If you missed the first-ever Summit on LGBTQ Identity and Sustainability that took place this past September in Seattle, you are in luck! The good folks at Out for Sustainability, a national non-profit seeking to connect queer greenies, have posted the audio of the day’s sessions.
How could it get even better, you ask? I had the honor to speak in the opening panel on Intersectionality with the brilliant artist/musician/policy analyst Loren Othon and Out For Sustainability’s co-founder Gerod Rody.
And if you don’t have time at the moment to sit down for a listening session, I’ve included some of my notes for the talk:
As Gerod mentioned, I currently work for the National Park Service, restoring alpine meadows in Yosemite. What that really means is that, as I’m decompacting the soil and shoveling dirt and moving plants, I have a whole lot of time to look around at the pretty mountains and think. Lots of time to think.
For much of that time, I’m thinking about why I am out there. Why do I care so much about these meadows? Why do I care about Yosemite Toad habitat? Why am I devoting my life to conservation and restoration and sustainability?
My answers to these questions include the likely suspects of ecological function; biological diversity; clean water for the Central Valley and San Francisco; the opportunity for people to come to the mountains and experience wilderness. All that feels good.
Invariably, though, my answer to that question of “why do I care?” also includes something distinctly different. There’s another answer, a more important one, even. That answer is more of a feeling, and the feeling goes something like this: I care about the environment because I am queer. I suspect many of you might share in that same feeling.
Which, I hate to break it to you, isn’t much of an answer to the question, really.
Explaining environmental ethics and values are complicated enough. Throwing LGBTQ identity into the mix makes for quite the messy elevator statement or cocktail party conversation.
Even so, I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to make sense of this intersection sexuality and the environment.
And I’ve come to believe that this intersection–of sexuality and the environment–is in fact much more than just a feeling, more than just a very niche market of us here in this room.
No, in truth, I see LGBTQ identity and sustainability as two communities–two projects of our modern global community–each of them attempting to determine how we define our collective future.
And I think these two projects–and the scale and quality of their impact on our future–are directly tied up in one another.
So, we are not here to pat ourselves on the back today. We are not here only to stare in the faces of like-minded people. We are also here to look outward. To better understand our selves and our communities in order to more effectively and passionately create our future.
What are they? How does our better understanding of sexuality and sexual identity deepen our understanding of sustainability? And vice versa?
First, let’s start with how our understanding of sustainability and environmental concepts can possibly enrich the lives of LGBTQ people and strengthen the queer community:
1) Nature as Refuge
The concept I’ve spent much of my time writing and thinking about is the old idea of Nature as refuge, and how it affects the lives of queer people. It is an old story, the idea that the land will take you in, no matter the color of your skin, or your gender, or who you love. By land I mean the more-than-human, non-engineered world.
Ideally, there is no judgment there, or at least, the lack of judgment is inversely proportional to the amount of human impact on that place.
And you know what, it is hard to survive as someone who is LGBTQ in the judgey, prejudiced human-engineered world. Just like so many other minorities, whose lives are more difficult because of who they happen to be, it is more important for queer people to have places of refuge. Personally, I know of no better place to find refuge than the wilderness.
After Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student, committed suicide after being bullied online by his roommate, I wrote an article making just that point. I hoped he had at some point stood on top of a mountain, or come in close contact with a bear, and known what it was like to be unjudged. To simply be human as free of our physical and social constructs as possible. To be an animal. To be a forest. To find that solace and peace of self can literally mean life or death.
Clementi didn’t necessarily need to be out in the wilderness to find it either, and I don’t want to come off as a wilderness snob either. I personally find it easier.
If he hadn’t, why not?
What are the problems of access for queer people to building a relationship with the natural world?
Queer people are told to live in cities and be urban. This message comes from popular media, but it also comes from family and friends too: join our kind. Live where it is safer for people like us. Beyond the fact that it is not necessarily safer for us in cities, those social pressures present all sorts of barriers for queer people to build a healthy and deep relationship to the land.
Queer people that do choose to live in rural places, or have no choice but to live in rural places, have other unique challenges. The more-than-human landscape might play more of a direct role in their lives, but they also very often face extreme isolation.
While studying at the University of Montana, I interviewed a dozen gay men who are park rangers about their experiences, and they all spoke about the internal conflict of loving the land and the refuge they found within it while also reconciling sometimes an intense sense of isolation.
And so this conversation about the values of Nature as Refuge, to me, seems to be a very important project for both the queer and environmental communities:
–how do we provide better access to the natural world?
–how do we encourage queer people (along with all sorts of people who fall into any number of you-are-a-minority-so-you-must-be-urban category) to build a relationship with the natural world, finding a sense of refuge in it?
–how do we work against the corresponding urban and rural barriers for queer people to be healthy and happy?
2) Evolutionary Biology
A second intersection which I wanted to mention today is the contribution that the sciences of ecology and biology can provide to our understanding of sexuality. It’s still amazing to me how little modern science really has discovered about humans as a species, how we evolved, and the biological origins of so many of our quintessential human traits.
