Queer Hens, Gay Sheep, and Transsexual Fish: I Hate To Break It To You, But Diversity Is Natural

Every now and then, my landlords go away and I have the privilege of looking after their flock of chickens. This is pretty much a win-win for me, because I love chickens, and I have a soft spot for farm-fresh eggs. Watching chicken social dynamics is particularly interesting to me, because while they are flock animals, each member of the flock also has an individual personality. Chickens are problem solvers, they are communicators, they are adept at adapting to new circumstances.

This flock is all hens, because they haven’t had much success with roosters, and the former senior hen used to crow, in addition to bossing the flock around. When she passed away, another hen took up the torch; she crows at me if she thinks I’m taking too long to feed them in the morning, she shepherds the flock about the paddock to make sure they comply with her mandates, and she keeps a weather eye on their environment to sound the alarm, if necessary. She will also defend the flock from intruders and alerts them to the presence of tasty new snacks.

A flock of pastured chickens, some of whom have approached the camera to peer curiously

This is not uncommon behaviour among chickens. If there’s not a rooster around, a hen will often take up that particular role, and she’ll continue to lay eggs, too. Some hens will even mount other members of the flock, although I haven’t caught ours[1. Yes, I think of the chickens as ‘ours’ though in strict point of fact they belong to my landlords.] at it just yet.

Chickens, in other words, can be queer. So can sheep, and a number of animals who may form paired homosexual bonds as well as other complex relationships. Animals have complex sexualities, in other words, and are not purely heterosexual.

Furthermore, sexuality isn’t the only thing that’s fluid for animals. Gender and sex aren’t fixed, immutable, and one style only either. Some species are actively transsexual, as in the case of the Blue Groper, which may transition from female to male as it reaches maturity. A dichotomous set of genders also isn’t necessarily routine, depending on the species. Some animals may take on characteristics and traits associated with other genders; like our queer hen, they engage in defensive behaviours more commonly associated with another gender and mount animals of the same gender, for example.

People who fear transgender and queer communities often fall back on the old statement that ‘it’s not natural.’ The argument is that these identities can’t be real and don’t belong because they aren’t something ‘nature intended,’ and it’s often heavily loaded with religious implications as well. There’s a strong belief among some opponents of equal rights and full access to society that we are wrong and must be fixed; that we may in fact be making up our identities, or that our experiences are the result of some kind of disease or trauma that needs to be identified and eradicated.

A hen running towards the camera

In fact, research demonstrates that queer and transgender as well as transsexual identities are very natural among animals, and have been for a very long time. Numerous animal species have some queer traits when you get investigating, and humans aren’t exempt either. As we know from homosocial societies like Greece and Rome, homosexuality is a trait with a very long history among humans. Records also seem to indicate that a number of cultures have a long history of creating a place for transgender people, as well as intersex people; there has always been space in human societies for diversity and it is in fact extremely natural.

Yet, in European culture in particular, it’s condemned as a wrongness. Something G-d did not intend. Looking at nature, which some people view as G-d’s creation, I see queerness everywhere; it’s part of the incredible and diverse spectrum of life on Earth. It seems to me like an omniscient creator wouldn’t create anything without careful consideration, and thus in fact that sex and gender diversity would in fact be part of G-d’s plan. To say otherwise is to suggest, quite frankly, that the creator is wrong.

How did we make a shift from a culture that accepted and celebrated people of diverse genders and sexualities to one that didn’t? I can’t even begin to cover this, because scores of books have been written about the subject, but I will note that a number of key shifts took place in Europe to drive it, many of which were heavily dominated by the administrative arm of the church. By condemning people, the church was able to exert more social control over sexuality and relationships, was also able to create a culture where some ‘norms’ were codified and appropriate, virtuous, even, while other perfectly natural behaviours were loathsome and repellent, and could be grounds for severe penalties, including death. Fundamentalist sects have relied on similar tactics to control their members and create a sense of ingroup allegiance.

Boss hen struts in the pasture

This, queerness, shifting genders, complex relationships, taking on new roles, it’s all a part of nature. Whether you believe nature is the result of billions of years of evolution, or a benevolent creator, or something between, it’s all natural. The only thing that’s unnatural, honestly, is trying to resist nature, and a refusal to admit that the things all around us are not wrong, have a place, and serve a function.

Our crowing hen is the result of domestication, a descendant of wild jungle fowl. She and her kind have been bred, over the centuries, for docility, high egg production, and relatively limited creativity. Her genes continue to defy her breeding, though; heritage chicken breeds are creative and intelligent, especially when given a rich environment to roam in, and they can also be queer as the day is long.

If queer hens were somehow a barrier to the advancement of the species as a whole, they wouldn’t exist. Yet, they do. That suggests not only that they are natural, but that they may be serving an important function. There’s a reason the top hen in an all-girl flock wakes up one day and starts crowing, and it’s not the gay agenda.

It’s nature.