Repurposing Life Sciences for Queer Survival

The title of the webinar and the blurb speaks for itself. Ultimately ‘Beans’ never really got much beyond a couple of the stated examples given above – I was hoping to hear about ‘sexy vegetative luxuriance’ – sadly the only example she went into in any detail was that of female spotted hyaenas having a labia which look like a penis.

The webinar was organised by Science on Tap Philadelphia, their stated mission is:

Science on Tap is a monthly gathering in Philadelphia that features public discussion on engaging science topics, but we’re also more than that. Made up of a consortium of six Philadelphia institutions, we care about bringing science out of the labs and the hallowed halls of academia and sharing it with the public.

[…]

And last but not least, we are 100% committed to context and truth. That means we talk about both science and the history of science.

Blurb from Science on Tap’s website (their emphasis on ‘context and truth’)

The moderator was head of education programs at the American Philosophical Society Library, who notably holds a BA in Biological Anthropology. Chat was disabled.

He introduced Beans Velocci, a PhD student at Yale specialising in the history of science, and gained their undergraduate degree in Gender Studies. Beans is a grown woman who has they/them pronouns. Beans is a contributor to Transgender Studies Quarterly (a supposed peer reviewed journal edited by space monkey Grace Lavery and Susan Stryker). Beans is currently involved in editing an article called ‘Feminism against Cisness’ for TSQ. Beans really genuinely is on the look out for ice cream recommendations though, so please send any cool tips.

Beans’ talk

Beans told us they were there because Science on Tap wanted to celebrate Pride month. And what better way than to platform an utter wreck of a clown? Bean’s work is very gay, very trans, very queer, but it’s also very depressing because it’s about the way science repeatedly ‘precludes queer possibilities through the 19th and 20th centuries’. When scientists had come across examples which could be used to show that sex and sexuality were far more complicated, scientists used them to bolster ‘racial hierarchy’ or to prop up their own ‘professional scientific expertise’ (by going into too much detail).

The last several years had been a real downer because they had had to work through this devastating material. They were going to present us with the most hopeful version of the work they could muster, warning we may find it super depressing nevertheless and, as we all know, Pride month is emotionally complicated anyway. I was already prostrated on the sofa by this point, shaking with laughter.

Examples of animals which don’t fit the sex binary

Beans told us they were happy to mix up terminology like gender, sexuality and sex because a lot of sources they had worked with ‘don’t make that distinction’ (obviously given these terms have only come into usage relatively recently).

I’m going pretty casually back and forth between queerness as sexual behaviour/identity on one hand, and queerness as bodies that complicate a reproductive binary on the other.

Beans ‘l like ice cream’ Velocci

Beans assured us if we went through zoological books from the past, we were sure to encounter examples such as ‘hens which woke up one morning crowing like a rooster’ or oysters which reproduce but ‘not with body parts that anyone is familiar with’ (erm, in fact oysters belong to class Bivalvia, so-called because they are ‘two convex halves of the shell are called valves’1 and are mostly dioecious (i.e. separate male and female) – their reproductive methods are known).

Beans said that sex determination had become increasingly narrow over time and made scientists and doctors the ultimate deciders of what was male and what was female. Scientists used the natural world to prove that binary sex was natural law. Beans suddenly giggled and told us not to worry about the intro slide being on screen still (no one had said anything).

Beans was going to tell us about three examples that scientists couldn’t explain; spotted hyaenas, Freemartin cows ‘which are basically intersex cows’ (caused when a cow is twinned in utero with a bull) and ants and bees (all of which have been demonstrably explained by scientists).

Be prepared.

Beans said that other examples available to her had been ‘used to such violent ends’ she wasn’t able to present them to us for her feel good talk today.

Beans said that scientists had used links between ‘hermaphroditism and animality to make claims that black and indigenous people were less sexually differentiated and therefore less human than white people’ (no, that’s YOU mate repeatedly telling us binary sex didn’t exist in those societies). Beans wanted us to keep in mind two things; ‘tremendous violence’ and ‘queer possibilities’.

The Spotted Hyaena

It was the late 1880s and some scientist bloke wrote about the spotted hyaena, pointing out that although females had penile-like appendages, it was still possible to tell the difference between males and females (the females are larger for a start). This included going to great lengths to classify every difference between the two. What a bastard. Beans said this was akin to ‘shoehorning’ the animal into a binary framework.

Worse than that, he and other scientists used this example to ridicule the locals who had always believed the animals to hermaphroditic (possible, I suppose). Beans told us this was an example of white supremacy.

Female hyaenas have elongated clitoral tissue which resembles a penis and have high testosterone as a normal feature of the species – see video in National Geographic’s article. About 60 percent of their young die in birth as they are suffocated by the narrow protrusion – so not exactly a great system.

Freemartin cows

Beans didn’t spend any time explaining what a freemartin cow was; just quickly describing them as ‘intersex co-twins of bulls’. This was apparently first written about in scientific journals around 1779. Scientists noted, however, that these cows had characteristics more in keeping with other cows than they did bulls; Beans opined that this involved deciding first what was a male characteristic and what was female.

However, there was someone called Hart who characterised these cows as males ‘who had a uterus and a vagina’. Several prominent geneticists jumped on the bandwagon. Hurrah!

The conversation about freemartin cows took on an even greater significance in the early 20th century, when it was discovered that hormonal exposure in utero affected secondary sex characteristic development. The freemartin thus served as an example of a female affected by over exposure to testosterone.

Nevertheless Beans has come to the conclusion that freemartin cows might be male or female (‘very trans in fact’).

