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New documentary shows gender diversity as essential element in nature | Radio-Canada News

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The natural world is full of gender diversity: female hyenas have pseudo-penises used for sex and urination, many species of fish and plants change sex during their lives, and female lions are known to have a mane and develop a masculine growl.

These are just a few examples in a new episode of the CBC show The nature of things titled Fluid: Life Beyond the Binary — a documentary hosted by Canadian comedian Mae Martin that places the gender spectrum presented by humans in the context of the rest of the living things around us and finds that it really is completely normal.

“Nature teaches us that there are a wide variety of things and that generalizations are almost impossible,” says Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist interviewed in the episode, who wrote a book called The rainbow of evolution.

A hyena crosses a grassy plain.
Female hyenas have a pseudo-penis and are best described as intersex, according to scientists interviewed in Fluid: Life Beyond the Binary. (Kensington Communications)

Roughgarden says scientists have long avoided examining gender diversity, which has given some the mistaken impression that it has not always existed among many types of organisms, including humans.

But seeing the diversity among his own peers at events celebrating gay pride made him realize that “there’s nothing wrong with people. There’s something wrong with science.”

A person in safari attire holds a handbag in a tropical environment.
“Nature teaches us that there is a wide variety of things and that generalizations are virtually impossible,” says evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden. (Lulu Wei/Kensington Communications)

The show, airing Thursday on CBC and CBC Gem at 9 p.m. ET, includes many examples of gender and sexuality diversity in nature, such as:

  • Ruffs: a species of sandpiper found in the fjords of Norway. Male birds have many different appearances, including some that resemble females.

  • Bonobos: “I would call bonobos bisexual in the sense that they have sex in all combinations,” said primatologist Frans de Waal, who was filmed for the show before his death on March 14 at age 75 years old. “It is also quite common to find women who have masculine features. He described a woman named Donna whom he observed, whose appearance became more masculine as she aged and was “extremely well accepted” among men. “She was a person who crossed the binary… Maybe she fits what we would call a trans person in human society.”

  • Clownfish – a tropical species made famous by the animated family film The world of Nemo. Neuroscientist Justin Rhodes explains that “if the female is removed or moved, the male will change sex and become a female. He explains that many species of fish can change biological sex — about 500, according to another part of the episode — but most “gonads often change from female to male, often within a week. The case of the clownfish is unique in that physical changes can take years, leaving the fish in a biological “intermediate state” while it begins to exhibit female behavior. “The gonads do not define the sex of these animals… It happens in the brain.”

“These are not outliers.”

“It warms my heart because I see aspects of myself reflected in nature,” says host Martin, who is non-binary, noting that science has come to accept natural gender diversity .

“These are not outliers. This is the prevailing opinion.”

Mae Martin explores the science of gender and sexual fluidity in a new episode of The Nature of Things

“Fluid: Life Beyond the Binary” debunks dangerous pseudo-scientific myths and presents cutting-edge research to reveal that, in very real and measurable ways, we are all gender fluid. Coming to CBC and CBC Gem on March 28, 2024.

The plant world is also full of gender fluidity, says horticulturist Jon Peter of the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) in Burlington, Ontario.

Peter is introduced in the episode dealing with red ginger, a tropical plant that is male in the morning, producing pollen, and transitions to female in the afternoon, transitioning to a state where its egg can be fertilized.

There are also many local examples, Peter noted in an interview with CBC Hamilton this week:

  • Moose antler, or moose maple, starts out as male when young, but can produce both male and female flowers as it ages, then female flowers as they mature and approach the forest cover. “When they’re young and juvenile, they’re looking to put down roots and get established. It doesn’t make sense for them to produce fruit.”

  • Spruce, which can have “female cones higher in the canopy, and lower branches will have male cones” on the same tree.

  • Jack-in-the-Pulpit, a forest plant that begins as a “non-sexual juvenile”, then becomes male and becomes female later in life.

Although not native to Ontario, ginkgo is widely grown here, including in RBG. Peter says that even if there are separate male and female trees, a branch or entire tree can turn female if there are no other females for pollination.

Two monkeys kiss while another sits with arms crossed
Primates often display fluid behavior, according to the documentary. (Kensington Communications)

“A lot of it is really new to science, there’s not a lot out there about these processes,” he said, while suggesting they may have evolved as a way to transmit genetics to the next generation.

“As this plant matures and sees its lifespan coming to an end, it thinks, ‘I have to produce seeds now.’

“Gender is a much broader spectrum than the two categories”

Episode editor Peter Topalovic says he always learns something doing his job, whether it’s putting on a baking show or Canada’s Got Talent, but says the episode taught him much more than he expected.

Topalovic, who grew up in Hamilton and attended Bishop Ryan Catholic High School, says the show affirms the normalcy of all forms of gender and sexuality expression.

“When you look at the unbiased scientific findings, as we do in this documentary, you see that fluidity is not unusual at all,” he told CBC Hamilton in an interview.

“Gender is a much broader spectrum than the two categories we put people into. There is masculine, feminine, and many things in between.”

A person dressed in a leather jacket and short hair looks at the camera.
Film editor Peter Topalovic, who grew up in Hamilton, says discussing gender expression in The Nature of Things will raise awareness among a wider audience. (Submitted by Peter Topalovic)

It is fortunate that the broad scope of The nature of things will bring gender questions to some people who may not have given it much thought before.

“I know my older Croatian parents will be tuning in to learn more about a topic they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to,” he said.

“With this documentary, I hope that more trans people feel seen and more cis people feel compassion for them.”

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