Why Queer People Need Animals

Why are animals important

Esther the Wonder Pig is fortunate to be able to live her most fabulous self after being rescued by Canadian couple Steve and Derek in 2012. Other pigs like Esther are typically slaughtered at 6 months old. Esther is 6 years old now, and could possibly live almost another decade. Image source.


Why Queer People Need Animals

By Kwok Yingchen


 “Animals having gay sex does not qualify homosexuality as a HUMAN RIGHT”
“They’re doing like how they do on the discovery channel”
“Call ACRES”

Quotes taken from the “We are against Pinkdot in Singapore” Facebook group


I. The human-animal hierarchy

The likening of queer people to animals is a historical source of trauma. It has been used to express disgust, trivialise queer protections, and legitimise sexual violence and murder. By likening queer people to animals, one implies they do not deserve human protections and suffering may be inflicted on them without remorse. Understandably, the queer movement has responded by arguing that queer people are, in fact, human like everyone else, with properly human needs. Queer people hurt like any other human does and are equally deserving of the human rights others often take for granted.

However, the likening of queer people to animals is a rather odd gesture. Biologically, the statement “queer people are animals” is a tautology because all humans are animals. Many things humans need—food, water, shelter, play, company, etc.—are needed by many nonhuman animals as well, as anyone who owns a dog or cat can attest. These are not uniquely human needs, but animal needs. Likening queer people to animals implies they may be treated like animals, but what does it even mean to treat something like an animal? There is a great variety in how members of the kingdom Animalia are treated, human or nonhuman. Some animals are treated like royalty, like the human kings of the past and wealthy aristocrats and their nonhuman pets. Others are treated like waste, like trans immigrants of colour locked up in US detention centres and the billions of pigs and cows and chickens slaughtered each year at the equivalent age of a human toddler. Some nonhumans are treated better than a majority of humans in this world. Many nonhumans and humans, however, are treated as poorly as an animal can possibly be treated.

If being “likened to an animal” is both tautological and diverse in its meaning, then why do we so intuitively read it as a source of injury in its implications? I suggest this is because we do not just use the term “animal” to refer to a scientific fact but a political history: one where humans have constantly struggled to transcend animality, and any organism seen to have failed in this project is condemned to the lower levels of a human-animal hierarchy in which “humans” are seen as agents deserving of full rights and protections and “animals” exist only to fulfil the needs of “humans.” Within the human-animal hierarchy, “human” and “animal” do not function as scientific categories, but measurements of privilege and power. Nonhuman animals that are humanised, especially cherished pets, are seen as more proximate to the “human” side of the hierarchy than humans that are dehumanised and animalised. Queer people have, unsurprisingly, been relegated to the lower end of the human-animal hierarchy for much of colonial history.

The closer one is to the bottom of the hierarchy, the more one’s existence is understood in terms of the concerns of those at the top. One may be viewed as a nuisance or threat that must be eliminated—like human and nonhuman animals whose homes are razed in the name of development for more privileged humans and nonhumans, as well as the moral panics that condemn any display of queer behaviour and education in public spaces. One may also be exoticised as a consumable object through a process of consumption that is tremendously violent, like the fetishistic display of intersex and trans people in freak shows not unlike how nonhuman animals are treated in circuses. Queer people and nonhuman animals have been historically hunted, shot, and killed in the name of “sport” and “entertainment.” Nonhuman animals wanted for their meat, skin, and reproductive systems (e.g., breast milk, eggs, and offspring) are treated like slaves and may be amputated, impregnated, and killed without impunity, but it is wrong to free them because they are considered human property. One’s position on the human-animal hierarchy is arbitrarily defined based on the needs of those in power and almost never corresponds to their sentience, ability to feel pain, and complexity of social relationships—a phenomenon that has been termed speciesism.

The likening of queer people to animals is therefore not a scientific observation in any sense, but the political relegation of queer people to a lower position on the human-animal hierarchy. Similar logics have been historically applied to colonised people, people in poverty, and people with physical and mental disabilities through a eugenicist framework of social selection. Understandably, the queer movement has been cautious of supporting animal liberation at least in part because it conjures associations the queer community has tried so hard to rid itself of (in fact, those who still consider queer a slur tend to see it as having animalistic connotations). Recognising queer people as properly human appears to be the first step to making anything better. Any allyship the queer community extends to animal liberation risks reviving dangerous age-old associations, especially if no other human-centred social justice movement seems to value it.

