Pantheisticon: Sex, Gender, and the Green World

I’ve just finished transcribing the Pagan Spirit Gathering press conference from last month regarding Dianic rituals and the inclusion of transgendered people, and it’s gotten my plant-loving-feminist-sociologist brain spinning. It was a fascinating discussion to listen to so closely, and it got me thinking about parallels between human sex/gender/sexuality and the sexual strategies of trees and other plants. In many ways, our friends in the green world are more like us than we think, and they can give us some important ideas for working our way through some of the current sex-and-gender-related controversies affecting the Pagan community.

One of the key points that Dianic priestess Ruth Barrett made during the press conference was a distinction between the “physicality” of being born female and experiencing one’s entire life through a female body, and the “different path” that transgendered women follow on their way to womanhood. Transgender activist Melissa Murry drew some important parallels between the work done by feminists of decades past and her own work today in re-claiming one’s body, life experiences, and sexuality as sacred. Both touched on a distinction between sex and gender, which is important in both feminist and queer theory, as well as in the social sciences: “sex” is biological, the physical reality that very nearly all of us are born with bodies that are clearly male or female, while “gender” is a social and cultural construct that has to do with how men and women are supposed to feel, look, and behave. Gender identity, as Ruth stated, is fluid–a person can feel that they are “really” male or female in ways that may or may not coincide with their physical body, or they may want to present themselves or behave in ways that may or may not coincide with what is expected of someone of their physical sex, and these feelings may change over time. Sex comes to us from evolution, as a useful reproductive strategy for complex life forms; gender is something that societies invent, and so can vary markedly across time, place, and cultures. One feminist theorist a couple of decades ago asserted that gender is a performance—it’s a show that we put on for society in our attempts to conform (or not!) to the gender roles that are considered acceptable for our biological sex. All of us demonstrate various levels of “masculinity” (i.e. traits that our culture associates with boys and men) and “femininity” (traits that our culture associates with girls and women) as we go about our lives. We all “do” gender performances, whether we’re aware of it or not; the question is to what extent those performances are authentic expressions of who we “really are” vs. the extent to which we’re just presenting ourselves in a particular way because that’s what society expects of us.

Sex and gender aren’t completely unrelated, though. If gender was indeed strictly a social construction, completely uninfluenced by biology, we could argue that trans-people wouldn’t exist at all; a person could decouple their sex from their gender and present themselves and behave however they wished without a desire to be seen as or to become the other biological sex. In reality, though, we have situations where one male-born identical twin can realize early in her childhood that she’s “really a girl” while her brother has a more typical male/masculine gender identity. Throw sexuality in, and you’ve complicated the mix even further. When I was working on my MA in women’s studies back in the early 90s, our gay-rights group was called the “Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Alliance,” with the assumption that one was either gay/lesbian or straight or attracted to both sexes more or less equally. Today we generally speak of “GLBTQ” issues—and sometimes the acronym gets even longer when we try to be really inclusive—expressing a better recognition that sex, gender, and sexuality issues are tremendously tangled and complicated.

So what does all this mean for Pagans? For many of us, our practice and our theology (or thealogy, if you prefer) focus on the concepts of balance and reciprocity between opposites, especially male and female. This is particularly true in Wicca with its largely duotheistic God-and-Goddess focus—as a local Wiccan friend in his 50s with a very traditional form of practice told me recently, “If it doesn’t feed people or make babies, we’re not interested!” Many ancient Paganisms and Native/Indigenous belief systems have earth-and-sky motifs where one is perceived as male and the other as female, with the two joining to create life. Likewise, the sun is often perceived as male and the moon as female in ancient religious thought (although this isn’t always the case!), and the union of the two during solar eclipses is considered one of the great Mysteries.

