Mushrooms, fungi, mycelium; this group of not-quite-vegetable, not-quite-animal holds a special place in group thought. Some people are disgusted by fungus (mycophobia, fear of mushrooms), others are fascinated, and others yet give them no thought at all. Culinarily, mushrooms are diverse, they can be eaten raw or cooked, and there is a whole army of people dedicated to making their taste and texture as close to meat as possible. Fungi come in all shapes and sizes and can also provide an interesting insight into the gender biases that we interact with in our day-to-day lives.
Before we dive in, a clarification: I will be using the term mushroom/s instead of fungi (unless a specific point is being made) because although this is technically incorrect (mushrooms are a part of the fungi family), the majority of people use these word interchangeably, and I think the word mushroom is cuter.
Mycology, or the study of mushrooms, has long been the domain of women. In the famous poem The Mushroom Hunters, Neil Gaiman explores the movements of ‘early scientists’, namely gathering women, exploring local terrain and discovering which mushrooms were safe to eat. Beautifully, he says, “they are carrying their babies in the slings they made/freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.” Indeed, women and members of the queer community have been fundamental in shaping and continuing mycology for time immemorial. (To those reading this who already have the knowledge of the queer affinity with mushrooms, don’t worry, you aren’t forgotten, you have your own paragraph later).
Writer and natural scientist Beatrix Potter conducted repeat experiments on lichen, leading to its categorisation as fungal-algae, Anna Maria Hussey observed and categorised over 6,000 new fungal species, using her illustrations in scientific meetings, which were rarely attended by women. There are numerous amazing women across the world who are spearheading the study of mycology, studying the unique mushrooms found across the continents and creating programmes that revolutionise food production, healthcare, and scientific research. Despite mycological research being a field largely dominated by men today, as is the case with almost all scientific areas, this was not historically the case, and the contributions of women throughout history have been more than instrumental to the field.
The affinity between the queer community and mushrooms is beautiful, poetic, and enriching to both science and society. As Dr Patricia Kaishan puts it, “mycology is queer insofar as it is marginal, subordinate, contested, ridiculed, but more critically, mycology is queer insofar as it is disruptive, collective, transformative, revolutionary.” I recently attended a talk titled ‘Are Mushrooms Trans?’ where the speakers Kit Heyam, Jesse, and Susy explored the links between mushrooms and the trans community. There was too much enriching content in this conversation to cover comprehensively here, so I will mention the two points that stood out the most to me, namely the reproductive systems of fungi, and the Frankenstein affinity.
First, mushrooms are super diverse and defy traditional categorisation of sex and gender (some species have over 20,000 categorisable ‘genders’). Some mushrooms have ‘monoecious reproductive systems’ meaning they have both male and female reproductive parts, others exhibit ‘heterothallism’ where mushrooms mate with other compatible types, regardless of reproductive ‘sex’. Interestingly, mushrooms not only practise vertical gene transfer (VGT) but also horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Where VGT is the more traditional ‘family tree’ style network, HGT needs no parent and child relationship and encourages the strengthening of mushroom genes by cooperating with those around them. If we view this through a queer lens, as modern-day mycologists often do, we see a beautiful picture of nature reminding us to defy and deconstruct wholly man-made normative assumptions of gender and sexuality. Diversity and non-conformity are not human experiences, we reflect nature just as she reflects us.
Second, the queer community often expresses a deep connection with the ‘freaky’ or different. In the seminal piece ‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix’, Susan Stryker explores ‘trans rage’, wherein the author links Frankenstein’s monster’s body to their ‘transsexual’ body, and explores the experience of both being ridiculed for being different and excluded from rejoining traditional society. Stryker discusses the link between trans/queer bodies and the ‘monstrous’. Mushrooms are seen as monstrous, or disgusting because they defy expectations and cannot be categorised as easily as other entities. However, this freedom from tradition has allowed mushrooms to do amazing things, become beautifully diverse, and leave a long-standing legacy.
There is still so much to be said about mushrooms, gender, and the queer community. For example, the interconnectedness of mycelium networks (those little white lines that create webs between mushrooms) speaks to the importance of networks and chosen family. Also, the fundamental work of some mushrooms to force the decay of the environment around them to allow for new life and flourishing. We haven’t even touched on the role of mushrooms in folklore. If you are interested in learning more about the amazing links between the queer community and mushrooms then please check out the references for further reading: the world awaits.
In essence, the study of mycology has been championed by women and members of the queer community who find affinity with non-conforming, diverse, and frankly beautiful little mushrooms. Mushrooms remind us to defy traditional categorisations and help us to remember that being a little monstrous is not a bad thing.