What is exactly queerness, and what does it have to do with plants?
In a broader sense, queer refers to “differing in some way from what is usual or normal”, and queerness relates to “having a sexual or gender identity that is different from the traditional ideas of binary sex (opposites male/female) and complementary sexuality”.
In this general context, plants display a wide range of queer possibilities. Indeed, the transformation of unisexual flowers (observed in Gymnosperms) into bisexual flowers (observed in Angiosperms) represents a key evolutionary innovation that happened 100 million Years Ago and largely contributed to land invasion by the biggest and most diversified group of the Plant kingdom. Out of the 400000 flowering plant species still living to date, more than 85% develop perfect flowers – hermaphroditic structures with both male and female reproductive organs – whereas only a small percentage show separate male/female plants (i.e., dioecious species) or have separate male/female flowers in the same plant (i.e., monoecious species). Therefore, queerness is the “normative condition” in the plant world.
To know more about the application of the queer perspective to ecology in general (and to botany in particular), we had a conversation with the designer Sixto-Juan Zavala, who got fascinated by the book “Queer Ecologies” and adopted this theoretical lens to explore the link between nature and queerness.
Queer Theory was first established in the 1990s as an academic tool to challenge the strict definition of categories and the concept of “heteronormativity”. Since then, it has been applied to various disciplines to think critically about binaries. For life sciences, the main ideas are to challenge the human interpretation of natural processes based on ideologies and to recognise (and value) the huge diversity and complexity of nature.
Originally from Texas (United States), Sixto-Juan got a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and then moved to Europe for a 2-year Master of Arts in Narrative Environments – in short, “telling stories through spaces”- at the University of the Arts in London.
In 2020, he launched Queer Botany – an initiative that aims at connecting young queer people with plant life and promoting diversity through different illustrations of the environment.
How Did the Queer Botany Project Get Started?
Under the frame of his MA project, Sixto-Juan planned to investigate the use of green spaces by using a queer lens. In particular, he explored how young members of the LGBTQ+ community looked at outdoor spaces in east London. “London can be very dense, a city with a lot of concrete,” he says.
Since ecology is a rather complex topic, he decided to focus on only one aspect – botany – that is simpler but still has a lot of richness. He started with an Instagram account where he shared some cultural research on plants, such as the Greek myth of Hyacinthus – a beautiful young man in love with the god Apollo whose blood transformed into a gorgeous flower upon his tragic death (in the first gay romance told in history!).
During the COVID pandemic, he also organized botanical illustration sessions hosted online in which drawing exercises were complemented by workshops on queer ecology and “not binary” plants.
And What About Outdoor Activities?
In 2022, Sixto-Juan coordinated different open-air activities in the London area, including the event “A dash of lavender” for the LGBTQ+ history month at the Chelsea Physic Garden and guided tours with interpretive displays at the Walthamstow Marshes (see YouTube video below). During the tour, participants walked with a map of plants growing wild in the marshes and discovered amazing anecdotes from marginalised perspectives that helped to see the queerness in nature. For example, one of the illustrated stories highlights that dog rose (Rosa canina) – a wild species known for its fragrance – is treated as feminine in Western countries but masculine in the Middle East. These narratives also emphasize the variety of sexual diversity in nature, thus contrasting with the dualities reported to date.
On the other hand, these activities also give the opportunity to engage with and learn more about the LGBTQ+ community by receiving immediate feedback in a less hierarchical way, to hear new relevant voices (indigenous/queer artists), and to create new artworks.
What Are Your Future Goals?
Sixto-Juan has recently moved to Dundee (Scotland), where he keeps working with design-based tasks (e.g., maps, booklets, and botanical drawing sessions). In the near future, he plans to tackle the “Decolonization of botany” by bringing in more diverse voices and challenging the Euro-centric way of looking at the environment.
For sure, his relationship with the green world has changed in the last few years: he used to be more interested in the scientific illustrations of plants and their historical/cultural context, but now he enjoys green spaces and is eager to know more about “what is a plant” beyond the surface.