But even so, we are nature-based religions, and we know that “natural” male and female social behavior in the animal kingdom is much more complicated than we used to think. Sometimes it isn’t directly related to finding food or making babies, and things often get more complicated the more social an animal species is. You’ve probably seen those great stories about “gay” penguins in zoos, and there are a host of other examples of “homosexual behavior” as forms of bonding or aggression in the animal kingdom. Animals that are mostly solitary, from bears to alligators, often have fiercely protective mothers and more or less “absentee” fathers. Male penguins, however—who live in extremely large groups—are fabulous dads,  protecting their eggs and chicks from cold and predators by keeping them up on their feet and under their bellies. Female lions raise and protect their cubs collectively, and both male and female lions hunt and protect their offspring–although males may kill cubs fathered by rival males and females may go after the cubs of rival prides. In the primate world, our closest cousins (of both sexes) range from extremely aggressive to surprisingly peaceful to solving interpersonal problems through frequent and promiscuous sexual contact.

I think we can dig even deeper, though, and have a look at the plant kingdom as well for examples of diverse sexual behaviors and expressions in nature. Trees (and other plants) have three basic strategies for reproduction: they can be dioecious [dahy-ee’-shuhs], meaning individual trees are either male or female; monoecious [muh-nee’-shuhs], which means they have separate male and female flowers on the same tree; or cosexual/hermaphroditic, meaning that they have both male and female parts not only on the same tree, but also on the same flower. Flowers that contain both male and female parts are called “perfect” flowers, and flowers that contain all four reproductive organs (petals, sepels, stamens, and carpels/pistils) are called “complete” flowers. Also, plants can be wind-pollinated, insect-pollinated, or some combination of the two (you know that saying that taking a spoonful of local honey every day will help your allergies? Not if you’re allergic primarily to tree and grass pollen—those are spread by the wind, not bees).

So here are some examples. Ash trees are dioecious—here’s a happy male and female pair in Audubon Park in New Orleans:

Ash trees by Nicole Youngman

Close up it’s easy to see that one tree is female—it’s loaded with “keys” that contain ripening seeds:

ripening seeds by Nicole Youngman

Its male neighbor, however, doesn’t have these keys:

male ash tree by Nicole Youngman

By contrast, here are a couple of young baldcypress trees, also in New Orleans, at the front of Audubon Zoo just a few days ago. These trees are monoecious, so they don’t come in separate male and female individuals. In the winter, these trees would have dropped their needles (which is why they’re called “bald”—these trees are conifers, but they’re not evergreen) and would be loaded with male “catkins.” Right now, though, they’re in the middle of making big fat seed pods (much to the delight of local squirrels, who are experts at eating seasonally!) and look like this:

baldcypress trees by Nicole Youngman

But have a look at how different the two individual trees are when you get closer. The tree on the left is absolutely loaded with seed pods:

seed pods by Nicole Youngman

While the tree on the right only has a few:

seed pods closeup by Nicole Youngman

I’m not sure what accounts for this variation, but I’ve noticed it on a lot of baldcypress trees around here. Maybe it has something to do with age, or health, or genetics, or available light, but in any case, there’s certainly a lot of individual difference from tree to tree in this species, even though the trees themselves aren’t sexually differentiated.

Ok, now that we’ve figured out monoecious and dioecious, with some allowances for individual differences among trees of the same species, it’s time to get really complicated. As it turns out, there’s actually a lot of variation on this basic plant-sexuality theme, and around here swamp maples (aka red maples) are a good example. These trees are sort of dioecious, but, well, not always. The ratio of male-to-female flowers on any particular tree can vary considerably, with some individuals being mostly-male or mostly-female and others being very decidedly mixed up. This has led some researchers to declare swamp maples “polygamodioecious” or sometimes “polygamomonoecious.”

