Last week we celebration Coming Out Day. I have been out gay for a long, long time. Still there are subsequent coming out experiences all the time.
Coming Out has its risks; people do not always respond well when they learn something new about us. When I came out gay, I witnessed a variety of strong reactions: Surprise, Delight, Admiration, Distain, Disgust, but perhaps most difficult of all–Silence. Some people said nothing. They just moved on.
It’s been almost seven years since I had my second major coming out experience, one that perhaps shocked and surprised people more than even the gay one. I came out as someone desperately concerned about climate change and enthusiastically pursuing solutions. People had strong reactions and they misrepresented me. “So now you are an environmentalist?” Uh, no. You do not have to be an environmentalist to be concerned about climate change. Sure polar bears, but I am in it for human rights and as part of the queer liberation movement.
On Coming Out Day, a UK based group, Hope for the Future, hosted a climate symposium in Edinburgh, Scotland, and they invited me to give a presentation. I accepted and gave my short talk even though at the very same time I was in the wilds of Pennsylvania enjoying the raucous Milton Fringe Festival (It was like a fringe fringe!) Through the wonders of technology, I appeared via video in a pre-recorded message.
In this short video I reveal how to talk about climate change with humor, hope, and humanity. Enjoy.
A university professor reached out to me and asked me what resources I have for people who are concerned about climate change and who are beginning to feel distress and grief about it. We can get easily overwhelmed in taking on climate change and with the good work we are doing. In order for our work to remain sustainable so we do not lose our minds, we need to consider our mental health and wellness.
Through Citizens Climate Radio I take on this issue in a number of ways with some pretty amazing guests. Below are some episodes that address climate grief and despair. They provide helpful steps for how you can take care of yourself.
Ep 39 Envisioning and Communicating Climate Success features communication experts from NNOCCI—National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation. They are zoo and aquarium educators talking about climate change and base their techniques on research. In the episode they speak directly about climate grief and PTSD and how we can look after ourselves. The entire episode serves as encouragement and inspiration for anyone doing climate work.
Ep 23 Mental Health and Wellness features psychiatrist and expert on climate psychology, Dr. Lise Van Susteren. Also, public health expert Dr. Natasha DeJarnett joins her. It is a very honest and helpful discussion about how climate change emotionally and psychologically affects the public and climate advocates.
She might also appreciate my conversation with Dr. Katharine Hayhoe. We talked about the hope-despair binary and how she addresses climate dread.Ep 31 Dr. Katharine Hayhoe
Another great resource is The Good Grief Network , which “builds personal resilience while strengthening community ties to help combat despair, inaction, eco-anxiety, and other heavy emotions in the face of daunting systemic predicaments. The state of the world seems unmanageable, chaotic even.” They have articles, a podcast, and 10-Steps climate advocates can walk through.
What resources do you know about and want to share? Let us know in the comments below.
The histories of change that have made me hopeful are often about small groups that seem at the outset unrealistic in their ambition. Whether they were taking on slavery in antebellum USA or human rights in the Soviet bloc, these movements grew exponentially and changed consciousness and then toppled institutions or regimes. We also don’t know what technological breakthroughs, large-scale social changes, or catastrophic ecological feedback loops will shape the next 20 years. Knowing that we don’t know isn’t grounds for confidence, but it is fuel against despair, which is a form of certainty. This future is as uncertain as it’s ever been.
In the essay I reflect on the wacky things I did to de-gay myself. This included an uncomfortable exorcism designed to extract demons that may have entered my butt through sex.
Joanne believed the demons entered me directly. “You probably picked up these demons when you had sex with another man.” In other words, an STD—a sexually transmitted demon. This was in the mid-1980’s at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS Crisis when researchers and public health experts began warning the public that the virus spread through body fluids exchanged during sexual activity. As I sat on her bed in a New York high rise with the city laid out before me erect with skyscrapers, she explained the dangers of spiritual transmissions. “If you had oral sex, demons crawled down your throat. If you engaged in anal activity, well, then, that’s how they got in. They quickly take over.”
