There was nothing in my previous work as an LGBTQ human rights activist and as a queer Bible scholar to indicate that I would make a radical shift to climate action. These days I spend much of my time thinking, researching, writing, and talking about climate change. I lead workshops on climate communication, I perform on stage, and I produce a monthly podcast about it.
Here I am coming out at the People Climate March with the Queers for the Climate. See peeking in the bottom of the frame.
So what happened? How did I go from being aware and concerned but not engaged to someone who can’t stop talking about climate change? Did I receive a Al Gore into my heart? Did I have an encounter with a polar bear? Did I get abducted by environmentalists? Nope, none of the above.
It was love that drew me into climate work, love for my husband, Glen Retief, who suddenly felt gripped by the reality of climate change and initially powerless to do anything about it. His distress triggered something in me that led me to learn more. But what ultimately woke me up to the reality of climate change was not any of the normal triggers. No, my climate story is definitely queer. It had nothing to do with polar bears and everything to do with pasta.
In this video I break it down for you. Yes, I am shallow, but that shallowness got me engaged, so that’s something.
Like most Americans, I have been transfixed and horrified by the size and scope of Hurricane Harvey, this mega storm that hit Texas and Louisiana with so much water and destruction. It has become obvious that everyone in the path of the storm and the flooding have been affected and will be for some time. They are talking about recovery efforts taking years. Everyone who survives will have a Harvey story to tell for the rest of their lives.
I imagine that anyone with family in the Houston area, America’s fourth largest city, watched and waited with dread hoping their loved ones make it through ok. Family and friends around the country have already begun to provide practical help: housing, food, clothing, and well needed dollars. While the storm has moved on, and the waters recede, life still must go on. Bills need to be paid. Students have their studies. People have jobs. Yet many are displaced. Homes are uninhabitable. The support of family and friends is essential.
Floodwaters flood Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church in Houston on Aug. 27, 2017. What was once Hurricane Harvey has inundated large swaths of the city and southeast Texas since it made landfall on the state’s Gulf Coast. (Photo courtesy of Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church) Article in Washington Blade.
LGBTQ people at greater risk?
This got me thinking about my own kin in the Houston area and those places affected by this storm. My people. LGBTQ folks. It’s not that I don’t care about other folks, but part of human nature is to be particularly aware of the needs of those in our own family and affinity groups. It is what helps us survive. We need stick with the pack.
As a gay man, I wonder about the ways LGBTQ people have to struggle in a storm that is similar and different from non-LGBTQ people. Of course a lot of it has to do with the other factors in an LGBTQ person’s life that on a sunny day make life challenging.
Yes, we are all in the same boat together; just not all on the same deck. Some people suffer more than others.
If you are LGBTQ and without a home before the storm, you may find it threatening to go to a homeless shelter. Transgender women of color are particularly at risk from violence in public and have historically been unemployed or under employed because of prejudice and discrimination. As a result, they represent a large percentage of the LGBTQ homeless population. Many homeless shelters are often run by Christian groups who traditionally have been hostile to us. They are also highly gendered spaces. This creates special challenges for transgender and gender non-binary people. Who gets to decide where you belong? Many avoid these shelters. As a result, they become that much more vulnerable during a storm.
I think of the LGBTQ person who is an undocumented immigrant. What happens when you try to get the help you need in the midst of a storm? Will this action trip a whole series of legal repercussions that lead to detainment and deportation to a place where it is even more unsafe to be LGBTQ?
What about our seniors. LGBTQ seniors experience a lack of equality with non-LGBTQ seniors in part because of the lifelong homophobia and transphobia they experienced from their families, society, and the government. I think of Marion, a fictional 84 year old lesbian based on many real life people like her. She is living alone and estranged from her family for many years. Perhaps earlier in life she had married a man and had children. I know of many LGBTQ folks who did, and even today their family want nothing to do with them. They have never seen their grandchildren. No one checks in on them. Perhaps Marion had a long term partner, Susan, who died in 2010. They were together for 43 years. Yet when Susan died, Marion received no social security or benefits. In fact, Susan’s family suddenly showed up and demanded personal objects and money that was shared by Susan and Marion. Perhaps Marion has been able to build a social structure that supports her, but also at that age, she has begun to lose her friends and may feel very alone. What happens when a storm like Harvey comes along? Where does she go? Who checks in on her?