swamp maples by Nicole Youngman

So it’s not just humans who have complicated sexualities (and, I would daresay, gender expressions). Other animals do too, and the plant kingdom has so much variation in reproductive strategies that it’ll make your head spin. The analogy isn’t perfect: humans are all one species, of course, and I’m making comparisons among a lot of different species of plants and animals here. And I want to be clear that I think we have to be VERY careful when we say that humans should live or believe a certain way because it’s “natural”—historically, those sorts of assertions have been used as a proxy for “the way God wants it,” and have been made to justify some pretty heinous social structures, like slavery, the “doctrine of discovery,” and keeping women barefoot and pregnant. And plants certainly don’t get socialized into expressing themselves in a certain sexed/gendered way, nor do they face harassment (or much worse) if they don’t—there’s no cultural component involved in how they grow and develop. I do think, though, that we can make a strong case that there is a wide variety of sexualities (and maybe even genders) in the rest of the natural world, just as there is in the human world. For nature-based religions, this is an important insight, and it can help us find our way around and through the difficulties of balancing the reality that life comes from the union of male and female with the reality that an awful lot of people have bodies, sexual orientations, and gender identities that don’t fit neatly into either/or categories.

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About Nicole Youngman

Nicole Youngman is a sociology professor living in Uptown New Orleans with her son, hubby, and pair of cats. An active member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, she has been practicing Paganism for over two decades and is particularly interested in bioregionalism, ecofeminism, and urban environmental issues.

  • Kilmrnock

    The  question of sex being biology or society is a tough one . First off , i don’t want to be taken the wrong way here . i am not codemning the LGBTQ community in any way . but i’d like to bring up the point of brain function between the opposite sexes .The male and female minds /brains work in entirely different ways , caused by early human biology and hunter gatherer behavior during our early development . Men are single minded and task oriented b/c in earlier times we were hunters …………had to go out and kill something so the family could survive . Just as woman had to deal w/ children and gather berries etc so the multi tasking came to females as a adaptation for survival just as male traites come to men.The differences are so profound communication between the sexes can be hard, the same phrase can have different meaning to each sex  . Granted many female and male traits are societal , but for the most part alot of our differences are biological from our early development as a species, evolved into us so to speak  . A question i have is there any brain differences in homosexuals based on normative brain types as per se a female wired brain in a male body or visa versa. If such a case was true we could point to a biological reason for homosexuality.I am not dismissing societal influences i just want to point out biology plays a bigger part than many wish to acknowedge . I also understand and acknowledge that homosexuality is natural and normal i was just wondering if there is a biological reason for it ? For example i have a gay brother , from growing up w/ him i know this was not a livestyle or chioce for him . Much of his life has not been easy . he tried to conform but couldn’t he is much happier being what he is …………..not trying to hide or conform to an ideal that doesn’t work for what he is , a proud gay man .Being gay is just something he is that’s all .Let me tell you growing up gay in the sixties wasn’t easy for him . But for those of us that know and love him , his coming out was no surprise and also a relief.As a pagan my love for him as my brother isn’t lessened by his sexual preference nor has my being pagan changed how the rest of the family veiws me , altho both took a little getting used to for the family. Humans are quite complex lot , this is true ……but i don’t think the points i have raised are w/o merit . What does everyone else think?    Kilm

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      The genetic and biological (or, more likely, prenatal hormonal) factors in the development of atypical sexual orientations or gender identities are not fully understood at this point.  But, there is enough research at present to indicate that there usually are differences of one kind or another.  They don’t necessarily, however, go along any definite lines of “woman’s brain in man’s body” or such dualistic notions that are supposedly in-born and biologically-based.

      I think some of what you’ve said above is along the lines of “biology is destiny” and that there is a kind of gender essentialism inherent in being a “real man” that is single-minded and is a modern echo of ancient hunters, etc.  I really don’t think it’s at all accurate to actual human diversity and behavior, even on the strictly heterosexual and cisgendered end of the spectrum.

      • Nicole Youngman

        What he said…:) You’re right Kilm that this stuff is darn complicated. For instance, my anthropologist buddies tell me that we know now that prehistoric (and maybe contemporary, too!) tribal women probably provided the vast majority of food for their tribes–maybe even as high as 85 or 90% (in fact they’re starting to say “gathering-hunting” instead of “hunting-gathering” to reflect this!). As for a biological basis for homosexuality, I’m far from an expert, but I suspect it’s kind of like the biological basis for female orgasms–we don’t really need them to procreate, but they’re really useful for social bonding and that can benefit the group as a whole, given that we are very much social creatures and need reasonably large groups to survive.