I know a thing or two about denial. I wonder about how my gay denial is similar and different to climate denial. Turns out there are all sorts of climate denial–not just the outright rejecting of climate science. I explore these.
While some people may not deny the reality of climate change, they may be in denial about how serious the crisis is and what it means for us. They assume we can all just lower our carbon footprints, recycle, and buy the right eco-products, and we will eventually tackle climate change. Though well-meaning, these actions do not recognize the severity of the problem. As my husband, Glen, likes to say, “It’s like giving an aspirin to a cancer patient.” Large problems require large solutions.
Many religious leaders are in denial about the responsibility they have in pursuing solutions. They may pop up a solar panel on the church roof and get rid of styrofoam cups for coffee time, yet they renege on their call to provide pastoral care for their congregations and community. People are frightened, angry, overwhelmed, and hopeless. Ministers have tools and training to meet these needs.
I also write about “Hope Deniers,” those people who think we have gone too far and there is no fix, so we might as well give up. Please read and share the article:
I end the piece with an appeal for action–no not to lower your carbon footprint. I provide alternative actions that people often undervalue but actually can have great impact.
With Bubble&Squeak I put together three things that seem to have little to do with each other.
Part one: Matthew Billy from the podcast Bleeped talks about censorship. From Drag Queen Story Hour to Mapplethorpe’s nude photos to climate change, he exposes the censors.
Part two: A prank call I made in 2010. I called sex advice expert Dan Savage host of the Savage Love podcast. I actually called in character, as Marvin Bloom. Mavin asked about struggles with anal sex. Dan took the call and aired it on Ep 202 of Savage Love Podcast.
Part three: a sound slice–The Path train from NJ to NYC
I am always hungry for climate change presentations that include playfulness, creativity, and thoughtfulness to them. Recently at Raritan Valley Community College, I met up with students who were working on the very first episode of their new science podcast. They decided they would start with the topic of climate change. Nothing like jumping right in to take on a tough issue.
Seriously, there is no topic more difficult to talk about than climate change. When I speak to Communications classes, I stress how hard it is to communicate effectively about climate change. Listeners shut down so quickly because of so many reasons–fear, shame, anger, despair, powerless, or a thick toxic combo of all those feelings. I joke that if you want to know if a on a TV cooking show a chef is really good, have that chef prepare a vegan meal. It takes real skill, nuance, and creatively. Similarly, if you want to challenge communication experts, have them give a presentation about climate change. It is the vegan meal of communications.
The students who produced episode one of RV Sci Pod, You Can Keep the Climate Change, met the challenge and created an effective, stimulating, whimsical, informed, and moving podcast about climate change. They play with time having some of the action take place in the future. They include characters, particularly a grandfather of the future and his grandchild. In an especially entertaining and insightful mock trial, they cleverly use real audio clips of famous people talking about climate change. They include the damning dismissiveness of Donald Trump and the passionate appeal of Richard Attenborough.
They pack all this and more into an episode of 35 minutes that never feels rushed or cluttered. The sound quality is excellent, and the tone they maintain throughout is welcoming, playful, and informed. This podcast is an excellent primer for the basics of climate change, but more than that it reaches the heart in unexpected ways. Just have a listen, share it with young people you know and older people too.
Writing for Forbes, Solitaire Townsend recounts hearing Harrison Ford speak about climate change in a very unconventional way,
“Let’s kick this monster’s ass!” roared Harrison Ford at the Global Climate Action Summit yesterday.
Now, as a girl, Indiana Jones and Han Solo got me hooked on storytelling, character and yes, fighting monsters. So, the idea of climate change as a monster story hooked my imagination.
But there’s a problem.
Because if you review most climate messages in the media, then this story actually has two acts: man makes monster, then monster destroys man.
It’s a grand morality tale which neatly fits a primordial structure in our subconscious. This plot sings to something deep within us, a tale we’ve told since we sat around fires weaving myths in the dark.