Sure it’s interesting to know how biological mechanisms work within our bodies, but for me it’s way more interesting to know how and why we have such a broad capacity for behaviors. In terms of sexuality, there has been a number of theories to explain the evolutionary origins of same-sex and other non-heteronormative behaviors. And really, we still don’t know.
What we do know, however, is that non-heteronormative and non-monogamous behavior are nearly ubiquitous part of sexuality across the animal kingdom and beyond. There’s something so liberating and empowering about that fact to me. When I look at pairs of geese now, I do not assume that they are a male-female pair. When I see animal mating behavior, I wonder who is who and what their real motivations are. Life is messy!
Better understanding the biological and ecological mess can provide a sense that there is nothing inherently abberant, diseased, defective, or unnatural about being queer, about being a man that loves another man, or a woman that loves another woman, or desiring to present as any number of genders that is not your biological sex.
In fact, I wager that as we continue to study the evolutionary emergence of human sexuality, that the complexity and diversity of human sexuality and gender has actually played an important role in the survival and health of human communities throughout history.
One obvious caveat to this conversation, as explained best by the UC professor Marlene Zuk in her Sexual Selections: what we can and can’t learn about sex from animals–is that it is dangerous to find justification for our behavior based on what we see animals doing.” This goes without saying, but we shouldn’t eat our babies like hamsters, or be as violent as male ducks
BUT by cultivating a more accurate understanding of the biological framework of living things on earth, we can better understand how huge our behavioral capacity is–and how it is our collective project to determine what is considered allowable within our societies.
There are no inherent biological rights or wrongs, despite what we’ve been told for the last 150 years.
In this way, better understanding the messy complexity of Earth’s living systems allows us to more confidently assert the messy complexity of humans as a part of those living systems. In the process, we can find liberation from entrenched pseudo-Darwinian ideas of individual fitness and the supposed purpose of life which is to produce as many children as possible.
3) Queer Ecological Imagination
Which brings me to how the LGBTQ community can deepen our understanding, and in fact, play a crucial role in defining what future sustainability means. What does it mean to have healthy human relationships with the environment.
Currently, we still live in a society that in many ways is a cult of the masculine. Much of our culture’s basic standards of success and happiness are directly linked to production, dominance, and power. Controlling the wild natural world is supposed to be a good thing. Even notions of sustainability, in this context, are dependent on how efficiently we can dominate, how effectively we can use resources.
Similarly, sustainability is often couched in heteronormative terms of reproduction. We need to think about our children and our children’s children. What if we have no intentions of having children? Even people’s sense of the outdoors often is veiled in heteronormative terms, like going out to conquer a mountain, or camping in a cul-de-sac campground designed in a very public way for traditionally-structured families.
AND SO, as queer people, we possess a unique identity and set of experiences that might encourage us to question those relationships to the natural world. How do we talk about sustainability if we aren’t acting based on the continued surival of our genetic material?
Who but we can best advocate for more complicated understandings of biological and ecological processes?
Who but we best understand what it means to have to fight for our inherent right to exist, independent of our economic or biological value as an individual?
Which brings me to the bottom line:
I care about the continued existence of other living things, and the relationships between those living things because I have had to defend my own right to exist. I have had to fight so damn hard just to exist. To be who I am.
And so I can empathize. I can understand. I can extend my own sense of equality and justice and liberation ever outward. I strongly believe that my fight for all of those things, equality, justice, liberation, are tied up in everyone’s fight for those things. And what I’m realizing is that that fight, that circle of empathy and compassion, must extend beyond the human world as well–if we are to succeed at furthering these modern projects of “civil rights” and “equality” and “sustainability.”
I recently read an essay in Orion written by a friend, the San Francisco-based writer and activist, Rebecca Solnit. She had researched Thoreau’s laundry habits, in his defense, since he’s kind of gotten a bad rap about it since it is likely his sisters and/or mother often did his laundry. And what she discovered was that yes, they could have done his laundry, but they also formed a very strong, passionate family. Particularly his sisters and mothers, who were politically active, and whose beliefs affected Thoreau strongly.
Specifically, the Thoreau women were strong abolitionists, who founded the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society. As Solnit says:
“The women seemed to find a kind of liberation for themselves in this movement for the liberation of others. They were able to act independent of husbands and fathers, to take a public stand, to become political beings in a new way. The women’s suffrage movement, the first feminist movement, grew directly out of the abolution movement. The went to liberate someone else and found that they too were not free.”
We are on that same journey as the women in Concord.
We are seeking to liberate others–our fellow humans first, from environmental and climate injustices while also extending that circle of empathy and liberation out to the more-than-human world.
So I encourage all of us here today to thing of this gathering and this community as more than just a fun niche interest group. This is much more than that. This is an extension of the civil rights movement. And we are uniquely positioned to provide invaluable influence in how we understand our current and future relationship to the living world.
As we learn how to build green communities and talk about sustainbility, we are also talking about expanding the circle of empathy, ecolgoical imagination, and humanity. In the process we are also continuing the process of liberation of ourselves, of others, and of life on this messy planet.
And for resources on Queer/Ecology, visit my website!