Are Queer and Trans People “Unnatural”?

Are Queer and Trans People Unnatural?

When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his coat—the coat of many colors he was wearing— 24 and they took him and threw him into the pit. –Genesis 37

Nature doesn’t exist. At least that is the claim of the famous Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. He received flack for saying that. What could he possibly mean that nature does not exist? It is an impossible thing to deny. We just need to touch the brittle bark of the tree and sneeze at the pollen-rich air and hear the soft calls of the barn owl at midnight to know that nature exists. It’s not a secret.

What he is saying is less startling than it sounds. I take his intent to be that when we talk about nature, nature is entangled in our own concepts and fantasies. We tell stories about nature, we write novels about nature, we have theories about nature, we compose poems about nature. And often these creations do not simply observe nature but create a fantasy about nature. Another philosopher, this person writing in the same vein as Zizek, said that nature is like a mirror. It often shows us our ideas and fantasies about ourselves.

Religious concepts offer one such mirror. Here I am specifically thinking about Natural Law Theory, created by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. It argues that God imparted certain intentions. And these intentions or laws spell out what is natural and moral and what is unnatural and immoral. These laws are evident when we reason about the purpose of things. Sexuality is the quintessential example here. It is intended for reproduction. Any sexual act that does not lead to reproduction is, in this view, unnatural and immoral. 

But if this is the case, if God intended some sort of law for nature to follow, somehow the memo got lost. When we look at the natural world, we see a wild proliferation of sexualities. Same-sex pairings happen throughout the animal kingdom. This has been extensively documented in hundreds of species. Likewise, there are hundreds of species that are intersex and that occasionally change their sex. From this we gather that sexual pairing is designed not simply to reproduce. Its end is diverse. It is used to create community, relieve boredom, solidify hierarchies, dissolve hierarchies, care for biological offspring, care for adoptive offspring, experience pleasure, incite feelings of jealousy, serve as a greeting as well as a goodbye. Occasionally it makes babies too.  

This is where the argument becomes politically important. There is often a claim that homosexuality and transgender realities are unnatural. In fact, in Florida, this argument has again reared its head. And the people pushing that argument, the argument that queer and transgender people are unnatural, know that they must do window dressing to make this argument appear legitimate. For instance, some school districts banned the book And Tango Makes Three—which is a true story about two male penguins raising an adopted chick. This book about the natural lives of two penguins apparently felt too unnatural for some parents in Florida.

Some think that science will save us from religion here. But those people are in for a rough patch. Sometimes science relies on its own fantasies. In recent years, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has received overdue critique. Specifically, scientists have scrutinized the concept of the survival of the fittest. This theory has a beautiful simplicity and clarity to it. No doubt in many instances, it is supported by the evidence.

But the simple can sometimes become the simplistic, and therein lies the problem. It has made many scientists obsess about the evolutionary purpose of particular features. So, for instance, sexuality is thought to be for the purpose of reproduction. The literature on evolutionary biology is replete with this assumption. This has ignored the proliferation of evidence that sexuality is used for all sorts of things in nature. Reproduction is one of those things.

The theologies and theories that we use to capture the natural world think they do just that: capture the natural world. But it is a bit like pinning the butterfly to corkboard. You may pin it down but it dies in the process. I return to poetry here. Specifically, the poem that Gloria read this morning. As Henri Cole writes: “I think about all the dogmas and traditions / which are like well-made beds, with fitted sheets / and tucked-in hospital corners, [made] to die in.”

Our neat ideas about the universe, and life—and the divine for that matter—are so often like well-made beds, ones designed for us to die in. But, the poet writes, as he sits on his rock and observes: when I see deeper, “it’s as if everything is lit from below / or from within.” A greater appreciation beyond the mirrors we hold up to ourselves is always at our fingertips.

Beyond natural laws and the survival of the fittest, do we have another model for imagining nature? One that is more generous and expansive? One that is less domesticated and reflective of dominant hierarchies? The answer is yes. Bruce Bagemihl is an evolutionary biologist who has created just such a concept. His book Biological Exuberance is a bestiary that charts the great variety of ways that animals express life and sexuality.

His take is that nature is not some sterile lab environment where we can draw simple conclusions about the purposes of evolutionary features. Instead, life is more like a surging stream, where there are pockets of scarcity and pockets of abundance. Times when the fittest survive, times when no one survives, and times when sprawling chaotic excess is transmitted from one generation to the next.

All the droplets in the stream are intersecting in ways that are so complicated and multifactorial that they make our basic concepts break down. We don’t see a straightforward calculation of traits that are being passed from parent to offspring. The fittest may be part of communities that use sexuality in ways that diverge widely from reproduction. We see an explosion of color and life in such dizzying complexity it is impossible to assign them a simple instrumental purpose.

And this verges on mystery. It is verges on transcendence. As Bagemihl puts it: “It is about the unspeakable inexplicability of earth’s mysteries—which are as immediate as the next heartbeat. Biological Exuberance is, above all, an affirmation of life’s vitality and infinite possibilities: a worldview that is at once primordial and futuristic, in which gender is kaleidoscopic, sexualities are multiple, and the categories of male and female are fluid and transmutable. A world, in short, exactly like the one we inhabit.”

We might imagine what a God who created this world would be like. That God would be ridiculously liberal. Beyond anything that we humans could imagine. And I mean liberal here both as broadminded and inclusive and also in the same sense as a liberal helping of pasta at the dinner table.

God gives out three hearts and eight arms to the octopus. God makes ten percent of all white-tailed deer intersex. God makes male penguins and black swans that form monogamous lifelong bonds and raise adopted chicks. God makes male seahorses that give birth to hundreds of iridescent babies. God makes snails who wrap their slimy bodies around each other not for reproductive purposes but rather as an amorous dance. God creates animals that, when they get bored with being one, split in half, reproducing by infinite division. There is something so delicious and vibrant about creation, something so sensual, intense, and incommunicable about its simple being, which is anything but simplistic. “It’s as if,” writes the poet, “everything is lit from below / or from within.”

With all of that being said, I feel compelled to ask: Why do these families in Florida wish to violate this natural order, this divine will that expresses itself in the explosive polymorphous potential of queer becoming? Isn’t it blasphemy to cut up and cut out the vast variety, the multifaceted multiplicities, the extravagant exuberance of these many sexualities and biologies? Isn’t it like taking the luminosity out of the lifeworld? Isn’t it like refusing the gifts we are given by simply being alive? Isn’t it like tearing away a beautiful coat, a coat of many colors, not because you will use it, but because its colors are too bright for someone else’s dim little world?

I don’t want that for nature, or for us. I want nature to reflect all of its brilliant colors. Just like I want you to do that.

Sermon preached at North Shore Unitarian Church, May 28, 2023. This writing may be used in any form or context, with credit given to the author.