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The diversity of sex and gender in the animal kingdom is totally overlooked when people use the argument “it’s not natural” to say that someone’s lifestyle goes against their personal moral constructs. What’s “natural” is actually incredibly complex, considering we have hermaphrodite leopard slugs, female Western Gulls that pair up for the long term, and asexual reproduction in Komodo dragons.
Portland-based artist Gwenn Seemel has gathered a whole herd of examples of the real diversity of gender, relationships, and reproduction in the natural world, explaining them in unembellished text and illustrating each with colorful paintings that seem inspired by both Eric Carle and Gustav Klimt, as shown in the above same-sex simian take on “The Kiss.” Called Crime Against Nature, the series has been compiled into a children’s book published in conjunction with a November/December 2012 exhibition at Place in Portland. The book is available in physical form or for free online. (You can also flip through the whole thing on her Facebook page.)
“It’s meant for the kid in all of us: the person who hasn’t yet felt the pressure to conform, the one who still sees the infinite possibilities of being,” she writes in the book’s prologue. She says she was led to create the series when she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a disease that, because it can cause infertility, shook her long-held assumptions that she would one day have children. “After being told again and again that the urge to reproduce is primordial, I turned to nature to look for the origins of our baby-making assumptions,” she writes.
To begin with, all I found was the animal version of “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” But I wasn’t convinced. Slowly but surely, I unraveled the mystery of this seemingly universal formula. I began to understand that the scientists who described animal behavior could be as stuck in a nursery rhyme version of normalcy as I was. And I began to find scientists who weren’t.
Seemel has also made a series called Apple Pie incorporating different statements and perspectives on what it means to people to be American, and the flexibility of individual identity is definitely central here. All of the animals in Crime Against Nature function in their worlds just fine, but in ways so different it’s staggering. For example, there are the clownfish. When a female is missing from an anemone home, the male can turn into a female, and one of the young can become a male, and the two will continue to breed without seeking a new home. Then there’s the black swans, where two males can pair-bond and even acquire eggs by having a temporary “trio” with a female. Other times they’ll just take over a heterosexual black swan couple’s nest. And then leopard slugs simultaneously reproduce as male and female, so they both take sperm from the other and lay eggs.
“We all want to live, love, and be loved,” Seemel concludes in the book. “And our individual expressions of these same needs are what make our world so beautiful.” (Here, as in the rest of the book, Seemel’s writing is pretty straightforward, and her strength is definitely the art, even if the text gets across her strong sentiments.) The glimpses that Seemel has illustrated of the real wildness of the natural world are fascinating, and as a book for kids, it’s definitely an opportunity to introduce some early challenging ideas about what being a male or female animal actually can be.
Gwenn Seemel’s Crime Against Nature is available through the artist’s website.