Eliot Schrefer writes about what the birds and bees are really up to

His 17th book for young readers, “Queer Ducks (And Other Animals),” is a look at the science of animal sexuality.
Eliot Schrefer's latest book is "Queer Ducks (And Other Animals).
Eliot Schrefer's latest book is "Queer Ducks (And Other Animals). [ Priya Patel ]
Published June 23, 2022

In a way, author Eliot Schrefer writes in the introduction to his new book, he wrote “Queer Ducks (And Other Animals)” for his 11-year-old self.

That’s how old he was when he started “lingering over the Fruit of the Loom ads in my brother’s Rolling Stone and realized I was attracted to other guys.”

It was a scary self-discovery for a young boy in the 1990s, and, Schrefer writes, “the young Eliot would have had a quicker journey to self-acceptance if he’d known the science that’s in this book.”

Schrefer lives in New York but has roots in Pinellas County — his family moved here in 1989, and he went to Safety Harbor Middle School and Countryside High.

Now 43, he’s an accomplished author of books for children and young people. Two of his novels about great apes, “Threatened” and “Endangered,” have been finalists for the National Book Award for young people’s literature.

“Queer Ducks” is an illustrated nonfiction book about, as its subtitle says, “The Natural World of Animal Sexuality.” It’s drawn a lot of media attention, including interviews for NPR and “The Daily Show.”

The Times talked to Schrefer via Zoom about the book and its reception.

“NPR shared (the interview) out on Facebook,” he says, “and it very, very quickly got 2.4 thousand comments from both sides, mostly angry people: ‘Now it’s animals too?’

“It was clear it’s important to people either to keep sacred their ideas about homosexuality and whether animals can do it, or important for people to finally feel seen and not unnatural. But it was this lightning rod,” he says.

“It’s easier to argue for eliminating books about LGBTQ people for young people or try to legislate away transgender identities if you can argue it’s unnatural. If you take that away, you just have discrimination because ‘I don’t think it’s right,’ which isn’t a moral standing to argue from.”

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you think the attention the book has received has something to do with the current political climate?

I do. It’s not like the book might be removed from libraries, because it’s a new book. It just might not ever enter them.

In interviews, I’ve been talking about two-thirds of the time about the material in the book and about one-third about the rise in censorship of LGBTQ books for young people.

I wrote a children’s book a few years ago called “The Popper Penguin Rescue,” a sequel to the classic “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” I’ve done a couple of elementary school visits in the last few weeks, and for one of them the librarian emailed me the week before and said, just so you know, we have a rule that we only let authors talk about the book they’re invited for, they can’t talk about any other book they’ve written.

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I’ve done school visits for 10 years and no one ever said that before. Who knows what was going on internally at that school?

“Queer Ducks” is your 17th book. Is it your first work of nonfiction?

Way back in the day I wrote an SAT strategy guide called “Hack the SAT,” but it was about three version of the SAT ago. So I would say “Queer Ducks” is my only existing work of nonfiction.

I’ve long been interested in what bonds us to the natural world. It’s a theme that often comes out in my novels.

I’m part of the animal studies program at NYU — I’m getting a slow master’s degree.

Visiting scholars come through and talk about their work, and a few of them mentioned same-sex behavior in animals. How zoology works is somebody studies one animal and becomes an expert on it, so they were saying with dolphins or with garter snakes they’re seeing same sex behavior.

That raised this question in my mind.

I’m interested in evolution. (Same-sex behavior) had always struck me as a dead end because it doesn’t pass along the genes to the next generation.

Maybe the old version we have of male and female was the way nature wants it, and Darwin’s natural selection would also argue against (same-sex behavior).

The thinking was, if animals do it, it’s just some trifling thing or a mistake, or they’re in a small environment and they get confused. It was the same way we talk about humans in prison — the environment changes their behavior.

But I got curious. If it’s this widespread, and there’s so much growth in researching it — Scientific American did that study three years ago and found reports of same-sex behavior by 1,5000 animal species, and counting, in the wild.

So my questions were A) why haven’t we heard about it and B) what are the arguments for it?

That’s when I started getting the idea I’d write a book.

There are several academic volumes about same-sex behavior in animals. But I wanted to write something that could take a long lens without getting immersed in all the stats and all the animals.

Each chapter could raise and answer a question that’s on our minds. Like, with fruit flies, is there a genetic element in homosexuality? With dolphins, is there such a thing as homosexual animals?

Then I chose the 10 species that answer the questions.

Why did you choose to write the book for young readers, and what age group is it aimed at?

Because I write children’s and YA books, it was my instinct to write for a younger audience. Also, there was knowing the effect it would have had on me at that age.

It’s for ages 14 and up. I follow librarians, and they’re having a discussion about it. Librarian Twitter is a force of nature! They’re debating whether middle school is a good place for it, and there’s some disagreement about that. But 14 and up.

The book has a very engaging and often funny tone. How did you decide on that tone for this book, and did you choose to do a chapter on doodlebugs because of the potential for puns?

I went a little overboard in the doodlebug chapter.

Reading about science brought me a lot of solace when I was a teenager. This feeling of having a place in the natural world, understanding evolution as way of explaining the meaning of life.

So I wanted to write a book for kids who didn’t think they wanted to read about science. I thought about the most gripping things I’ve read about science, like “H Is for Hawk,” “The Soul of an Octopus.” (The authors’ voices) are on the page. In “Hawk,” (author Helen) Macdonald’s voice is right there.

