Black Lives, Black Birds, and the Unfinished Work of Queer Ecologies

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Editor’s Note: This is the eighth and concluding 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.


Part I

On the same day this Spring that George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis, birdwatcher Christian Cooper was targeted by a racist white woman named Amy Cooper in a section of New York City’s Central Park known as the Ramble. The former first asked the latter to comply with the Ramble requirement of leashing her dog, and then prepared to cajole the dog with treats; as he told CNN, “[the Ramble is] important to us birders because we know that dogs won’t be off leash at all and we can go there to see the ground-dwelling birds. … People spend a lot of money and time planting in those areas as well” (Vera and Ly, n.p.). Instead of complying, Amy Cooper made her now-infamous phone call to the police.

Pierre de Sable, “Central Park New York,” Flickr Commons.

Following A. Paige Frazier’s post for this series, which holds that “queerness is in part defined by a reconstitution, disidentification, or dis/orientation of or from a category considered to be normative or hegemonic,” we might recognize several queer ecological operations in this story. Most prominently, Christian Cooper was self-assuredly occupying a type of natural space not originally designed to accommodate him. As Cate Sandilands and Bruce Erickson explain in their introduction to the 2010 collection Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Indiana University Press), parks “were a curative response” to the supposed ills of nineteenth-century urban America, including ethnic/racial mixing and female empowerment: “they were created in part as places in which [white] heterosexual masculinity could be … solidified away from the dramatic upheavals of American social and economic transformation, a restoration of the dominant social body through rigorous, health-giving recreation” (13).[1]

Not incidentally, in the particular case of Central Park, New York City planners destroyed an African-American settlement in the process of construction.[2] Thus, while Amy Cooper is female, she was clearly upholding that hegemonic history in spirit, as well as the larger status quo that Katie Hogan describes in her post for this series: “black, poor, and brown people in the United States and elsewhere are disproportionately relegated to geographical areas without access to clean air, water, and wondrous natural views.” In sum, only certain people are allowed to access “nature” and its benefits.


“Only certain people are allowed to access ‘nature’ and its benefits.”


From a queer ecological perspective, we might also appreciate Christian Cooper’s recognition of spaces like the Ramble as constructed products of human labor; the phrase, “[p]eople spend a lot of money and time planting” offers a pragmatic, even Marxist view of “nature,” as opposed to a typically romanticized one. And, of course, we could label as queerly ecological Cooper’s subject position as a “gay black birder” (Betancourt, n.p.). But we can go beyond a simplistic identity-based understanding of that subject position, especially if we heed Jessica DeWitt’s reminder in the introduction to this series that “queer” is not just a noun but also a verb. Simply put, I think the phrase “gay black birder” allows us to queer, or rethink, the dynamics of racialization, including the ways that race informs the category of the animal as well as of the human.

To fully explain this claim, permit me a detour to another black birder, J. Drew Lanham, author of the 2013 article “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher;” the 2017 memoir The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature; and this year’s “New Revelations for the Black American Bird-Watcher,” written in the wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder and published two days after the Floyd and Cooper incidents. Lanham’s fifth rule for the black birdwatcher reads:

Black birds—any black birds—are your birds. The often-overlooked black birds, family Icteridae, are declining across the board. Then there are the other birds that just happen to be black—crows and their kin are among the smartest things with feathers and wings. They’re largely ignored because of their ubiquity and often persecuted because of stereotype and misunderstanding. Sounds like profiling to me. (n.p.)

Here we can understand that the terms “Black Birdwatcher” and “black birder” can be read in more than one way, just as Lanham’s choice of “colored” in his memoir’s subtitle aligns him with colorful world of birds. (Elsewhere in The Home Place, Lanham explicitly enacts this slippage between human and animal in comparing each of his family members to specific types of birds.)

Vera Sayão, “A Black Bird,” Flickr Commons.

Importantly, Lanham’s attunement to “stereotyp[ing]” and “profiling” extends to sexual behavior in addition to color, exemplifying queer ecological approaches. As Lanham reports of bluebirds in The Home Place, “[p]eople everywhere are enchanted with their beauty, soothing songs, and apparently gentle natures. But these attributes lead to certain assumptions about lifestyle. Monogamous, heterosexual, married” (136). His field research taught him, instead, that “[t]here was enough sex and violence in their world to put soap operas and trashy talk show television to shame. The voyeurism and lab work showed that not only was paternity uncertain, with males floating around to find sex everywhere, but females were much more in control of who was ‘lovin’’ whom than anyone had previously believed.” These observations, Lanham concludes, “were foundational for changing the minds of those thinking about animal behavior and defining our thoughts about human behavior with more plasticity as well” (140).

