She writes about Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in 2005. Being on the front lines of climate change has changed people’s attitudes about a crisis that many ignored or denied for so long.
Fifteen years later, the psychological and economic destruction have not left us. And Louisiana continues to serve as a real-time state of reference for the harrowing effects of climate change. In 2016, Isle de Jean Charles, mostly home to residents who belong to the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, became known as the first place to have climate “refugees” from Louisiana.
We’re still face-to-face with grief. But acceptance is also evident. Last year, Republican Congressman Garret Graves took a stand against climate denial. In February of this year, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the formation of a new Climate Initiatives Task Force to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions and building resilience for the coast. Just last week, in a historic move for our state, he signed two executive orders on behalf of this initiative.
I live in rural Central Pennsylvania. My attempts to learn about the history of the original inhabitants before Europeans arrived has been challenging. It takes digging around as there are no public markers or easily accessible information. Therefore, I was thrilled to chat with Elizabeth Wisler. She is part Lenape and Choctaw, and is a registered member of the Cherokee Nation. For five years she lived in nearby Williamsport, PA working in theater and the arts. She walked along the Susquehanna River keenly aware of what was missing.
“I just couldn’t help but feel an absolute absence and erasure every time I walked on the River Walk. I would really like more people to understand what happened there—to the land, to the trees, to the people. An enormous amount of trauma happened in that area,” she says in the interview I feature in the most recent Susquehanna Life Out Loud podcast. She speaks about the land and the people, and reads a letter from President George Washington that made my blood go cold. He gives the command to destroy the land and the original inhabitants. It is a powerful conversation.
Joining me on the show is Andrew Stuhl, an associate professor of environmental studies and sciences at Bucknell University and someone very involved in the local Green New Deal chapter. Andrew is committed to hearing and sharing people’s stories. He believes the memories and experiences of the past can guide us today and for the future. With the Agnes Flood Project, he and his team are connecting with local survivors of the historic 1972 flood. He sees valuable lessons in what they have to share.
In 2019 I set the goal to learn out to write and produce radio dramas. After taking an on-line course in Dublin, Ireland. As part of the class I had to write the first act of a play and create character sketches. That took a long time, maybe three months to get right, but from there the play took off.
The play is set in New York City in the year 2028. The main characters, Kyle and Joey, are a couple with a lot of tension in their relationship because of all the queer friends they took into their one bedroom apartment after yet another storm hit the city. One of them wants to do more while the other just wants to leave the city immediately. While the topic is serious, the playfulness of the couple and the sexual tension between them comes rises to the surface.
For Climate Change Theatre Action, I submitted the first act as a stand-alone play, and it was read at events in North America and Europe during the fall 2019. Then while I was activist in residence at Susquehanna University, I asked two students, Jordan Sanderson and Israel Collazo, to read the play for me to record.
That is when the fun began! I added all sorts of sound effects to create a NYC soundscape. I included it in Decembers Bubble&Squeak show. The play was also published in Geez Magazine. They included it in an excellent issue about hospitality.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.