For Now, London Zoo's Penguin Chick with 2 Moms is 'Genderless'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday September 12, 2019

The idea of there being genderless individuals is something that's new - and rattling - to many human beings, but it's old hat to Mother Nature - at least, when individuals from certain animal species have yet to reach maturity. Case in point: Sealife London Aquarium has decided to try stepping away from assigning gender when it comes to a chick being raised by a pair of female Gentoo penguins.

Sealife put out a statement in which general manager Graham McGrath noted that "it is completely natural for penguins to develop genderless identities as they grow into mature adults." It's just a matter of getting human visitors to wrap their minds around the idea since, as McGrath noted in the statement, "gender neutrality in humans has only recently become a widespread topic of conversation."

The female couple fostered the egg earlier this year. Now they have a four-month-old chick. NBC News noted that the longstanding policy has been to assign penguin chicks male or female names and colored tags corresponding to binary gender conventions. But with this chick, the tag will be a gender-neutral purple, and when the chick is given a name it won't be gender-specific.

It's not that penguin chicks do not eventually turn out to have gender, CNN reported, but the gender of immature penguins has yet to emerge and cannot be determined. Zoos and aquariums in the past have simply hazarded a guess and assigned a gender to penguin chicks - a guess that may well turn out to be wrong. Allowing the juvenile penguin to be "genderless" is, in a way, simply a way of allowing the chick to be a chick.

Even when penguins reach maturity, their gender is difficult for observers to parse. CNN quoted an expert, Dr. Jennifer Clucas, a research fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, as explaining that "The two sexes in penguins behave very similarly to one another."

"They look almost identical to one another," noted Dr. Clucas. "Behaviorally, they act very similarly as well, particularly in terms of reproduction - both males and females invest pretty equally in raising their chicks."

Same-sex penguin couples are not unusual. A number of zoos and aquariums around the world feature same-sex penguin couples, and a number of those couples have fostered eggs that otherwise might not have been fostered, and proved to be excellent parents to the resulting chicks. One such same-sex penguin family inspired the children's book "And Tango Makes Three."

The idea of genderless or gender non-binary people has been met in recent years with religious condemnation and social stigma. Such an identity may be distinct from transgender identity, in which a person's physical gender characteristics are at odds with a deep-seated and enduring sense of their own male or female nature - a sense that often develops in very early childhood.

Such identity is also distinct from people with an "asexual" orientation. Asexuals may identify as straight or gay depending on which gender they find romantically attractive, but they distinguish that attraction from an urge to engage in sexual activity. Asexual people have little or no sex drive.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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