A Field Guide to Queer Ecology
At first glance, birding may seem like a heteronormative sport. Though the activity is now strictly observational, early birders were also hunters and capturers, providing them ample opportunity to perform masculinity in the great outdoors. Additionally, the process of identifying and categorizing birds for one’s “life list” has strong colonial roots, and can seem unnecessarily competitive. However, despite these concerns, I’d argue that birding is quite queer. From Audubon Society initiatives like “Let’s Go Birding Together” to the birds’ showcase of life’s vibrant diversity, birding is just one of many fascinating intersections between queerness and nature.
I took interest in this area of study, known as queer ecology, when exploring the uses of scientific methodologies by queer studies scholars. Queer ecology houses many subjects and disciplines, including literary analysis, ecofeminism, evolutionary biology, climate change, animal sexuality, pastoralism, and more. Like its subjects of study, queer ecology is in constant motion.
My project, “A Field Guide to Queer Ecology”, represents my efforts to investigate and embody this motion. The field guide structure, inspired in part by Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, both offers readers an entry point into the many offshoots of queerness plus nature and allows myself the freedom to create artistic work relating to the topics discussed. Though I recognize that my positionality and the scholastic purpose of this project limit my scope, I hope that my interdisciplinary and multimedia approach reveals the broad spectrum of work that has been completed and has yet to be done in queer ecology, leaving readers with more questions than answers. Among those questions might be:
Can queer people trust science?
What spaces in nature are safe for us?
When did the human world split from the natural world?
Is homosexuality an evolutionary mistake?
Can we make queer studies more sustainable?
Who has social ownership of public parks?
How do we label sexual behavior in animals and humans?
Why is the wilderness tied to masculinity?
What do indigenous communities have to say about nature?
Can queers save the planet?
Are there really gay penguins?
Curious? Follow the lines of flight.
Positionality, Notes from the field
42 degrees N, 87 degrees W, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
Like Audre Lorde, like Adrienne Rich, I seek my own position.
Where do I stand?
I stand white, I stand queer. I stand 5’2” and 18 years old, able-bodied. I stand a woman, a US citizen, a student.
In Evanston, Nashville, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore (in that order) I stand.
On Planet Earth, I stand.
When the floodwater comes in and humanity seeks higher ground, who will be left behind?
I will not be. I can afford a rowboat. From this position, a position of privilege, I begin my search.
Shh, still — there it is, hiding in the brush. I’ve been tracking it for years now. I’ve been reading and writing and backpacking, searching inside and outside, and now finally, I know where I stand, where I crouch, so close – through the clearing, a question
What do I stand for?
Now on to the answer.
Species: Key Term
Habitat: Queer Ecology Scholarship
The discourse around the words “natural” and “unnatural” in reference to queer bodies interests many queer ecology scholars. Michel Foucault’s work A History of Sexuality, a book hotly debated in studies of sex and sexuality, identifies the Western obsession with categorizing and classifying sex as scientia sexualis. According to Foucault, the emergence of a scientific discourse of sexuality in the West gave rise to medicalized terms (homosexual, transsexual, etc.) to describe “unnatural” sexual subjects.
Though not all queer ecology scholars agree with Foucault, the idea of challenging the labeling of sexual behavior as “natural” and “unnatural” appears frequently in scholarship. Though the division between nature and human is arbitrary, it has power: the word “unnatural” has been historically used to pathologize and erase queerness and the vast spectrum of sexual behavior. Some researchers approach this idea from a zoological perspective, arguing that ecological heteronormativity veils same-sex relationships and sex in the animal kingdom. Whether sexual subjects are human or other, this area of scholarship provides fascinating intersections between scientific methodologies and queer studies.
Habitat: New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Columbus…
Birding, the recreational activity of watching and listening for birds outside, is supposed to be relaxing. Queer people know, however, that birding communities aren’t always a safe space to relax. The remoteness of many birding areas can make the activity financially, socially, and even physically risky for queer birders. As birder Jennifer Rycenga, co-founder of Queer Birders of North America (QBNA), describes it, “The last place that I wanted to find out that someone didn’t approve of my way of loving and living was one mile into a five-mile hike.”
Recognizing this issue, Rycenga and other queer birders have taken it upon themselves to create organizations such as QBNA, the Gay Birder’s Club, and the Feminist Bird Club. The National Audubon Society, a renowned conservation nonprofit, has also joined the efforts. During the 2018 pride month, a series of queer-friendly bird walks known as “Let’s Go Birding Together!” (LGBT) took place at Audubon Centers in New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Columbus, and more. Jason St. Sauver founded the series in 2016 in an effort to promote inclusion in the birding community. After all, Audubon and the Times agree that birders are becoming increasingly urban, young, and racially diverse.