Both Cooper and Lanham, in implicit and explicit ways, thus exemplify the Black literary and cultural practices identified by Zakiyyah Iman Jackson in her new book, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Anti-Black World (New York University Press): “neither rely[ing] on animal abjection to define being (human) nor reestablish[ing] ‘human recognition’ within liberal humanism as an antidote to racialization”—thereby “displac[ing] the very terms of black(ened) animality as abjection” (1). That is, the queerness of Cooper and Lanham’s ecologies lies not just in how they blur human/nonhuman and natural/constructed boundaries, but in how they decline to appeal to an optimistic humanism, or to human exceptionalism, in response to racism. Instead, they prefer to align themselves with vulnerable animals and “plant[ing]s.” After all, having the same rights under the law as a white (hu)man did not protect George Floyd from being murdered. And Amy Cooper did identify Christian Cooper as a “man” when she called the police.

Part II

In working through the above points, I hope to indicate that the ongoing work of queer ecologies as a line of inquiry must include tackling white supremacy, anti-blackness, and environmental (in)justice. As the title of a recent article by Drew Costley claims, “Defunding the Police”—the rallying cry of many of the protests that sprung up after George Floyd’s death, but no doubt informed by Christian Cooper’s experience—“is an Environmental Justice Issue.” As interviewee Kari Fulton explains, “’There’s a lot of funding that goes into police and then that funding has to come from somewhere … And so it takes away from our school systems. It takes away from our environmental protection,’” not to mention the facts that policing creates noise, light, and other forms of pollution and that “the mere presence of police in communities of color can be considered an environmental stressor” (Costley, n.p.).


“The ongoing work of queer ecologies as a line of inquiry must include tackling white supremacy, anti-blackness, and environmental (in)justice.”


Meg Perret’s post in this series, “Chemical Castration: White Genocide and Male Extinction in Rhetoric of Endocrine Disruption,” undertakes some of this work. She shows how fears about the endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in products such as the herbicide Atrazine have found their way into far-right media commentary about “male decline” and “white genocide.” Case in point: conspiracy theorist Alex Jones ranting about “gay frogs” and “your [future] son not having a cock” thanks to Atrazine. Perret suggests that queer ecological approaches should therefore address the unjust dimensions of toxicity and pollution while simultaneously opposing how fears of the latter get weaponized against transgender people, BIPOC, or other vulnerable populations. I am eager to think through the additional questions that this post raises. For example, Perret maintains that, “[i]n the context of the rhetoric of male decline, white heterosexual masculinity becomes an endangered species”; can we see this “endangered species” ideology as a response or even an alternative to concerns over actual species extinction and climate change? In other words, has the far-right absorbed extinction and climate anxieties … only to spit them back out as racism and transphobia?

Katie Hogan’s post in this series, “Past and Future Worlds: Queer and Non-Binary Dystopian Narratives,” is allied with Perret’s. Reading two recent speculative fiction novels, Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017) and Bev Prescott’s 2 Degrees (2018), Hogan claims that these works “show how queer and trans communities are aligned with nature, society, and the world instead of against them,” and details their investment in climate futures—“despite the fact that, historically, these are the same communities that have been cast as ‘futureless’ and moral and physical ‘disasters.’” Further, Hogan insists that “when we talk about climate change and environmentalism,” we must talk about “slavery, colonialism, and their aftermaths.” Similarly, Sabine LeBel’s post, “Queer Environmental Futures,” declares that it is “the paradigms of colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and hetero and cisnormativity that have brought us to this environmentally precipitous moment”—whereas someone like Jones would position those forces as saviors vis-à-vis environmental toxicity. What we see across this “Succession” series, then, is a vision of “environmentalism” as a critique of the status quo, rather than a reproduction thereof.


“What we see across this ‘Succession’ series, then, is a vision of ‘environmentalism’ as a critique of the status quo, rather than a reproduction thereof.”


