this book, and I always learned in my evolutionary psychology classes, it’s all about passing your genes on to the next generation. And so, any behaviors that don’t help with that, evolution doesn’t like those. That doesn’t seem to be the case here with 1,500 species. What is going on with that? Or why does there seem to be this disconnect, this behavior doesn’t make sense? Where might it come from or where might the classic narrative of passing on the genes is maybe limited or not telling us everything?
Eliot: Yeah. Well, it’s different according to the animal species. There’s no one explanation that goes across the board, but one thing that we’ve been doing is underestimating the amount that animals will cheat. So, even monogamous couples, like penguins that come year after year to raise a chick together, are having sex on the side all the time. And 90% of bird species are socially monogamous, meaning they choose a partner and stay with that partner for life, but only 25% are genetically monogamous meaning that their offspring are actually that partner’s DNA. So, there’s a lot of bird canoodling.
Andy: Oh, wow.
Eliot: And when you factor that in, all of a sudden there is very little evolutionary cost to having a partner who is of the same sex because if it’s the right partner and they’re doing the best job helping to raise your chicks, that’s the important quality. And then if it’s two females, they can get inseminated outside of the union, and if it’s two males, males are known to steal eggs from other birds within that population and raise them.
Andy: Oh, wow.
Eliot: Yeah. Just last year in the Dutch Zoo, it sounded like it was ripped from TMZ, there was a gay couple of penguins, gay in quotes, but they stole an egg from a lesbian couple next door and then raised it. So, it was very scandalous. They were in big trouble. That’s one thing, the monogamy thing, these animals are basically bisexual. It’s not like they are just settling down with someone of the same sex. They are also having offspring, passing it on.
Eliot: Still, why is it so prevalent? And the answer is there’s a huge benefit to sexual activity in the release of oxytocin, which is this hormone that the brain releases in physical contact and sex is the most intense form of physical contact you can have, right? So, by allowing… So, pick bonobos, which are our closest animal relatives, the bonobo apes, they will have a very promiscuous society. Females will have sex with males, they will get pregnant, they will have offspring, but they’ll also have sex with females actually more frequently than they have sex with males. And by having sexual interactions, the two females release oxytocin together, which bonds them, it makes them an alliance and a union and really loyal to each other. The same way it does, remember in high school, the first time you had a make out session, you’re like, “I’m going to spend my life with this person and I have to text them all the time.” It’s the same feeling. That’s oxytocin, you haven’t gone crazy, you just have oxytocin flooding your brain.
Eliot: And so, the bonobos establish their partnerships and alliances and they have significant ones, the females with other females because of this frequent female-female sexual activity. That holds true, everything from ants all the way through primates’ release oxytocin during physical contact. So same-sex sexual behavior is another avenue for it and a way to get a social advantage and to do better and outcompete your neighbors, if you have more allies and that’s one of the primary ways animals do it is through sexual activity.
Andy: It’s interesting thinking to me about how we have these narratives that we impose on everyone else and that we’re imposing this really heteronormative narrative on animals and how they’re, “Oh, yes, these nice monogamous couples raising some chicks together,” and that there’s actually a lot more going on that we’re ignoring.
Eliot: It’s kind of that children’s Bibles have that picture of Noah’s ark where it’s all these animals just hanging out on the arc and it’s like a boy and a girl elephant and the girl elephant has a pink bow-
Andy: The male and a female. Yeah, right.
Eliot: Exactly. Like that’s the way it’s meant to be, and that as humans, we also end up with that assumption too. So, I remember in middle school, the big dialogue around homosexuality was like, “It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” And that, because it rhymed, that had to be true in 11-year-old logic.
Andy: Wow. That just sounds true. Yeah. That’s right.
Eliot: Yeah, exactly. That’s a really good set of words that rolls off the tongue, so it must be right. And that just accords with this Noah’s ark version too. So, the same ways we think about the animal world also reflect the limitations we put on other human beings too.
Andy: It’s funny because then it’s how we buy into these things that we don’t really know that much about, but then it changes the way we think about ourselves or limits the way we think about ourselves, and if we have this idea that our desires and impulses are not natural or going against the natural way of things, then that’s hard. That doesn’t feel good. It generates all kinds of, I guess, shame or guilt or something like that that’s unnecessary because if we just learned a little more and went a little deeper, we’d see there’s such diversity of sexual behavior all across the animal kingdom. You’re not weird. I think that’s really an important aspect of your book.
Eliot: I’ve been thinking about that lately with the movement to censor or remove LGBTQ books from school libraries and from classrooms. And there’s an underlying assumption to that, and it’s a reasonable assumption if you have a set of values that lead to it, and the assumption is that if you wall it out, if you limit exposure to LGBTQ characters, then young people won’t be struck by the idea that, “Oh, maybe I should be a lesbian or maybe I should-“
Andy: Yeah. Let’s not even put the idea in their head and let’s just say… Yeah, right.
