On Not Gendering Plants

I recently gave a talk at the 2018 Good Medicine Confluence on the myriad ways in which queerness can inform and better herbalism. It ended up being a lot about the way we think, and what it means to hold space in our thoughts for multiplicity and nuance. When we make space for complexity and a reality not bounded by binary thinking, the whole world expands. How we move in the world, the vast possibilities of who we might be and become, are a series of self.sustaining and empowering choices.

There is a story that binary duality is a fundament of life. I think about this false narrative a lot these days, as I steward a clever and inquisitive child through her first years on earth. The notion of opposites, of binary reality, is drilled into us from the time we’re small. And it’s a convenient thought project – small children learn to understand new abstract ideas by virtue of learning their relationship to one another: the opposite of light is dark, the opposite of up is down, asleep and awake, big and small… Through no effort on our part, my daughter has probably three or four different books dedicated to opposites, with some examples that I would call somewhat suspect (happy and sad / young and old). I totally cede the linguistic value of the semantic project of opposites: I see my child’s brain working out these oppositional ideas in real.time and her conception of the world growing.

The problem arises when we use these binary foundations as a jumping off point from which we interpret the whole of the world and of life. The world is vast and complex and sometimes overwhelming in its multiplicity, and we succumb to the [ultra.human] temptation to simplify and compartmentalize so we are left with as few options as possible.



Enter: false binaries.


A false binary (also known as a false dichotomy) is a logical fallacy in which two and only two options are presented, when in actuality there may be a spectrum of options between two extremes (or a variety of options that lie outside / beyond a binary). A false binary is a failure in reasoning, often utilized in debate or political argument to make one choice seem obviously superior to another. Classic examples from popular culture include the Vietnam War era “America: love it or leave it,” a fallacy because, obviously, citizens who don’t believe in the actions of their government have a variety of other options, including civil disobedience, protest and activism, as well as the simple choice to not love it and also not leave it.

The most ubiquitious and insidious cultural false binary is gender. Children are taught from birth, first, that they have no choice as to their gender, but also that there are only two gender options – the girl box and the boy box. My good friend Jess Clark is a [talented, charming, v good at what he does] violence prevention educator here in Santa Fe with Solace Crisis Treatment Center [and happens to have just published this awesome piece about the role that gender & misogyny play in the perpetuation of sexual violence] talks about the work he does in schools, with kiddos as young as 5 [and I use a bunch of his exact examples here / am so grateful for his knowledge and eagerness to share resources & expertise]. 

By the time they are in kindergarten, our children have already been bombarded with messages about gender roles for so long that they have a deep awareness of what is allowed and not allowed. They understand that women are allowed to have all of the emotions (except anger) and that men are allowed anger and no other feelings. They can recite the way girls eat (salad, diet coke, water) and boys (meat, steak, beer), the clothes that men and women are allowed to wear, the way they are allowed to hold their bodies, how much sex they are allowed to have, what they should look like, and on, and on. And of course, these standards and rules are dictated by patriarchy, but also by white supremacy and capitalism. The beauty standards our school children strive to meet are Eurocentric, the way we conceptualize and value gender roles is based on productivity and success within a capitalist (choleric) system. Children know the danger if they stray outside of both assigned sex and gender roles. But we can begin the dismantling of those norms by engaging with the question of how gender roles impact the way we interact with one another, with our communities, and with bigger social structures.




So how can queerness and queer culture help?


First, I would say that, of course, queer culture and relationships can be marred by patriarchy and misogyny and ableism and racism just like any other communities and people, so part of what I present here is the ideal of queer community at its best. That is to say, it is a group of radically minded people who are working together toward a goal of mutual liberation and equity, to build relationships that are based on the truth of our interconnectedness, that value humans beyond their capitalist utility: communities based on healing wounds together, on owning our mistakes, on repatriation and resource sharing…

Queer culture teaches that the false binary of gender is a lie we’ve been fed, and makes space for self.determination in all things, especially gender. That is, lots of people have genders that don’t fit into the limiting binary construct, so our language should adapt to recognize and make space for everyone.  It is also important to note that binary gender is a hallmark of European & JudeoChristian culture – many non.European cultures recognized multiple genders as a part of their philosophies and cosmologies. And because gender identity is lived in the construct of culture, it is bound up in cultural mythologies and norms. That makes it difficult to unravel the layers of gender identity (an internal sense of gender / who we are in relation to gender) from gender expression (how we interact with gender – from how we look to how we signal or display gender) from gender roles (sugar and spice and everything nice). But we make all of these little assessments all day, taking cues from the way that people look and hold themselves and sound, and checking the boy box or the girl box, and totally subconsciously along with those assessments come expectations of who someone is.


One way of beginning to unravel those layers it to not gender the world around us, and it starts with language.


