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Nature Is Nonbinary

By Josse (Jocelyn) Gee, she/he/they

Trans and nonbinary organisms have always existed in nature. Nature always has been and always will be infinite…

To begin a discussion about trans and nonbinary existence in nature, we have to first collectively release any compulsion to categorize everything. Our methods of categorization frequently center on our own understanding, so it’s easy to overlook things that challenge our beliefs. And when we project our own stories, we often oversimplify things—like nature—because we struggle to hold space for ideas that are more expansive, nuanced, or developed. Simplicity is comforting, but—and this is important—simplicity and comfort are frequent justifications for forgoing critical thought. 

Unlearning and understanding are two of the most challenging and uncomfortable processes. I do not expect you to be impartial or decontextualize your perspective. I just ask that you try to open your mind to the possibilities and potentially new-to-you realities. 

I ask you to unlearn your complicit trust in binaries and question yourself when you inevitably default to binary thinking. For example, consider how frequently you think in terms of two absolutes: good and bad, love and hate, alive and dead. Those extremes exist, and there’s plenty more in between.

Acknowledging the limitation of binary thinking does not invalidate the existence of that which exists on the binary. By this, I mean that trans and nonbinary existence in nature does not invalidate the existence of those who are cisgender or are otherwise within the bounds of the binary. 

Prepare to hold space for the unknown and unfamiliar.

A few of many examples of trans and nonbinary existence in animals

The ribbon eel exhibits a protandric lifecycle, meaning it is born as a male and changes to female. The ribbon eel changes color during its lifetime, and these changes are indicative of sex changes to male and female. Ribbon eels all start off their lives as male and are born black with a yellow dorsal fin. As they mature, their black turns to blue, and when they approach the end of their lives, they turn completely yellow, transform into females, and lay their eggs before dying, spawning the next generation of protandric lineage. 

Reproduction in nature can be trans, too. During seahorse reproduction, the male gets pregnant and gives birth. Seahorses begin their mating ritual with a pre-courtship dance that can last for hours or even days. Female seahorses will transfer their mature eggs into the male’s brood pouch. Then, the male fertilizes the eggs and gestates for two to four weeks. A pregnant male’s abdominal area begins undulating and uses muscular contractions to give birth to baby seahorses. Different species of male seahorses can birth anywhere from five to nearly 3,000 young.

36,000 examples of nonbinary existence in fungi

Another fascinating example of trans and nonbinary existence in nature is fungi. Fungi do not fit the standard scientific narratives around sex and gender. Try to imagine tens of thousands of variations of sexual and gender identity among humans. That—about 36,000 available variations—is the reality for some organisms including fungi of the Basidiomycota, a division within the subkingdom dikaryon within the kingdom of Fungi.

Fungi do not have the same anatomical constraints that we often associate with biological sex. Instead, fungi have varied methods of determining reproductive compatibility. Some species require mating between distinct genotypes, meaning that compatibility is determined, according to this paper, by “the reciprocal exchange of diffusible mating pheromones, rather than sexes, and the interactions of homeodomain protein signals after cell fusion...several species are now known to have large and highly rearranged chromosomal regions linked to mating-type genes.” Fungi push us to ask ourselves how many human distinctions are social constructs rather than fundamental truths?

Trans and Nonbinary Existence as a Model of Understanding/Modality

Trans and nonbinary existence in nature establish that queerness is an adaptation, not a flaw. Biological essentialism is not the key to understanding nature—it’s limiting. It is critical that we detach ourselves from universalism and our obsession with explaining/framing everything in our own truths, and instead open ourselves to holding simultaneous truths. 

If everything was binary in nature, we would not have genetic variations that contribute to biodiversity. Biodiversity is as essential as evolution—it is crucial to the expression of nature as we know it. 

We must mirror trans and nonbinary perspectives by creating space for nuance, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Trans and nonbinary existence in nature remind us to expand our capacity to hold interconnected and contrasting truths. To be trans and nonbinary is to hold more than one story.

Trans and nonbinary existence paint a more detailed and dynamic picture of nature—one that has been not missing but suppressed in mainstream scientific discourse, until very recently. To use binary models when producing our research, social systems, legislation, and environmentalism is to misrepresent the complex reality of humanity and our existence within nature. The fact is that transness and nonbinary existence add color, shading, dimension, perspective, motion, and more to our picture of nature and to our lives.

Seeing nature in binaries is looking into a kaleidoscope and seeing just a rainbow because you can’t describe the synergy of color and complexity. 

Trans and nonbinary organisms exist at the intersections of multiplicity and possibility. To embrace trans and nonbinary existence is to accept that the binary is something that has been inflicted on nature and on humans by the intolerance and limitations of fellow humans. 

If environmental movements successfully incorporate trans and nonbinary modalities, we can move beyond competitive, scarcity-based mindsets that inhibit collective power. We can instead manifest a future in which value is not measured exclusively by profitability. 

I hope that this article resonates with those within the trans and nonbinary community, with the queer people who have endured trauma in scientific, medical, or other mainstream spaces. We suffer from centuries of erasure of genderqueer existence and perspectives in educational, professional, and personal contexts. I want this resource to be an affirming narrative that centers scientific confirmation of trans and nonbinary existence outside of and within a human context. My hope is that this can further inform cis people about what it can mean to be trans and nonbinary, both in the natural world and as an individual within a binary-dominated society.

I have infinite hope for the future of trans and nonbinary communities. One day we will all know safety, rest, and abundance. We will always feel supported, empowered, and seen. All queer folks will have the resources, access, and capacity to live out our dreams and honor the totality of our queerness. 

One day, we will hold space for those beyond the trans and nonbinary communities including those who are intersex, gender-kin, and those whose stories have been erased due to colonization.

Soon, we will not be seen, treated, and depicted as inferior—we are exactly as queer and magical as nature directed. My heart burns with hope as I imagine the day that trans and nonbinary truths are free to exist and grow into the miracle of our infinitude. 

If you’re interested in continuing your reading, I recommend the following accounts:

@alokvmenon

@climateresilienceproject

@queernature

@willowwrites

@queerecology

@queerquechua

@queerwildlife

@queers4climatejustice

Written by Josse (Jocelyn) Gee for Youth To The People