- Laura Battisti
How does Nature Teach Us that Gender is Fluid?
Nature truly is incredible. It is a source of inspiration and recreation and something our society can learn from. While this statement initially goes against the Western societal grain where culture and nature are often put into complete opposition, with culture being man-made artefacts and nature being something humans can’t control. We should in fact, actively seek advice from nature, especially when it comes to the concept of gender fluidity. Nature illuminates that gender is a human concept created to produce patriarchal power structures. Before diving into this, let’s first explore why gender is a societal fabrication.
Why is gender a human concept?
To explain this, we first need to understand the difference between sex and gender. Sex and gender, undoubtedly, are inextricably linked. Yet, while sex is usually based on binary biological characteristics such as external genitalia or an individual’s chromosomes, gender is a spectrum. In fact, gender is a social construct often described as a performance influenced by what our particular society deems ‘normal’. This, however, is where it gets tricky because this norm is often heavily impacted by our biological sex – whether that is people with female genitalia supposedly being more empathetic, caring and loving the colour pink, or individuals with male genitalia portraying more aggressive, dominant behaviours while driving a Porsche.
Read more about Non-Binary identities in our Guide
However, a lot of progress has been made in recent years with the increasing inclusion of gender identities and sexualities in society’s discourse. Examples of these gender identities include: woman, non-binary, genderqueer, two-spirit, man, and gender-fluid. Of course, as with every social revolution, there also comes opposition. In this case, transphobic individuals claim that it is ‘unnatural’ for people to identify as anything other than what is originally marked on their birth certificates. The mention of nature or rather ‘un-nature’ here is quite interesting since, as we will see later, nature has repeatedly proven that neither sex nor gender is fixed. In fact, nature is the prime example of gender being a man-made construct initially created to divide humans into labour groups. Indeed, gender is naturally fluid.
What is gender fluidity, and how does nature prove its existence?
Gender fluidity is a big concept. We have already established what gender is. However, it is also important to know that gender identity and gender expression can change over time. Gender identity is an individual’s sense of their gender. So, just because someone’s birth certificate states their sex is female, doesn’t mean they themselves identify as a woman.
Gender expression, on the other hand, is tied to gender roles and the adoption of normalised behaviours that we typically associate with different genders in society. Therefore, when someone moves along the gender spectrum - be it from man to non-binary, to woman to genderqueer – this describes gender fluidity. These people undergo a transformation that makes them claim a gender identity while concurrently also adopting new forms of gender expression. As already mentioned, this behaviour is often deemed ‘unnatural’ and strange in our society. However, it’s actually a widespread practice when looking at nature.
Many animals and plants often portray behaviour that does not fit their reproductive ascribed sex. For example, snakes, lizards, fish and even birds all showcase gender fluidity. Males often imitate species-specific female behaviour to gain advantages like improved mating opportunities or easier access to territory. However, there are also examples of females mimicking male modes of gender expression. For instance, a research team at the University of Cornell found out in 2021 that 20% of female hummingbirds kept their juvenile male-like plumage to avoid harassment and get easier and prolonged access to food.
Moreover, the natural world also proves that sexuality is not always heterosexual. Same-sex relationships are actually quite common, with bisexuality being widespread. From red foxes, red squirrels to bonobos, bisexual behaviours are normal. For bonobos, same-sex female relationships are at the core of their social hierarchy. It is not only animals that showcase gender fluidity, though, but also plants. For example, avocado trees have both female and male flowers on the same plant. This means they can wake up with their female flower opened, go to sleep, and wake up as males the next day. Fungi also exhibit numerous forms of gender-fluid behaviour, such as asexual and nonsexual reproduction methods.
Why does ‘natural’ not equal nature?
The above examples regarding other animals shows that our patriarchal power structures exploit the word ‘natural’ to maintain the status quo. In fact, our whole world is based on the naturalisation of gender roles. Media representation, religion and even language systems make specific gendered behaviours seem natural. If we take rugby or ballet as an example, it quickly becomes clear how media represents certain sports to be more natural to one sex than the other. It really is the word natural itself that poses the problem here. As explained in the beginning, humans tend to associate the term natural with something they can’t influence and manipulate. Therefore, framing certain gendered norms as natural makes it seem like they are fixed and unmalleable – out of our control.
Since nature is actually favouring gender fluidity, as seen by the numerous examples, this use of the word natural is incredibly problematic. In fact, in the 1970s, the word’s true meaning shifted from what happens in the natural world to a way to describe normalised behaviours usually based on commercial products. This makes a lot of sense since, arguably, many parts of our society are built on a capitalist and patriarchal system that desperately tries to maintain its power. Therefore, ‘naturalising’ specific gender expressions and identities and creating clear binary categories is perceived as essential to maintaining the world we currently live in.
Our society and culture’s exploitation of the term natural is therefore an incredibly strategic move, which is why we need to evaluate it critically. Paradoxically, to realise that natural does not equal nature, we must turn to nature itself. Just because our culture deems some gender identities and gender expressions more ‘natural’ than others doesn’t mean that nature itself supports or proves it. As we have established, nature indeed is rich in examples of gender fluidity. It celebrates gender diversity. It is in favour of different sexualities. It proves that gender really is a humanly created social construct.
Nature is gender-fluid. Let’s learn from it.
For more resources on gender inequality, head to our dedicated Gender Issues & Feminism section.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka
Researched by Larisa Cuturean