Help You Can Provide
You can imagine these scenarios and more. In addition to seeing and feeling these realities, we can also do something to help. Right now in Houston there are two organizations raising money specifically for LGBTQ people affected by Hurricane Harvey. IF you cannot donate, you can share this post and links to get the word out.
There have been a slew of reactions/responses to the Wallace-Wells’ piece. My favorite appeared in Vice with the deliciously cheeky title: So, You’ve Decided You Give a Shit About Climate Change. Mike Pearl does something different from the other writers taking on the New York Magazine fright piece, he actually gives people some very helpful next steps.
Sure we can get freaked out about climate change, but what should we do about it? I say to my audiences the first thing to do is to educate ourself. Pearl provides links and suggestions to do just that.
Fortunately, you only have to spend a little bit of time learning about this stuff to speak with confidence. Some of the links that follow will only take a minute, and some will take 15 or 20, but if you digest all of them, you’ll be pretty much up to speed in my humble opinion. I can’t really help you be a more moral person, or “fix” the problem, but reading and watching this stuff might finally make it real for you.
A researcher contacted me recently to follow up on a blog post I wrote about how LGBTQ+ people are affected by climate change. The researcher is hoping to publish something but ran into some roadblocks from the editors of a journal.
I have found that conference organizers and academic journals think the concept of connecting LGBTQ and climate change so bizarre that they almost immediately reject any proposal. This was true with organizers of the World Pride event in Toronto a few years ago. When we proposed a presentation on a “Queer Response to Climate Change,” they could not see how that had anything to do with LGBTQ human rights. They dismissed our request which led to send them a written manifesto. While it never convinced the Pride organizers, it did serve to inspire LGBTQ+ here in the US and beyond.
The researcher asked me some very helpful questions that you too might might to consider. If you want to be in touch with the researcher, contact me directly.
Here are the questions and my answers:
1. In the context of your sexual identity, how do you see yourself being personally affected by climate change (consider, for example, in preparing for climate change and in experiencing climate change)?
I do not see myself as an environmentalist in large part because the American environmental movement is so hetero-centric as is much of the US camping culture. I like nature, but not the domesticated nature of national parks and camp sites.
Rather I feel like a Walt Whitman naturalist who wants to dive into the wilderness, off the beaten path and embrace nature as I become intimately connected to it.
Naked and Very Afraid
This past summer I attempted a Walt Whitman “Leaves of Grass” moment. I dove into the woods and began to strip down to my boxers. I wanted to lie on the ground and feel the earth under me. Suddenly I remembered all of the warnings about the exploding tick populations. I failed to bring repellent. I worried about mosquitos carrying diseases. In that remote place I was suddenly reminded of the negative affects of a warming planet, the consequences of the immoral fossil fuel lifestyle of the modern world. I felt exposed and insecure and afraid. I recoiled, got dressed, and fled to a domesticated space.
LGBTQ Seniors and Climate Change
While I am not yet a senior citizen, that is coming up quickly. I hated air conditioning ever since I lived in Memphis and endured it freezing my nipples off until I went out into the blazing muggy daylight to defrost. Also AC is expensive and energy intensive. More severe and frequent heatwaves are predicted. Elderly people are affected by heatwaves which can lead to severe illness and death.
As a gay man, I do not experience the same equality as heterosexual citizens and residents. My job and career got disrupted because I am gay and had to leave it and start over. I don’t have a big pension coming my way. I do not have children or the prospect of children, while many if not most heterosexuals do. Often children help look after aging parents. There are real risks from climate change as I get older. I don’t have children checking in on me to make sure I am ok during heatwaves and other extreme events. I live in a rural part of the USA and worry about healthcare and discrimination.
2. What about other LGBT+ people? What issues might/do they face? (perhaps you can draw from the experiences of friends/colleagues)
I think of homeless LGBT+ youth, up to 40% of the homeless youth population in most cities. They often avoid shelters. Many shelters are private ventures run by churches. There is often no knowing how church folk will receive LGBT+ kids.
Also, most shelters are gendered spaces: boys to one side, girls to the other. What about transgender youth? Gender non-binary and genderqueer youth? LGBTQ+ youth often do not like going to these shelters.