She goes on to explain,
Climate change isn’t presented to the public as plucky rebels against the empire. Instead climate is told as a Frankenstein story: that with our avarice and vanity, we have created the horror that will ultimately defeat us.
The narrative necessity of this climate story is hard to escape. Throughout this summer of ‘hothouse earth,’ and the decades leading up to it, this human hubris story has been the basic blueprint of climate change messaging.
Trauma is no joke. Conversion therapy was no picnic. Yet, I learned so much about comedy and the power of storytelling through my own experience of trying to become straight through a variety of “Ex-Gay” programs. Now that I talk about climate change, I find I keep returning to the Homo No Mo Halfway House and the techniques I developed to help people give a damn about the the harm of conversion therapy. Yes, they needed to hear just how awful it was, but they also needed to see how ridiculous it was.
For instance in the gay rehab I lived in for two years, they had over 275 rules. But one time they added a new rule–No Bananas in the House. Apparently a fellow participant had a PFF–a Phallic Fruit Fetish. As a result, we were forbidden to bring into the facility any phallus shaped fruits. The condition though extended into the vegetable world–so no cucumbers, no zucchinis, no carrots–oh, except the mini carrots; they didn’t bother him.” Horrible and hilarious all in one.
I don’t know about you, but it is easy to be that person at the party who brings the festivities to a halt. “Hey Peterson, what’s going on in your life and work?” I straighten up, smile, and say, “I’m really excited about my presentations about climate change.” People tense up. They expect the prophet of gloom and doom and shame and blame to start spewing forth.
It is easy to do. Climate change is downright dire and scary. I learned a long time ago though when talking about sexuality and the Bible, people need help to come close to these hot topic issues that stir up strong, negative emotions.
Toscano said in a recent interview that comedy can be an effective strategy for engaging people in difficult topics. Toscano, who is gay, spent nearly two decades undergoing conversion therapy, the discredited practice of attempting to alter a person’s sexual orientation. After abandoning the therapy and coming out, he struggled to talk about the harm he had experienced.
“I needed to tell that story, but telling it directly was too overwhelming for me and my audience,” he said. “It was too heavy, and it was bringing in hot-topic issues of faith and sexuality that provoked people. I realized I needed a different way.”
Toscano said sharing his experiences in this way made the topic more approachable.
“The problem is, when people are tense, particularly when they’re afraid or ashamed or angry, they don’t think as clearly,” he said. “So comedy helps, because it can address a lot of those things. It relaxes the audience physically and mentally so they can hear what you’re saying.”
At most festivals and conferences I attend, queer and straight, it’s like we are on a different planet–one that is not warming. Glad to see Greenbelt Festival 2018 is taking it on climate change and letting me do my quirky queer Quaker gay climate exposé.
One of the unfortunate consequences of climate denial both in the US and the UK, although it’s been less of an issue there, is that when someone does not deny climate change, they feel as if they’re somehow Progressive.
The bar is so low.
The reality is people who claim they’re concerned about climate change virtually put no thought into it. In fact, I think people who are dismissive of climate change end up talking and reading more about it than the average person who says they believe climate change is real.
I was just at a wonderful Festival in Ontario, Canada, and all of these incredibly earnest church leaders were asking questions about how they could make the church much more relevant, particularly to the young people. Yet nobody was talking about climate change. Whenever I brought it up, people’s response were typically, “Yeah it’s crazy that some people deny it exists.” Or something like, “We’re doing a lot to lower our carbon footprints.”
I rarely hear about a larger framework for understanding how to talk about this issue. I see no real curiosity to find out how.
Of course there are people who are beginning to wake up to this and becoming curious, but many want nothing to do with it.
I was the same way myself for a long time. I believed I had bigger fish to fry. Or I assumed big important people were taking care of it so I didn’t need to worry about it. But this is one of those issues that we need all hands on deck. And we each have something significant to contribute.