The other posts in this series speak more broadly to the question of how race, gender, and/or sexuality circumscribe relations with nature and animals. Lauren Walker’s “The ‘Pig Ladies’ of Huron County” describes how, “[a]lthough their partnership was unconventional, Jean [Moorby] and Bev [Brown] were able to revolutionize the Southwestern Ontario pig farming industry and gained widespread acceptance in a community that traditionally accepted neither difference nor outsiders.” This post also sparks some interesting questions. For example, Walker tells us that, “[w]hile Jean and Bev adopted leading-edge breeding and infection control practices, their gender was often credited for their success,” but I also wonder how the specific combination of their white femaleness relates to their role within the meat industrial complex. Indeed, Walker’s post makes for a fascinating read against A. Paige Frazier’s post for this series, “Drag Cuisines: The Inherent Queerness of Vegan Food Ontologies,” which discusses the “project” of “‘unmasking’ carnism, or the violent ideology that normalizes meat-eating and empowers the meat-eater.” Can we see Moorby and Brown’s (arguably) benign white femaleness as functioning to “mask” that violence? A critical vegan perspective like that espoused by Frazier would have us pick up here on Asmae Ourkiya’s point from her own post for this series, “Queering Ecofeminism: Towards an Anti-Far-Right Environmentalism”: “Regardless of one’s gender identity, any person is capable of adopting an oppressive mindset, especially in a position of power where such a mindset serves one’s personal and professional interests.”

Part III

As I hope my engagement with these posts indicates, the line of inquiry known as queer ecologies—which was first developed in the mid-1990s by scholars such as Greta Gaard and Cate Sandilands, and more fully realized in 2010 with the publication of Sandilands and Erickson’s Queer Ecologies—is not only still fruitful but more needed than ever. In this last section of my post, I’d like to reflect on queer ecologies and its possible futures in light of the 10th anniversary of that crucial collection.

Such reflection is a very personal undertaking for me, as my career would not have been possible without the work of the aforementioned scholars or the 11 additional contributors to Queer Ecologies. This is true in both the general sense of modeling and in the specific sense of mentoring. To give an example of the first, Noël Sturgeon’s focus on popular culture in her Queer Ecologies essay, “Penguin Family Values: The Nature of Planetary Environmental Reproductive Justice,” as well as her 2008 book, Environmentalism in Popular Culture: Gender, Race, Sexuality, and the Politics of the Natural (University of Arizona Press), gave me license to write about memes, cartoons, stand-up comedy, and reality TV from a queer ecological perspective. As regards the second, Queer Ecologies contributor Hogan and co-editor Sandilands served as then-anonymous readers for my first book manuscript, Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination (University of Illinois Press, 2013). Strange Natures became the second monograph in this field after Robert Azzarello’s Queer Environmentality: Ecology, Evolution, and Sexuality in American Literature (Routledge, 2012). Meanwhile, Greta Gaard, who is cited widely in Queer Ecologies but did not contribute an essay, co-edited one of my first peer-reviewed essays in International Perspectives in Feminist Ecocriticism (Routledge, 2013). These scholars taught, challenged, and supported me, shepherded my work into the world, and gave me countless professional opportunities—exemplifying feminist mentorship at its best.

On a broader level, Queer Ecologies and its affiliated scholars have had enormous impacts on the environmental humanities, including environmental history and ecocriticism. Giovanna Di Chiro brought us the concept of “eco-normativity” that is so central to Perret’s analysis in this series—allowing us to understand how environmentalist agendas can stigmatize gender and sexual variance. Rachel Stein, the author of a Queer Ecologies essay on poets Adrienne Rich and Minnie Bruce Pratt, as well as the editor of New Perspectives on Environmental Justice: Gender, Sexuality, and Activism (Rutgers University Press, 2004), has similarly allowed us to see the gendered and sexualized dimensions of environmental injustices alongside their racialized dimensions.

Stacy Alaimo, who contributed the essay, “Eluding Capture: The Science, Culture, and Pleasure of ‘Queer’ Animals” to Queer Ecologies, has since influenced the trajectory of the environmental humanities with her work on “trans-corporeality” and materialist ecofeminism. These scholars have made possible a world in which “queer ecologies” can appear as a desired specialization in ads for academic jobs, such endangered species as those may be. Even beyond academia, Queer Ecologies the collection and queer ecologies the framework have inspired and influenced art and activism, from the Institute for Queer Ecology’s 2019 installation Common Survival to Out for Sustainability, a grassroots organization that supports initiatives such as “#PlasticFreePride.”