One person described (the tone of “Queer Ducks”) as being like passing notes in the back of the class. I didn’t realize it, but that’s the tone I was going for: talking right to the young person. What does this teenager need to know, and what’s the best way for them to have fun while they’re reading it?

Can you talk about how careful you are in the book to be clear about the terminology you use to describe animal behavior and to note that the words we use for human behavior don’t always apply?

People get hung up on this idea: Are there gay animals, are there lesbian animals? It’s a nonstarter as a question because animals don’t feel the need to group themselves into identities that way.

We do, and we think that’s been true throughout human history. But it hasn’t. The word “homosexual” only came to be in the 1890s. Before that, it wasn’t an identity, it was just something people did.

That’s why in ancient Greece you had people who felt free to have sex with people of either gender without seeing it as an identity.

Which brings us to bonobos. Tell us about your chapter on those primates.

Chimp societies are largely patriarchal, male dominated, more violent.

Bonobos are tied with them as our closest relatives. They have very, very frequent sexual activity across all categories, but the most frequent is between females.

The main crux of it, and this is true for the advanced vertebrates, the primates, it’s also true of dolphins, they have sex because it produces oxytocin, and oxytocin produces emotional bonding.

Obviously (bonobos) can’t sit and just chat, so physical contact is the way they have small talk and have conversations to show who’s important to who.

So the females in particular have this frequent sexual activity. Oxytocin bonds them as a subgroup within the larger bonobo society. Females being so tightly bonded means they have a strong alliance.

The current theory about bonobo society is that males were never able to learn violent behavior toward females because they had such a strong support system — any female would have four or five other females coming to her support.

It’s not like the bonobo is saying “I’m a lesbian now” and skipping out on reproduction. She’s still having plenty of sex with male bonobos and having offspring, so there is no evolutionary dead end. They have procreative behaviors that are sexual and social behavior that’s sexual.

The book’s title animals aren’t as busy as bonobos, but they have been known to practice polyamory, forming bonded groups of two males and one female. How does that fit into the picture?

Research has found that these three-bird nests have better survival outcomes than two birds. Konrad Lorenz described it first, the Nobel Prize-winning ornithologist. This was in the ‘60s. It’s interesting that very different bird populations have all turned to it as an evolutionary strategy.

The triumph ceremony the geese do, the male will do it for both the male partner and the female partner. It really is a three-bird union, not that a couple has brought in another one as an accessory. It kind of shakes up that Noah’s Ark, one male, one female thing.

But does evolutionary advantage always have something to do with same-sex behavior?

I set up the easy examples, the ones that make the most intuitive sense — the bonobos and the dolphins and oxytocin bonding.

Japanese macaques make it complicated. Every animal is not like another animal. There’s not going to be one reason for homosexual behavior.

Primatologist Paul Vasey has been studying them for decades. They’re the really cool snow monkeys. You’ve seen them on YouTube, hanging out in hot baths like they’re living the best life.

They have large amounts of female-female sex, and the scientists wanted to know why. So they looked at the obvious reasons. Were they doing it like the bonobos, to relieve tension? Or to maximize offspring care?

They tested all of these theories, and none of them hold up. My favorite theory that male primatologists came up with was that female monkeys were staging sexual encounters to excite males.

Oh yeah, you wish, guys!

Finally they came to the shocking but simple conclusion that there isn’t an evolutionary adaptive reason, they just like it.

What about animals that are intersex, like velvet-horn deer?

I wanted to look at animals that kind of blur male-female boundaries, blur the binary. I was looking at intersex animals, which have characteristics of both male and female in some way. There are intersex animals across the phyla.

About 13% of white-tail deer, the most common deer species in the country, are what’s called velvet-horns. Deer have been studied a ton, because as soon as an animal can be hunted, there are a lot of studies, so there’s a lot of data.

Typical male deer have velvet covering their horns during the first year of their life, then they shed the velvet and have the antlers we’re familiar with.

The velvet-horn deer have external male genitalia, but they have body types closer to a doe’s, except they have these antlers. (The antlers) don’t break their velvet, they stay covered in velvet. They don’t ever reproduce.

Deer live in highly sex-segregated societies. The velvet-horns are cast out by the male society, kind of like Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.

The velvet-horns, if they find other velvet-horns, they’ll form their small societies, and they’ll raise orphan fawns if there are any around.

Whales also have a high percentage of intersex individuals. Humans do, too, and we have a long tradition of doctors, either with or without permission, choosing a sex for those intersex people.

What would you say to people who disagree with the premise of “Queer Ducks”?

Some conservative people have critiqued the book, saying, “You’re just cherry picking. Animals do all sorts of things we don’t want people to do — they kill their mates, they abandon their offspring.”

That gets the argument of the book backwards. I’m not saying we should behave in a certain way because animals do. But I am saying in this book, and I feel very strongly about this, that we can no longer say that this diversity of sexual expression and sexual desire makes us not part of the animal kingdom or makes us unnatural. It’s absolutely natural, because it’s part and parcel of the way animals behave.

Queer Ducks (And Other Animals): The Natural World of Animal Sexuality

By Eliot Schrefer, illustrated by Jules Zuckerberg

Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 225 pages, $17.99