After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon?
In ecological thought and the evolutionary sciences, it has become a truism that everything is what it is because of its relationship to everything else. We’ve long felt that this also applies to gender, and it’s central to both of our experiences of being trans.
We came to understand gender in large part through our connections not just to other humans but also to nonhuman animals, landscapes, and even to non-secular or non-modern entities like gods or ancestors. We see gender as the shape of our relationality—yes, a human-inclusive performance but also a wild dance with the animate world and with a sense of Eros beyond the human. We “identify” as—or perhaps it would be better to use the more resilient and cosmologically sensible preposition with—rivers, bogs, lichens, flocks of sheep, even mythic chimeras. This concept of gender as an ecosystem—and gender as an important contemporary portal to soul in a neo-Jungian sense—finds affirmation in emerging theories of the self as a network. Philosopher Kathleen Wallace, author of the new book The Network Self: Relation, Process, and Personal Identity, urges us to continue to think of the self as a series of processes and a network of identities.
To spin off of Heraclitus, there’s no stepping in the same self twice. As naturalists, we think of the example of a wild animal whose tracks and sign can be observed and her trails followed, but who cannot ever be pinned down—at least until death takes her, and probably not then either. Heraclitus’s metaphor for unceasing change was the river, and this speaks to the existential solace and guidance many find in identity with wild and other-than-human aspects of the world: they often represent resilience and change better than the stories, symbols, and archetypes that crowd popular culture. Our conviction that gender is a powerful site of reenchantment and animistic imagination—deeply connected to our experience as ecological beings within an ecocidal culture—has only grown since each of our own comings-of-age.
Relationships between entities inform and create who we are, and we orient ourselves in the cosmos and in our local places by relating to others. This notion comes easily to trans and queer folks: we are suspicious of the commandment to “just be yourself,” since if we can’t embody who that self is ritualistically (though gender embodiment isn’t widely recognized as ritual in secular culture), being is nothing. Many other kinds of folks seem to tacitly understand this, especially those who live in marginal(ized) locations or who are part of more collectivist societies or movements. One recalls the quote by Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN in Beyond Resistance: Everything that “true identity is only found” (or made) “through the collective.”
This truth extends beyond our skin, but it also exists firmly within our bodies. Many probably know by now about the explosion of research into animal and plant microbiomes and holobionts over the last decade that has revealed how we are host to tens of thousands of bacteria, fungi, and other tiny friends that provide essential functions to our bodies, minds, and likely our identities. Aside from the legions of microbial beings that make up a huge bulk of us, even what is considered human tissue bears traces and tracks of ancient relations and couplings. The ability to form memories may have originated with a primordial virus, traced through an enigmatic protein known as ARC. In fact, about 5% of our genomes contain traces of retroviruses. The existence of mitochondria—the energy generators of our cells—is likely the result of a symbiotic relationship between two single-celled organisms that once came together, a theory for which biologist Lynne Margulis was mocked for much of her career.
Ruminants like cows, sheep, and deer can only digest the cellulose in grass—thereby unlocking the energy contained in the majority of the world’s starch—because of the host of microflora living in their rumen. As forest ecologist Suzanne Simard teaches us, a forest is not just a collection of trees but a network of underground mycorrhizal relationships: a kinship system. Maybe we figure out “gender identity” not just from reading third-wave feminist theory in college but also through how we relate to others, now, in this moment on Earth. Perhaps an important part of identity is the way in which it can serve as both prism and portal for our attachments, longings, and traumas from the fraught relationship with land and water.
We “identify” as—or perhaps it would be better to use the more resilient and cosmologically sensible preposition with—rivers, bogs, lichens, flocks of sheep, even mythic chimeras.
However, this ecological—and, by that fact, enchanted in an animistic sense—notion of gender often has seemed like something too risky to claim publicly. For our political and social allies, we worried it would call into question the “real,” essential, or secular nature of, say, trans identity and undermine our political struggle to be treated equitably. To political and social critics, this claim could be seen as a deep threat to the logics of control and individualism that guide various oppressive systems that restrict the eco-social imagination. If other beings of countless species and type—from our local watershed, to the apex predators in our bioregion, to the bacteria in our gut—make us who we are (and also very literally live inside of us), where is the control, the “freedom,” in that?