Eliot: Let’s go back to that stage when no one even had this concept and we all just were “normal”, right? I understand the logic, it just doesn’t hold because it assumes that there is something unnatural around these behaviors and that they don’t exist in the wild and in the rest of the animal kingdom. But when you know, like this research shows, that there’s a wide range of sexual expression within the animal world, you realize that you can’t wall it out. It is actually inherent and inborn in all animal populations, including human ones. So, it’s kind of like the call is coming from inside the house. It’s not a book that can infect someone with this idea, but it is part of our genetic heritage and what we got from all the animals that we co-evolved with.
Andy: Something that I hear people talking about is that there’s so much more words that we have now. It seems so much more common for people to be going by different pronouns and really having different sexual identities and gender identities. I wonder to what extent, teenagers today are fluent in this whole other language that it feels like people didn’t speak 20 years ago really that much, and it’s like, well, these words existed, but they weren’t that mainstream or something like that. And to a certain extent, it does feel like now that we have a language to describe a lot of things, people are saying like, “Wow, actually that’s me,” it empowers people to understand themselves more deeply or express themselves in a way that feels more authentic. And what do you think about that? Or is that like…
Eliot: I agree. I’m now thinking about the parents and teens who are listening to your podcast, that there’s a way in which I’m 43 and now the new terms that are coming out, even five years ago I incorporated these terms much more easily in the way I’m thinking, but now someone is demisexual and I have to take a moment, like, “Okay, walk me through this.” Right? There’s so much out there that it’s hard to keep up with and it’s easy to turn to an eye- rolly state when you hear about some new identity and it’s like, “Okay, isn’t there enough? This acronym is so huge already.”
Andy: Right, right.
Eliot: But the power it gives a young person is really big and I think they recognize that, in that you find the word and the term that expresses you most clearly, you can very quickly establish with a peer, a new friend, someone you meet in a coffee shop, someone who’s on the car ride or the field trip or whatever. By saying that set of terms, you have a shorthand within a few seconds to get to the heart of the way you exist in the world, whereas with a smaller set of terms, we actually can’t express ourselves nearly as well. It takes longer for someone to really figure out who you are.
Eliot: It’s just a great tool and a resource, so I always try to be open to it and I’m always grateful when people are tolerant and understand that it’s from a place of love because I screw up the terms all the time. I’ll use the wrong pronouns for someone, I’ll use the wrong term for what their sexuality is, and I’m always grateful when someone recognizes, appreciates the effort and doesn’t punish you for not getting the exact terminology correct. We’re all working together here, right?
Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It really matters that you’re trying. People understand it’s a lot.
Eliot: I talked to six different young scientists who are doing work in this field and I’m cisgender, meaning people see me as male and I identify as male and just they match, but when I talk to these different researchers, some of them are non-binary or trans and I wanted to make sure to get their voices in there because I don’t live that identity, so I don’t know all the complexity of it. But one of the researchers I talked to is a trans man who is still on a journey around his gender and figuring out how to express who he is. And he told a really moving story about how it’s so difficult with humans to navigate identity and to identify who he is, and he sees people misidentifying him and it’s just a source of worry and stress.
Eliot: And then he just loves the idea of getting back into the field. So, he spends a week observing big horned sheep or moose, and is just there in the mud, mud up to his ankles, just looking through binoculars at these sheep and the sheep don’t care what his gender expression is, are not going to misgender him, not going to shame him for the way that he expresses his gender, is just a being with other natural beings and it’s a source of great comfort and solace. And I think the natural world can offer us a feeling of sort of radical acceptance, that the animal is never going to judge you or shame you for who you are and we can take a note from that it’s how we should treat other humans too.
Andy: Will you talk about bonobos and this bonding aspect of their sexual behavior that happens, especially among female-female pairs? You covered 10 different animals with really different, interesting sexual activity. What else is something in there that you think is really interesting?
Eliot: Well, the bottlenose dolphins are the male story comparison to the bonobos.
Andy: Okay, yeah.
Eliot: So, male bottlenose dolphins are the only lasting relationship in dolphin societies is between males and they will partner for life and have very, very frequent sexual activity, 2.4 times an hour. So, these males are getting the oxytocin rush all the time and it’s amazing they still have time to catch fish and do everything else.
Andy: No wonder they seem so happy, they’re always frolicking, we see dolphins are surfing on waves and they’re playing with each other and like, “Ah, I see. I see what’s going on here.”
