Queer Ecology: Identity and The Natural World

Did it ever occur to you that the animals, plants, and fungi might be queer? If not, that is exhibit A in our case for the importance of Queer Ecology, a field that challenges our heteronormative, cisnormative, and anthropocentric views of the natural world. It recognizes the fluidity and diversity of identities and relationships in both human and non-human realms. It aims to foster inclusive relationships with the environment and life that encompass and celebrate its broad spectrum, rather than limit it. It collapses systems of oppression and blooms a new regenerative perspective.

A Queer Ecological History

Understanding Queer ecology can be confusing for many of those who do not interact with academic institutions. The praxis of queer ecology is understood by how we see the binary concepts around natural and unnatural. Who is natural, and why are Queer bodies seen as unnatural? Who deems us unnatural, and why? 

I was born in Los Angeles, California, and as a young person of color in America, my identity or sexuality was not allowed to express deviance from the norm. It was simple, I was born a boy, meant to fall in love with a girl. Any other thoughts, expressions, or embodiments of feminine acts were seen as an error in my genetic code. My life was not fun nor miserable. I’m grateful for my parents and still love them today, but some acts were hurtful.

a young queer Isaias
An old photo from my adolescence

My father would berate me for any feminine act that was expressed. Whether I liked a simple color of purple, pink, or violet, it was instantly gendered and disapproved of. What type of clothes I was allowed to wear was dictated by my parents. Large loose-fitting clothing and nothing more. Skinny jeans were seen as a gay thing even though they are trendy now with straight people. My mother was highly religious and decided I had to receive the best religious schooling after school to follow a life with biblical values. I started to live for their eyes rather than what I saw the world as, a vast world of bloom, not doom. Slowly, my roots started to rot as I continued suppressing who I was as an individual. I was isolated, sad, and loveless on land I was meant to love.

As a teenager, I worked weekends from 8 AM-6 PM in the gardens of affluent people in the Los Angeles region with my father. I usually wore a long red flannel, huge dark denim jeans, leather wilted boots, and a straw hat to cover my body from the intense solar rays. I was always forced to remove the weeds that I saw as revolting against uniformity and presenting true diversity. Dandelions are sacred yet seen as hindrances. Any mushroom was seen as deadly, poisonous, and a representation of toxicity, but I saw it as a system that recycles and remove toxicity from life. The fauna were seen as pests and I was forced to spray harmful chemicals to remove them when they only tried to find their way back home.

These species were like me, trying to find their home in what they thought was shared. Slowly, I started to understand that my passion for environmentalism came from a place of brutal isolation and a place to explore the pain that resided in the corridors of my heart. 

As the years went by, I slowly became a small shell of myself, too sick to breathe the seas of sleep and believing that I belonged nowhere because I was Queer. I found the eeriness of the lost forests and outdoor spaces as a place to grieve. A place for pain so deep that I knew only the species that didn’t speak my language knew how to guide me back to my ancestors. I was feeling soulless and slowly started to climb from what seemed like endless vines against a cliff, a pathway that held my head high while I was looking for the glistening light.

Bi-sexual! No, gay! Wait, Queer is who I am. I hated to conform to boxes in society. It was almost like people needed to know one answer when multiple answers existed in my head and world. It was only when I got older and had economic and personal freedom that I could express how I felt for years in my younger self. I had formed a community, fallen in love, and fallen out of love, and I remembered that the moment I started to live for others was when I was disarming myself. Life became bright, joyous, and queer when I stepped into power.

Baby Isaias

Why is queer ecology important? 

The world we live in is queer. This isn’t a personal opinion, it is a scientific fact. Scientists have observed non-binary, homosexual, transgender, and intersex relationships and identities occurring as naturally in ecosystems as their hetero/cisnormative counterparts. Or rather, ecological relationships (ecosystems) don’t exist within binaries, but instead occupy a full spectrum of existence. 

Queer ecology offers us a critical lens to understand these relationships through, beyond the narrative of the binary. When we’re limited or fixed in what we understand as natural versus unnatural, or appropriate versus deviant, we misinterpret the world around us. Hetero/cisnormative perspectives assert views like sex being based primarily on biological reproduction and these values go on to shape human interactions with their environment, other humans, and non-human animals. What might happen if we prescribe values outside of cis and heteronormative norms? Queering nature is our connection to an expansive view that examines the wide possibility of relationships – not their limits.

Queer ecology
Queer is natural

What it Means to be a Queer Environmentalist

I’ve always struggled with what it means to be a Queer environmentalist. Sometimes I say nothing. Being a queer environmentalist means that I value multi-species liberation and that I recognize that we live in a world of curiosity and connection that has no one answer on how to live. It means that I wish to see white supremacist systems be collapsed and to recognize the queer ecological histories and eulogies of the Queer / Trans BIPOC leaders who have come before me and honor them in my work.

Queer ecology belongs in our movements

In the United States, there’s been a record increase in anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes, movements, and legislation that seeks to block or challenge the existence of these individuals. This may as well be exhibit B. The idea that humans and nature are separate and that idea’s dominance in our culture is made apparent within these perspectives. We know from the environmental justice movement, and the BIPOC communities where it originated, that our environments and our bodies are inseparable. The environment a person lives in is the biggest determinant of their health.

