If you walk into any zoo in America, you’ll likely see a gay penguin couple lovingly raising an egg together, demonstrating that being queer is normal, natural, and beautiful. As a proud queer person, I’m happy that young zoo-goers get to see that love is love across the animal queendom. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that something about this Pride March of the Penguins feels sinister to me.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy the penguins feel comfortable expressing their true selves. What I’m not happy about is where, how, and why they are choosing to do so. Frankly, I’m sick and tired of the gay penguins at the zoo performing their queerness for a hetero audience.
Let’s give the birds some agency here: they live at the zoo. We have to assume they know how straight their audience is. Whether or not the penguins’ intentions are pure, we have to look at the impact. When I see the gay zoo penguins, I don’t see queerness being normalized, I see it being commodified, assimilated, watered down. Do the penguins really have to be cute and cuddly? I want children to see gay penguins that are headstrong and complex.
Oh, and of course the only gay birds we get to see at the zoo are the ones that can’t fly.
And let’s talk about names. Why do the penguins have to give themselves stupid names like Bowtie and Wendell? Is it to make the LGBTQ community seem less threatening to the straight majority? I want to admire the courage of fully realized queer penguins named Mara and Paige: birds with stories to tell, not gawk at Flipper and Wheezy gobble whole mackerel from the hand of a straight woman in a wetsuit.
And, even more problematic is that all of these penguins look the exact, goddamned same. I’ve got incredible gaydar, but the only way for me to even spot the gay penguins is to wait for some khaki-shortsed zoo employee to point them out to me. That’s bullshit. I’m tired of the messaging that queer folk are just the same as anyone else. We are meant to challenge the establishment, not reinforce it.
Keep your outdated respectability politics out of my aquatic birds habitat!
Queer zoogoers deserve to not just see ourselves reflected in the inch of glass that separates us from the animals, but see ourselves beyond that glass. The gay penguins at the Zoo are powerful representatives of our community. That comes with responsibility.
Instead of degrading themselves for straight people, I want to see the gay penguins use their faux-Antarctic platform to start a queer zoo, a zoo by queer animals for queer people. A place where bisexual lions show off their pride; where lesbian gorillas recite Sapphic poetry in sign language; and yes, where penguins of all queer identities can waddle, flipper in flipper, into that sunset painted on the wall.