Queering Ecology and Greening the Rainbow


I recently attended a panel discussion on why inclusive workplaces are an essential part of environmental sustainability and how to make workplaces inclusive. The material presented was interesting in its own right, but what it really got me thinking about was how infrequently these two movements (queer rights and environmentalism) that I care deeply about exist in the same mind space.

This is not entirely unusual, as most people seem to have time and energy for only one movement and pick the one that is most personally meaningful or urgent to focus on. Further, within minority circles there is frequently the sense that there are only so many victories to go around and no one wants to share.

However, as an environmental studies student, I spent a lot of time learning about environmental justice, a branch of environmentalism that focuses on the intersections between environmental pollution and racism and classism. In both the environmental studies and gender and sexuality studies classes I took, I read about ecofeminism, where environmentalism and feminism intersect. These intersectional movements not only exist but also are well enough known and talked about that they reached me in a classroom setting. So where is the movement connecting queer issues and environmental issues?

This is the point at which I think it is only fair to say that up until now, I myself haven’t been able to figure out what I might want to say on the subject. I have felt a certainty that the two issues do intersect, but I hadn’t been able to come up with any concrete ways on my own and I hadn’t been able to think of any reasons either the environmentalists or the queers should care about each others’ issues beyond the general claim that we all have to care about the planet because it’s the only one we have.

What I think now is two parted. First is that all places, including urban places, need champions and protectors, and we as environmentalists need all people to be those champions and protectors. We need everyone, including people who are LGBTQIA, to become environmentalists. Second is that all people, including people who are LGBTQIA and especially people who are marginalized by human communities, need connection to the “natural” world, need to feel like they belong in the world. For this reason, we queer people would benefit if environmentalists and naturalists of all stripes became allies and to made their circles open and welcoming to us. Ergo, it is mutually beneficial for environmentalists to become queer allies and for queers to become nature lovers and environmentalists. We need to queer ecology and green the rainbow.

The place to start, I think, is in the changing of our narratives, what we say about what it means to be queer or to be an environmentalist.

Baby geese for your viewing pleasure.  Image from
Baby geese for your viewing pleasure. Image from

I first read about queering ecology in an essay in Orion magazine by Alex Johnson called “How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time.”  In the essay, Johnson calls for a change in the narratives of environmentalists and ecologists, for a queering of ecology.  His essay is worth reading because he makes the call to change the environmental narrative far more eloquently than I ever could.

His main points are that the general public, and more specifically environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers, need to let go of two long-held false dichotomies: natural/unnatural and human/nature.  My favorite quote from the essay is: “My interest in queering ecology lies in enabling humans to imagine an infinite number of possible Natures. The living world exhibits monogamy. But it also exhibits orgies, gender transformation, and cloning. What, then, is natural? All of it. None of it. Instead of using the more-than-human world as justification for or against certain behavior and characteristics, let’s use the more-than-human world as a humbling indication of the capacity and diversity of all life on Earth.”  Claims about what are natural versus unnatural behaviors have been used to marginalize queer people for too long, even as science is proving that pretty much everything is natural.  Life is, indeed, infinite in its variations.  We environmentalists need to be clear about that in our writing.  And life and Nature includes us humans as well.  We too are part of nature and nature is not restricted to somewhere out there where we have never been.  It can be found in our cities and it can be found in us (which is not to say that we have the right to keep mucking everything–the earth–up).  Ultimately, the recognition of nature in us and all around us, wherever we are, will be the way we environmentalists make our movement inclusive of all people and open the door to everyone, including the queer community, becoming environmentalists.  Those are the narratives environmentalists need to change.

Once urban areas are considered part of nature, the queer community will have “easier access” to nature and that may change how our narratives are understood on its own.  But we also need to be more proactive in the change in our narratives.

Last year at Pride, I went to a presentation by a gay National Park ranger, who talked about his struggles to come out and be queer while in the Park Service in Alaska and then highlighted efforts to make the national park system more inclusive and talked about getting queers into the woods.  I’m all for getting queers into the woods, because I’m all for getting all people, everywhere, to experience and appreciate the living world in all its forms.  But I’m not sure there are any less queers in the woods, in terms of percentages, than there are members of any other group.  I’m out here wandering around in the woods and so are most of my queer friends.  We exist, its just that the mainstream queer narrative doesn’t talk about us a lot, Brokeback Mountain being a very notable exception.

The narratives we tell ourselves and that are told about us as queer people predominantly revolve around urban environments and generally don’t include other-than-human life forms, what we generally refer to as “nature.” There are a number of reasons for this. The queer as an urban identity seems to be fairly self-perpetuating. Large urban centers are where we can typically find each other, find communities that make us feel normal. Rural areas are more likely to be conservative and less accepting of public and out-spoken queer identities. Queer people who chose to stay in rural areas may also be choosing to prioritize other values and identities over their queer identities. All of this means that while there are queer people in rural areas, we are less likely to be vocal about our queer identities and our stories are less likely to be heard because they fall outside the mainstream understanding of what it means to be queer.  Whether it is getting out into “nature” or appreciating the nature found all around us or just speaking up, we need to change the queer narrative to include our experiences in and with nature.

Once we’ve both transformed our narratives, it will be easier for environmentalists and the queer community to see eye to eye and things can only improve from there.  There will be lots more protests and rallies and parades to go to.  And I’ve read that we environmentalists could learn a thing or two about rallying people to our cause from the queer community.  Personally, I’m anticipating attending the first zero-waste Pride.

The world needs us, we need us.  It is time we joined forces, queered ecology and greened the rainbow.

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    • Thank you for reading. Perhaps we can continue this discussion and come up with some strategies for actually getting more done to connect these movements together.

    • Fay Scream, I am unclear on how the links you posted are related to the content of my post. In the future, please post relevant material and include your reasons for sharing links. Thank you.

  1. I think it’s also important to draw attention to the fact that living in urban environments actually is green. It’s MUCH MUCH less environmentally harmful to live in a city than the suburbs or rural areas. I am incredibly in favor of connecting more queer folks to nature and environmental thought, but I also want to be sure that we don’t send the message that urban=/=environmental because that couldn’t be further from the truth. High population density is good, and queers do high population density well.

    • Benny Vimes, I mostly agree with your point that living in urban environments is green and I absolutely do not intend to send the message that urban=/=environmental. But I also don’t want to send the message that living in an urban area is enough. Regardless of our relative contribution to environmental damage, we can all do so much more to reduce our environmental impact and, just as importantly, connect ourselves to the world and all of life, as we can encounter it in our daily lives, where ever we live.

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