However, so long as the human-animal hierarchy exists, it will always be available for deployment against queer people—and there will always be people who will want to deploy it. Furthermore, the queer movement is diverse, with different subgroups experiencing their own unique dynamics of marginalisation. Even internal power struggles within the queer movement, such as racism and transphobia, have deployed the human-animal hierarchy to argue that some queer people are more respectable and deserving of queer protections than others. If the queer movement attempts to use the human-animal hierarchy as the basis of queer advocacy by asserting that queer people are properly “human” and deserve “human” treatment, this strategy both risks backfiring and exacerbating inequalities within the movement.

An important aspect of queer liberation is the diversification of what counts as a dignified life. Queer people fight to recognise the value of diversity—that it is fine for people to live a whole range of lifestyles that do not look anything like society’s presumption of human “normality.” One does not need to behave in an “appropriate” manner (having a legible gender, marrying someone of the “opposite” gender, etc.) to be deserving of dignified treatment. By centring “human-ness” as the precondition of a respectable life, however, the queer movement inhibits its own ability to advocate for diversity. The burden of proof will always fall on queer people to show they are “human” enough to belong to the top of the animal hierarchy and nowhere lower—and it is those in power who get to decide which behaviours count as “human” and which count as “animal” (irrespective of the “science” of the matter). Within the human-animal hierarchy, “human” functions as a normative, disciplinary term and “animal” functions as punitive label inflicted on anyone who deviates too far from the “human.”

If we want queerness to be recognised as a dignified way of life on our terms, it is not enough to simply work within the human-animal hierarchy. We must abolish the sentiment that being an “animal” (or “like one”) justifies oppression, cruelty, and violence, and protection should only be accorded based on how closely one approximates the political ideal of being “human.” This is where queer liberation and animal liberation can and should aspire to find common ground.

II. Naturalising and denaturalising queerness

Queer people are stuck in a double bind. It is not just that they are typically disparaged as “unnatural”: a sign of human hubris that should never have come into this world. It is also that insofar as “queer” behaviour is rife in the nonhuman world—for instance, homoerotic activity has been observed in hundreds of species—queer people are paradoxically seen as “too natural”—too indecorous and unrestrained—thereby justifying their likening to animals. Within the double bind, queer people can never win. Everything we do not observe in nonhumans makes it “unnatural;” everything we do makes it “animal-like.”

NMP Thio Li-Ann infamously argued in Parliament that the move to repeal Section 377A (a law criminalising sex between mutually consenting adult men) “is the first step of a radical, political agenda which will subvert social morality, the common good and undermine our liberties.” She deliberately conflated homosexuality, bestiality, incest, and paedophilia, implying that dignifying the first would lead to all the others. It is ironic that society associates queerness with such moral chaos when queer practices more closely align with feminist notions of justice and nonviolence than cis-heteronormative ones, which have been plagued by incredible gendered violence throughout history. The argument that queerness will result in an arbitrary morality where “anything goes” says more about the anxieties of those in power than what a system of queer morality might actually look like.

Why do queerphobes associate queerness with moral chaos? I suggest this arises in part from how strongly cis-heteronormative morality is structured by the human-animal hierarchy. Nonhuman animals have always been employed by humans to make sense of human values, from cave paintings to religious ceremonies to fairy tales. We typically associate positive traits with animals we value—lions are brave, dogs are loyal, and cats are clever—and negative traits with those we do not or only value as objects—pigs are lazy, chickens are timid, cows are asinine, and rats are greedy. Crucially, none of these anthropomorphic stereotypes bear much relation to the complex range of actual behaviours in each of the aforementioned species. They do not tell us much about the nonhumans in question: only their utility to us as humans. Animals we value are considered virtuous and do not deserve abuse; animals we do not value are considered unvirtuous and deserve abuse.

The problem is not necessarily that we implicate nonhumans as a frame of reference for our morality—I think this is inevitable—but that we are rarely accountable to them in how we do it. Just as we arbitrarily value, protect, and exploit nonhumans based on their material uses to us, we also arbitrarily mine them for symbolic meaning. This dual process is mutually reinforcing: animals we exploit are relegated to the bottom of the human-animal hierarchy and become available as pejoratives with which to insult humans; animals we attach to pejoratives are in turn unworthy of moral consideration and may be exploited with impunity.

