Editor’s Note: This post is the fifth post of the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.
Author’s Note: Throughout this post, I use the terms ‘trans’ or ‘multi-sex’, as well as ‘male’ and ‘female’, to refer to non-human bodies. However, in truth there is no one word to describe what is actually going on with plant, animal, or fungal genders. Although botanists and biologists still utilize the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ to describe non-human reproductive parts, this language is a projection of human sex onto non-human beings, and has no real meaning. Since we don’t share a language, we can’t know how the world of plants, animals, or fungi understand sex or gender, if at all. If I have learned anything from being an amateur biologist, it is that non-human sexuality and reproduction is largely unknown.
Some friends recently showed me a youtube video of two Leopard slugs having sex. They thought I would be “into it” given the project I am currently working on. The slug mating ritual involved, among other things, dancing, smelling, excreting, gyrating, encircling, protruding, receiving, expanding, becoming… It was breathtaking and I was, indeed, into it.
My google search for “leopard slug sex” produces results for articles with titles including words like, “astonishing”, “bizarre”, “SHOCKING”, and “wild & weird”. The issue here is that, though the slugs’ ritual is truly beautiful to behold, it isn’t actually all that weird. In non-human circles, hermaphroditism is not uncommon. In fact, in the plant world, approximately 90% of all plants are “multi-sex” or possessing what botanists refer to as perfect flowers, meaning flowers that possess both “male” and “female” reproductive parts. Some flowers have the ability to self-fertilize. Fungal and bacterial species can reproduce asexually, without a partner. A wide variety of marine animals switch back and forth between “male” and “female” depending on shifts in group dynamics or environmental conditions. These sexual phenomena are common, and exist, as far as we know, in order to give a species a better chance at survival.
Most of us are taught that heterosexuality is the optimal survival strategy for all beings, that it is “nature’s way.” This is a sexual myth that excludes the multitudes of plants, animals, and fungi who operate in non-heterosexual, reproductively complex ways, every moment all over the world. What are the structural mechanisms keeping this myth alive? Who are the scientific gatekeepers and what is at stake? We are not taught that nature can be ‘trans’ or that there are ‘multi-sex’ species. If we were, what might happen to our collective consciousness and our political landscape?
As a trans person who has farmed for many years, I have been circling this question for a long time. How could the trans, intersex, and queer human communities not exist when the rest of earth’s organisms express all kinds of sexually complicated strategies? In fact, without the presence of organisms who operate within a complex, symbiotic structure of what I perceive as cross-species orgies, transsexual, intersex, and asexual relationships, human beings would cease to exist. But then, I have had the privilege of learning how to trust the natural world, through the processes of observation, care, and reliance. So, the framework already existed for seeing how my humanness has evolved from the survival mechanisms of earlier organisms.
We are not taught that nature can be ‘trans’ or that there are ‘multi-sex’ species. If we were, what might happen to our collective consciousness and our political landscape?
Lynn Margulis and her co-author and son with Carl Sagan, Dorion Sagan, suggest in Origins of Sex that life and sex are essentially one and the same, and that the roots of sexuality (in all beings) are actually based in movement, which the first Earthly organisms needed to make in order to survive the sun’s rays. Thus, the reasons for sex are more linked to survival than reproduction. Margulis writes,
“Sex itself arose even earlier than the many species of sexual creatures with which we are familiar. It was present on the Earth when microbes, organisms that cannot be seen without a microscope, totally dominated the planetary surface. Sex was here for hundreds of millions of years before the first animals or plants appeared…Some aspect of sex in one of its guises is probably as old as life itself…[And]diversity in the details of sexual behaviors in millions of extraordinary organisms is the rule, not the exception.”1
What if we were able to truly conceive of a flower as a multi-sex being? And then, what about the field in which the flower lives? What about the ecosystem in which the field operates: the oak tree that sits at the edge of the field, the earthworm moving through the topsoil, the symbiotic mycelial-root relationships, the water, wind, and sunlight that sustain life there? What about the whole earth, a living, breathing, multi-sex organism capable of reproduction beyond the human species’ wildest dreams?
Does conceiving of the world in this way change how we move through it?
I keep coming back to this idea of the earth as a sexual organism, as a primarily multi-sex organism, and the usefulness or not of this framework in countering extremist policies seeking to control, criminalize, and generally deny the bodies of trans* and gender non-conforming humans.
In response, I have been building a resource called Another Mother: A Database for all Trans Organisms on Earth. The database is a website and educational tool which allows the user to search for information on plants, fungi, and animals who express multiple sexes, and record sightings of these organisms on an interactive map. Through acts of careful observation and documentation, users gain insight into the complex ways the natural world has been utilizing transsexuality as an evolutionary strategy for hundreds of millions of years.
The website is meant to help build one-on-one relationships between humans and non-humans.
It excites these relationships both in the physical world: visiting rivers where various hermaphroditic species dwell (barnacles, oysters, etc.), and the digital world: locating and documenting themselves and a specific organism on an interactive map that can be found on the website.
Another Mother asks whether it is possible to reframe our understanding of transsexuality as an unnatural phenomenon unique to humans, toward one that has been publicly mapped as natural, pre-human, and even a beneficial practice for species’ evolutionary success. Most urgently, the database seeks to disrupt the narrative of how human beings came to perceive what is natural and what is unnatural by rewriting the story of sex.
You can join Another Mother [@] https://www.anothermother.co
1 Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. 1986. Origins of Sex : Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination. The Bio-Origins Series. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Feature image: Photo of a workshop participant capturing a Schizophyllum commune specimen growing on a Locust tree in downtown Philadelphia in May, 2022. Workshop sponsored by UPenn Environmental Humanities and the Ecotopian Toolkit Project, Philadelphia, PA. Image credit: Mia D’Avanza
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- Another Mother: A Database of All Trans Organisms on Earth - May 12, 2023