Queer ecology has a practical role in social justice movements, especially as queer populations are often at-risk, and face social and environmental violence, and health and economic disparity. Without this inclusive perspective, there is a perpetuation of violence, exclusion, displacement, and exploitation. A glance at the vast history of life on Earth shows us that diversity is the foundation of life and if we examine nature through a queer lens, we can think of our own issues more holistically. We gain an understanding of kinship and connection that crosses boundaries. 

Queer mammals
Humans aren’t the only ones… Source

For a long time, nature has been treated as separate from humans. This perspective became a foundation for modern environmentalism, seeking to “protect” nature from humans. This same perspective has been romanticized in popular and past environmental literature and it helped enable the erasure and removal of Indigenous peoples. Culture and nature were treated and viewed as separate, and Indigenous peoples were removed by colonizers upholding this worldview. This is relevant to queer ecology as it seeks to critically analyze and go beyond our binary perspectives, which are often associated with hetero/cisnormative values. When we explore the world of possibilities available to us outside of these binaries, we are more keen to challenge the logic behind displacement and environmental violence, create inclusive systems, and form bridges between different ways of seeing and being. Queer ecology can lead to openmindedness. 

This has practical implications, as cis/heteronormative views have shaped our public institutions, environmental policies, and our relationship to nature. Environmental scholars like Catriona Sandilands have pointed out that Indigenous removal from wilderness preserves serve as one example, but that we can also examine how institutions like the public park and other urban green spaces present gendered and racialized biases. Urban parks are designed to create nature experiences, but only certain kinds of nature experiences. The easiest way to illustrate this is to examine what’s allowed and what isn’t allowed in these spaces. 

For example, having a green space for playgrounds, sports, dog walks, and birthdays touches on some uses common in urban parks today. However, a queer community might place more value on a closed sexual space, a safe place for expression of desire and gathering. The answer isn’t necessarily to go have sex in parks, but this understanding reveals that the design of parks as a public institution is rooted in heterosexual communities and their health. This cisnormative view of health begs the question: how might queer communities have different possible uses? These are exactly the types of questions and perspectives that queer ecology invites us to explore, and the norms to challenge on a journey to an understanding of humanity that is as diverse and inclusive as life on earth. 

In an academic sense…

The origins of queer ecology were first examined through queer theory in Michel Foucault’s work, The History of Sexuality, published in 1976. Environmental scholar and writer, Catriona Sandilands, went on to conceptualize queer ecology and cites Michel Foucault as laying the groundwork for the connections she drew later on. Her book, Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, became well known for providing a comprehensive analysis of the intersections of sexuality and environmentalism. In 1990, Judith Butler explored the idea of gender as performance in her own work, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Translating this idea into a queer ecological framework suggests that humans that categorize “nature” and “culture” as separate are performing those differences. From a scientific perspective, nature more accurately exists in a flow and system of interactions, rather than any determined and fixed states. Queer ecology has close ties to ecological feminist theory as well. 

The ideas behind queer ecology have developed into new stories that celebrate diversity and rights for the LGBTQ+ community. From Climate of Gender” by Callum Angus:

“Trees and people live in transition now, perhaps permanently, and I do not think this is all bad. Such a shift in climatic thinking requires accepting loss sometimes, and remembering where we’ve been, what we’ve done wrong, and a willingness to find new things beautiful. It requires recognizing the beauty in new definitions of gender, allowing the expansiveness and creativity of trans people to revise what we thought was known about gender in the past. It requires adaptation to new seasonal rhythms, yes, but adaptation with an awareness that this is not the first time whole societies have been forced to adapt to change they didn’t want, and a willingness to listen to those communities with much more respect than we have in the past.”

As a trans male, Angus draws connections from his experience transitioning to the transitions happening as a result of the climate crisis and suggests that it is an opportunity for reckoning. Queer ecology helps us more deeply understand that the environment and marginalized communities are in parallel struggles for a right to exist, while informing us on how to create a more inclusive and sustainable world.

Organizations that center queer identities and ecology, like Queer Nature, represent how queer ecology can look as practice, in addition to a framework or lifestyle. Their work envisions and implements ecological awareness and outdoor self-efficacy skills such as bushcraft, plant identification, and tactical skills. In our daily lives and environmental practices, queer ecology encourages us to question our assumptions and embrace diversity in all aspects of our lives for the sake of creating a world where we all belong. It invites us to reflect on our environmental identities (an interconnected concept of self), challenge our consumptive or extractive behaviors, and promote inclusivity in our art, spaces, systems, institutions, and policies. 

Another old photo, as I began to know myself

In conclusion… 

Solving the climate crisis requires us to develop a deeper understanding of the world around us and the complexity of relationships that have enabled life to thrive. Queer ecology represents a pathway to this understanding. If we don’t recognize and celebrate the diversity in the world around us, we risk losing it all. As younger generations rally around intersectionality, there’s a chance to lay a foundation for new stories. Angus ends “Climate of Gender” with these final lines:

Perhaps future civilizations will tell stories in which wildly oscillating weather patterns at the turn of the twenty-first century were the result of great planetwide suffering. Or they might inherit a legend that tells how great change sparked great cooperation in nourishing the land and each other because, as is often the case with transition, the possibility for new stories opened up.

It’s our turn to write new stories. What will they be?

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