Ants and Bees

Beans told us that by the end of the 19th century worker insects were considered by scientists as an ‘underdeveloped female’ because of their role in food preparation and rearing. The bodies of the workers mattered less than what activities it was involved in. Beans claimed that Scientific American referred to worker insects as a ‘third sex’.

Scientists said sexual dimorphism signalled a more evolved state ‘in a way which was really highly racialised’. However, bees and ants had three sexes which is even more complicated, innit? Many articles were written in the late 1880s praising the efficiency of the division of labour in the insect colony. A neuter sex doesn’t require as much food as those with a reproductive tract and therefore is much more efficient and more likely to succeed at implementing communism. (Which hints at a sinister thinking behind the concept of ‘trans kids’ and sterilisation – most queer theorists are also unashamedly Marxist.)

Beans told us that two scientists had said that all higher animals are sexually dimorphic and lower animals weren’t (I imagine they were referring to mammals versus protozoa) but Beans said that they also said that there were exceptions. They had also said that males were the most active members of society, but this was contradicted by drone (male) bees being lard arses. Male scientists being what they were back then, also apparently made a racist comparison between ‘lazy Africans’, which, although despicable, isn’t proof that they thought Africans weren’t sexually dimorphic, just that they thought they were lazy and feckless.

What it does prove though, and Beans’ own talk is a good example of, is that current day politics influences the crap that people come out with.

Reproductive females are referred to as queens. Workers may be sterile males or females (termites) or sterile females (order Hymenoptera [i.e. bees]), and they support, protect and maintain the colony. […] Reproductive males inseminate the queen(s) and are called kings or drones.

page 236, 1 Zoology, Fifth Edition, Published by McGraw Hill Higher Education, ISBN 0-07-029411-9 – included for clarification

Legitimising queerness

Typically queerness had been legitimised by animals engaging in same sex same sexual behaviour, ‘queer-looking family formations’ or animals which change sexual characteristics (clownfish, I suppose). The two academics they respected in this field were Bruce Bagermihl (see here for a savaging of Bagermihl’s book Biological Exuberance) and Joan Roughgarden (see here for a review of Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow – it’s quite interesting Rose spotted all the problems which are now writ large in academia).

One thing Beans is right about though, is that penguins have received an unfair amount of attention. Beans told us a zoo keeper gave a fertilised egg to Roy and Silo. Guess what? They looked after it and didn’t kick it round like a football. Tango was the resultant chick and a book was written about it – Tango Makes Three. The book introduces homosexuality and ‘family diversity’ to pre-school age children and had been banned in some places.

In 2019 London Zoo put up a sign which said ‘some penguins are gay, get over it’ (based on the Stonewall UK slogan), the penguins are named Ronnie and Reggie (just like the Kray Twins).

This is the actual evidence Beans presented as part of her talk.

I think it was probably about this point that Beans completely forgot they were giving a talk to a group of science enthusiasts, because they told us we could find out which queer animal we were, via a quiz posted by the queer/trans website Autostraddle.

More relevantly they told us no one has found the gay gene yet. As one might predict, Beans couldn’t really explain this. But she was able to say though that transgender brains are more like the opposite sex brain from an early age (the binary being super useful in these cases). She also provided a slide, so it must be true.

Beans said that often efforts to find out why people were queer was also linked to efforts to stopping or curing queerness. Beans was all for the not-yet-found gay- or trans genes to be used to make more gay and trans people (‘that’s pretty cool I guess’), but did not have a lot of faith this would happen when ‘trans kids’ were being targeted so much at the moment.

Beans recently taught a module called ‘queer science’ which revolved around ‘taking emotions seriously’ and the price of ‘knowing things’. Most of all though, classifying something with absolute certainty should not equal mastery (a sport they can be very comfortable with). Looking for evidence of, or facts in denial of, trans and queer people’s existence should be ignored and instead housing and jobs should be secured for queer and trans people.

Beans had been talking with science colleagues and felt that there was a general hunger in the sciences for something different (i.e. something less sciency). And with that the talk ended.

Question and Answer session

The audience asked precisely no questions, so there’s hope at least that the Science on Tap regulars weren’t amused, or simply too stunned. I myself had fallen asleep and listening back I have to confess, I am a cute little snorer.

The moderator asked some questions. Beans admitted that she had tried very hard not to use scientific names for animals and had tried very hard not to read contemporary scientific literature because she didn’t want to corrupt herself, with what she characterised as Western knowledge.

The moderator asked some questions, which involved them responding by inflecting their voice rather a lot and using the word ‘like’ a lot (‘you know like’, ‘then like’ and ‘but like’). I really have no idea what they were wittering on about. Beans claimed that a lot of semantics is involved in making it look like most of the animal kingdom is made up of binary sex. (The only way we can communicate with you Beans, is by speaking to you. Thicko.)

What about before the binary existed, the moderator asked. Gender and sexuality options were very numerous in non-Western countries before colonialism. Colonisation was about clamping down on that and imposing the sex binary. More disappearing of her voice into a croak as her mouth ran dry – a known physiological effect of lying, moreover they admitted they were sweating. (Queer theorists like to infer that sexual dimorphism has always been understood by white people, a tad racist since it implies the difference between non-European males and females is not obvious.)

What about the sexy funghi? Beans told us she knew some scientists who were testing funghi to determine sex, grinding it up, adding chemicals into centrifuges. All this they were amazed by, as they normally think of sex as an anatomical or visual thing. This was proof of the changing meaning of sex.

Beans really needs to go back to school, doesn’t she? But wait, she’s actually in school, teaching students. Oh shit!


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