On a warming planet we see more frequent and extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. Where do these kids go when shelter becomes a matter of life or death? Are we developing shelters that are specifically and intentionally friendly towards LGBTQ+ youth?
Similarly I think of LGBTQ+ senior citizens. They too are affected by extreme weather and heatwaves and do not have the same social and family support enjoyed by cisgender and heterosexual citizens.
3. How should LGBT+ people get involved in responding to climate change? (I’m thinking at all levels here, from international to local)
a. Break the collective silence around climate change and do it in a creative way. Much like during the early HIV/AIDS Crisis when the government could give a damn about gay men and people of color (gay and straight) suffering with GRID (gay related immune deficiency as it was first called) when virtually no one was talking about or covering the epidemic, today with climate change I am reminded: Silence=Death. We need storytellers, artists, people concerned with human rights, creative queer communicators to tell the story of climate change and to engage the public.
b. Work on local and regional resiliency and community building. Develop a list of all the LGBTQ+ seniors in the community. Check in with them before and after storms and heatwaves. Open up community centers and LGBTQ+ friendly spaces as cooling centers during the hottest days of the year. Help with retrofitting homes with what will be cheaper energy efficient technology. Help LGBTQ+ people who are marginalized because of poverty, race, gender identity/expression with adaptation including growing food and water collection.
c. Recognize that climate change results in migration and immigration and that within that population there are LGBTQ+ people who are also affected by homophobia/transphobia. They may be deeply marginalized in their own families and among fellow migrants. Provide services, language classes, community, and opportunities to connect w/ LGBTQ+ migrants.
d. Recognize that during extreme weather events political leaders override existing policing rules when they declare a State of Emergency. There are curfews, forced evacuations. As a result, there are opportunities for human rights abuses and injustice. This directly affects LGBTQ+ people who are poor and/or homeless. Educating first responders, political leaders, and police about LGBTQ+ populations and reporting any and all abuses of power are essential.
e. Educate ourselves about climate change as a human rights issue and apply for funding for adaption in our communities to specifically reach out to LGBTQ+ folks to educate them and convince them that they have skin in the game.
4. How would you try to convince someone that the impact of climate change on LGBT+ communities in particular is an issue that needs to be addressed? (for example, by analogy, like the Pink Triangles)
Original art by Kevin Miller
Storytelling. The power of stories is one that we learned during the HIV/AIDS Crisis. This included visuals like the AIDS quilt and the red HIV/AIDS ribbon (which inspired countless other ribbons.) During the Transgender Day of Remembrance, we hear stories that move us to tears and to action.
I use my creativity to help people see that climate change affects pets, coffee, wine, a picnic in the park, policing and incarceration, and much more. I do not think anyone needs to become an environmentalist to be concerned about climate change. Rather they need to understand that something they are already passionate about is threatened by climate change.
I also think comedy has a role to play: not mocking people dismissive of climate change: that is not really that funny and just ends up with people feeling smudge because they recognize climate change is real. Rather comedy is a queer response to climate change. It immediately instils the conversation with hope and it relaxes people so that they can hear what they often filter out.
Most heterosexuals talk about climate change in a way to stir up fear, shame, and anger. We can use comedy and storytelling instead to inspire curiosity and engagement.
5. What needs to happen/change to protect LGBT+ people from climate change?
a. First and most importantly, we need to radically reduce pollution that leads to climate change: coal, oil, gas, natural gas along with farming practices that also contribute to the problem. But this needs to be done on a national and international scale, not by individual consumers scaling back.
We need system change and policy change about how we get our energy—a great transition from dirty to clean energy. One of the most effective ways to do this is through carbon pricing. Put a fee on all fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. To do this requires both thoughtful and respectful lobbying and non-violent direct action. (As the host of Citizens’ Climate Radio and a volunteer lobbyist for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, I am working with lots of people on this very thing.)
b. Educate LGBTQ+ people, particularly leaders that climate change threatens us in specific ways and that our voices are needed to both change policy and to creatively communicate to the public at large about the program. We must move beyond polar bears and future generations to communicate other compelling reasons to act to address climate change.
c. We need to be part of coalitions who are addressing climate change in part to help influence strategy so that they are justice minded and aware that LGBTQ+ are concerned and want to be part of the solutions.
d. We must talk about climate change as LGBTQ+ people. In other words, “queer” the climate discussion. And with that queering insert mirth, play, beauty, and art. What we lack in addressing climate change is a lack of imagination. While we do not have exclusive rights to creativity, we have demonstrated in fighting the oppressions we have faced that we can use creativity, camp, and art to take on powers.