As the wild ones teach us, there can be liberation in specificity, in the deep study of a particular niche, a particular role. In our ancestral pasts, identity and role were more closely interconnected. Postmodern thought has often given the sense of rejecting the centrality of roles in human ecology due to the necessary project of critiquing the “role” of roles in systems of oppression. This disentangling has its place in the quest for liberation, but it is obvious that it has left spiritual voids and cosmological ruptures in our worlds. So now, we ask, “How do we mend these?” Far from being something fixed and subjugated, a niche is a dynamic node, a location that enables connections to others, a path to sovereignty in the only system that matters in the end. After all, the ecosystem is just niches all the way down.
That freedom of the identity-role, which we and others have also called an eco-social niche, lies in the fugitive claim that “life is possible here.” Joy, beauty, and meaning-making are possible, even in conditions of collapse, of fragmentation, of scarcity. Like the caterpillars that have learned to metabolize plastic or the wolves that thrive in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, belonging can be built, or grown, out of the detritus of failing empires and ideologies. But it won’t always match the bucolic dreams of our forebears. It can be monstrous. And maybe it should be, because among many other things, monsters are apotropaic: they ward off bad luck and what our ancestors called “the evil eye” (and perhaps they will ward off the modern analogs of these, the overly close-minded who are due for a good cosmological shakeup). When gender-variant people claim that our embodiments are altars, we are also saying they are amulets—a device perhaps even more ancient. When we see such dynamics embodied in gender creativity and gender resistance—in the embracing of the monstrous and mythic that has percolated in the corners of our communities at least since Susan Stryker’s landmark essay in which she found affinity with Frankenstein’s monster—we feel astonishment and awe, smoking guns of the sacred in a landscape where few other markers are available. To embody emergent representations of identity in public ways (such as drag) is a form of mysticism or heretical theology that collapses art, ritual, and identity into an alchemy both ancient and timely.
One practice that has become important to us in our work teaching place-based skills in queer affinity groups is the exploration of camouflage as drag beyond the human or as a mode of shapeshifting in ways widely employed by the animal kingdom. In applying natural pigments and materials to our bodies, especially our faces—those widely recognized markers of human personhood—we “pass” as other-than-human: moss, bark, leaves, landscapes. For a moment, we feel what it must be like if the Earth had eyes, knowing that she looks through the eyes of the creepers and the crawlers, the stealthy and the hidden. We touch this subversive yet common underworld of awareness, briefly, fleetingly, and we are seduced by a solidarity beyond words. Oftentimes, survival on Earth is a masquerade ball.
At an ideological level, dismissal of identity as a valid eco-social and political concept (and site of liberatory or revolutionary praxis and power)—particularly trans, gender-creative, and other marginalized identities—rests on several myths. One of those myths is that identity is a modern thing, that it is a fantasy created through self-absorption and disconnection or deviation from some alleged reality. Another myth is that identity is something that is solely consolidated in the realm of the intellect, the abstract, or even human thought. But for us, identity has much to do with how we interpret and enact our relationality with other beings. Even though we may give it a unique expression, it exists in a system of meaning-making much wider in scope than that which is the province of humans. It is not just about thoughts we have about ourselves but also about the ways we feel and think when relating with and navigating landscapes populated with other beings and agencies as ourselves—a feeling-and-thinking with as much as or more than a feeling-and-thinking about. Being one aspect of our identity centered around the body and the erotic, gender is naturally a vector for relating to the land in ways that are enchanted, especially in an anti-animist environment.
What if our capacity for diverse gender identities came not solely from contemporary culture but from our embeddedness within place and our necessary relations with the animate world? The fact that many of us live lives that are not very intimately entangled with the flesh and blood of our surrounding ecosystems doesn’t mean our identities are disconnected from ecological realities. Instead, this begs us to illuminate the threads of how those connections still exist in subterranean, subconscious, and haunted forms.
