Climate Justice Is Queer Liberation Is Climate Justice
BY PHOEBE SKOK
No one ever sets out to be an outcast. No, the goal is usually quite the opposite: fit in (don’t be different), conform (don’t question the status quo), and be happy with the way things are (don’t try to change the world). Many of us will never fulfill those expectations and might not even share it. Our very existence denies us that opportunity. Being queer means you cannot and will not ever fully live up to society’s expectations.
While often a rude awakening, that idea is breathtakingly freeing. When you realize that being who you are is framed by the paradox where you’re simultaneously too much—too loud and angry, too flamboyant, too openly defiant of standards and traditional ideals—and not enough—not enough like one gender or another, not faithful enough to be trusted, not worthy enough to be portrayed in media—everything changes. You start caring less about molding yourself to fit the norms that were created to exclude people like you.
Queerness is subversive. It is a continuous and creative act of defiance that breaks down what we think we know about gender, sex, and sexuality. Queerness actively dismantles the gendered and heteronormative binary systems that both intentionally and unintentionally contribute to oppression and impede social progress. In effect, being queer gives you an open invitation to spit in the face of social norms and craft identities based on who you want to be, not who the world says you should be. It distills a sense of “Fuck it, I’m going to fight for what I know is right, no matter what happens to me” into an integral part of being queer.
It should come as no surprise that the environmental movement attracts a large number of people from the LGBTQ+ community. Aside from a shared commitment to vocal take-to-the-streets activism, inclusivity, and breaking down traditional systems and power dynamics, the simple but unfortunate truth of the matter is that LGBTQ+ individuals disproportionately bear the burden of climate change and its ill effects. Compared to the general youth population, LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness. Plus, while an estimated 7% of youth in the United States identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, 40% of America’s homeless youth do.
Along with numerous physical, mental, and social ramifications, living with housing insecurity drastically increases vulnerability to climate change-induced weather events. During extreme cold snaps (such as those on the East Coast in 2018), people experiencing homelessness are at increased risk of developing fatal hypothermia or frostbite. Similarly, record-breaking heat waves pose severe risks of heat-related illness or death. When heat domes struck the Pacific Northwest in June 2021, about 600 more people died than would have been typical for the one week period. The risk of heat-related illness or death is only exacerbated by those living in concrete-rich urban heat islands. As a result, people who experience chronic homelessness have life spans almost 20 years shorter than the national average.
LGBTQ+ people also face a set of unique challenges regarding climate change: frequent lack of stable formal employment, social stigma, and inadequate access to community spaces where they can feel safe. In addition, healthcare can be much more difficult for the queer community, particularly in times of natural disaster. This may be through facing stigma and/or being unable to access gender-affirmative care or through being denied relief aid due to partnerships not being recognized as legitimate by the government.
Still, despite and because of the adversity the queer community faces—regarding climate change and in general—they are known for their resilience, adaptation, and ability to build and organize communities. Plus, by inherently existing outside of social norms, they are often able to better imagine a future outside of the current systems that exacerbate the climate crisis. These traits aid in making leaps and bounds on progress for LGBTQ+ rights, whether by mobilizing for the right to marry or address the AIDS crisis, creating a tight-knit community of diverse individuals who share a common trait and goal, or through continuing to fight even harder during the influx of anti-LGBTQ+ bills sweeping the nation.
Their techniques are not so different from those of the environmental movement. The women of India’s Chipko environmental movement in the 1970s and the LGBTQ+ activists of ACT UP—a queer grassroots organization formed to protest the AIDS crisis—literally put their bodies on the frontlines for what they believed in. Chipko women banded together in groups to hug trees as a way of preventing developers from cutting them down. Similarly, members of ACT UP staged “die-ins” and protests (such as the 1989 demonstration at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City) to turn their bodies into symbols of defiance. Actually, the first record of a die-in dates about twenty years earlier, when environmental activists in Boston demonstrated against air pollution on Earth Day. Protesters in Seattle held a similar die-in event in the middle of downtown about a month later.
The climate movement and the queer community lead the charge in using acts of civil disobedience to create real changes. Each group is tight-knit but open; they garner their strength from their ability to collectively organize. Evidently, they aren’t as separate as they seem. Their histories overlap, sharing key timeframes and figures. For instance, Rachel Carson, the author of the groundbreaking book Silent Spring that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, was a lesbian and one of the first queer contributors to the fight for climate justice.
“In the U.S., it's often this way: queer people engage in ecoactivism knowing that members of our community are disproportionately susceptible to climate risk factors, such as being unhoused,” writes author and educator Eve Ettinger. “Queerness is often the framework out of which activism around climate change occurs when the focus is sustainability and a future where societies coexist with nature.” It is clear the two movements are inextricably linked. Each still has much to learn from the other. Yes, we need both—but we need them together if either is to succeed.
Climate justice is queer liberation is climate justice. Until we address the unique circumstances of the LGBTQ+ community, we will not achieve climate justice. Obtaining true freedom and equality for all queer individuals is impossible unless we tackle the looming climate crisis. The issues are inherently connected; they compound and exacerbate one another.
We need to uplift queer voices in the climate movement. Activists Jamie Margolin and Adwoa Addae (among many others) are helping lead the charge. They are part of the next generation who is working “to combat climate change and climate change denial, as they participate in the queer tradition of radical vision-making for the future of our society.” They are changemakers and inspirations for other young queer people who rarely see or have never seen themselves represented in the media, let alone in activist spaces.
That said, we still need more. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club have historically been patronized by well-off, cisgender, heterosexual white men. It is absolutely imperative to decolonize and diversify these spaces to ensure that they reflect the diverse nature of the climate movement.
We need queer voices, we need Black voices, we need disabled voices, we need Indigenous voices and incarcerated voices and poor voices. Most of all, we need the voices of everyone who has ever been told they did not or should not have a voice. If the climate movement is going to succeed, if we are truly going to have a shot at tackling the climate crisis, we need to do so in a way that uplifts and embraces intersectionality. We need to do so in a way that breaks down oppressive systems and rewrites them so that they can serve as the instrument for the progress we must make. We need to do so in a way that creates communities who care deeply for each other and for the environment because of our different histories and identities—not in spite of them.