      • Kilmrnock

        I was not saying biology is destiny i was saying that is the basis for why we have such a stricking male /female model difference in humans . I have heard many argue that men and woman are basicaly the same[mentaly] and that society has made us so different , the nature versus nuture arguement. All i’m trying to say is that nature plays a larger difference in how men and woman are different , even to the extent of how our brains work. Altho it is a contoversial theory i also like the idea that early humans had an aquatic stage as well , it explains alot of things about human anatomy. The fact we are the only land mammals with a fat layer , our dive reflex , breath control , etc.even the shape of our noses and the way human hair grows.Also goes along with the fact early and even modern humans tend to like coastal areas to live in . But this is another discussion. My thinking is that there is a biological reason for homosexuality . A basic difference in the  gay brain wiring/organisation so to speak, that is a natural occurance , that also happens in other animals  as well. kilm

        • Nicole Youngman

           I like the coastal theory a lot too (hey, I live close to the coast, I’m biased). I remember reading Elaine Morgan’s work 20 years ago and being fascinated by it. In any case, I think there’s a big difference between saying that there’s a biological basis for homosexuality and saying that men and women somehow have brains that are wired differently and people are gay when they have the wiring that should go with the other sex (if I’ve understood your original comment correctly). All of this stuff is a combination of nature and nurture–the trick is finding out what the balance is. I mean, they used to say it wasn’t “natural” for women to go to college because all that thinking would take blood away from their reproductive organs and send it to their brains instead and mess with their ability to have babies–basically making up “biological” reasons to enforce cultural norms.

          • Kilmrnock

            I was just exploring possibilities and wondering if anyone had heard or seen anything agreeing or to the contrary . I am truely curious about this and would would like input from others on this one . I know nature and nuture both mould males/ females into what we are . But until i see irrefutable evidance to the contray i still believe there is a biological reason for homosexuality. I know quite a few gays w/ a few exceptions these people aren’t gay by chioce . It is just simply who/what they are .And just for reference i see nothing as concrete or the ideal real man . In fact the perfect real man or real woman doesn’t exist , there are too many variables and opinions .My perfect woman will be alot different from someone elses .    Kilm

        • Brandon Arkell

          No, it’s way more complicated than that. You have several things going on: biology, environment, the mind, society, bla bla bla. They all interact with one another in a sort of feedback web, if you will, to inform one another and shape who we are. Men aren’t “more aggressive” because they had to “compete for mates” or anything like that. That’s a kind of dated, Victorian notion of sex differences.

        • Nicole Youngman

          Your comment below (which won’t let me hit “reply” for some reason) that “people aren’t gay by choice” and that there’s a biological basis for one’s sexual orientation is something I totally agree with. Sexual orientation isn’t the same thing as gender expression, however, and neither is saying that men are “naturally” better at X and women are “naturally” better at Y because our brains are fundamentally different somehow.

    • Brandon Arkell

      This is a gross, gross overgeneralization about sex differences, and it is not supported by scientific research. This is largely a romantic, sentimental folktale inspired by pop-psychology books like “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” People want simplistic, pat answers, not nuanced ones. That is why they believe in this hogwash.

      The fact is, men and women’s brains do NOT work in entirely different ways–that’s a gross exaggeration. Their brains are actually very similar. There is no solid evidence that men are biologically hardwired to be more aggressive than women (we don’t know for certain the relationship between testosterone and agression), that they’re better at mental rotation tasks, that they have superior visuo-spatial skills, that their brains are more systemetizing, etc. Meta-analyses of the scientific literature refute these assumptions. These myths are founded largely on over-interpreted, methodologically flawed, or simply non-existent data.

      You should consider reading “Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference”, by Cordelia Fine, or “Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Jobs, Our Relationships, and Our Children”, by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett. The authors don’t say sex differences don’t exist, they simply challenge you to ask yourself: A) how great are these sex differences, B) what is their origin, and C) are they really good for us.

