Beyond Gender Monocultures, Toward Trans Horizons

A variety of plants mingle and grow together.

We are living in the era of plantations. Their logics rule our world—from landscape design to cultural attitudes, the logics of the plantation organize and discipline life at a planetary scale. The principles of a plantation are simple: life, in all its forms, ought to be isolated and its growth standardized. In a plantation, life is contained and denied its interconnectedness with other forms of being in the name of optimized mass production. Plantations rely on the violent erasure of native, interdependent, and complex life worlds to replace them with monocultures. Dispossession is crucial to the process, making plantations a key agent of imperial expansion since early colonial times: “Plantations produced the wealth—and the modus operandi—that allowed Europeans to take over the world”, anthropologist Anna Tsing reminds us.

The binary gender system is a plantation.

Human life is, too, subordinate to plantation logics. Modern visions of human labor conceive of the human as an interchangeable unit. Work is measured through standardized metrics and made the core of our human worth. Behind this vision lies the assumption that “the human” can even be understood in a standardized manner, seeing individuals as self-contained units removed from interconnected life spheres. This view triumphs now more than ever.  Perpetuated by the neoliberal myth of autonomy, we are encouraged to forget about our interdependence with the different living ecologies in which we are embedded—within and beyond human relationships. In our times, climate justice, multispecies care, and mutual aid are more urgent than ever, and we cannot afford to understand ourselves and others through the logic of the plantations. We cannot let the “Plantationocene“, as Donna Haraway and Ana Tsing have called this geological era, win.

The extent to which plantation logics shape our lives is profound, running deep in the ways we identify and relate to each other. Plantations shape many parts of who we are for; as Sophie Chao puts it, they “radically reconfigure” our sense of personhood. In this essay, we explore how the plantation logic of monocultures leads to the mass production of gender in its cisgender, binary, and colonial iteration. As with native ecosystems, the Plantationocene has pushed us to eradicate the messiness, diversity, and interconnectedness in our experiences of gender. Instead, we are shaped to embody mass-produced identities. This is something we can all challenge. Drawing from our lived experiences as two trans non-binary people from the Global South, we propose transness as a horizon of possibility to break apart from the ways in which our gendered existence has been isolated, standardized, and disciplined. Our genders need not be confined to their plantations. But, how exactly does the Plantationocene cultivate gender?

Rows of palm trees stand on the other side of a short fence and an empty field.
Palm plantation at its edge in the Malaysian state of Johor. Photo by the author, 2022.

Gender Monocultures

To interpret gender, we draw on the concept of the “monoculture.” Monocultures are the organizing principle of plantations: land and labor are coerced into the production of a single crop at an accelerated rate. These crops, in return, are “managed for uniform growth, without multispecies interference, and thinned and harvested by machines and anonymous workers.” A monoculture is ultimately an industrial way of organizing life that relies on the mass production of a single kind of being, isolated from other forms of life.

Vandana Shiva’s notion of “monocultures of the mind” invites us to reflect on how pervasive monocultures are, and how they have led us not only to ecological impoverishment, but to cultural impoverishment as well. We are trained to eradicate diversity and complexity from our thought and perception. In that sense, we propose the term “gender monocultures” to reflect how monoculture acts as an organizing structure for gender as well.

Gender monocultures produce exploitable masses that fuel imperial systems like colonial capitalism.

The binary gender system is a plantation—characterized by desire for control and sterilization, forced and exploitative distributions of labor, and an eradication of diversity in search for optimal productive units. Both plantations and gender are governed by dichotomous logics that rely on division between a “self” and “other” as their main mechanism. Both plantations and the gender binary need “purification”—diversity contaminates, and contamination must be eliminated in this way of conceiving and organizing the world.

In this paradigm, womanhood and manhood can be understood as crops which must be separated and defined in opposing hierarchies. Man—strong, provider, self-sufficient, and rational—is the dominant crop, whilst Woman—delicate, servile, caring, and emotional—pollutes. The colonial binary system relies on these oppositions. Gender, as a plantation, must constantly monitor, discipline, and weed out unwanted crops to prevent cross-contamination between men and women. When there is contradiction, the whole system shakes. Without neat distinctions, the colonial order of gender and sexuality becomes unstable. As such, we are disciplined to maintain these differences. We are trained to align our behavior with either of these constructed categories, to sense danger when we do not align with the norm, and to revise our behavior accordingly. The further away that each category can be kept from the other—the more falsely alienated from their similarities—the harder it is for the system to break down into diversity and disorder.

Written over a trans pride flag sign "Screw your assimilation, we want trans liberation."
Trans pride activism has often focused on dismantling the gender binary. Photo by Smirkybec, 2018.

Gender is sustained by a border regime that rewards those who uphold its drive for separation and disciplines those who do not. When bodies defy these borders, growing in the edges and embracing contamination, they must be weeded out. The faggot, the dike, and the tranny1 are all defiant bodies, and we are punished through shame, exclusion, and violence—sometimes even death—for dancing in the edges of the colonial gender plantation.

