At the 1995 National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce Creating Change Conference, Ibrahim Farajaje (then Elias Farajaje-Jones) highlighted the many, diverse intersections connecting LGBTQ people in the world along with our interconnected quest for human rights. Revealing to a mostly white audience the vast diversity of people that make up the LGBTQ rainbow collective, Farajaje evoked and updated the famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech that Sojourner Truth presented to a group of white activists at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. According to Lorraine Hutchins, who heard Farajaje’s Creating Change speech live and teaches it in her university classes, Farajaje named an array of people with multiple intersecting identities such as a Filipina lesbian mom, and a bisexual Dominican in a wheelchair echoing the refrain, “and Ain’t I a queer?”
It has been a century and a half since Sojourner Truth asked, “And Ain’t I a Woman?” and LGBT communities of color have spent several decades challenging mainstream white, middle-class queer groups on our frequent failure to build coalitions of the oppressed or holistically respond to oppressions faced by poor people and queers of color. Our movement is only beginning to acknowledge the wisdom of the late civil rights leader MLK Jr.: “None can be free until all are free.” Yet there is a critical gap in that conversation. Now, more than ever, and as we consider the global impact of climate change on LGBTQ people near and far, we need to hear the essential question over and over, “And Ain’t I a Queer?”
Although many people, queer and straight alike, seem unaware, global warming is the most urgent human rights issue in history. The world’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, has described climate change as the “world’s greatest crime against humanity and nature.” With the World Bank and IPCC projecting a 4º C (7º F) or more rise in temperature by 2100 at current rates, we face the submersion of thousands of coastal cities, hundreds of millions of refugees from coastal and island nations, war, starvation, desertification, and the eventual uninhabitability of large parts of the Global South (Hansen 2014).
Is it an LGBT rights issue when a Filipino gay couple loses their home in a hurricane intensified by the emissions-heavy lifestyle of queer and straight Canadians and Americans? The homeless Filipino queers might well ask us, and Ain’t I a Queer? When a same-gender-loving woman in Uganda gets scapegoated, attacked, and imprisoned for the ongoing droughts and food shortages that have increased because of global warming, is she worthy of our attention and concern? When a trans* teenager in Harlem, who has suffered from severe asthma since she was a toddler and faces daily persecution at school, continues to miss class because of hazardous localized air pollutants in addition to the hostile learning climate, is not her need for environmental justice and a safe space to be herself, a challenge to the rest of us to get off our asses and work together with her and her community to make sure It Gets Better? If our communites’ well-being includes their needs and safety as well as our own, what then must we do to move beyond reactive outrage to a place of engaged, sustained, informed action that benefits all of us?
“To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic,” Gayle Rubin wrote in 1984, “a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality.”
The reverse is, of course, also true. If we are to stop people becoming “dangerously crazy about sexuality,” LGBT organizations must confront the prospect of unthinkable destruction described in current mainstream scientific reports about climate change. That destruction affects us all and desperately requires our full attention.
Climate change is a human rights issue that already directly affects LGBTQ people and our movement worldwide. Not only do we stand in solidarity with everyone who faces “conventional” human rights abuses and civil disenfranchisement, but we also have many LGBTQ community members whose realities are harsh and whose rights are diminished simply because they are transgender, bisexual, lesbian, gay, and queer. This is true worldwide: in parts of North America and especially across the Global South, throughout the African continent, Eastern Europe, and in the Middle East.
The places where our queer siblings suffer persecution and a dearth of civil rights will also be hardest hit by climate change and will likely suffer even greater losses of rights and security. As a movement, we can help prepare for this eventuality by promoting and securing asylum options and refugee support for LGBTQ people living in hostile Global South societies. As energy prices continue to rise, and rise dramatically, we can develop strategies to provide aid and community support for the most vulnerable LGBTQ people in the Global North: trans* people who are under-employed or unemployed; elderly LGBTQ people on fixed incomes who have little family support; queer people of color disproportionately affected by under-employment, workplace discrimination, violent prejudice, and poverty; and others who can no longer afford to live alone. We can do what we often do best–build community, construct alternative families, and creatively care for each other.
The LGBTQ community can bring essential knowledge and skills to the table in pursuing government-level action regarding climate change. In our own recent history, gay men, queer culture, and the fledgling queer rights movement faced possible extinction through the early HIV/AIDS crisis. Through that crisis, we learned how to look after each other and fight for our rights while governments refused to acknowledge us and our needs, let alone act on our behalf. We acted up, educated the queer and straight masses, told our stories, harnessed the media, raised money, and in a very short time moved nations and industries to act not only for citizens in countries like the US and Canada, but also for people in other nations that can’t afford to subsidize the expensive drugs we fought so hard to have developed.
During that crisis, groups and individuals who opposed HIV/AIDS research and proactive public health initiatives also promoted gay conversion therapy using faulty research and cherry-picked results to dehumanize us and deny us our rights. Their strategy, designed to harm queer people, also hindered HIV/AIDS education among straight people and produced denial that persists in some communities to this day. In the last few decades, these same conservative forces have used identical tactics to deny the reality and significance of climate change. They have again stirred up doubt and controversy, promoted public inaction, and imperiled all of us.
This is an unprecedented time with the potential for real suffering and an international erosion of LGBTQ rights. We still have hope that action can be taken to slow the effects of climate change while we make necessary lifestyle and social adaptations to cope with the changes ahead.
As a people, we cannot sit on the sidelines assuming our governments will eventually act, or that our peers, already in desperate circumstances, will get the support they need in time. Climate action is a queer issue that requires our attention and our action. We need to use our creativity, intelligence, and experience to ensure our rights and to build strong community ties on our Planet Home. Its climate may be new to us, and our future here uncertain, but we cannot afford denial. We have to act—for all of us.
Special thanks to my team members, Glen Retief, Keisha McKenzie, as well as to Loraine Hutchins, and Ibrahim Farjaje for their contributions and assistance in writing this piece.