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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.2 (2000) 151-193

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"Unnatural Acts" In Nature:
The Scientific Fascination with Queer Animals

Jennifer Terry *


Nature is a topic of public discourse on which much turns, even the earth. . . . In the United States, storytelling about nature, whatever problematic category that is, remains an important practice for
forging and expressing basic meanings. . . . A recent visit to the San Diego Zoo confirmed my conviction that people reaffirm many of their beliefs about each other and about what kind of planet the earth can be by telling each other what they think they are seeing as they watch the animals.

--Donna Haraway

In primates, including humans, eye contact is a mutual behavior that is loaded with significance. It may represent a struggle for dominance between rivals, or, as anyone who has spent time in a singles bar or a gay bar will be aware, it can be a powerful cue to sexual arousal. Primates have developed uncannily precise mechanisms for determining, from the visual image of another individual's eyes, whether or not that individual is looking at them.

--Simon LeVay

We behave sexually like other mammals--apes, horses, dogs. Centuries of suppression alter us not a jot. It is a sterling proof
that instinct, not vanity-calling-itself-reason, is our guide.

--Philip Wylie

Unbeknownst to them, animals help us tell stories about ourselves, especially when it comes to matters of sexuality. As Donna Haraway notes, humans' desire to watch animals is seldom, if ever, innocent; instead it is shaped by conscious and unconscious [End Page 151] investments in making claims about human life. This phenomenon is most pronounced in the human fascination with animal sexual behavior. Laboratories, like zoos, are sites of voyeurism. We look to the sexual behavior of animals to give meaning to human social relations, and by doing so, we engage in imaginative acts that frequently underscore culturally dominant ideas about gender and sexuality.

What are the scientific and popular investments in watching homosexual behavior in animals? What professional, political, and personal stakes are involved? What possibilities do animals, behaving in a "queer" manner, open up for humans interested in making sense of sexuality? This article considers these questions by examining what Haraway calls the congested traffic between how we define "nature" and "culture" as it characterizes much of the recent scientific observation of animal sexual behavior. 1 More precisely, I explore how animals provide models for scientists seeking to determine a biological substrate of sexual orientation. This survey is not exhaustive; the examples I have chosen highlight some of the ways that sexual orientation is defined by various researchers watching different species for assorted reasons under varying material and historical conditions. Historical shifts in the conceptualization of homosexuality in both mainstream and gay and lesbian contexts are reflected in these examples. I treat each example as a nodal point on a discursive field in which the terms of gender, sexuality, and sexual identity are being transformed as scientists, like many of us, attempt to think about sexual variance, whether in local or in universal terms.

It is possible to identify shifts in the ways humans think about sexuality by observing how some of them design and conduct scientific research and how they report their findings on the timely topic of homosexuality. Indeed, some scientific reports on homosexual behavior in animals inadvertently unsettle or consciously challenge certain dominant ideas about gender and sexuality. To be sure, disciplin-ary differences give rise to contrasting agendas, varying definitions of homosexuality, divergent methods, and distinct relationships to the creatures under study. The neuroanatomists and geneticists featured in this article observe and manipulate laboratory animals to determine the structure and function of isolated biological processes thought to cause similar behavior across species. Their favored species are those whose biological makeup is seen to be homologous to that of humans. In these disciplines the traffic between nature and culture moves in a particular direction: scientists take animal physiology, anatomy, and behavior to be the natural or...


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pp. 151-193
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