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Holocene  •  19 May 2021  •  Non-Fiction

The Intersection of Queerness and Environmental Activism

By Cal McKinley
Content Warning: Discrimination, Queerphobia, and Mental ill-health.
The Intersection of Queerness and Environmental Activism

Does Queerness have anything to do with environmental activism? Is there any reason gay people should especially care about the environment? Can the framework we use to analyse Queer liberation also be applied to environmental justice? And why are so many environmental activist circles just so damn gay? Maybe you’ve asked these questions before; maybe you haven’t even considered that these are questions you could be asking. But the reality is that Queer people have a rich and complex history with nature and environmental activism. In this article, I hope to shed light on the similarities between the oppressive power structures that Queer oppression shares with environmental degradation, and the ways that Queer thinking and connections to nature can differ from those of straight people. 

As climate change worsens, the people who are affected most will be those who do not have the resources to protect themselves. People who have power and money will be able to use their wealth and influence to protect themselves, at least initially, from the worst symptoms of the climate crisis, which will be predominantly borne by disenfranchised groups. All climate activists come to understand this as they are forced to grapple with why the people in power aren’t doing anything to stop this looming threat. Queer people are more likely to be in situations where they will struggle with the effects of climate change early on. Despite recent positive strides, the LGBTQ+ community still faces numerous challenges that come with systemic discrimination. The challenge that will be the hardest to deal with is housing instability. Queer people face housing instability at disproportionate rates to their cis, straight peers. This is due to numerous factors such as unsupportive home environments, a lack of access to support systems, discrimination in housing, employment and healthcare settings, and higher rates of mental illness due to societal alienation. Marginalised communities will have to deal with unmanaged pollution damaging low-income areas, lack of reliable access to clean water and food, minimal protection in harsher summers and erratic weather events, and more, while rich people are spared the worst of it. 

People living in developing nations, in rural or remote areas and Indigenous communities worldwide, will suffer the worst outcomes. There comes a point when Queer activists realise that Queer oppression is not just caused by individual intolerance and interpersonal bigotry, but a hegemonic system. They become aware that this system is capitalism, and it furthers Queer oppression by perpetuating cisheteropatriarchal norms in order to sustain itself and quell challenges against those in power. Capitalism goes hand in hand with colonialism, which is another major force behind Queer oppression. The notions of what behaviours and identities are acceptable were imposed upon indigenous cultures, wiping out rich histories of sexual and gender diversity, that only became considered taboo post-colonisation. 

Just as an underclass of people must always exist under capitalism, environmental destruction will always exist under capitalism. This is because capitalism necessitates the accumulation of wealth and profits above all else. Exploiting the planet for its resources will always be more beneficial to those in power than taking the difficult, often costly, steps needed to slow the pace of climate change. Understanding that capitalism is at the root of not only Queer oppression, but the oppression of people of colour, Indigenous people, women, people with disabilities, and working-class people, motivates Queer people to fight for the liberation of people and the planet. Queer people’s involvement in environmental activism is rooted in solidarity with all the people and ecosystems suffering under capitalism. 

Motivations for Queer people to protect the environment are also born out of a connection with, and love of, nature, not just from the anger of fighting against unjust systems. There are fascinating interactions between Queerness and nature, with the natural world often acting as a facilitator for Queer healing. Nature is open and accepting in all the ways that the cishet society isn’t. The unnaturalness of homophobia as a reaction to the beautiful, naturalness of Queer love and gender variance, creates a hostile society where nature can be a respite. It takes you as you are with no demands of how you are expected to behave or how to perform your identity. The unconditional acceptance offered by understanding yourself to be a part of the natural world is intoxicating in a life otherwise spent trying to justify your existence. 

There’s a common joke among nonbinary people that we are similar to frogs and insects, and other strange little creatures. While much of that is just playful identity reductionism, there remains something to be said about it. When your Queerness is present enough in your childhood to make you an outsider, but not yet present enough that you are able to embrace it within yourself, you may be more drawn to collecting worms or watching birds than trying to interact with kids who only show you ridicule. There is also a sense of being able to relate to the strange little creatures that society overlooks and devalues. As Queer people grow up, they are often forced to move to inner city areas to find community, safety. The downside is that inner-city areas are often quite removed from nature, leaving Queer people alienated from accessing space that they may find great solace in. This can drive Queer people to fiercely protect and fight for nature, driving them towards environmental activism out of a desire to defend the parts of the world that have showed them love against the parts of the world that have shown them hate.

Queer perspectives can be important in conversations about approaches towards environmental care, as shown through the movement of Queer ecology. Queer ecology argues that when approaches to the environment are driven by standard cishetero thinking, the same binaristic, close-mindedness that restricts identity also get applied to the environment. The tendency to put natural variation into rigid categories and boxes — specifically what is and isn’t natural — bleeds over into how cishet people understands the environment. The way that cishet society attempts to reckon with the existence of Queer people is by breaking down identities to put them into boxes. They rationalise gay people to be a separate, discrete category from straight people simply because of their same-sex attraction. Queerness encompasses a wide array of complexities and overlapping identities that cannot be constrained by binary ways of thinking. Are the things about the environment that a cishet worldview is unable to comprehend, constrained by its need for simple classification and categorisation? 

A Queer understanding of the environment lends itself to embracing the complexity of natural systems, and acknowledges the contradictions and impossibilities of applying rigid frameworks to a world that exists completely beyond that. The categories of species, the models we use to make sense of the world, do not exist in nature; they are constructions we use to understand the world, and are not innate or infallible. Queer understandings of gender and sexuality are constantly evolving and changing, so thinking through the framework of Queer ecology enables us to be more open to the changes in our understanding of the natural world and our place within it. 

Ultimately, Queer experiences are wide and varied, and the motivations that drive people to engage in environmental activism differ greatly depending on personal experience. Yet, I hope that I have been able to provide some insight into the different ways that Queerness intersects with a desire to protect the environment and how it stands against the systems that threaten it. 

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