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.