Queer Environmental Futures

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Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in the series, Succession: Queering the Environment, which centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.

What can queering the future bring to the climate crisis? For the last several years, my collaborator Alison Taylor and I have been dealing with that question through a creative project called “Queer Environmental Futures.” As part of this project, in 2019, we hosted and participated in an arts residency called Queer Environmental Worlds at Anima Casa Rural, a permaculture farm outside of Guadalajara, Mexico. Artists working in various media from Canada, the US, and Mexico participated and it culminated in a group show at Estudio Teorema in Guadelajara.

For the residency, queering environmental futures meant breaking down the divisions between utopia and dystopia. Part of our goal with this project is to challenge the paradigms of colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and hetero and cisnormativity that have brought us to this environmentally precipitous moment. We were supposed to hold the residency again in June 2020, but, obviously with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was cancelled. Instead, we have ended up doing an online digital residency and social media takeover with our local artist run centre Connexion in Fredericton, New Brunswick (where we live) on the theme of Queer Environmental Futures: Isolation.

Environmental thinkers have noted that mainstream media often presents the climate crisis as huge, insurmountable, and impossible to solve, which can give us a sense that the future is impossible. The Queer Environmental Futures project brings strategies from queer art and activism to climate change. Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands notes that queer art from the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis can give us ethical ways to mourn environmental losses. The devastating losses experienced by queer communities in the 1980s can teach us about “grieving the ungrievable;” grieving queer lives in a homophobic society can open up ways to grieve extinct species and devastated land experienced in climate change.

“The Queer Environmental Futures project brings strategies from queer art and activism to climate change.”

More recently, studies have shown that LGBTQIA2SQ+? youth are unable to imagine livable futures for themselves and it puts them at a higher risk of suicide and suicidal ideation than their peers. Drawing on our histories of art, activism, and resilience, the queer community has rallied around youth. In recent decades, queer communities have repeatedly faced the sense of an impossible future, and our histories of art and activism offer models when confronted with the unthinkable futures from climate change. As Nicole Seymour notes, queer ecological futurity is possible, and it offers an ethical and politicized way of dealing with ecological devastation.

Obviously, there are many other communities, and their LGBTQIA2S members, who have faced “no future” moments in the last several centuries due to legacies of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism, including Indigenous and black communities. (See Kim Tallbear and Mary Annaise Hegler.) What we are hoping this project can do is bring the relatively recent art and activist practices of queer communities (which obviously include black, Indigenous, and racialized folks) to the larger struggle for liveable futures for everyone in the face of climate change.  

Queer Environmental Futures: Isolation Project. Connexion. Image provided by Sabine LeBel

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we have been following with interest the connections being made between COVID and earlier pandemics, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the climate crisis. In Xtra Magazine, Rachel Giese notes that community care strategies from HIV/AIDS will serve us in dealing with the coronavirus. For those who fear they might be HIV-positive, it’s advisable to seek a location which offers an hiv testing kit. Leftover fabric from the AIDS quilt is being used to make face masks during the pandemic. We have also been participating in many shared, online, and collaborative queer art projects, many of which have a clear environmental bent. While LGBTQIA2S?+ individuals and queer communities have unique vulnerabilities, and COVID-19 has pushed some into further isolation, particularly those in already marginalized positions, we have also witnessed incredible community resilience and creativity (see Ramsawakh).

Our Connexion Isolation project was a daily prompt (thirst, power, isolation, etc.), an art piece we each make in response to it, and a call for folks to contribute. It ran May 6th to May 15th, 2020. These daily art projects were low-stakes, easy and accessible, made from readily available materials around the home, and included sketches, drawings, poems, collages, one-shot videos, little ditties, performances, and dances. The idea was to include as many people as possible, from bored folks looking for an activity during the pandemic to artists with an established practice. We were particularly hoping to engage members of various LGBTQIA2S?+ communities in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and elsewhere, who may be feeling the COVID isolation in particular ways: cut off from community and support, and in some cases, housed in very hetero- and cis-normative spaces (see Egale report). We are hoping to have a group show once we are able to safely gather together in public. (See Connexion ARC Facebook page for the project)

Queer Environmental Futures: Isolation Project. Connexion. Image provided by Sabine LeBel.

Queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz looks at queer art practices since the 1970s to suggest that they offer ways of thinking about queer futurity. He considers everyday performativity and queer aesthetics as a way to imagine queer futures. This is particularly inspiring for this project as we’re thinking about imagining sustainable, queer futures through daily art projects for the Connexion residency, and queer art practices in general for the larger project. For the Anima Casa Rural residency in 2019, we asked participants to image the future as sustainable and fueled by a spirit of radical ethical experimentalism. In one workshop participants imagined a designer genitalia catalogue, plant-human communication technologies, social taxes on queer identities, and a Tree Spirit political campaign. These responses offer critiques of the ways in which queer bodies and identities are both erased from the political sphere and also commoditised and sold back to us. They also reimagine political economy as based around our relationship with the environment. As we continue with the Queer Environmental Futures project, we hope to keep using queer aesthetics to connect artists and reimagine paths towards a sustainable post-oil future.

Work Cited:

Browning, Bill. “Leftover Fabric from the AIDS Quilt is Being Used to Make Face Masks for Healthcare Workers.” LGBTQNation.com, 12 April 2020, https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2020/04/leftover-fabric-aids-quilt-used-make-face-masks-healthcare-workers/. Accessed 12 April 2020.

Giese, Rachel. “Lessons from AIDS on How to Survive Coronavirus.” DailyXtra.com, 13 March 2020, https://www.dailyxtra.com/aids-coronavirus-168516. Accessed 13 March 2020.

Hegler, Mary Annaise. “Climate Change Ain’t the First Existential Threat.” Medium.com, 18 February 2019, https://medium.com/s/story/sorry-yall-but-climate-change-ain-t-the-first-existential-threat-b3c999267aa0. Accessed 14 February 2020.

@KimTallBear, Kim. “Indigenous apocalypse has come in waves. Indigenous peoples have been skill building for this one for 524 years #NoDAPL.” Twitter, 15 September 2016, 8:38 a.m. https://twitter.com/kimtallbear/status/776445050754441216?lang=en.

Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona. “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies.” Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, edited by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson. Indiana University Press, 2010, 331-358.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.

“National Survey National Survey Results: The Impact of COVID-19 on the LGBTQI2S Community.” Egale.ca, 6 April 2020. https://egale.ca/egale-in-action/covid19-impact-report/. Accessed 13 May 2020.

Ramsawakh, Mari. “How queer disabled artists are maintaining community during COVID-19.” DailyXtra.com, 30 March 2020. https://www.dailyxtra.com/covid-19-queer-disabled-artists-community169257utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=smad&utm_campaign=fbad&utm_content=Traffic%3A+queer+disabled+artists. Accessed 13 May 2020.

Seymour, Nicole. Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2013.

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Sabine LeBel

Sabine LeBel is an artist and educator in the area of environmental media studies, with projects in the areas of visual culture, waste, and queer futurity. She is an Assistant Professor in the Culture and Media Studies at the University of New Brunswick Fredericton.

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