      The Ultra-Darwinist, biological-determinist view of sex differences is romantic and appealing to us because it makes us feel safe and secure in an unstable world, but ultimately it is riddled with flaws and serves to harm and disenfranchise us. Even if the determinists WERE right, and huge, old-fashioned sex differences did exist, so what? That doesn’t mean they’re RIGHT. This is an is-ought fallacy. Evolve.

      • Nicole Youngman

        You can always count on the Pagans for great book recommendations. ;)

      • Kilmrnock

        There  are those that will argue the other side of any arguement . This is not my goal here . I don’t agree that nature and our early development had no effect on how our brain developed . I have seen studies that show that young  boys and girls world wide , regardless of societal ifluences all play basicaly the same ways . And that male and female  brains worldwide are wired differently . Girls gravitate torwards dolls/ caregiving games/play and boys tend to be rougher, play more agressivly and denying these facts can be dangerous and detrimental to a childs development .my point is not that our brains are physicaly different just that the 2 sexes think and our brains are organised differently. Just as our bodies are basicaly the same but sexualy and hormonaly there are big differences.And also that these hormonal differences inflence our brains , and have done so though our development  . but to completly ignore early developmental differences between the sexes is as odd as ignoring societal and cultural differences .My other belief is that there is a biological cause for homosexuality , just seems that way from the gay people i  know and the fact this does occur in other mammals . My other feelings  on this subject is, if we ever solve this one the truth will be a mix of both sides of the discussion. Nature and nuture both make us what we are and that homosexual behavior w/ all it’s variances is completly natural and normal   

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    Nicole, you might be interested in some of the work of an academic colleague of mine named Myra Hird, who has done work in what I’d call “bacterial queer theory.”  She points out, firstly, that most biological reproduction on the earth doesn’t take place sexually; cellular reproduction is taking place constantly, and doesn’t involve anything like sex, for starters.  But, then when you bring particular bacterial species into the mix, you get things like a particular microscopic fungus that could be said to have in the neighborhood of 250,000 gender options, for example!

    I’d also recommend Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance for anyone who is interested in these topics.  Though it only deals with animals, it points out that most of the animals that we have any knowledge of their sexual practices in the wild (including nearly all of the “higher mammals”) exhibit homoerotic, bisexual, or even transsexual behaviors; it’s never a huge part of the population, but it’s an expectable variation, just as it seems to be among humans.

    Great stuff, Nicole!  Thanks for pointing this out!  :)

    • Nicole Youngman

      Oh boy, we can back this up to bacteria and fungi!? What utter fun. Book’s officially on the to-read list! Glad you enjoyed it.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus


        I know of one book where one of Myra Hird’s articles can be found:  an anthology she co-edited with Noreen Giffney called Queering the Non/Human, which is rather pricey, but if there’s a library near you, perhaps they can ILL it.

        • Nicole Youngman

           ILL rocks. :) (And is why I have NO patience for people who bitch about how their university’s library isn’t good enough…)

  • Juliebabin82

    Loved the article. Had to read it sloooowwwwlly as it’s a lot to absorb and wrap my brain around (LOL). But I enjoyed it very much. =+) I find the subject very interesting and thought-provoking.

  • Eli

    This is lovely! I love a good, juicy exploration of the marvelous complexity of sex and gender in all realms of life. Thanks for these insights.

  • Brandon Arkell

    But some theorists actually challenge the accepted distinction between the terms “sex” and “gender”. The reason is that, to an extent, even biological sex is ambiguous. Clinical intersexuals (hermaphrodites) are living proof of this. Some people have ambiguous chromosomes (XXY, XYY, etc.). But I understand it is useful to keep making the distinction–generally, most people fall on one side or the other, biologically.

  • Kilmrnock

    This is why i posed my remarks as a questions , being quite curious about this one i want other people views and opinions on this topic . I’m attempting to widen my own knowledge and views and hopefully learn of new information or research i hadn’t heard of yet

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