We move through our days and see all the places where we make assignments or assumptions, and notice what lies beneath them. The practice of avoiding gendered language can be difficult and eye.opening: it forces us to see all the ways that the gender binary is literally built into our relationship to the world. That is, we didn’t *choose * those relationships, necessarily, but we have been socialized with them and seen them reinforced and regurgitated in media and family structures since infancy. How often do we take ‘cues’ from someone’s dress, appearance, style, voice, mannerisms, and assign them a gender? The more we are able to practice not gendering people, animals, abstract ideas, the more we are able to enter a place of openness and receptivity to deeper relationship and knowing.



So I propose that we not gender plants.

Yes, that’s right.

Roses aren’t ladies, softness isn’t feminine.

Saguaros aren’t strong, stalwart men. Oaks aren’t a stand.in for masculinity, be it sacred or not.


I understand the urge toward gendered kind of language and the concepts that lie beneath it. Like: the story goes that women are mothers and mothers are nurturing and tender and soft and kind. And men are strong, brave, and make the money and support the softness and nurturing of the feminine sex. And of course I’m motivated by the never.ending quest for equity, and the radical dismantling of cis.hetero.patriarchy, but if you are someone who gets freaked out and turned off by the language of the revolution, I can use other words, like: PATRIARCHY HURTS EVERYONE.


Yes: patriarchy hurts everyone.


The rules that say that girls have access to the full spectrum of emotional experience, save anger, are the same rules that say that men must bottle, stuff, and squelch their emotional world, except anger, which they are free to express in any way they want. When we say that something is soft and nurturing and feminine, we are engaging in an implicit false binary. The options remain only twofold: feminine or masculine - nurturing & soft or strong & stalwart. But here’s the thing: I want to live in a world where nurturance and softness and receptivity are human experiences available to everyone. I want to be able to laud courage and tenderness as human experiences, not as gendered prescriptions.

My good friend jim mcdonald, who recently made a magical bid for life while facing 1 in 1 million chances (read more about the story & donate to his recovery here), talks about a common experience he has of expectation around gender and nurture. With some frequency, he gets praised and lauded for parenting his children. Like, “oh it’s so beautiful to see a father taking part in his children’s lives like you do – your family is so lucky to have you.” And insofar as jim is a standup guy and non.typical white.cis.dude, a kind and loving and gentle man, one of the most magical humans I have had the pleasure to know, a badass herbalist, and more, yes, those things are true. But the story illustrates the obscenity of the assumption: jim gets praise and recognition for doing what he would consider the bare minimum of being a parent, which is to say, spending time with and feeding and clothing his children. Women and mothers, on the other hand, are expected to perform all of those tasks, while sustaining fulfilling careers, making time for self care, performing motherhood for the world, and fulfilling western feats of beauty.


When we impose these limits of binary gender on plants, we limit the ways in which we are able to know them and the depth with which we are able to communicate with them AND we perpetuate harmful gender sterotypes in small and very important ways.  


So, yes! Make friends and get intimate and learn the plants an allow them to be guides and allies and friends and lover and gods—that’s half the magic of being an herbalist and being bound by those arrows through our hearts to this work! But why gender them? To say that something soft and nurturing and tender and sweet—something like a rose—is a ‘she’ because of a collection of traits bound up with gender roles and limiting ideas of femininity, is not only reductionistic, but also perpetuates the idea that those traits are the purvey of women. And how limiting!

I want to live in a world where folks of all feel the freedom of softness and vulnerability and also the joy and power of action, of leadership, and of physicality?


I also make this plea for the sake of clear articulation and being powerful with our words. When I say that a plant has a feminine feeling, what stands behind that? Is it that I feel a softening, that I feel open to the world? That it reminds me of being safely held by my mother? That it brings up questions of how I care for myself? When something is masculine, what does that mean? How can we get more articulate, more careful, more descriptive of the feelings and effects and affinities of plant friends without using the easy shorthand of gender? And don’t get me wrong—I do it, too. And when that response rises in me, “it feels masculine” I try to maintain my curiosity. Does that mean that when I use it, I feel bigger? I want to stand taller? I feel more comfortable asserting myself in the world? That I feel the power and entitlement to take up space where I used to shrink? Does it bring up issues that I have with the role of a father figure? Does it mean that I’m not going to take any shit because of the way it strengthens and bolsters me?


Do you see how much more information we get that way? How much richer the experience of plant medicine becomes then?


And how much clearer our relationship to it is? And how much more deeply we feel connection? By asking a few simple questions, we are able to not only improve our herbalism, but also we can avoid perpetuating limiting cultural narrative of gender binary in a world where it is rife to begin with (um, don’t get me started about divine feminine and divine masculine, k).

What a better place the world would be if everyone felt safe being their full selves. If boys and men were permitted and encouraged to explore their human softness and vulnerabilities, if as a culture we gave them permission to cry, to be tender? And likewise, if girls were permitted to be their full selves, to be righteous humans who are encouraged to assert themselves and act on the world, to have healthy boundaries, to be wild and boisterous. If women were allowed to be leaders and to reside in their full power without being cast as bitchy, without assessment of their capacity as leaders being contingent upon their prettiness, likeability, and careful consideration of everyone’s feelings?

So, I invite you to practice with me, and let’s have a conversation about what we learn / #stopgenderingplants