How do queer justice and climate action intersect? 2023 IC Climate Fellow Lily Barraclough explores the systems that define the challenges for queer climate activists.
I have always been aware of my queerness, and that of my family’s. It occurred to me a few years ago that there has never been a time in my life when I did not feel different, or outside the “normal” in some shape or form. I have two amazing mothers who are lesbian, and a gay father and his partner that my brother and I share, as well as many queer family friends. Growing up in the early 2000s, and even still today, my queer family immediately distinguishes my experiences from the experiences of many of my peers. I now identify as pansexual and non-binary myself, but my life experience has always been one intertwined with the joys and challenges that come with being queer in a heteropatriarchal colonial capitalist society. I attended my first pride parade as an infant. My father was and continues to be an HIV/AIDs activist and advocate. My mothers married as soon as it was legal in Canada and had to go through the onerous process of adopting myself and my brother so that they could both be on our birth certificates. Yet I don’t think I truly understood the impact of my queer upbringing and identity until I was active in the climate justice movement.
My family has always sought solace in nature, my mum Wray having grown up on a farm in rural Eastern Ontario, and my mom Gill having roots in Northern Ontario. Outdoors activities and care for the land was instilled in me from a young age. My moms were some of the first people in our neighbourhood in Toronto to install solar panels, they were cycling and using primarily non-car forms of transportation before there was much infrastructure available, and they took me and my brother on many hikes and explorations outdoors over the years. For us, and many queer folks, time in nature and on the land can be some of the only times when we can be ourselves without judgment from others and feel like we belong. I think this is why some of the largest gatherings of queer folks, especially women, have often happened out in rural and wild areas, like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which my moms took me to as a small child. It took place on 650 acres of remote Michigan woodlands and had opportunities for attendees to be more secluded and solitary within the woods to connect with nature, or to be in a more populated and community-driven space. The Out & Out Jamboree, where my father and his partner Colin met, is a large gathering of almost 300 queer folks at a summer camp in Haliburton Forest where there is the opportunity to be out in nature and build relationships and community. There seems to be an innate desire and need for queer folks to venture out into nature to connect with the land and each other, as well as to explore their own sexuality and gender separate from the constraints of heteronormative society.
Nature is inherently queer. Although our heteronormative society makes nature out to be full of false binaries, there are queer mating partnerships and many genders of other plant and animal species across the globe. The study of Queer Ecology looks at nature through a critical lens that attempts to remove the heteronormative pre-conceptions that scientists may hold while also examining Queer rights and liberation through the lens of ecology. In addition, Critical Ecology examines environmental processes in conjunction with the directly-related issues of equity and injustice affecting communities and looks to the root causes of systems of oppression as well as environmental change throughout time. The studies of both Queer and Critical Ecology make it clear that no issue of injustice is separate from issues of climate and environmental justice; they stem from the same roots of colonialism, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and ableism. While all underserved and marginalized communities are distinctly and disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, the links to the experiences of the queer community are less defined.
Climate crisis threats
The climate crisis does impose threats to the safety and wellbeing of those in the queer community. One of the top threats is the threat of climate change impacts to those who are unhoused or lack secure housing. Members of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community are far more likely than our cis and straight counterparts to face numerous barriers to housing directly as a result of our gender or sexual identity, and as not only the housing crisis across the country, and particularly in Atlantic Canada, worsens, but as the climate crisis worsens, the threats of the climate crisis to unhoused or precariously housed people are huge. Those who are unhoused are more likely to experience physical or mental health impacts due to climate change as they are unable to escape the effects of extreme weather events. Additionally, the climate crisis puts a strain on both the physical and mental health of everyone, but as queer folks are already at a much higher risk of experiencing inadequate access to both physical and mental healthcare as well as higher levels of mental illness, their health risks are exacerbated by the climate crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates what impacts immediate global crises may have on mental health, and a survey of the mental health of Canadians made it clear that 2SLGBTQIA+ people were more likely to experience poor mental health during the pandemic than their cis and straight counterparts.
The E word
Exacerbating the threats to mental and physical health is the persistence of eugenics in the modern era, through movements towards population control as a method of reducing the impact that humans have on the Earth. Eugenics is the effort to control reproduction so that only white, cis, straight, and able-bodied people are viewed as acceptable populations to reproduce. Historically and through to today, eugenics has violently policed the bodies of Indigenous, Black, People of Colour, poor, Queer, Trans, and disabled people through forced sterilization, state removal of children from their families, and neglect.
