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Media coverage of the natural world rarely acknowledges it, but queerness exists everywhere we look. Homosexuality can be found in 1,500 species. In the wild, there are also examples of asexuality, gender fluidity, polyamory, and sexual voraciousness, including gender-swapping fish, sadomasochist snails, genderqueer lions, birthing male seahorses, partially asexual ants, same-sex songbirds and flamingos, aroused bonobos, and exuberantly sexual dolphins.
It’s ironic when you consider that homophobia originated from the idea that homosexual behavior is a crime against nature. What is considered “natural” or “unnatural” has been used to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people, as well as people of color and Indigenous people, for generations. And yet, nature has always been flamboyantly queer, insatiable in its appetite for sex, pleasure, and new life.
Queer ecology is the application of queer theory to nature. It seeks to challenge dominant systems of heteronormativity, cisnormativity, colonialism, and capitalism and show how these destructive ideologies distance us from our natural environment. How we understand the natural world, and our place in it, has been heavily influenced by media that positions nature as pure and bountiful. The moniker “Mother Nature” emphasizes its life-giving and nurturing qualities. But nature also rages and destroys and fornicates as if life depended on it which, of course, it does.
Stories about nature have been used to advance right-wing fundamentalist views. When The March of the Penguins was released in 2005, Christian fundamentalists rejoiced at its depiction of penguins as upstanding, monogamous partners, paragons of traditional family values. But there are also examples of penguins in committed gay relationships.
Some scholars argue that heteropatriarchy is fueling environmental collapse. In contrast, queer communities of care and support, built by people who are ostracized from their families, better reflect the symbiotic relationships in nature. Our planet is home to immense diversity in terms of both sex and gender. This should inspire us to expand our understanding of human identity, sexuality, pleasure, and desire.
Consider the New Mexico whiptail lizard, which reproduces through parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction that allows the female to create a viable offspring without a mate. Consider, too, the “birds and the bees” talk: It’s the clichéd story parents use to explain how babies are made, though as Micha Rahder notes, it’s an insult to birds and bees to have their ravenous sex lives reduced to a heteronormative fable. Both are infinitely more sexually adventurous than (most) humans.
The natural world is much wilder than we can ever imagine. We have so much to learn.
As we bear witness to the destruction wrought by climate change, we need new ways of interacting with the environment. As you’ll see in this reading list, queer ecology offers a new lens through which we can reimagine our relationships with our bodies, our peers, and nature.
How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time (Alex Johnson, Orion Magazine, March 2011)
Alex Johnson also curated a useful list of queer ecology resources.
This thoughtful personal essay by queer conservationist Alex Johnson, laid out in the form of a lesson plan, joyfully challenges the double standard inherent in believing that nature intended for only a man and a woman to love each other and that humans ought to tear the earth apart to extract fossil fuels. Nature writing tends to be either beatific in describing the wonders of the natural world or despairing at how we are destroying it. But Johnson’s essay calmly collapses that dichotomy, noting how we “call geese beautiful and elegant and faithful until they are shitting all over the lawn and terrorizing young children.”
Writing about nature means accepting that it will prove you wrong. And right. And render you generally confused. Nature is mysterious, and our part in the pageant is shrouded in mystery as well. This means contradiction and paradox and irony. It means that there will always be an exception. Nature has always humiliated the self-congratulatory scientist.
At Last, An Entire Institute for Queer Ecology (Landon Peoples, Atmos, January 2021)
The @QueerWildlife Instagram account challenges dominant narratives about nature and highlights examples of queer ecology in action.
Established in 2017, The Institute for Queer Ecology (IQECO) is a collaborative “organism” that is guided by queer and feminist theory and decolonized thought. Landon Peoples’ wide-ranging interview with its founder, Lee Pivnik, explores the institute’s creative mission to champion inventive solutions to the climate crisis. The institute aims to challenge mainstream ideas of humans versus nature and celebrate opportunities for synergy with the natural world. Lee, who identifies as queer, reflects on the intersections between his own identity, evolution, and the false binary that exists between culture and nature. This conversation offers a useful framework on how to find “beautiful fluidity” in a time of constant change.
The Institute of Queer Ecology acts as a visioning tool to speculate and imagine a new world that we can inhabit together—thinking of change as this grounding, universal principle that we first see in ourselves, and then acknowledging ourselves as individuals in the beautiful fluidity that queerness promises at the individual level—where you have the ability to constantly make yourself resistant to categorization.