Yes, I see risks ahead, more suffering in the world, climate instability. These are serious issues. But typically I do not feel gripped with fear. I am concerned but not frightened.
Open ceremonies of National Museum of African American History and Culture
What is the opposite of fear?
Instead I feel: What an honor to be one of the people on the planet today. What an honor to join in with fellow earthlings to pursue solutions, not simply to avoid a catastrophe, but to work together to make the world a more stable, just, and peaceful place. It is an awful honor in ways, but one all the same to be not only witnesses to these vast global changes, but to also be able to take part in looking after each other as we provoke our specie to be humane in a time of climate change.
And strange as it may seem, I feel hope and faith–particularly in humans. I know it is the default setting these days to expect the worse in everyone. We have carved out our lives into warring camps. It is easy to lose confidence in government (corrupt! rigged! dysfunctional!)
Looking ahead and behind
But in addition to looking ahead to what the future may hold for us, I also study history. I look at how our ancestors faced massive challenges. They never responded perfectly. They made mistakes. At times there were outright abuses by some. But so often they rose to the challenge. They acted in extraordinary ways. They committed extreme acts of humanity.
I do not feel fear. I feel hope. I feel determination. I feel honored to be on the planet today. And I feel confidence that you will be historically significant in these strange and uncertain days ahead.
Y.E.C.A. Steering Committee members with three Y.E.C.A. Congolese Climate Leadership Fellows at a natural science training in Mwamba, Kenya. (from Left to Right, Andrew Kinzer, Diane Kyanga, Rachel Lamb, Faden Simbamtaki, Ben Lowe and Jolie Sifa Kpaka)
My Tangles with Evangelicals
Yes, I have had negative encounters with Evangelical Christians in the past. There was that whole period in my life when I struggled with being gay, and often well-meaning but misguided Evangelical Christians assisted in trying to destroy my gayness (and a bunch of my personality with it.)
Now I am in a new world of climate action. I know lots of people thinks Evangelicals + Global Warming = Denial in Jesus’ Name. Turns out there is a growing group of Evangelicals concerned about climate change.
Evangelicals Gone Climate Wild!
I recently spoke with Rachel Lamb from Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. As their name states, they are young Evangelicals speaking out to both their peers and faith leaders to act regarding climate change.
It was a fascinating conversation. In it we talked about development projects around the world and missionaries. Can these folks serve as eye-witnesses and trusted sources who will report back to their congregations in the USA about the dangers of climate change?
David Michael Terungwa (hand upraised) introducing low energy cooking stoves in a village.
He tells a moving story of how he has seen firsthand the effects of climate change. He also reveals how climate change affects women and girls in Nigeria and throughout much of Africa. They experience the effects of these rapid changes more than men in their communities.
If we want to see robust and meaningful action around climate change, than faith communities and leaders will need to be on-board. This is already happening. You can hear my interviews with Rachel and David Michael.
Missionaries as Climate Witnesses
Also, I imagine the role of Christian missionaries and their testimonies regarding global warming. In a radio report from the future, we discover just how instrumental these witnesses can be.
Check out this third episode of Citizens’ Climate Radio. We consider a variety of voices and have a monthly puzzler question. This is not a gloom and doom, fear and guilt podcast. Rather we offer hope and solutions, and I seek to do it with a professional, well edited audio magazine with great music. Enjoy!
Vigil for victims of Orlando shooting at LGBTQ club (credit ABC news)
Suffering is a constant companion
Like many people I feel paralyzed this week even as I press through to get work done. It’s hard to wrap one’s head around the future threats we face from climate change when the heart is so filled with anger and grief over the relentless assaults against LGBTQ bodies and lives today, particularly trans people and especially trans people of color who have been living under the threat and reality of extreme chronic violence for years.