Reflecting on Queer Ecologies from the vantage point of 2020 necessarily entails some critique as well as gratitude and praise. As I have noted elsewhere, while “anti-racist, decolonial, and environmental justice commitments have been present in queer ecological work from the start … it has been developed primarily by Eurowestern scholars and/or tends to focus on North American and European texts” (Seymour, forthcoming). I therefore can’t help but fantasize about a sequel to Queer Ecologies—or, better, a totally independent project—that would showcase the queer ecological thinking of BIPOC scholars and thinkers such as Neel Ahuja, Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree), Oliver Baez Bendorf, adrienne maree brown, Mel Y. Chen, Chelsea Mikael Frazier, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Tommy Pico (Kumeyaay), Junauda Petrus, Kim TallBear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), Priscilla Solis Ybarra, and the aforementioned Christian Cooper and J. Drew Lanham. (After Cooper’s story went viral, many were delighted to learn that he is a former writer and editor for comics, having worked at outlets including Marvel. Perhaps this fantasy volume could include a comic strip!)

For the above reasons, I am particularly excited by how this series highlights underrepresented and emerging scholars and thinkers, including brown, Solomon (respectively, a pansexual biracial woman and a Black “non-binary agender woman”[3]), and the posts’ authors themselves, several of whom are graduate students. This series also extends the project of queer ecological inquiry by responding to the pressing crises of our day, such as the authoritarian regimes of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the United States’ Donald Trump, resurgent white nationalism, and COVID-19. Finally, I am thrilled by how these posts speak to the unfinished but necessary work of queer ecologies through their focus on future-thinking. In her post for this series, LeBel reports on a 2019 residency in which she and her collaborator “asked participants to image the future as sustainable and fueled by a spirit of radical ethical experimentalism. … As we continue with the Queer Environmental Futures project,” she explains, “we hope to keep using queer aesthetics to connect artists and reimagine paths towards a sustainable post-oil future.” This work requires creativity and flexibility, especially now; as LeBel reports, a planned follow-up event turned into “an online digital residency and social media takeover … on the theme of Queer Environmental Futures: Isolation.” I see the same speculative energy running through Asmae Ourkiya’s post, in which she declares that “an inclusive intersectional ecological feminist revolution is needed.”


“I believe all organizing is science fiction—that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced…I believe that we are a part of a natural world that is constantly changing, and we need to learn to adapt together and stay in relationship if we hope to survive as a species” – adrienne maree brown


LeBel and Ourkiya are not alone. In her 2019 New York Times bestseller Pleasure Activism, adrienne maree brown offers a beautiful counterpoint to Alex Jones’ apocalyptic narrative of white male “species” extinction: “I believe all organizing is science fiction—that we are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced…I believe that we are a part of a natural world that is constantly changing, and we need to learn to adapt together and stay in relationship if we hope to survive as a species” (10). The posts in this series are helping shape this future narrative, and I for one cannot wait to read the next installment.


Notes:

  1. Alex Espinoza’s 2019 book Cruising  reports that the Ramble was a gay cruising spot in the 1970s—a counter-hegemonic use of space not unlike, and perhaps even affectively related to, Christian Cooper’s birdwatching.
  2. See https://www.citymetric.com/skylines/new-york-destroyed-village-full-african-american-landowners-create-central-park-893.
  3. See https://www.riverssolomon.com/hireme.

Works Cited:

Betancourt, David. “Christian Cooper Hopes American Can Change. Because He’s Not Going
to.” The Washington Post, 23 June 2020.

brown, adrienne maree. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.

Costley, Drew. “Defunding the Police is an Environmental Justice Issue.” Medium/One Zero, 17
June 2020.

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Anti-Black World. New York
University Press, 2020.

Lanham, J. Drew. “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher.” Orion Magazine, October 2013.

— . The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. Milkweed Editions, 2016.

Sandilands, Cate and Bruce Erickson, eds. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Indiana
University Press, 2010.

Seymour, Nicole. “Queer Ecologies and Queer Environmentalisms.” Cambridge Companion to Queer
Studies
, ed. Siobhan Somerville. Cambridge University Press, 2020. (Forthcoming.)

Vera, Amir and Laura Ly. “White Woman Who Called Police on a Black Man Bird-Watching in
Central Park Has Been Fired.” CNN, 26 May 2020.

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Nicole Seymour is Associate Professor of English and Graduate Advisor in Environmental Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her most recent book is _Bad Environmentalism: Irony, Irreverence, and the Ecological Age_ (University of Minnesota Press). She is currently working on a book project about glitter.

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