Brigitte Baptiste: “It’s Time to Reframe Sustainable Work Through a Queer Lens” (Najit Benrabaa, Welcome To The Jungle, March 2022)
“There’s nothing more queer than nature,” Brigitte Baptiste argues in her short but compelling TEDx talk. Baptiste, one of the world’s most influential environmental experts, founded the leading biodiversity research center in her native Colombia. She has advised the U.N., written more than a dozen books, and won international prizes for her work. Najit Benrabaa’s interview covers Baptiste’s unique career path, “green capitalism,” and how a queer lens informs her work. Her fascinating personal story runs in parallel to her work as a biologist in Colombia, which is the most biodiverse country in the world per square kilometer.
The queer view of biodiversity helps us assign new words to the transformations instead of reducing ourselves to canonical parameters or stereotyped descriptions. There is multiplicity in species and ecosystems. Queer ecology is a different way of looking at nature—it insists on the fact that we can enjoy, without prejudice, the diversity of life forms and sexualities being expressed.
On Not Becoming an Ecosexual (Meghan Flaherty, VQR, Winter 2022)
Interested in the sensual aspects of queer ecology? The podcast Serpentine has a series of lush conversations on nature, pleasure, and desire.
Grassilingus, anyone? In her funny and thought-provoking essay, Meghan Flaherty examines ecosexuality and wonders how we ought to interact with nature. Her essay is carnal and complex, layering works of indigenous wisdom like Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass with the teachings of Instagram personalities like @MyOrgasmicLife, who calls herself the “Brené Brown of pussy.” Flaherty discovers, as both a gardener and an intellectual, that engaging with nature without exploiting it restores us in ways we can’t yet define. Quoting Kimmerer, she concludes that “any action on behalf of life will be reciprocated: ‘We restore the land, and the land restores us.’”
There is no dualism. There is no big divide. We are all connected, with or without souls. Hierarchy, any domination in the web of life, hurts everyone. “All flourishing is mutual.” We flourish, all of us together, or we flourish not at all. We start respecting all these “others”—nature, perhaps, first and foremost—or we die.
Qualities of Earth (Rebecca May Johnson, Granta, May 2020)
Rebecca May Johnson’s piece also begins in her garden. During the COVID lockdown, she passes her time growing vegetables and experiences how challenging it is to contain nature’s voracious appetite for life. Dividing land into allotments rented by individual gardeners proves futile as the vegetables copulate underground; growing courgettes and pumpkins side by side, she harvests strange hybrid crops with ombréd colors and alien textures. As she weeds, she listens to podcasts about gay women in France who are banned from having children through IVF. She thinks of her friends trying to become pregnant, of the “the intense, repressive hell” of making babies under patriarchy. Her essay expands into an argument for generosity — in terms of both material things and one’s frame of reference — as she shares the produce from her teeming garden with friends, lest they rot in the soil.
That violent heteronormative cultures of sex and reproduction among humans are attributed to ‘nature’ feels astonishing after spending time on the allotment. The slutty ingenuity of vegetables when it comes to desire and reproductive methods is a marvel that makes a mockery of conservative ideas of the natural.
Queering the Food System (Daphne Chouliaraki Milner, Atmos, June 2022)
The food on my table is a persistent connection I have with nature. Whether it’s the herbs I grow on my windowsills or the veggies I pick up at the farmer’s market, it’s thrilling to think about nature’s queerness as I prepare dinner for my girlfriend. Like most people, we rely on an agricultural industry that exploits the earth’s resources for profit. Queer farmers, many of them nonwhite, are redefining what it means to farm the land respectfully, thinking of their crops “not as resources to be extracted, but rather as members of an ecosystem.” Daphne Chouliaraki Milner writes about mindful land practices and behavior-based animal management, reimagining one of the most environmentally damaging industries on the planet. This piece highlights the many challenges with monoculture farming and charts a path toward a more equitable and healthier future for the planet and all of its inhabitants.
“Queer theory complicates reductive binary understandings of the world; it complicates ideas of hierarchy; it complicates the idea that there are better positions and worse positions”, said Benedict Morrison, member of Quinta, an ecovillage and LGBTQIA+ community project. “Queering our food systems is an attempt at radical empathy. It’s an attempt to always find the value in difference.”
Clare Egan is a queer freelance writer based in Dublin. She writes a regular newsletter and is working on her first book.
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