Habitat: York University
Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands, known for her work in the formation of the field of queer ecology, is a professor in Environmental Studies. Her work on the anthology Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, co-edited with Bruce Erickson, gathers a number of foundational and cutting-edge pieces covering topics from “Penguin Family Values” to “Polluted Politics.” Mortimer-Sandilands defines the main premise of queer ecology as follows: “There is an ongoing relationship between sex and nature that exists institutionally, discursively, scientifically, spatially, politically, poetically, and ethically, and it is our task to interrogate that relationship.”
Her work on queer ecology, ecofeminism, and environmental politics has additionally appeared in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and her own book The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and the Quest for Democracy. As she notes on her interest in studying queer ecology, “Strange bedfellows, perhaps, queers and environmentalists, but stranger, hopefully, the results.”
Queer Nature, developed by Pınar and So Sinopoulos-Lloyd, is a Colorado-based project promoting “nature-connection & ancestral skills for LGBTQ2IA+, non-binary people, and allies.” Class offerings include hiking camps, customized courses, and a number of “skill-shares,” including: bird language, camouflage, wildlife tracking, herbalism, firecraft, and basket-making. Pınar and So hope to provide a sense of belonging and healing to those who have been historically marginalized. Pınar refers to animals and plants as “queer peers,” noting that “animals in the nonhuman world don’t have the same judgment” as people.
Queer Nature adopts a deliberately de-colonial approach to the natural world, seeking to recognize the First Nations land they occupy. One website page entitled “This Land” describes the history and culture of the First Nations Arapaho, Ute, and Cheyenne territories (Boulder County, CO) out of which Queer Nature is based, and classes address Boulder’s colonial history.
Finally, Pınar and So develop programming with an eye to financial accessibility, writing, “If finances are ever deterring you from registering for any of our offerings, please contact us.”
Recycling, Notes from the field
When you’re washing them out like this
the citrus is replaceable.
It might be lemonade
or maybe orange.
It could be something heavier
like grapefruit, even — the thing is
they all smell the same,
I feel like sunflowers. I feel
yellow-orange and citrusy.
But also permanent,
planted in the heat
installed for the summer.
I bought a limeade at the farmer’s market to taste
that tricky immortality — she teases us like that,
holding court for only three months
but clinging to the inside of our cartons
the other nine.
Species: Key work
Habitat: Environmental Studies
Queer ecology is about “greening” queer studies, certainly, but it’s also about queering environmental studies. Nothing shows this interdisciplinary method like “Queer/Nature”, a special edition of the critical environmental studies journal UnderCurrents. Tackling the intersection of sex, sexuality, and nature with scholarship, photography, visual art, and creative writing, the 1998 journal was foundational for modern queer ecology. In fact, in 2018, UnderCurrents published an anniversary edition entitled “From Queer/Nature to Queer Ecologies: Celebrating 20 Years of Scholarship and Creativity,” seeking to both look back at where the field has come and look forward to where it is going. Read a sample of poetry from “Queer/Nature”, written by an environmental studies PhD candidate under the name Crayfish:
This Nature we will lavish with gifts, praise Her with names,
toast Her with wine and with song,
and worship with blood from our sacrificed brethren.
We will dance on her brown body until we can no longer hear her cries,
then we will call her mute, and call her tyrant,
and say it is She who enslaves us,
and we will punish Her.
Plumage, Notes from the field
There are places where the snowmelt seeps deep into the ground to wait for summer, when it crops back up through a garden hose or threads through a stuttering sprinkler.
There are children mixing love potions in gardens where six months earlier they very well might have contracted pneumonia.
There are icy sidewalks that yield to salt, then sunshine, then water balloons, and chalk.
There are people standing in the sunshine, waiting in line for a popsicle, occupying that brief space in between freezing and melting.
There are birds that transform with each new season, shifting color and shape, exploding out of the brush and calling out to one another in warbling admiration.
There are constant changes in the air, a new wind and an old optimism, showing me that the world is never still, telling me that I cannot be stopped in full swing, teaching me that my natural state is motion.
Ruby Gibson is a first-year student from Cleveland and Nashville. Like any theatre/gender and sexuality studies double major, she spends her time analyzing queer performance and watching Pose.