Both gender and plantations are characterized not only by their violent management, but also forced divisions of labor. Plantations have historically exploited the labor of our kin, human and nonhuman. Gender facilitates capitalist exploitation through the forced labor of women. Female reproductive and care labor is presented as a “natural” occurrence, an “instinct”. It is rendered an unpaid form of labor through a variety of social norms that conceal the violence behind patriarchal power relations. Patriarchal romantic love, for instance, glorifies suffering and unequal care relationships that favor men. As such, the mass production of “men” and “women” within a binary system, enacted through processes of division and purification, of gender monocultures, produces exploitable masses that fuel imperial systems like colonial capitalism. These are systems which could not exist without the extraction of feminized, racialized, and ecological labor.

As we abandon the gender monocultures imposed on our bodies, transness opens a horizon for us to create and care for our own gender polycultures instead.

Plantations rely on border regimes to manage who and what is on their inside and what must remain outside. Gender, too, needs borders: without a dividing line between men and women, the system crumbles. The climate of violence that defiant bodies resist everyday reminds us to stay away from the borders—approaching them equals danger. In fact, most of the time we are taught to see the border as “natural” and fail to even question how the division is constructed. However, when we take the border to be artificial, understanding it confines us by design, the means of escape reveal themselves to us. What can we find on the other side?

Beyond the border

We propose transness as a force that interrupts the logics of the Plantationocene, especially in our own intimate realm. In the ways gender is confected today, to be trans is to exist beyond its borders: we refuse to abide by the gendered borders that confine our existence and limit the possibilities of our being. Our bodies are not territories that can be governed by colonial and patriarchal mandates. Lorena Cabnal, decolonial feminist from the Abya Yala, frames our political duty best: “we must reclaim and defend our body-land!” The exploration of our bodies and the mapping of our genders belongs to us and us only. We reject hegemonic narratives on the body and the psyche that dictate who we are and how we get to relate to ourselves and each other. We embrace messiness, contradictions, interdependence, and contamination in our gendered becomings. Through our transness, we enact a refusal against the ways our lives have been flattened and sterilized. Our transness, beyond any binary, is messy in ways that plantations cannot be.

Our communities are not monocultures; they are polycultures. In a polyculture multiple kinds of beings grow together. We learn from the milpa—an ancestral agricultural technique from Mexico and Central America that is based on the symbiotic cultivation of corn with other plant species—that our existence and flourishing is interdependent. Gender is not a standardized costume we put on our bodies. Our existence is relational, always entrenched in an ecology of selves, in which, as Eduardo Kohn describes, beings of all kinds—microscopic and macroscopic—actively contaminate us. We are inevitably shaped by each other, and our blossoming is collective. We are plural, for our body is interdependent with others since our very first breath. In that sense, our genders, as a part of our sense of personhood, can never be fully encompassed through any given single, homogenous category. Instead, we read gender as a constellation which can be mapped and re-mapped to articulate, but never prescribe, our trans existence. This constellation may not even need to be confined to the realms of “the human.” All living beings, when expressing themselves and intentionally listening to each other, can make up a part of who we are. Suddenly, the plantation becomes a garden full of weeds and wonder.

Corn and other plants grown together.
Flourishing plants work with each other to grow. Photo by Feria de Productores, 2010.

Allowing cross-pollination to enrich us in our relationships may prove necessary not only for our healing, but also for our survival in the current era. In the precarity of our ecological times, we cannot ignore our interconnectedness anymore if we are to endure. As we abandon the gender monocultures imposed on our bodies, transness opens a horizon for us to create and care for our own gender polycultures instead. In these polycultures, nothing is determined: labor, love, clothes, language, nature, epistemologies, and ontologies are all tools for us to play with.

In transness we find kinship. In kinship, in Anna Tsing’s words, we find “possibilities for life in capitalist ruins.” Our transness, collaborative and contaminated, binds us to each other in ways that we can map out with creativity. Our transness offers us a conduit to transform a hostile world into sites of symbiotic flourishing, and we have the possibility to abandon the mapped boundaries drawn by plantations. To know that our trans kin exists somewhere in the world is to know that the world is full of places where we can flourish, even if these places have been damaged by colonial devastation in all its dimensions. Transness reinscribes safety in the spaces we have been told we do not belong—it reclaims life in environments designed for death.

Transness reminds us that we arrange and signify the world collectively all the time. In our attempt to break apart from plantations, transness offers a way out. It is then our task to build our world after our escape: the times we are living in call for decisive action. We must make decisions collectively: this world-making project needs us to return to our interconnectedness, human but also more-than-human. That is where the trans horizon of possibilities steps in. What do we want to grow together in our gender polycultures?

Featured Image: Native forest in Singapore. Photo by the author, 2022.

1. We understand that the terms we use have loaded connotations. We seek to reclaim them, acknowledging our position as people who are target of these forms of insult, employing the terms for our own purposes instead. Likewise, we use these terms because they particularly imply the relationship that existing beyond a heternormative gender binary has with experiencing violence.

Max D. López Toledano (they/she) is an undergraduate anthropology student at Yale-NUS in Singapore. She is primarily interested in issues of decolonization, queerness, environmental humanities, and sports. Their current research is on the politics of healing and violence in an LGBT+ football team in Mexico City. Contact. Twitter.

Topaz Zega (they/she/he) is an environmental justice activist working with Fridays For Future MAPA and a fellow of Culture Hack Labs. Her advocacy centers trans ecologies, relationality, and the synergies between youth movements and land defense struggles. Contact. Instagram.