Nature is Queer! On Inclusive Ecology and the Fight for an Equitable Future
June 24, 2022
Humans have always been drawn to nature. We refer to each other as “busy bees” and “eager beavers.” We daydream about outdoor adventures during hectic workweeks. We even get a mental health boost just by watching nature on TV.
But our perception of nature isn’t “natural,” it’s a human construct. Throughout history, dominant mentalities have shaped the questions we ask, the stories we tell, and the information we share about the world around us. As a result, we generally learn about nature through a heteronormative, cisgender lens.
This doesn’t just shape how we view the non-human world. It shapes how we view each other. For generations, dominant groups have weaponized notions of what is and isn’t “natural” to oppress and isolate folks who don’t fit inside rigid social norms. This includes the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups.
Achieving a truly just and sustainable world means reshaping how we value and relate to all life forms. And when we look a little closer at nature, it’s clear: queerness, creativity, and fascinating evolutionary quirks are everywhere.
Challenging dominant narratives about the natural world gives us the opportunity to tell new stories, ones that uplift and empower all living beings. In honor of pride month, we’re exploring how queer ecology can help accelerate the fight for an equitable future.
Queerness in ecology is a concept broader than sexuality or gender identity. It is an all-encompassing wink to weirdness in the more-than-human world, and serves as an alternative to the binary and reductive modes of thought in which so many of us have been trained. - Priya Subberwal, the Years Project
What is queer ecology?
Queer Ecology is a field of thought, research, and creative expression that acknowledges and celebrates the boundless diversity of nature. It draws on queer theory to challenge binary thinking in conventional ecology and heternormative assumptions about the living world.
To better understand what we can gain by exploring the intersections of queerness and ecology, it helps to understand the two as separate terms.
Simply put, queer is an umbrella term for folks whose gender identity and/or sexual orientation falls outside dominant social conventions and protections (i.e., heterosexuality and cisgender identity). It’s often used to refer inclusively to the entire LGBTQIA+ community; but whether an individual identifies as queer is a matter of personal preference. More broadly, “queerness” refers to someone or something non-conventional.
Ecology the study of the relationship between living beings and their environments. Ecologists observe and decode patterns in nature – including lifecycle and population dynamics, movement and migration, and competition and collaboration between organisms. Our understanding of ecological systems influences how we conserve land and wildlife, manage natural resources, design human habitats, and even how we plan our economies.
Conventional ecological thinking restricts our understanding of biology and nature – beyond, and including, gender and sexuality. Queer ecology works to expand how we percieve and appreciate the infinite possibilities of what’s “natural.”
The project of queer ecology is to free other species from the script of the history in which they’ve been written about - mainly in a white/European, straight male, context - and kind of giving everything from other species to the people that are working in this practice—the agency to tell stories themselves. - Lee Pivinik (Institute of Queer Ecology), Atmos
Queerness and sexual diversity are nature’s “true nature”
Many folks think same-sex sexual behavior (SSB) is rare in the animal kingdom; but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Same-sex mounting, intercourse, courtship, affection, pair-bonding, and/or parenting has been observed in over 1,500 animal species. This includes giraffes, pandas, dolphins, chickens, geckos, cows, salmon, and even butterflies.
Take Roy and Silo, for example. These two male Chinstrap penguins drew national attention when they successfully hatched and raised a chick from an egg they were given at Central Park Zoo. The world’s oldest living land animal is also queer: Johnathon, a 190-year-old tortoise in St. Helena, has partnered with another male tortoise for over three decades.
There’s no “natural” way to reproduce, either. Over 80 groups of amphibians, reptiles, and fish, and many plants and insects can reproduce asexually (i.e., pass on their genes without a partner). In fact, female whiptail lizards are so efficient at the process that many whiptail species have no males at all. Interestingly, while sex isn’t directly related to reproduction, female whiptail lizards that engage in SSB produce more offspring than those who don’t.
These examples barely scratch the surface. Everywhere life unfolds, you’ll find SSB, intersex organisms (both male and female sex characteristics), group breeding, parthenogenesis (asexual resproduction), sexual mimicry (mimicking the opposite sex in behavior or appearance), and more. Far from being “non-normative,” diversity and possibility are the foundations of the natural world.
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. - Alex Johnson, Orion Magazine
Embracing queer ecologies creates space for creativity, liberation, and possibility
There’s no status quo in nature, but “non-normative” behavior is often overlooked, avoided, or excluded from cultural narratives. This limits our understanding of the sheer diversity in the world around us.
Queer ecology is about more than challenging notions of “normal” sexuality and gender identity. It’s about deconstructing binary, restrictive mentalities that harm or devalue anything outside the mainstream. The natural world is fluid, boundless, and ever-shifting – and so are we.
Queerness and diversity are, and always have been, part of nature. Acknowledging and embracing this creates greater possibilities for queer liberation, the liberation of all marginalized folks, and the liberation of all living beings.
Queering ecology is a matter of environmental justice
As the climate crisis accelerates, communities who are already the most vulnerable and marginalized will face the greatest impacts. This means it’s more important than ever to understand the intersections between climate change and issues of equity and justice.
How climate change affects the LGBTQIA+ community
LGBTQIA+ folks experience higher, sometimes far higher, than average rates of homelessness, joblessness, and violent victimization. These realities lead to reduced economic security and access to social support. As a result, queer folks may have fewer resources to adapt to and prepare for climate effects like rising temperatures, diminishing air quality, and extreme weather.
To secure a truly equitable world, it’s critical to re-examine and abolish social stigma and prejudice around “non-normative” identities and behaviors. In its place, we can choose to pursue a vision of the future that includes and pursues greater wellbeing for all life on Earth.
Queering our ecology means redefining what we value in the living world. When we celebrate the interrelation between all the diverse life forms in nature, it becomes part of our cultural mindset. We reshape limiting human systems by taking pride in our true nature.
Queer Your Environmental Education
These expectional resources and essays dig deeper into queer ecology:
Together, we hold the keys to a just and sustainable future. Get on board by finding your unique role in the fight to reverse climate change. Download Joro for personalized insight to discover your unique inroads for climate action – and follow Joro on Instagram for intersectional climate content.