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More things than are dreamt of in your phylogeny

In the early 1920s, an expedition from the American Museum of Natural History gathered a massive number of animal and fossil specimens from the rainforests of Ecuador. One such specimen, of a medium-sized mammal, was hurriedly labeled as an olingo, an arboreal raccoon relative known to live in South America. And for decades, it stuck.

It wasn’t until 2003 when Kristofer Helgen, the then-Curator of Mammals at the Smithsonian, stumbled across a similar animal at the Field Museum that anyone thought to reconsider the classification. After examining numerous museum specimens, a second expedition to Ecuador helped Helgen and his teammates establish the existence of an entirely different species, alive and thriving to this day. Called “olinguitos” (or “little olingos”) by the researchers when they were officially described in 2013, they received the remarkable distinction of being the first new members of the order Carnivora to be discovered in the Western Hemisphere in 35 years.

Pronounced female at birth, the particular question of my gender was assumed to be resolved the same day I entered the world. There was empirical evidence to support the most conventional hypothesis, and so no one in my life questioned it. As I grew, I was similarly told I would grow up and have a husband and kids as a statement of fact. I assumed this too -- after all, it was presented as being as fixed as the stars are in space, or fish are in the sea.

But stars, as it turns out, don’t vanish immediately when they burn out, instead turning to brilliant ghosts in our sky which can still be seen here on Earth centuries after they’re gone. And no one seems to have told Tiktaliik its dreams of land were not supposed to be.

Children interested in science are told simple facts first: planets orbit the sun, dinosaurs lived long ago, gravity keeps us on Earth. It’s a reasonable place to start -- we each build our understanding of the universe we call home from the ground up. But as we get older, and dig deeper, the lines start to blur. Light is somehow both a wave and a particle. Fish, as a clade, turn out to be an extremely fishy classification. And the universe -- the real, actual, one, not just our own -- is somehow getting bigger.

I may not have been exposed to queerness much as a child, but it wove its rainbow threads into my life regardless. In the summer of 2013, I too labeled myself something else: asexual, a term I had discovered online. By that fall, I’d added aromantic. And before the year was over, I had also realized I was transgender. After years of defining myself by others’ assumptions, I finally knew I was something different than I had always been told -- a lot of somethings, even. No longer the olingo, but the olinguito.

As someone in the biological sciences, little pains me more than the common rallying cry of the overconfident bigot: “You can’t be queer! It’s basic biology!” By “basic,” I know they intend to imply there’s some core precept of science people like me are either too stupid to understand, or too ignorant to accept. Ironically, it’s not a bad word choice -- only opposite the direction they mean. In their harping on about chromosomes and reproduction alone dictating our destinies, I see only the simplest possible understanding of the world we live in -- one far more ignorant to the beautiful, messy reality of things than they think mine is.

Helgen’s olinguitos illustrate that labels are not infallible. But looking beyond the museum specimens that spent decades in misunderstood obscurity, the story of a different olinguito highlights another fact: they are not harmless, either.

Her name was Ringerl.

Ringerl lived at the National Zoo in the 1960s. Thought, like her brothers and sisters lying in their cabinet drawers, to be an olingo, the keepers there made efforts to breed her with the ones in their care, and after failing decided that others should try. For almost a decade, Ringerl was shipped to zoos across the country in the hopes that someone else would have better luck. None succeeded. When she passed away at the Bronx Zoo in 1976, the suggestion she might be something else entirely had never even been considered.

I am lucky to have discovered the vocabulary for what I am. Asexual, aromantic, and transmasculine are words I wear not only with pride, but with the knowledge that, just like scientific terminology, they impart important information about me. But I am not blind to the fact that, had I lived a different life, I might never have found them. The hateful rhetoric that suggests every facet of me is in defiance of biology is almost a compelling one, twisting the most basic building blocks of what we know into a sorely limited picture of all there is or ever could be. And knowing the field of study I love has been so wrongfully wielded, like a blunt weapon, against queer people throughout history haunts me. It is a bitter, insufficient comfort to point out that those doing so were practicing bad science.

Ringerl’s tale didn’t end with her death. After Helgen and his team realized olinguitos were their own separate species, they compared her DNA -- which had been preserved in the National Institute of Health’s genetic bank -- to that of some of the museum specimens. It was a near-identical match.

The story of Ringerl, who spent her life so misunderstood it prevented her from living amongst other olinguitos, makes me sad. But I also can’t help but think it has a happier ending than many queer people have gotten, similarly isolated by others’ incorrect definitions. To be vindicated by biology, even posthumously, instead of having it be the vehicle for your own erasure is something I wish countless trans people, in particular, could have had -- to be known, even in death, for who they were, instead of forever forced into a box whose dimensions were incorrect to begin with. Even now, the lie that trapped them is alive and well in the growing wave of anti-scientific, anti-trans sentiment we face today.

But even if it’s not a secret you’ll find in our DNA, our queer identities are no less representative of the infinite diversity of life. Olinguitos still frolicked high in South American trees before we gave them a name -- correct or incorrect -- and other queer people lived and loved in their own ways long before they had the words I do to explain why. Both cases prove it’s not giving something a label that has ever made it real, and that’s what people who claim “biology” conflicts with queer identity fail to grasp. Truthfully, I can even claim I am practicing science of a kind simply by observing, hypothesizing, and concluding I am something other than the cisheterosexual norm. I am labeling what is, with newfound words that reflect an expanded understanding of our universe. We all are. And a good, hard look at the sheer explosion of ways life manifests -- including all the ways we have misunderstood it throughout the years, and will continue to as the story of science unfolds -- should make it that much easier to believe in our human rainbow, not harder.

In thinking of Ringerl, and the rest of us who exist in defiance of boxes, I am reminded of the famous closing words of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Nate Wulver is a biologist and science educator. You can follow Nate on Twitter @werewulver

Further Reading:

American Museum of Natural History. Episode 04: Skull of the Olinguito. AMNH.

Sample, I. (2013, August 15). 'Teddy bear' carnivore emerges from the mists of Ecuador. The Guardian.

Helgen K, Pinto M, Kays R, Helgen L, Tsuchiya M, Quinn A, Wilson D, Maldonado J (2013) Taxonomic revision of the olingos (Bassaricyon), with description of a new species, the Olinguito. ZooKeys 324: 1-83.

Stromberg, J. (2013, August 14). For the First Time in 35 Years, A New Carnivorous Mammal Species is Discovered in the Americas.

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