Pınar often shares that their gender is “riparian,” a sense that emerged from an encounter with a desert creek during their formative years. At the time, they did not have any context for such an identity. However, through a series of encounters that evolved into pilgrimages, Pınar saw themselves as apprenticing to this particular wild river and the ways in which it created belonging in the dry landscape—particularly after its undamming the year prior. This kinship helped them make sense of the fact that they had never been able to articulate their transness in terms of available language and culture at the time, which still was based on very binary (and Western or Eurocentric) notions of masculine and feminine and positioned transformations across that binary as the pinnacle of the trans experience. After studying Quechua cosmology more deeply, Pınar learned that running water (like rivers and streams) is seen as embodying a masculine spirit, while still water (like lakes and ponds) is seen as the dwelling place of feminine spirits—something deeply affirming to their own sense of embodying the riparian masculine. Eventually, they came to identify with yakurunas, freshwater spirits who abound in their matrilineal landscapes, as well as the Quariwarmis, third-gender people who were aggressively persecuted when the Conquistadors encountered the Incas. For Pınar, claiming these forms of gender as central to lifeway and cosmology—not superfluous, as some critics of gender seem to think—has been a form of re-indigenizing.
Our bodies are the only landscapes, the only pieces of the wild Earth that will never leave us.
So grew up with a feeling and experience of being in-between the gender binary, and eventually, the umbrella of transgender identity provided the most space to articulate this. But So, also a mystic at heart, was always left feeling that there was something “too secular” and “too human” about the trans experience as articulated in the contemporary West. Within their experience of gender divergence was an experience of animality: they found resonance with cloven-hoofed animals—the deer, the sheep, the goats. These beings embodied a grace, a light-footedness, and also a musky earthiness, too. This created an archetype of the self that was unusual, even paradoxical, in 1990s America. Fauns or satyrs, consorts of Dionysius and the form of the rustic Arcadian god Pan, became an early icon of their queerness that didn’t quite have a cultural home. It was not the sexualized nature of these creatures that spoke to So (though this is what many people associate with these mythic beings); it was that they are caricatures of a campy and silly form of masculinity not available to us through any other representations. They were, in a way, an ancestral form of drag—still seen in various “folk” festivals across the Balkans and Mediterranean (such as the kukeri) involving zoomorphic costuming that heavily references pastoral animism.
When we came together and shared our experiences, it was not difficult to see that both our dreams of gender were informed by our ancestors as well as by eco-grief and the disconnection of lifeways and knowledge from land. In sharing our perspectives, we’re not trying to tell you we’re special; we’re trying to tell you we aren’t. These experiences are more common than we know. In ecology, hybridity often emerges as a survival response within fractured ecosystems, an immune response by a landscape or place attempting to restore certain ecosystem functions by roughly knitting together two species that may have not needed to conjoin before. We wonder if identities work similarly in the social world. And yet, zoomorphism—the imaginings and ritualizations of ourselves as other-than-human—is as old as Homo sapiens, and probably older. If our selves are made up of relationships with others, our selves always include the other-than-human.
Recently, we discovered the concept of “xenogenders,” a term coined by Tumblr user Baaphomett in 2014. A xenogender (of which there are perhaps thousands and counting) is a gender identity that is aligned with or expressed by nonhuman entities or forces, such as animals, abiotic materials like stone, elemental forces like wind, or even concepts and ideas. The xenogender system is influenced by contemporary therians, a community that finds affinity and identity with nonhuman animals and that coalesced on internet message boards in the ’90s. Xenogender fulfills an important lexical gap in modern and postmodern culture because it allows for notions and embodiments of gender that aren’t centered solely on the human world—thus, it creates inroads into the posthuman for gender-creative and gender-variant people. It also creates a rupture in modernity’s insistence that magic is in decline and the world is or should be vanquished of all mystery in service of technoscience. Postmodernity gets checked, too, since for the most part, it has failed to create space for people to find meaning again in a globalized and culturally relativist world. Though some gender essentialists may take comfort in the argument that trans identity can be seen in brain scans, many will be horrified at the possibility that xenogenders might never be explained by Western science.