Eugenics began focusing on White Supremacy and expanded to define queerness and gender non-conformance as perverted and immoral. This is becoming increasingly relevant in the era of climate crisis. There have been many recommendations over the years drawing on Thomas Malthus’ theory that the betterment of human life was impossible without imposing limits on human population growth. These include the Carbon Footprint tool that was developed by British Petroleum to move the blame of the climate crisis from major fossil corporations onto individual consumers, which emphasized that having fewer or no children is one of the most effective ways to reduce ones’ carbon footprint. At first glance, this is easily believed to be a harmless recommendation for wealthy white families in the West by the West. But this emphasis on blaming the individual for their reproductive decisions clearly draws on the eugenics rhetoric of shaming racialized populations in other nations and within our own, and shaming queer families.
In many countries in the West, including here in Canada, it is only in recent years that it has become more fathomable for queer partnerships to safely have children. While same-sex marriage became legal in 2005 in Canada, queer parents are still struggling to have their parentage recognized throughout Canada, and access to reproductive healthcare for all queer folks, but especially transgender and non-binary people is lacking. Although many of my generation, like myself, harbour fears of bringing children into a climate-disrupted world, that choice should not be taken away. For many marginalized communities, reproduction is a form of resistance to the society that is trying to eliminate us from existence.
Meanwhile in (Atlantic) Canada
Rural, especially coastal, communities in Atlantic Canada are already experiencing some of the most magnified effects of the climate crisis. In times of crisis, whether it be in the face of the effects of Hurricane Fiona, massive power outages, or the COVID-19 pandemic, our communities have been shown to come together to support each other and bring one another to safety. Recently, however, there have been many accounts of overt and threatening homophobia in rural Nova Scotia, making it clear that in times of crisis these queer Atlantic Canadians may not have the social capital and support from their communities that others may have which leaves them more vulnerable to the destructive events of the climate crisis.
Although the risks of the climate crisis to Queer Atlantic Canadians exist and are high, climate policy fails to make those connections. Advances in responding to the climate crisis must include expanding access to adequate healthcare, housing, and supports for queer residents, especially those seeking refuge from domestic and sexual violence as well as those who are climate refugees from countries where they may have also experienced life-threatening homophobia and transphobia. This isn’t, however, only a blind spot in official policy, but also in the approach of the climate justice movement as a whole. Witnessing the stark lack of uniquely queer spaces within climate and environmental spaces, or the lack of calls to action for queer rights and liberation within movements for climate justice motivated me to delve into this more deeply.
A queer climate community
There isn’t, however, a lack of queer climate justice organizers. As I only just began to discover in my series on Queer Environmentalists in Nova Scotia for the Nova Scotia Advocate a couple of years ago, there are numerous queer environmentalists all with their unique lived experiences and connections to nature and the movement. Some climate spaces, especially those led by fellow youth, tend to be overwhelmingly queer. Queer organizing spaces, however, don’t tend to be connected to climate justice, and my queer peers often have to choose between fighting for climate justice or fighting for more access to healthcare, or to just survive in an unsafe world. The climate crisis is part of what makes the world unsafe for queer people as well, including the grief and anxiety that comes with understanding the state of emergency that we exist in. Queer youth not only grapple with the climate crisis and what that means for their future, but also their own identities. Coming out in a hetero patriarchal society is traumatizing, even for those of us who have queer friends and families, surviving and thriving as a queer person is challenging, and sometimes it means a reduced capacity to manage the existential threats of the climate crisis.
So what am I doing?
Through my climate fellowship with Inspiring Communities, I hope to facilitate discussions between organizations serving the 2SLGBTQIA+ community in Atlantic Canada and climate justice organizations on the intersections of the issues and how we can build a stronger network of justice organizing to benefit all. In addition, I want to learn more about other strong queer climate organizers and how they remain resilient in the face of the climate crisis and homophobia and transphobia. The goal of these engagements will be to make some policy and community recommendations towards more meaningful integration of queer rights and liberation to work on climate justice, as well as towards building community resilience and to ensure no one is left behind in the adaptation and response to the climate crisis.