Eliot: And dolphin, males and females only spend a week or two together, enough time for her to get pregnant, and then she goes off alone to raise her calf. The males will partner up and they spend their lives together traveling the ocean. So, they have offspring, their DNA continues along, but they have this alliance and then they’ll join up with other males who are also bonded sexually and then they dominate the males who have less tight of a bond. And so, it’s interesting to see how it plays out within their world.
Eliot: For me, the most complicated one was looking at shorebirds. So, albatross, gulls, and terns. There’s a significant percentage of their nests are female-female. So, in albatrosses, it’s upwards of a third of their nests are that way. And these females, if anyone is listening, you can just Google albatross courtship, it’s really endearing. So, males and females will do this and the females do this when they’re courting, but they clack each other’s beak, they do a sort of dab move where they put their wing up and they put their head under their wing. If they get the steps right and they know that they are vibing together and they’re going to be good life partners, they bond for life. They’ll come back, they’ll spend the year apart, and they’ll come back every spring to raise chicks together.
Eliot: For a third of them, it’s two females doing this and they don’t actually, they do all the courtship that male-female couples do, but they don’t actually have sex. They just bond together and they have sex outside of that union briefly with a male to get fertilized and then they raise their chicks. And so, it kind of raises the question of, how do we define sexuality, right? These are a pair of birds that are raising chicks together, spending their lives together, a committed union only with each other, but don’t have sex and I don’t think gay and lesbian are really appropriate terms for animals anyway, but would you consider this same-sex sexual behavior? They’re not having sex? What does make someone homosexual or not?
Eliot: So, it actually really raised a lot of questions. Does sexuality require sex? And a lot of my middle-aged married friends were like, “I’ve been wondering this question for a long time. I don’t know. Well, let me ask my husband.”
Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We sleep in separate bedrooms and-
Eliot: Right, right. It’s a long history of this. Yeah.
Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That is so interesting. It’s funny how much animals, almost feels empowering in a way, it just feels so validating for all the different ways that humans express themselves sexually and it’s really cool in that way.
Eliot: I think about it with, the book, most of my readers are adults, but it’s also really aimed at the teen audience. And the thing about teenagers, feeling alone in the way that they’re feeling, that they’re isolated by it, that it makes them unnatural or something wrong. And the same kind of thing is the way we thought about our species, that we are the only animals with this LGBTQ identities. And we’re not. We’re not alone in the natural world, we’re part of it just like a young person who’s having these feelings is not alone either. You just have to look and have the right information and they’ll understand that.
Andy: A lot of this stuff would be just so cool to have conversations about, teenagers, reading this book the last few days, I’ve been having conversations about this with people like, “Dude, did you know? Let me tell you about dolphins,” and everyone is fascinated that I talk to. I think this could just create some really interesting conversations in your home that then also just naturally, and it’s like metaphors and I like how it’s so much easier to talk about a friend who’s going through something or struggling with something or wondering something than it is to talk about yourself. And I think, wow, it’s even more smooth to talk about animals, because that feels like even one more thing removed that also just lets us think more about ourselves and about each other in a less threatening way, and so…
Eliot: When I was a young person in the closet and it took me years to come out to my family and friends, I had antenna up for any sign that someone was open to the idea of gayness or bisexuality or anything, just listening to a sign that they were okay with it, that they were willing to talk about it. And I think sometimes, exactly as you said, if you talk about it in dolphins or in Japanese macaque monkeys, it’s a sign that the conversation’s on the table, this topic is on the table. The teenager wouldn’t have the feeling of like, “I’m personally implicated. Actually, we’re talking about gay people, are you gay?” Instead it’s like, “Oh, some penguins are gay and isn’t that interesting?” And it’s just a sign, just a flag you put up there that, this is okay to talk about this and an okay thing to be without someone feeling put on the spot if they’re not ready to open up.
Eliot: Because I know, with teenagers I used to be a one-on-one SAT tutor, and so I worked with teens all the time.
Andy: Ah, okay.
Eliot: They are closed off unless they are ready to crack open, and it’s very hard to get someone who’s unwilling to speak about something to start if they’re a teenager. So, any tool in the arsenal is helpful, I think.[/restrict]
About Eliot Schrefer
Eliot Schrefer is a New York Times-bestselling author, and two time finalist for the National Book Award. His books were included in the NPR “best of the year” list, the ALA best fiction list for young adults, and the Chicago Public Library’s “Best of the Best.” His works have been translated into many languages including German, Russian, Polish, Taiwanese, Bulgarian, and Japanese. His most recent title is Queer Ducks.
His work has also been selected to the Amelia Bloomer List, which rewards the best feminist books for young adults. He has been a finalist for the Walden Award, and won the Green Earth Book Award and Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award. He currently serves on the faculty of the Fairleigh Dickinson and Hamline MFAs in writing. He reviews books for USA Today.
Eliot lives in New York City.