The scale of the recent Orlando shooting is staggering; just as the number of names read at Transgender Day of Remembrance and the level of violence they endure are crushingly overwhelming.
Yes we have work to do and all that but the need to mourn and rage cannot be ignored. Grief is work and stirs up so much inner turmoil from the many injustices seen and faced that have been stuffed away daily in order to survive.
And I am someone far removed from the recent violence. I think of Puerto Rico where more than half the victims have family. The LGBTQ community there has been hit hard again. But this violence ripples far touching many people from all backgrounds. It reminds us of our past pains and current fears. It disrupts the narratives that so often comfort us about things getting better, a truth that is often not balanced with the harsh reality of how recent and tentative and selective the advancements are.
I write simply to make sense of my feelings and to acknowledge that this shit is hard. And obviously much harder for those closer to the tragedy.
Like many people I have needed distractions from the collective pain that has paralyzed many of us as we process the devastating tragedies in Orlando, Florida and the massive loss of life with the death and injuries of LGBTQ people, many of whom where Puerto Rican.
Finding comfort and escape through creative work
To comfort myself I have turned to food, obsessive Internet browsing and social media, porn, prayer, and gardening.
Working for myself at home this week has meant I’ve needed to detach from the Internet and plug myself into some creative work. Out of pain comes creativity and even comedy. I do find something comforting about creating art–even short silly videos with serious messages in them.
This week I produced the 50th and final episode of the Climate Stew podcast. I imagine most people who read my blog have not yet heard this show–most people don’t listen to podcasts. How can I describe it? Imagine a show produce in an NPR studio with some queer activists, a climate scientist, and the cast of MadTV (which I hear is coming back!)
The final show is a celebration, but also audio performance art with lots of storytelling and comedy.
Using comedy to explore violence and oppression
I have had a running feud between two of my characters–Marvin Bloom and Elizabeth Jeremiah. He is gay and married to a trans man; she is straight, and out and proud Conservative Evangelical preacher. As you can imagine, they get into lots of tussles. But in a surprising twist, we discover why Elizabeth Jeremiah has been so hard on Marvin. Her backstory is no doubt the first on a climate-themed podcast.
Back in the day when I attended Pentecostal Holiness churches, in addition to believing most people were chock full of demons, my ministers also warned us of generational curses. The sins of the fathers fall upon the heads of the sons to the third and fourth generation.
Is it a Demon, a Curse, or Both??
When no amount of repenting rid us of our homosexual inclinations, the ministers assumed we have a naughty ancestor (usually a sailor) who must have diddled with another man. As a result, like a demonic gene mutation, the man on man lust got passed along to us. They insisted we must break the power of these curses if we wish to live a good, clean life in the future.
Well, drawing on that experience, I present to you Elizabeth Jeremiah, a fierce minister of the Gospel, with a word for you. And like often happens with this character, she doesn’t end up where you might expect her to go.
My man, writer Glen Retief consulting the rail map
These days I get to move in and out of weird circles and meet some pretty extraordinary people. With my husband deep in the world of writing, I have the absolute joy (and at times anxiety-filled doubts) about meeting amazing writers. Breakfast with Melissa Banks, lunch with Carolyn Forche, dinner with Lydia Davis, a chat with Claudia Rankine and G.C. Waldrop, and drinks with Garth Greenwell. As soon as we finish, I feel compelled to dive into a book, well 12 of them.
Now that I am in the world of climate change and climate action, I find myself getting all giddy around a whole new set of luminaries. I am compiling a list of climate action figures. In the past year I have had close encounters with Elizabeth Kolbert, Katherine Hayhoe, José Lobo, and Halldór Björnsson.
When it comes to climate change, perhaps the Biggest Action Figure of them All is Dr. James Hansen.
He is best known for his research in climatology, his 1988 Congressional testimony on climate change that helped raise broad awareness of global warming, and his advocacy of action to avoid dangerous climate change. In recent years he has become a climate activist to mitigate the effects of climate change, on a few occasions leading to his arrest. -Wikipedia
I heard Dr. Hansen speak twice before, both times at the Citizens Climate Lobby annual international conference. He was swamped by eco-fans; I was too shy to elbow my way in and I worried I might step on someone’s sandaled clad feet or get snagged on someone’s 100% natural hemp poncho.