Not all nonhuman comparisons are degrading: the phrase “brave as a lion” is often considered a compliment. Humans desire a feeling of connection to the nonhuman world; I suggest this desire is what produces the concept of “nature,” which functions as a liminal zone between the human and nonhuman: where nonhumans can inspire to human virtue and humans can aspire to nonhuman connectedness. “Nature” is seen as nourishing, beautiful, and good, while anything that is “natural” inherits those properties by association. In contrast, something that is too “human” becomes aberrant and selfish, cut off from nature, unnatural. Paradoxically, queerness is seen as both “unnatural”—cut off from nature—and animal-like—unvirtuous because of its closeness to the nonhuman.

How can something be both unnatural and animal-like? The human-animal hierarchy functions as not just a source of human supremacy but also a means of anchoring the human within the animal kingdom. Something considered “unnatural” does not reside at the top of the human-animal hierarchy but that has been cut off from the hierarchy altogether. Something considered “animal-like” is not merely connected to the hierarchy as much as it resides at the absolute bottom. In contrast, let us consider the terms “human” and “natural.” Something considered properly “human” (and deserving of human protection) resides at the top of the human-animal hierarchy while nonetheless remaining connected to it. Something considered “natural” remains connected to the hierarchy and by extension the nonhuman world. Queerphobes will constantly try to force queerness towards the polar opposites of “unnatural” and “animal-like.” The contradiction matters little to them, since both equally imply queer people are deserving of extinction. This double bind can be tricky to navigate, since any argument queer people raise to rebut one side can easily be used as evidence to deflect them to the other.

In contrast, an institution like cis-heterosexual marriage is considered both “human” and “natural”: it is thought to celebrate a uniquely “human” institution not seen in the nonhuman world yet simultaneously represent the highest form of “natural” intimacy life can aspire to. Nature documentaries have often performed a double movement of first anthropomorphising nonhumans by falsely projecting a cis-heterosexual monogamous lifestyle onto them, and then using this projection to naturalise the institution of marriage (represented by cis-heterosexual monogamy) in turn. The biblical story of Noah performs a similar function. In it, God asks Noah to gather land-dwelling animals in one-male-one-female pairs in preparation for the incoming flood—which both epitomises Noah’s husband-wife nuclear family structure as the benchmark of excellence for nonhumans to emulate so that they can “be fruitful and multiply” and simultaneously proclaims its “naturalness.” But Noah would have eventually found out that God’s commandment was not very helpful for the many animals that simply cannot be classified according to such a sex binary, including many gastropods (snails and slugs) and annelids (worms) which are both male and female, and all-female species like the whiptail lizard. Thankfully, Noah did not have to save any ocean-dwelling species, because he would have discovered, to much frustration, that many fish frequently change from one sex to the other.

But I doubt these examples would persuade many queerphobes to change their minds. If anything, it would only vindicate their belief that queer people are “like animals,” because they have already decided that all examples of animal cis-heterosexuality prove its “naturalness” while all examples of animal non-cis-heterosexuality prove its animality. The issue is that the human-animal hierarchy is an inherently arbitrary foundation for any moral system. The animal kingdom is so diverse that for every behaviour we could observe in one animal, we could likely observe the opposite in another. Within the human-animal hierarchy, anything can be labelled natural, unnatural, human, or animal-like, and accepted configuration in society depends purely on the power of those at the top. No wonder queerphobes think any legitimation of queerness would result in the end of morality altogether! Their power is the only moral system they know; undermine their authority and they do not have an alternative to replace it.

The human-animal hierarchy disserves queer people. Its logic is designed to trap us in a double bind—to allow cis-heterosexuality to be celebrated and queerness to be condemned no matter what. We cannot hope to live the lives we want unless we strive for liberation from the human-animal hierarchy altogether. Given that the hierarchy rationalises itself by disregarding the complex lives and agencies of nonhuman animals, objectifying them both for their material uses and symbolic meanings, animal liberation plays an integral role in this effort. We deserve a better moral foundation than the broken system we currently have.

III. The queer animality of sex and gender

Not all exploitative deployments of the human-animal hierarchy occur between the queer movement and its enemies. There are many such examples amongst LGBTQIA+ people as well, which speaks to our internalised self-hatred. The London Pride this year was disrupted by a group of anti-trans cis-lesbian women—more commonly known in the media as trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERF)—whom, as a result, made one of the few, if only, partially-safe spaces for trans people to be themselves threatening and hostile. TERFs oppose what they see as a harmful constructed ideology of gender norms of femininity and masculinity, arguing people should be free to express gender however they want without it having any bearing on their “sex” as women and men. This, on its own, is a laudable feminist goal, since there should not be any “proper” way of being a woman or man, which is almost always based on dated, queerphobic, and misogynistic stereotypes.