I am on the train from Boston to Washington traveling from one climate change gathering to another. I’m off to the Citizens Climate International Conference and Lobby Day to learn more about climate change policy in Washington, to c0-facilitate a workshop on Telling Better Climate Stories, and to serve as a volunteer lobbyists speaking to a US Senator from PA and a US Representative from my district in PA.
My mind, heart, and notebook are filled up from the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change gathering convened by HowlRound in Boston. 30 theater professionals from North America, South America, and Asia gathered to talk about climate change theater and to explore next steps in creating projects, resources, and ideology for the work we do.
This chilling thought immediate got me wondering, Are humans the new Neanderthals?
Una Chaudhuri of NYU referenced Amitov Ghosh and The Great Derangement throughout the weekend. Most notably she reminded us on how modernity is a delusion. We have lived with the mad notion for the past 400 years that we are the controllers of the earth. We now have an opportunity to return to earth–to become earthlings again.
She also spoke about the need to decolonize our minds, which got me thinking of the need to decolonize our imaginations. Our imaginations have been hacked by the climate denial narrative. Climate change communicators give presentations that almost always contain a section that once again asserts that reality is real: “See! Climate change is really happening.” The traditional environmentalist playbook points us towards individual actions of lowering personal carbon footprints. But what if we throw both out? What if we liberate our minds and imaginations from the patterns and constructs passed down to us–the talking points above along with self-centered, wasteful, racist, classist, heterosexist, human-centric thinking?
Hearing Una and then reflecting on this, I was reminded of Doris Lessings’ Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, a print collection of lectures that helped me liberate my own mind from years of anti-gay ideology.
Una is very much involved in the work of Climate Lens.
a network of theatre makers and culture workers who pursue an imaginatively expansive approach to the phenomena of climate chaos, seeking new perspectives that include but also move beyond questions of politics and policy–and beyond expressions of fear, anger, and despair.
Una Chaudhuri also told me about Meet the Climate posters created by DearClimate.net. As she explained the concept to me, I was reminded yet again about the importance of whimsy in this climate work. With slogans like, “Spend Quality Time with an Insect,”Gobble the Landscape,” and “Bored? Talk about the Weather,” along with the simple black and white images, these posters blend the silly with the serious.
Someone gave the definition of performance as twice behaved behavior. I see a reference of it in Richard Schechner’s 1995 second draft of his Performance Studies Handbook:
And, of course, each of these performances enact specific sequences of events. More often than not, these sequences tell a story, as in drama, the Mass, and the seder dinner. Or, as in sports and games, the events separate out winners from losers,forming a temporary and contested hierarchy, just as initiation rites separate out adults from children, the married from the single, even the living from the dead, creating distinctions and hierarchies of a more lasting kind.
Thus performances mark identities, bend and remake time,adorn the body with costumes, and provide people with behavior that is “twice-behaved,” not-for-the-first time, rehearsed, cooked, prepared.
We had a discussion about Hope and Despair. On a spectrum we were asked to put ourselves on the line between these two common climate change binaries. I found myself resisting these two poles; in my work I have taken myself off of this spectrum. It is not helpful. I remember hearing the hosts of the podcast, No Place Like Home, talking about the hope/despair setup. What is needed is not hope but courage.
I decided to create a new space for myself–Determination. I aspire to live without the push and pull between hope and despair and instead to embrace that place of determination no matter how I feel and how grim things may look.
With the suicide of Anthony Bourdain breaking as we began our convening, the idea of climate change as a global act of suicide (and homicide) came up in discussion. For episode 22 of Citizens Climate Radio show, author Claire Vaye Watkins speaks about how she associates climate change with suicide in her mind and how as a species we are experiencing a collective suicide.
Based on the adage “nothing about us, without us,” storytelling needs to be developed by, or in partnership with, those whose experiences are being shared. Creative collaboration centering the experiences and aspirations of communities is a feature of many long standing traditions in art, journalism, and storytelling. However, this work is often undervalued, or dismissed as aesthetically inferior in the fine art world and mainstream media. Intentional support of queer, disabled, black, indigenous, people of color and/or women -led media making is critical to ensure community histories, traditions, languages, and truths are honored, celebrated, and accurately represented with beauty, power, and authenticity. (Click here for the full document and to learn how you can signal your agreement of these principles.)
