"It’s a mommy, daddy and baby [insert animal here]!”
Statements like this are often heard by those walking through our institutions and may be an accurate description of the conservation portion of our missions, yet they can also be a manifestation of an idea that influences how we connect with our audiences. The stories we tell are often centered upon conservation and therefore reproduction; however, we should not limit our stories to these. When we share the diverse stories of nature, we are better able to connect to diverse audiences, empowering them to join our missions.
Individuals, both human and non-human, have stereotypically been categorized into a gender binary of male and female based upon physiology, physical characteristics, and behavioral expression. In reality, this binary is based on historical cultural norms and societal expectations. The social construct of gender extends further, imposing a system of standards that have established opposite-sex attraction and the male/female binary as the ‘default’ or ‘norm’—a concept termed heteronormativity.
Messaging that reinforces heteronormative structures, such as gender-based color schemes, gender reveals, and stories in television, books, and movies, surround our audiences from an early age. In nature, stories focused on opposite sex courtship, sexual dimorphism, reproduction and conservation messaging can reinforce this idea in our own organizations. When an animal challenges this heteronormative perspective, it is often considered ‘unique’ or ‘abnormal,’ but it is more common than we are led to believe. “And Tango Makes Three” popularized same-sex penguin relationships while dolphins and bonobos are lauded for their promiscuity.
Beyond these well-known examples, there are over 1,500 species that have been observed with non-heteronormative expressions, including:
Unfortunately, many of these behaviors and expressions are not widely known, hidden behind inaccessible language, explained away, relegated to footnotes, or omitted from publications. Our own teams may not be aware of the stories and behaviors within our collections, and we may be discouraged from sharing them with visitors. Our missions empower us to include our audiences in natural spaces and conservation, but by neglecting to share these stories, we are missing that mark. Evolutionary biologist Dr. Joan Roughgarden presents this spectacularly: “suppressing the full story of gender and sexuality denies diverse people their right to feel at one with nature and relegates conservation to a niche movement—the politics of a privileged identity.”
Claims of non-heteronormative identities as “unnatural” are used in attempts to harm LGBTQIA2S+ people and often serve as an excuse for discriminatory actions. Queer people are not born into a community of support, instead identifying and building a network around themselves. Youth grow up in a heteronormative world and may spend years alone finding and learning to accept themselves, before risking everything to seek acceptance from others. We as zoological professionals are able to provide queer people a sense of belonging and inclusion through sharing diverse stories. In the book Interpreting LGBT History in Museums and Historic Sites, Susan Ferentinos identifies this sense of belonging as “the most compelling reason to consider interpreting the LGBT past” and continues by saying “to offer roots to those who have at one time or another found themselves without any is a powerful gift indeed.” With the abundance of stories to share, we have the power to give LGBTQIA+ individuals roots in the natural world.
So how can we introduce non-heteronormative content into our messaging? Like other socially “controversial” subjects, there may be fears and uncertainty around telling these stories, but we are in a strong position to share these stories and provoke our visitors to think differently about the natural world. Yes, there may be negative social media comments, upset members, and general opposition, but when looking at our missions, sharing these stories is an instrumental part of them. There are many ways we can welcome and include queer people in our stories and institutions:
Nature is a rainbow—the only limit to the diversity of gender expressions and sexual orientations is in our understanding. Historically, zoological institutions have reinforced heteronormative perspectives of nature, but as zoo professionals, we have the power to shift the focus. Through sharing these stories, we can create a sense of inclusion in the conservation field and provide a greater sense of belonging to people who have been oppressed and excluded from society. As an industry, we can challenge society and build connections between the LGBTQIA+ community and the natural world.
“The true story of nature is profoundly empowering for peoples of minority gender expressions and sexualities.” – Joan Roughgarden
Andrew Hogan is the animal immersion programs supervisor at Zoo Atlanta
2019 Welcoming Guidelines for Museums [PDF]. (2019). LGBTQ Alliance, American Alliance of Museums.
Bagemihl, B. (2000). Biological exuberance: Animal homosexuality and natural diversity. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Ferentinos, S. (2015). Interpreting LGBT history at museums and historic sites. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Roughgarden, J. (2013). Evolution's rainbow: Diversity, gender, and sexuality in nature and people. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.