Queering Climate Activism
Like many environmentalists in the 1960s, Byron Kennard’s awareness of humans’ impact on the natural world was awakened by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring: “I was reading it in bed, and I remember sitting up and saying, ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’” He worked with First Lady Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification initiative and the Jimmy Carter presidential campaign, helped create the first Earth Day in 1970, and led a nonprofit advocating for sustainable development through small businesses.
“I was working on behalf of an idea whose time had come,” Kennard says. “And there was no stopping me or anybody else.”
Through decades of activism, Kennard never hid his identity as a gay man. He realized that progress wasn’t fast, nor always linear, whether it be the environmental rollbacks that started in the 1980s or having to wait until 2014 to marry his partner of 50 years.
Now 83 years old, Kennard has written multiple books, including an upcoming text on the power of diversity in nature through a broader understanding of gender and sexuality. While the connection between queer identity and the environment might not seem immediately clear, a growing number of LGBTQIA academics, artists, scientists, and activists like Kennard are working at the intersection of these identities. While he fears for the future of the Anthropocene, Kennard also finds the most hope in young people bringing about a new green economy through technological and social innovation.
“What Earth Day did was to change the cultural and social values of unborn generations,” Kennard says. “And now, every incoming generation is greener than the one before.”
Recent climate protests shine a light on how marginalized groups are most impacted by rising temperatures and sea levels, along with stronger and more frequent storms and wildfires. For example, up to 40% of American youth experiencing homeless are LGBTQIA, making them particularly vulnerable to climate disasters. Queer representation in the environmental movement not only centers these experiences but also has the power to change the narrative around humans’ relationship to nature: from people domineering over the environment to living in tandem with all living organisms.
Gender and Environmental Equity
As a high schooler in Kenya, Vanessa Raditz was inspired by Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement to combat deforestation and build community resilience. Later, while studying at the University of California, Berkley, in 2016, Raditz co-created the Queer Ecojustice Project to address how LGBTQIA perspectives were being left out of the environmental movement and vice versa. Originally operating as a reading group, the project has since expanded to be a resource for those wanting to explore topics like ecofeminism, environmental racism, and queer ecology (viewing nature through a lens of queer theory). The project’s work is particularly grounded in Indigenous and Black feminist writing on these issues. The project’s website has lists of resources on these topics, and the Queer Ecojustice Project has organized and participated in virtual and in-person events.
In the same way colonialism imposed a singular idea of gender and sexual relations on populations, Raditz reflects on how a similarly narrow way of thinking has created environmental and gender inequity over the past 40 years: “At the end of the day, how does the gender binary and heteronormativity support the extraction and moving of wealth to this handful of global elites?”
Raditz is now a University of Georgia Ph.D. student and a board member of OUT for Sustainability, which provides advocacy, fundraising, relationship building, and training. Raditz is inspired by civil rights-based LGBTQIA organizing, but is critical of the rise in gay pragmatism they’ve seen. Raditz says members of these communities can’t stop at the legalization of gay marriage and the limited economic, social, and political power it has given them. Rather than assimilating into an exploitative capitalist system, Raditz says everyone in the queer community needs to continue to advocate for those who are more vulnerable than them, especially in the face of a changing climate.
“Liberation doesn’t end with overturning the sodomy laws if we’re still living in a settler state that’s extracting resources from the planet that’s ultimately our larger body,” Raditz says.
Many queer people understandably choose to be invisible during moments of disaster because there’s increased risk for violence. That’s one reason why Raditz is also creating a documentary called Fire & Flood: Queer Resilience in the Era of Climate Change about two climate-related disasters—Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria and the wildfires in Santa Rosa, California. Raditz thinks storytelling can help: “It’s hard to make sense of [these climate crises] until there’s a story, a narrative, a person that can help you connect these abstracts to tangible experience.”
Climate Education Rooted in Intersectionality
Others have found a voice through social media. Isaias Hernandez runs Queer Brown Vegan, an Instagram platform in which he educates on environmental topics for his 100,000-plus followers. Growing up in Section 8 affordable housing in the San Fernando Valley, Hernandez realized environmental inequalities from a young age, living near a handful of toxic industries that impacted air and water quality. At school, climate change was taught as a phenomenon impacting people far away, but a 2008 wildfire near his home sparked his desire to learn about how it was happening in his own backyard.
He went on to study environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, but realizing that much environmental education was inaccessible to those who came from diverse backgrounds, he started Queer Brown Vegan. He covers topics from his college studies and beyond, ranging from how the military industrial complex contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, to a primer on Goblincore, an anti-consumerist internet aesthetic based on nature. He also dedicates many videos to the changes individuals can make to live more sustainably, particularly for those who are just becoming interested in environmental activism: “I believe that education is true wealth in this society. This is a space for those to get started to build their own frameworks.”
What started as a side passion project has now become Hernandez’s full-time job; he cites an explosion in the past few years of people invested in climate education rooted in intersectionality. Hernandez says being vulnerable with his followers is a strong counter to the anxiety many feel toward climate change and the apathy that they can’t make a difference. Hernandez intersperses his content with videos of himself foraging mushrooms with his partner, a hobby that helps him re-center and reminds him of his work’s purpose: “When you make these connections and when you get personal with people, they get to get personal with you and get to build relationships with others around them.”