I do not remember who said it, but I agree that the Act of Making Theater is a rich and rewarding one that can create community, stimulate imagination, and bring about change in and of itself.
In the beginning of the second day of our convening, we had time for reflection. In gatherings like this there is rarely time to quietly think, so I was grateful for a moment where the facilitators asked us to think radically about what we want to do with theater. If resources were not an issue, what do you dream of doing?
I envision an audience weeping. Emotional breakdown in a Tent Revial. Conversion. Commitment> “Come down to this altar and give your life to this new earth.” Repent! Find mercy, freedom, and new life. Rumbling from the earth all nature groans> Lay down your arms. Turn from your sinful ways. Softly and Tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.
Rev. Yolanda from the Old Time Gospel Hour
I imagined a climate-themed Tent Revival. Both absurd and sublime tent revivals are spectacles. I remember my days in Pentecostal and Fundamentalist church and the revival meetings designed to “save souls” and lead people to rededicate their lives to the Lord. What would this look like related to climate change?
I envisioned the New Beginnings Tent Revival lead by fictional characters, Rev. Josiah B. Simpson. Music provided by The New Earth Singers. Special ministry by Mother Phoebe Bloom, and semi fictional drag personas, Elizabeth Jeremiah, and Rev. Yolanda. It is time for that New Time Religion!
Here are some books and resources I want to remember:
Rob Davies, “a physicist and educator whose work focuses on synthesizing a broad range of Earth Systems science through a lens of human systems sustainability and planetary boundaries.” We had a candid and frank conversation about climate change, one that once again jarred me to see the risks we face and the devastating effects humans have had on the planet. With Rising Tide, Rob’s talk is accompanied by a chamber orchestra and visual art to help people better understand climate change.
M.J. Halberstadt, a fellow climate comedy theater queer. M.J. is a playwright and academic whose career I will follow closely.
Abhishek Majumdar is a playwright, director, and scenographer based out of Bangalore. His insights into outdoor theater and drawing on traditional site specific performance stirred up a longing to travel to Bangalore.
Grisha Coleman reminded me to live in my body, be in my body, and move my body. Her kinesthetic excercise got me thinking about my need to get back to reflections on broken bodies, something I did back in 2014 when I first began to formulate art around climate change. An artist intention I now have is to return to the exploration of broken bodies and the experience of living in, living with, and living on broken bodies.
I feel deep gratitude for the organizers of the Theatre in the Age of Climate Change convening and for my theater colleagues who live in this strange, risky, painful, and potentially creatively explosive intersection of climate change and art
May 30, 2018 / Climate Change / Comments Off on Climate Change Comedy?
As a lover of comedy, I tend to watch a lot of sitcoms and standup. Lately I have been obsessed with the short silent films Buster Keaton created over 100 years ago. I am also reading David Bianculli’s book about the Smothers Brothers, a comedy duo who had an American TV show that paved the way for so many people and was a pre-cursor to Saturday Night Live.
While zany slapstick comedy works for me just fine, I do appreciate comedy with a message behind it. As someone concerned about climate change, I am always on the hunt for good climate change comedy. It is harder to find than you might imagine. While people love making fun of those people who are dismissive of climate change, beyond mocking these folks, there has been little comedy produced around climate change.
I was thrilled to interview Brian Ettling, a climate change comic who landed a national appearance on the Tosh.O TV show. Brian and I have a fun, free-wheeling conversation about the role of comedy, the challenges of climate comedy, and how talking about climate change is like passing gas at a dinner party. Lots of laughs and insights. Check it out at Citizens’ Climate Radio.