The problem, however, lies in what TERFs think the solution to the “harmful construct” of gender should be. To them, the goal of “abolishing” gender necessitates a return to the “biological truth” of “sex,” where one can only be a (biologically-born) woman or man regardless of one’s gender expression. They believe that such biological essentialism will free people to express their gender however they want. This automatically antagonises TERFs against the trans community, whom they see as the worst dupes of and apologists for the “harmful construct” of gender, co-opting the LBTQIA+ and feminist movement for themselves.

The main flaw in the TERF argument is its presumption that “biological sex” denotes a world of factual representation isolated from the constructed ideology of gender. However, not only is the anatomical model of sex a historical product of colonialism based on Western gender norms (there is a reason TERFs almost always tend to be white), it is also based on an anthropocentric misreading of the science. As evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden argues in Evolution’s Rainbow, the only scientifically accurate characteristic of “sex” that applies to most sexually reproductive species is the binary fusion of large egg-like (“female”) and small sperm-like (“male”) gametal cells. Beyond that, however, the sex binary utterly ends. Most characteristics that TERFs attribute to the “truth” of “biological sex”—chromosomes, genitalia, body parts, etc.—do not exhibit much of a sexed pattern across sexually reproductive species at all.

I have already discussed how some animals are both sexes at once or change sexes, which overturns the idea that “sex” cleanly divides a species into “females” and “males.” “Sex” cannot be dichotomised based on whether one has homomorphic (e.g., “female” XX) or heteromorphic (e.g., “male” XY) chromosomes either; in birds, the order is reversed, where “males” are homomorphic (ZZ) and “females” are heteromorphic (ZW), while many reptiles do not have sex chromosomes and whether they are “male” or “female” depends on their temperature at birth. And while both TERFs and queerphobes insist that a woman is defined by her vagina, in the Neotrogla insect, it is the “females” with the sexually penetrative organ and the “males” with the pouch for storing the fertilised embryo. Across all these examples, it is hard to remember what “female” and “male” even mean anymore (answer: they refer purely to whether one produces large or small gametes). The point is that the moment we equate “female” and “male” with any other bodily trait, the concept of “biological sex” dissolves into scientific incoherence. The TERF and queerphobic concept of “biological sex,” in other words, is hardly a set of self-evident truths but a conflation of various chromosomal, gonadal, and anatomic traits that inaccurately characterises how sexual reproduction works as a whole.

There is a crucial difference between the queerphobic and TERF positions. Queerphobes seek to reduce “gender” to “sex”; they believe one’s gender expression should be solely determined by one’s “sex” (i.e., women and men should always behave in a “feminine” and “masculine” manner respectively). TERFs seek a strict separation between “gender” and “sex”; they argue people can have any gender expression so long as it does not obscure their “sex.” I have already addressed the queerphobic position in Part II. In this part, I suggest the TERF position similarly arises from the exploitative use of the human-animal hierarchy.

TERFs might refute that “biological sex” is species-specific, and for some nonhumans, transitional and hybrid sexes (along with opposite chromosomal and genital associations) is part of their “natural” sex makeup in a way it is not for humans. By adopting this position, TERFs nonetheless concede that human “sex” is species-specific, which means something cannot be relegated to “gender” by virtue of its uniqueness to humans, given that this equally applies to many characteristics of human-specific “biological sex.” What else, then, could distinguish “sex” from “gender” in humans? I believe TERFs typically rely on three delineations:

The first delineation is that “sex” is “physical” while “gender” is “cultural.” But how do we draw a line between the physical and cultural worlds? The two are in perpetual interaction. What we eat depends on cultural norms and it also constitutes the material building blocks of our body. Our psychological state is heavily affected by cultural norms and has an immense impact on our physical health. How humans use their reproductive systems (whether they get pregnant or not, whether they transition or not) is a cultural decision that also manifests in the physical body. There is no de facto line separating the “physical” from the “cultural,” and no self-evident reason why it should specifically separate cis and trans people.

