Eliot Schrefer is a two-time National Book Award finalist best known for novels that explore the relationships between humans and animals. In Queer Ducks (and Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality, Schrefer turns to nonfiction to present cutting-edge research on a plethora of same-sex animal behaviors, from male doodlebugs observed “doing the dirty” by German scientists in the 1830s, to trios of greylag geese that care for nests and raise fledglings with higher success rates than pairs. The book incorporates personal anecdotes from the author, comics by illustrator Jules Zuckerberg, Q&As with working scientists and plenty of humor to create an absorbing, enlightening and entertaining read.
What inspired you to make the leap to nonfiction?
I’m in the animal studies M.A. program at New York University, and part of that coursework has been reading the long tradition of writers who have dared to question the assumption that humans are the pinnacle of creation. My fiction has long explored what bonds us with the natural world, but I hadn’t really considered working on a piece of nonfiction that would do the same. Then I happened across the burgeoning research into same-sex sexual behavior in animals and realized how much a young Eliot would have loved to have heard about that. That’s when I knew I had to write Queer Ducks.
How did you arrive at the book’s unique blend of formats?
For my young readers, there’s a good chance that the only science writing they’ve encountered is in their textbooks. There’s such a healthy amount of science nonfiction for adults (like Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus or Helen MacDonald’s Vesper Flights) that allows the author to take some space on the page to give readers more of an intimate access point to the science, and I wanted to create a similar work for teens.
The comics were the idea of my editor, Ben Rosenthal. I loved it. I know how often kid-me flipped through a book before committing, and the comics are welcoming to readers who aren’t sure they want to commit to a whole book of nonfiction text that they haven’t been assigned in school.
Same-sex sexual behavior has been confirmed in more than 1,500 animal species. How did you begin to organize this breadth of scientific information?
I decided to focus on 10 representative animal species and to have each chapter tackle an important research question. The wrasse fish enabled me to look more generally at evolutionary explanations for sex change in animals, the Japanese macaques served as an introduction to feminist biology, the dolphins let us explore the question of whether sexual orientation is a relevant term for animals at all and so on.
You examine many analogs for a wide swath of human gender identities and sexual orientations and behaviors, including asexuality, polyamory, intersexuality, gender fluidity and more. Why was it important to you to be so inclusive?
This was maybe the most freeing thing about my research: Thinking in terms of “gayness” sort of misses the point when it comes to the natural world. Without the need to self-identify, sexuality and sexual identity in animals can be really polymorphous. Only the rare animal could be said to have a persistent same-sex sexual orientation; instead it’s all a version of bisexuality. I didn’t have to look far to find analogs for all the various ways humans self-present, except for when it comes to the extreme binary identities of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Those seem to be human specialities.
You also include your own life experiences as a closeted queer teenager. These moments really anchor the book. How did you feel as you worked on these sections?
I’ve been watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for years, and my favorite moment each season is when the contestants speak directly to a photo of themselves as a baby, telling them the advice they most needed to hear. I had 11-year-old Eliot in my mind while I was writing Queer Ducks. I was terrified that someone would find out the feelings that had risen up inside me. I felt weird and unnatural.
I’m grown up now and doing fine, but the thought that I might be able to help another young person feel like they are a natural part of the world after all was a big part of my inspiration. When I talk about Queer Ducks in public, I go in thinking that I’ll just be rattling through really cool animal facts, but I wind up tearstruck.
Why was it important to you to include the voices and perspectives of the scientists and researchers you interview in the book?
I wanted to include a mix of identities as far as race and gender identity and sexuality, and also a mix of approaches to science. I spoke with a couple of field researchers, a science historian, a biologist and a primatologist. I wanted my young readers to learn about what these people were studying, but I also wanted them to see how science is done and the diversity in who “gets to” do science. We need all sorts of people in science. As one of my interviewees, Mounica Kota, put it: “We have great diversity of other beings, but if we have a very homogenous human voice speaking, that doesn’t make for a great conversation.”
I laughed out loud a lot more than I expected to while reading Queer Ducks. What role does humor play in this book?
Lucky for me that you’re a fan of nerd humor! I think one of the risks with writing nonfiction is that a tonal sameness can set in. This can deaden a reader’s emotional responses, and humor is such a good way to shake things up. Your average high school student reads mostly dry or even reverential material about the natural world. But there’s room for non-seriousness in the natural world, too!
What do you think readers will be most surprised to learn about?
The cattle industry, which operates largely by artificial insemination, uses other males to get the bulls in the mood to ejaculate! It has done so for decades. Same-sex desire is part and parcel of one of the most typically macho fields of agriculture.
I think readers might also be surprised by the prevalence of three-bird nests in shorebirds. Polyamory is frequent among these birds, potentially as a way to have more guardians for the eggs and chicks.
Throughout the book, you often mention that it’s impossible to know what animals think about all this. If you could interview some members of one of the species in the book, which would you choose to talk to and why?
Ha! Love this question. I think I’d sit (or should I say float?) with a wrasse fish. They have a mostly female society, with one male at the top of the hierarchy. When that male dies, though, one of the females changes sex within an hour or two and assumes the patriarchal position.
I’d love to talk to a wrasse fish who transitioned. What did his body feel like while it was happening? Did he have any volition in it? How did the group know that she—this particular fish—would be the one to become male? Wrasse fish also swim into the jaws of moray eels to clean their teeth, so I’d be curious if this fish had any dentistry tips.
As you worked on this book that’s mostly about animals, what do you feel you learned about humans?
I think we underestimate how fixated our current cultural moment is on narrowly identifying sexuality. Homosexuality is a word and concept that didn’t exist before the second half of the 19th century. For the majority of human societies and for the vast majority of our history as a species, acts could be same-sex but there was no persistent identity attached to them. Without that need to define what a person is, someone would be much freer to have occasional same-sex sexual behavior—which is exactly what we see play out in species after species in the wild.
You discuss a warning from biologist Marlene Zuk, who asserted that scientists should “avoid using animals to argue about human morality.” How did you work to do this throughout the book?
I love Zuk’s article, because she points out that we can’t cherry-pick our morality from the animal world—and that using animals as moral guides risks reducing them to metaphors. However, in Queer Ducks, I’m not trying to argue for human queerness from animals; instead I’m saying that humans aren’t alone in their queerness. That queer behaviors are part of the natural world. That much is irrefutable at this point.
In the book’s final chapter, you discuss possible reasons why much of the information in the book has remained largely unknown for decades, including unconscious or even intentional homophobia within the sciences, and you address readers who may feel that such information challenges “the natural order.” What would you say to an adult who thinks teens shouldn’t read this book?
Given the dishonest tactics that politicians are currently using to score points by smearing gay people, it’s worth repeating that sexuality is not something that can be locked out of your schools and your family. The feelings crop up within, and when a young person feels alone and unnatural because of who they are, it’s potentially deadly. Queer Ducks makes a space to think about how expansive and diverse the natural world is, how many ways there are to love and to be. Of course the majority of animal sex is heterosexual. No one’s trying to argue against that. But knowing that same-sex sexual behavior has its place in the natural world might save the life of a young person.
Author photo of Eliot Schrefer courtesy of Priya Patel.