Writing for South Africa’s Daily Maverick, my husband, Glen Retief reflects on his early 1990’s encounter with civil rights lawyer, David Buckel. What jarred the memory was David Buckel’s controversial, disturbing, and carefully orchestrated public suicide last month in Brooklyn, NY.
At dawn he wheeled a barrow to Prospect Park, near his workplace. In it he had a jug of petrol, the kind you bring back from the BP when you run out along the road. He also had a printed copy of another suicide letter, which he left in the barrow. In this one, he apologised to the police for leaving a mess.
No one witnessed his self-immolation, although we can all probably picture it after Malcolm Browne’s classic photograph of the monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself alight in Saigon in 1963: the placid serenity, the eerie, unshakable commitment.
In a note Buckel emailed the day of his death he stated he took his life in protest of our inaction to address climate change. He suggests his suicide mirrors what we are doing to ourselves as a specie. He soaked himself in gasoline and set himself alight leaving loved ones behind, including a college-aged daughter.
In reacting to this dramatic and extreme act, writers and commenters in print and on social media immediately began commenting on Buckel’s mental health. They proposed various psychological reasons why Buckel would kill himself. This could not simply be an act of political witness.He must have been depressed, suicidal for a long time, weary of life, perhaps because of a recently diagnosed terminal disease. Why else would he do something so violent to himself and so thoughtless to his loved ones?
Right-wing media reacted quickly and with lots of heat and derision. I am not surprised the folks who dismiss the reality of climate change were some of the first to mock Buckel and his death. But strong reactions to Buckel’s death and multiple distractions away from his message have come from all political corners.
I have spent time reading Buckel’s final words he emailed to the New York Times other media.
“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
In his note, which was received by The Times at 5:55 a.m., Mr. Buckel discussed the difficulty of improving the world even for those who make vigorous efforts to do so.
Privilege, he said, was derived from the suffering of others.
“Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help,” Mr. Buckel wrote, adding that donating to organizations was not enough.
Noting that he was privileged with “good health to the final moment,” Mr. Buckel said he wanted his death to lead to increased action. “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death,” he wrote.
What I find curious about Buckel’s death is not all the reasons–stated or unknown–for why he did it. Rather I am curious about what his self-immolation does to us and for us. People are quick to judge, to condemn, to minimize, and to turn the conversation to anything but Buckel’s message.
Suicide is a dreadful and unnecessary route to take. LGBTQ people are working hard to stay alive and to create a world where we thrive and enjoy life. Suicide always pushes a lot of buttons for many people for multiple reasons.
I must return to Buckel’s message though–regardless of what we may feel about how he chose to highlight it. He tells us his death mirrors what we are doing to ourselves and our loved ones.
We have soaked our lives and our economies with fossil fuels.
We have ignited global warming.
Some people claim Buckel was mentally ill or emotionally unstable. I point you to Amitav Ghosh, who write how we are all deranged when it comes to climate change. We are on a heedless, irrational, suicidal course that can only be explained by a mass derangement.
When people point out the thoughtlessness of Buckel’s action and how it affects his loved ones, particularly his daughter, I see even this as a mirror to us for all of the ways we do not do enough to ensure our descendants have a safe and stable place to live.
My major critique of Buckel’s actions is that we still need him, even if he believed his death will have a bigger impact than the rest of his life would have had. This is not the time to give up, to jump ship, to abandon the effort and say all is lost. I will not pretend everything will be ok, or there is a lot of hope. We have set ourselves on a risky path with lots of dangerous consequences. We will need courage for the days ahead even more than hope. We need to believe in each other more than we believe is possible. And though I strongly advocate against suicide, I do believe there are many other ways we can put our bodies on the line. Like the fierce, creative, and controversial early HIV/AIDS activists, we need to move systems and use our heads, hearts, and bodies to do so.
I will continue to look at Buckel’s death as a mirror, one with a dreadful and disturbing image looking back at all of us. “…my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
On a spring day in a park in NYC a gay rights lawyer set himself aflame with the hope of showing us what we most often refuse to see.