I will get nice and close to Dr. Hansen when he speaks at Arcadia University on Friday March 4 as part the regional gathering of Citizens Climate Lobby. Armed with my audio recorder, I may even grab an interview with the Hansen himself.
As the leader of my local Citizens Climate Lobby chapter, I will attend the conference AND on Saturday March 5 I will perform a special presentation: Confessions of a Climate Action Figure. It is a comedy routine about the weird new world of climate activism, well weird and new to me.
If you are able to come to the conference, which is right outside of Philadelphia, check out the website for more information. Come and see Dr. Hansen open for me 😛
Coat?!? My NIV Study Bible points me to the only other reference to the same garment: 2 Samuel 37:3 “the kind of garment the virgin daughters of the king wore.”
After questioning the idea of being Stewards of the Earth, and concluding that perhaps we are more like parasites and taking a new view of the passage about blaspheming the Holy Spirit, we end our three part series with the story of Joseph in Genesis.
One can easily read the book of Genesis with an eye towards water. So many wells. So many conflicts over wells. Then there are the droughts. The book is loaded with climate migrants escaping famine in search of greener pastures.
There also is a climate connection with Joseph. As Neil Grungras pointed out to me, he predicts climate change and devises a plan to adapt. During each the 7 years of amazing crops, he stores 5% of the bumper crop. Then during the 7 very lean, dry, famine years, there is food for the people. Ah, but as Fr. Joao Gwann Xerri, who I met in Malta years ago, suggested, Joseph’s plan was effective but unjust. In order to get the food from pharaoh it cost the people dearly.
First Joseph gave out grain if the people paid for it with the money they had. When they ran out of money, he took all their livestock. Still the famine raged on. If they wanted food from Pharaoh’s emergency manager, they needed to pay for it. The people begged for relief.
Why should we and our land perish before your very eyes? Take us and our land in exchange for food, and we will become Pharaoh’s slaves and our land his property; only give us seed, that we may survive and not perish, and that our land may not turn into a waste.”
So Joseph acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. Each of the Egyptians sold his field, since the famine weighed heavily upon them. Thus the land passed over to Pharaoh,and the people were reduced to slavery, from one end of Egypt’s territory to the other. Genesis 47:19-21
Breaking this story down for us is my favorite character, Marvin Bloom. Listen to his telling of this important story. I think there might be a lesson for us today. (transcript below)
Hi, This is Marvin, Marvin Bloom, and this is your moment with Marvin
Have you ever seen the musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. I like the book version better, in the book of Genesis, in the Bible. It has more details and less singing.
So Joseph is one of the youngest kids in a large blended family. His father Jacob, who changes his name to Israel has at least four sexual partners, I mean wives, I mean I don’t understand that lifestyle at all. Anyway there is a lot of tension in the family about inheritance rights; who’s gonna get all the stuff?
Since Joesph is the favorite son, and a bit of a brat, his brothers get rid of him. They ship him off to Egypt where he becomes a slave. He then gets in trouble, does jail time and ultimately becomes 2nd in command of the whole kingdom. And then he saves his family from starvation.
And that is the part that is interesting to me—the climate part of it. You see Pharaoh was having weird dreams. They hauled Joseph out of prison to interpret them. It was his thing. He said there would be 7 years of amazing weather with huge harvests. Then he warned of 7 years afterwards of horrible drought, famine, and potential starvation. He predicted temporary climate change AND he came up with an adaptation plan.
He suggested that Pharaoh grow as much grain as possible and stash it away in storage for a rainy day, well, many days with no rain. Then when the people are hungry and needy, there is food for them. And it was a successful plan. Thefamine hit and Pharaoh had mountains of food to feed a starving nation.
It was an effective plan, but it was not a just plan. It wasn’t fair. There is no such thing as a free lunch. In order to get Pharaoh’s grain, people had to sell everything they had and give it to the ruler. This turned Pharaoh into the ultimate 1% leading to oppression and slavery.
So what lesson do I get from this? In coming up with solutions to address the physical needs of people in a time of climate change, we need to calculate how the plan affects people’s right. Because climate change is a human rights issue.
This is Marvin and this has been your moment with Marvin.