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Queer Ecology

This article was originally published on The Years Project website

The ways in which we consider nature are complex. They’re nuanced and varied, intimate yet public — the modes with which we identify and perceive ourselves entirely influence the ways we are capable of discussing and understanding the world around us. Our identities provide perspective and context, but they also exclude other perspectives. For example, the way a mother would look at a doe and her fawn is different from the way a hungry hunter might view the pair. Alternatively, we can see this in the ways that BIPOC bodies are excluded from ideas of wilderness. The western idea of “wilderness” is one that erases Indigenous ownership of the land, and instead paints it as empty, pristine, and to be conquered and colonized by those in positions of power. The stories we tell about the more-than-human world matter, and now more than ever, it is worth examining the origins of those stories. If we hope to solve the climate crisis, we must diversify our narrative and open our imaginations to new ways of being and interacting — these stories of ours are old, and they don’t suit us anymore. Our current crisis requires a multifaceted, intersectional approach — our ideas of nature demand the same plurality.

To understand the reductive ways in which we have categorized the natural world, one needs go no further than the American Museum of Natural History in New York. On June 22 of this year, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt standing outside the museum was removed. Roosevelt stood framed by a Native American and a Black man, both considerably lower than him, portrayed as “savages.” This act of removing a colonizing and genocidal figure from the forefront of one of America’s institutions of nature is a powerful and symbolic action, but when one ventures inside the museum, the narrative of conquest and binary duality between “civilized man” and “uncivilized nature” remains. The dioramas display a repetitive and established narrative of the natural world – most groupings show a large and vigilant male, one or two females, and a baby. These groupings reproduce a heteronormative nuclear family, even among species where such “families” are unlikely to be found in the living world. One of the animals’ gaze extends beyond the glass and catches the eye of the viewer, and, according to Donna Haraway, a champion of queer ecology, “holds it in communion. The animal is vigilant, ready to sound an alarm at the intrusion of man, but ready also to hold forever the gaze of meeting, the moment of truth, the original encounter.” The museum tells a certain story of the systems of life on earth, and humankind’s relationship to them. It is within this narrative that we have shaped our own ideas of nature, and have learned to view the more-than-human world in certain established terms.

Statue of Teddy Roosevelt, before it was removed from the front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Photo: Mike Steele.

Queer ecology is an academic mode of thought combining queer theory with environmental studies with the goal of diversifying our narratives of the natural world. Queerness is an integral part of life on earth. Beyond human sexuality and gender, queerness refers to that which is beyond standard convention, that which is paradoxical, contradictory, and counterintuitive. Isn’t it queer the way some ecosystems demand fire and destruction to thrive? How strange is it that an octopus in the Pacific brooded over her eggs for 4 years, and no one knows why? Our natural world is always taking us by surprise, changing our minds, and proving us wrong. To quote Haraway, “there is a polyphony of stories, and they do not harmonize.” Unfortunately, our traditional ideas of nature do not lend themselves easily to this polyphony. This is where the queering of ecology comes in handy.

Queerness in ecology is a concept broader than sexuality or gender identity. It is an all-encompassing wink to weirdness in the more-than-human world, and serves as an alternative to the binary and reductive modes of thought in which so many of us have been trained. When I say queer ecology, I don’t mean to say that we must impose our ideas of human sexuality onto nature (although, fascinatingly, in my research I have learned that both dolphins and red squirrels are bisexual, and geese can be monogamous to a fault) – however, it is worth considering the anthropomorphism with which we view reproduction on this planet. We can’t seem to talk about sex and reproduction without making it so…human. No, when I say queer ecology, I mean an ecology that is not binary or dualistic, but inhabits plurality and paradox. An ecology that is many things at once, and doesn’t quite make sense. Queering ecology is the act of broadening our understanding of our relationships with the larger world – the world that is more than human. Alex Johnson explores this imaginative process in his article “How to Queer Ecology: One Goose At a Time,” in which he states, “Queer ecology, then, is the study of dynamics across all phenomena, all behavior, all possibility. It is the relation between past, present, and future.”

Queer ecology asks us to abandon ideas of human exceptionalism and anthropomorphism, and instead urges us to see ourselves as unique parts of a complex and interworking system, whose patterns and processes are different from our own. It deconstructs the dualistic notions of “human” and “natural,” and strips the word “natural” of any power. In the human world, the word “natural” has been ascribed a level of authority and moral agency — to be heterosexual is “natural.” To be cisgender is “natural.” To be able-bodied, monogamous, and to fill one’s designated societal role is “natural.” In this context, “natural” becomes less of a classification for what is other-than-human, and more a tool for humans to categorize, suppress, and restrict one another. How can we unlearn this association, and ensure that we do not extend it to the biogeophysical realm? How can we queer nature, and what will we gain from doing so? When we assign something a label and an identity, we immediately restrict it. In a human example, specific definitions such as “woman” have demanded an explicit set of criteria that doesn’t apply to many women – for instance, possessing a certain biology or sexual orientation. Our labels have meaning, and exclusionary potential. Let us be mindful of them.

When the stories we tell about the natural world and our interactions with it become so uniform, widespread, and binary, we prevent ourselves from imagining humans and the more-than-human world complexly. To call something queer is to call it many things at once, to call it unnameable, to call it beyond our conventions of imagination. Let us remember Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. We are large — we contain multitudes.”

A queer nature is one that is messy. That doesn’t align with human narratives of balance or progress, that is infinitely possible, that allows us to be both right and wrong in the stories we tell about it. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s different for all of us. Just like with people, when we restrict nature to a single narrative — a straightforward, binary, commodified way of being — we restrict ourselves from the possibility of imagining something better — something communal, intersectional, and diverse, that contains multiple perspectives. Imagine a nature that is composed of many stories, many ways of being, many ways of engaging. Imagine what we could build. To quote Johnson again, “I am also natural. I am also alive and dynamic and full of contradiction, paradox, irony. Queer knocks down the house of cards and throws them into the warm wind.” When we call nature one thing and call humans another, or when we call some humans natural and others unnatural, we are creating divides where there ought to be bridges. And the world lends itself to this weird queerness, if we’re willing to drop our preconceptions at the door.

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