Bell Hooks: "…all of our lives we have experienced ourselves as queer, as not belonging, as the essence of queer… queer not as being about who you’re having sex with (that can be a dimension of it) but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live."
CULTURAL HISTORY OF MUSHROOMS
The humble mushroom has occupied many roles throughout cultural and scientific lexicons: nourishment and medicine, blessing and curse. They are as much a sign of life as they are a sign of death. While the flora and fauna of the so-called ‘New ‘and ‘Old Worlds’ have long attracted the attention of Western colonizing powers and their scientist-explorers, mushrooms did not receive nearly as much attention.
In the cultural zeitgeist, mushrooms have been both cherished and weaponized. Wild mushrooms command a reputation for danger, and are often poisonous in varying degrees. They’ve served as quaint, rounded homes for forest faeries and cartoon characters, fearsome and unrestrained growths endangering humankind, mindbending psychedelics, and video game power-ups. Fungi can absorb heavy metals and transform fossil fuels into fungal sugars, healing toxic soils and environments. In tragedy, they create life. But whether considered a panacea or a curse, they’ve certainly always been considered transformative—existing somewhere between plant and animal as nonbinary living beings.
MUSHROOMS AS QUEER, TRANSFORMATIVE, GENDER-BENDING
In her work on the Schizophyllum fungus, Harvard microbial phytopathologist Erika Kothe identified over 23,000 different sexes in the single species—resulting from an extensive range of possible combined mating factors.
Mushrooms, says Dr. Patricia Kaishian, can help us challenge ideas of binary (what is human? What is plant?) in gender, politics, and sciences. She relates the ongoing project of queer theory, which “explores the constructed dichotomy of ‘normative’ and ‘deviant’ sexuality and systems and frameworks that interact with sexuality, including race, nationality, dis/ability”, with the deviance ascribed to fungal kingdoms.”
In the ways that mushrooms have been alienated in Western scientific study, queerness too has been deemed a fault of human development by dominating cultural forces. For both queer and mushroom communities, scientific reasoning and rationale have been leveraged to justify erasure. Dr. Kaishian terms ‘mycophobia’ (fear of mushrooms) as a parallel evil of queerphobia; and indeed, that the perspective of queer mycology mirrors queer theory’s exploration of fluidity as opposed to binary and normative ways of viewing the world.
EMBRACING QUEERNESS, RESISTING MYCOPHOBIA
Mycologist Roo Vandegrift writes: “There is an acceptance in the mycological community that I find lacking in other branches of science; we are friendlier, more open to difference and understanding, and more willing to consider that all might not be as it seems.”
Both shrouded in the language of fear and repulsion, both communities redefine themselves with joy and pleasure. The underground is rich with possibilities—whether in the nighttime club spaces that foster queer communion through music and dance, or the mycorrhizal networks that link trees, plants, and other living matter. Mushrooms remind us of the possibility of transformation independently and systematically; microbiologist Jehoshua Sharma draws yet another parallel to queer life in the shape-shifting behavior of fungi, which can undergo a process called morphogenesis through which they bloom upwards ten times their original size independently of plant symbiosis.
CHOSEN FAMILY AND MUTUAL AID
Lee Pivnik and Nicolas Baird, co-directors of the Institute of Queer Ecology, offer the additional perspective of mushrooms as a new way to consider rationality and a non-human centric future through the approach of mutualism (which is both deeply fungal and deeply queer!)
Most recently, the Institute partnered with the Institute for Postnatural Studies to offer a seminar series engaging the cooperative philosophies inherent to natural ecosystems and Queerness—as parlayed through their work as artists, musicians, and activists.
Mutual aid networks, from the historic HIV and cancer agency Shanti Project to the 2019-founded Black intersex/gender diversity Lavender Rights Project, have been essential to the continuing evolution of queer life and culture. In the face of systemic physical and cultural violence, mutual aid is both a necessary survival tool and a celebration of chosen family.
In another case of mushroom healing, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies have been lauded as a means to help LGBTQ youth cope with broader social pressures and anxieties, according to Yale University clinical researcher Alex Belser. Psychedelics can introduce a state of mind inducing greater personal understanding, gender identity, and sexuality affirmation. At the Burning Man festival’s Queerdome, volunteers are trained to serve reduce harm and promote positive trips. Increasingly, queer BIPOC leaders are emerging to help their peers reclaim medicinal, traditional experiences with mushrooms in safe and supportive spaces. As writer and psychedelic explorer Bett Williams told Double Blind magazine: “Being queer means you can become everything…[and psychedelics] offer a kind of everythingness.”
Both mycology and mushrooms themselves allow us to pave a way forward beyond the binaries of the world, underscoring an essential interconnectedness amongst living beings. They embody as much a sense of remarkable humility as they do resilience. As Anna Tsing, author of The Mushroom at the End of the World, summarizes so beautifully: “We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival. It is time to pay attention to mushroom picking. Not that this will save us—but it might open our imaginations.”
In the mysterious networks of mycelium, trees, and microbial creatures of the hidden world, we learn about interdependence. They remind us of our obligations, rights and responsibilities to one another. And in the seeming randomness of their ephemeral emergence from season to season, the skill required in successful foraging, and the science of culinary and medicinal implementation, mushrooms are an enduring lesson in humility and ongoing discovery.
Annie Faye Cheng is based in Queens, New York City. Her writing on Instagram focuses on the intersection of race, food and power.