And yet it is also high time to emphasize that anthrozoomorphism and human-animal shapeshifting is not new at all. In How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn, we learn that some Quechua-speaking peoples see the jaguar (puma) as a paradigm of dignified personhood and consequently see themselves as “becoming jaguar” through the course of their life, as an effect of growing into maturity and belonging with the land. Nor is identity with landscape new: many Indigenous cosmologies around the world conflate some sort of keystone feature of their home—like a river—with their essence as people. In many places, this undergirds the logic of defense of land from colonial and neocolonial incursions and invasions. Indigenous personhoods are often inextricably tied to land and place in ways for which Western society has not had the language. Echoing this, Justo Oxa, an Indigenous Quechua teacher quoted in Marisol de la Cadena’s book Earth Beings, makes an important distinction: “It is important to remember that this place [the community] is not where we are from, it is who we are. For example, I am not from Huantura, I am Huantura.”
What of the capacity for posthuman identities like xenogenders to express a cry or prayer from the Earth, from forests and rivers that haunt our psyches with their absence as well as their presence? In a globalized context in which both colonized and colonizer have been displaced from our various homelands or dispossessed of place-based lifeways, our bodies are the only landscapes, the only pieces of the wild Earth that will never leave us. Utilizing them as sites for myth and ritual, as altars to the strange, mutant, monstrous, or magnificent self is a path toward ecological and cosmological coherence in incoherent times. Perhaps queer and alternative genders (and all genders) aren’t just something created solely by humans but are something that we’re taking part in as we collaborate with Earth’s systems to mend lost or endangered connections.
Joy, beauty, and meaning-making are possible, even in conditions of collapse, of fragmentation, of scarcity.
These many identities/embodiments are not limited to queerness, with its human-centric histories, but are perhaps better described by a paradigm of strangeness, a queering of personhood itself, a harkening back to the original meaning of the word “queer” as something unique, puzzling, or cryptic. The ancient Greek word xenos, the etymology of xenogender, literally means strange or foreign—as in a stranger or one who is unfamiliar. Strange, from the Latin “extraneous,” refers to something “from outside” that seems like it shouldn’t belong but yet is here—its unlikely belonging an affront to our notions of the world. In The Weird and the Eerie, the late Mark Fisher described the Weird as a similar mood: that which does not belong but yet exists. We associate these moods with horror or creepiness, but in these times of eco-social fracture, they can just as easily be harbingers of the sacred or of the ecosystem trying to suture itself back together into something new with salvaged parts. When the status quo becomes toxic and damaging, then what is weird or strange within that context can point the way forward, true to the original meaning of “apocalypse” as a revealing of what no longer serves and a reorientation of how to live on Earth.
Certain encounters we’ve had with other-than-human life or death bear the marks of this mode of strangeness: the memory of holding a stick full of mycelium in the dark that glowed green from the bioluminescent fungi; stumbling on a freshly killed deer, their blood not yet congealed, recently subjected to the death grip of a mountain lion; finding a bird’s nest woven with snake skins and plastic; hearing coywolves howl near the Canadian border or the screams of feral parrots in Los Angeles. These are astonishing, fugitive presences that haunt our heavily mediated culture with their realness, their grit, and their existence on the margins of human centers, where most of the universe exists anyway. Tracks, the naturalist’s icons of absence (yet mythical or future presence), are the effigies that line our temples. So the strange, too, is an aesthetic paradigm, one that creates an iconography of the visceral ruptures and incursions into civilization brought about by the inherent wildness of life and death. These ruptures beckon us into the animality and animism from whence we came, the real status quo of deep time. Perhaps it’s time that the strange became familiar again.
In this apocalyptic era, strangeness and the hyperreal feeling of being unsettled by diverse and divergent forms of embodiment—including gender—can be signs that we add to our ability to track belonging and the process of, to paraphrase Donna Haraway, making kin in odd times. As the world becomes stranger, so do we, ecological beings that we are. Perhaps these haunting and cryptic images and dreams of selves and souls beyond the human will help romance us into further accountability with the other-than-human and with our many possible futures.