Despite his influence, Hernandez still faces gatekeepers; he applied but was delayed in receiving a badge for the recent COP26 United Nations climate conference in Glasgow. He was frustrated to see celebrities and athletes receive theirs instantly. But he eventually got a badge and went to Scotland to prove his legitimacy as a content creator of color, an identity he says is often disregarded: “Unfortunately, the political and economic powers of these institutions have upheld a lot of the oppression of people. COP26 should be focused on community-building relationships, but at the same time, we need to take time to sit back and listen to the most effective people—activists that don’t have the voice to address governments.”
Inclusive Spaces in Nature
Many queer environmental activists are instead choosing to build their own communities outside of existing institutions. In 2015, spouses Pinar and So Sinopoulos-Lloyd created Queer Nature to reclaim outdoor skills and rebuild relationships with the more-than-human world.
“My inspiration was that if civilization is in the process of collapsing, we need people to be learning these skills and teaching them to others who don’t have access to them,” Pinar says.
Pinar says their queer identity was informed specifically by their Indigenous lineage from the Quechua people. As a transgender youth pathologized as neurodivergent, they found mentors and elders in cottonwood trees, sagebrush, and a creek near their Arizona home: “They taught me so much around queerness, specifically around fluidity and how to create refuge around rivers but also in your life.”
Pinar’s partner, So, grew up in a New England town and was inspired by the rhythmic sound of their Greek mother’s wool weaving. This desire to make things with organic objects led them to study agriculture and permaculture and to work on farms. So and Pinar connected as children of immigrants who often felt like outsiders in spaces that erased queer and Indigenous identity and knowledge.
“I didn’t want to perpetuate the narrative of what most people see with survival skills, which is one person by themselves, Bear Grylls-style,” So says. They started Queer Nature at Pride in Boulder, Colorado, with demonstrations on tracking, friction fire, and twisting milkweed to make rope. They quickly realized there was a strong desire for inclusive spaces for these activities.
“I think there’s this feeling of belonging that we come to know through learning these skills that have been truly devalued, yet are some of the oldest and most fundamental skills for our species,” So says. “One great example is basket weaving, which people literally use as a metaphor for a topic that is superfluous, yet basket weaving is one of the oldest industries in civilization and is pivotal to our survival as a species.”
A few hundred people have engaged with Queer Nature, through half-day courses or multiday excursions. Their flagship offering, Queer Stealthcraft, focuses on guardianship for the Earth and teaches camouflage as a form of shapeshifting, blending, and drag. Pinar and So have also seen the positive mental health impact of regaining this “enchantment” with nature. Trained in ecopsychology, Pinar views the mind and body as an ecology connected to the planet and believes in the power of building Earth intimacy during a time of climate chaos.
When asked about Queer Nature’s impact, Pinar brought up the closing reflection circle during a recent Queer Stealthcraft course near their new home base in Washington state. They were in a Cascadian forest surrounded by trees dripping with lichen and a thick moss blanketing the ground. One participant was moved to tears and said, “This reminded me of dreams that I’d forgotten or didn’t know I had.”
A Diversity and Plurality of Voices
Others are using artwork to encourage these profound connections with nature. Wanting to reach outside the gallery walls with more experimental mediums, sculpture, video, and social practice artist Lee Pivnik created the Institute of Queer Ecology in 2017. He says the title “institute” is a way to re-center artists who are often considered superfluous in discussions around important policy issues like climate.
Starting as an online platform, the institute has since collaborated with around 120 artists. Pivnik says it’s built on a chosen family understanding of queer community. Projects have included guest editing the zine ECOCORE and an exhibit called “Towards a Common Survival,” featuring the work of more than 40 artists at Prairie Gallery in Chicago. The institute’s work has grown to include workshops, lectures, and even a downloadable social simulation game in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The game, H.O.R.I.Z.O.N. (Habitat One: Regenerative Interactive Zone of Nurture), is inspired by utopian communes and encourages players to create their own “digital commune” on a remote island.
While the pandemic has limited its interactive, place-based residencies, the institute has reached an even broader audience online through “Metamorphosis,” an online video series exploring how to transform the extraction-based economy into something more equitable and regenerative. The story, told through the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, connects with many queer people whose identity is equally fluid and evolving: “So much of the human has been constructed against queerness, so I think it opens your eyes back to what could be human in an expanded understanding and sense of it.”
Pivnik says themes of hope and optimism run through the institute’s output, allowing art to provide an empathic alternative to a doomsday mentality around climate change. He wants the institute’s work to be disseminated widely to encourage others seeking unconventional tools to understand, and hopefully fight, climate change.
He says, “You can address this huge loss of biodiversity not through the same homogenizing tools of Eurocentric science, but through a diversity and plurality of voices that builds both on queer discourse and diversity more broadly.”
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in women's and LGBTQ rights. She focuses on France and Europe. She has been published in outlets including the New York Times, Lit Hub, JSTOR Daily, In These Times, Teen Vogue, Them and Wired UK. She is based in Paris, France, and speaks English and French. She can be reached at https://www.hannahsteinkopf-frank.com/contact