The second delineation is that “sex” is “intrinsic” to the body—something people are born with—while “gender” is “extrinsic” to the body—something that only happens after one’s “sex” has already been determined. This, however, is based on a poor understanding of how genes work. Genes themselves do not make one’s body; rather, they contain potentialities that must be switched on and off through environmental stimuli. This means all living organisms are inherently plastic, capable of changing what their genes express and how their genes are expressed in response to shifting environmental stimuli. This variability is an integral process to evolutionary adaptation. The reason hormone therapy works is that our bodies intrinsically contain the genetic code to develop certain traits of both “sexes” under differing hormonal conditions.

The third delineation is that “sex” serves an overtly reproductive function while “gender” does not. I do not buy this argument from TERFs. They emerged from the radical lesbian movement, which precisely fought for the freedom for women not to be defined by their reproductive systems, not to have to carry a child to be considered a “proper” woman by society. If “sex” must serve a reproductive function, then does a cis-woman with no intention to carry a child automatically disqualify from her female sex? How is a cis-woman’s decision not to carry a child different from a trans person’s decision to potentially forgo certain reproductive capabilities through transitioning? In both cases, the autonomy for people to define their own identities and practices should not be constrained by a narrow view of their bodies “intended” biological function.

TERFs rely on a combination of all three delineations to make their case on why and how “sex” must be strictly differentiated from “gender,” each meant to cover the inconsistencies and weaknesses of the others. Individually, however, all three reasons are unconvincing, reading more like anthropocentric impositions that are hardly grounded in the biological complexities of the larger-than-human world. Firstly, many nonhuman animals have rich, diverse, and complex social lives that fully resemble our human cultures—and what we think of as “gender” is not entirely a human-specific construct. Secondly, the “biological sex” of nonhumans is often externally mediated, like temperature-dependent sex determination in reptiles and the transitioning of coral reef fish in response to the changing sex ratios of their populations, because they depend in part on phenotypic plasticity. Thirdly, sexed roles in nonhumans do not always serve an overtly reproductive function, like how female worker ants help to maintain their colony even if they do not reproduce.

I am not suggesting “sex” and “gender” should be used interchangeably the way queerphobes do (i.e., reducing “gender” to “sex”). Rather, my point is that any attempt to delineate “sex” from “gender” is always already gendered—that is, shaped by dominant gender norms. The TERF retreat into “biological sex” does not represent the abolition of gender but the imposition of one gendered norm over all others: the belief that human bodies and sexes do not and cannot change, that inadvertently marks trans practices as “unnatural.” This cisgendered paradigm exploits the human-animal hierarchy to naturalize itself, emphasizing the biological materiality of “sex” while ignoring its inherent instability. There is nothing about trans practices and identities that makes them less “biologically significant” than cis practices and identities. Perhaps, like the thankless but fully necessary worker ants, trans and nonbinary people perform a crucial mediatory function between women and men, playing important ceremonial roles in many Indigenous cultures. The prevalence of transphobic violence in a society almost always correlates with higher rates of gendered violence of all forms.

Why did I spend so much time discussing such a niche topic? I want to show that the queer implications of taking animal liberation seriously are wide-reaching in surprising ways, affecting all kinds of knowledges we would not ordinarily associate with it. This is because all of us heavily deploy the human-animal hierarchy to make sense of this world, whether we acknowledge it or not. Nonhumans constitute the foundations of our world; their legacies are etched in every physical and symbolic building block of our society. Sometimes, these are stories of cooperation and respect. Mostly, these are stories of trauma and abuse. If we want to aspire towards an inclusive world that is attentive to the silences of marginalised Others, we need to pay attention to and strive to change these stories, for humans and nonhumans alike.

Queer people struggle against the accusation that queerness is “unnatural” even as, ironically, society is destroying the nonhuman world at unprecedented rates under the leadership of so-called “normal” cis-heterosexual people. Climate change is an indicator that our current way of life is not working; it is reason for us to re-examine every social practice we have taken for granted up until now under the guise of “normality” or “naturalness.” In my opinion, nonhumans have a lot to teach us about what it means to appreciate the queer diversity of human bodies: not just human bodies that happen to be queer, but also how all human bodies function queerly. What could such a vision do for queer liberation? If we can establish a queer morality that neither dismisses nor exploits the nonhuman world, but seeks to understand its full complexity and agency, I think the possibilities are endless.

Yingchen is an environmental studies major at Yale-NUS College and a vegan of 4 years. They hope to further explore the intersection between environmental studies and gender studies in graduate school.