The Dangerous Erasure of Queer and Trans* People of Color from the Climate Movement

This photo features a group of activists with red bandanas, holding a sign that shows that climate change is rooted in imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism, while climate justice is rooted in community, Earth, and solidarity.
Photo courtesy of the author.

On September 19th, 2014, I was sitting in the office of the Audre Lorde Project—a community organizing center run for and by lesbian, gay, bisexual, two spirit, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color— preparing for an event we were hosting that evening on the climate crisis, plunder, state violence, and people’s resistance. My comrade asked me if I had seen the lineup for Saturday’s People’s Climate March: LGBTQ folks had been placed in the 7th and final group of the march: “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone: Here comes Everybody! LGBTQ, NYC Boroughs, Community Groups…”

This was far behind communities identified as on the “frontlines of the crisis and forefront of change.” It was even behind groups who “can build the future,” “have solutions,” and those who “know who is responsible.” This once again erases the narratives and legacies we carry as queer and trans* people of color (QT*POC) and re-opens the familiar wounds of marginalization from society and mainstream movements (i.e. the mainstream “LGBT” movement).

The night before, we had finalized a solidarity letter on behalf of the Audre Lorde Project to the Climate Justice movement, naming the harsh impacts that climate change has and will continue to bring to our QT*POC community:

  • Climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms. ‘Natural’ disasters worldwide have demonstrated how QT* communities, especially QT*POC communities, face heightened marginalization and burdens at all stages (preparedness, immediate response, and long-term response) of a ‘natural’ disaster.
  • Certain factors make QT*POC communities particularly vulnerable to climate change’s adverse health and wellness
  • Climate change will also negatively impact food systems, making food even more costly and difficult to access for QT*POC communities.
  • The global impact of water shortages and the privatization of water has demonstrated an extreme circumstance of valuing the cost of water over the lives of black and brown communities. This warns us of the potential threats water scarcity will inflict on QT*POC communities.

There is a dangerous silence around the impacts of climate change on our communities within academia, the climate movement, and even our own work to confront violence in our communities.

In academia, there is scant research, literature, and scholarly discussion delving into how climate change will impact QT* communities, and in particular QT* communities of color. Yet across the board, the scarce literature that exists highlights how QT* communities are disproportionately impacted.

Nonetheless, there is little to no acknowledgment of how climate change disparately impacts us or of our role in the climate movement. We are pushed to the back of marches and the visible narratives that arise linking queers and climate change erase our experiences and realities as QT*POCs.

In the lead up to the People’s Climate March, “Queers for the Climate” arose in an attempt to band together LGBTQ identified folks in fighting climate change. While recognizing how LGBTQ* folks are particularly vulnerable to climate change, the composition and narratives of the group more so reflected the realities and perspectives of middle- and upper-class white gays.

In one interview with one of the founders, Joseph Huff-Hanon, Joseph describes climate change as something that will,

“primarily screw the poor and people in the developing world first, but even if you wanted to be more self-interested about it, global warming and sea level rise will also, in the medium term, doom some of the cities that LGBT people have historically moved to, created robust communities in, or traveled to for leisure and partying: Amsterdam, New York, New Orleans, London, Miami, Rio, Shanghai, etc.”

Joseph continues,

“But I do think in general, even with Hurricane Sandy in NYC, even with major American cities like Miami literally already starting to slowly drown, most of us are conditioned to think about climate change as something happening ‘over there’ or ‘out there.’ But actually Fire Island homeowners (and visitors) have just as much stake as somebody living on the Maldives to try to help get ourselves out of this mess.”

These narratives abandon low-income queer and trans* folks, queer and trans* folks with disabilities or mental illness, and queer and trans* folks of color. It is dangerous and violent to erase us from this movement, when natural disasters and scarce resources time after time have shown that those living on the margins of structural violence are the first to be targeted and the last to be served.

As a queer, gender non-conforming person of color organizing in my community, it was not difficult to see all the harms climate change would bring to my beautiful QT*POC community. We do not need peer reviewed studies, mainstream organizers, or journalists to tell us the violence we will experience, because we live and fight to survive it. Similarly, our struggles to increase our communal resilience, wellness, and ability to thrive are a daily reminder of how queer and trans* people of color liberation work is climate justice work.

When we work to make our communities more safe and resilient, we are preparing ourselves for the impacts of climate change. When we fight to create safety outside of police and carceral systems, we imagine and build a future based on collective care and accountability, rather than systems of state violence and control (which we know is how the state will opt to respond to climate crises). When we fight for trans* inclusive healthcare, QT*POC wellness, and build our individual and collective healing skills, we grow our agency to govern our wellness and sustainability. In these actions and every time we fight to survive, we practice climate justice.

While “Queers for the Climate” offers the climate movement mainstream LGBT organizing for victories (i.e. marriage), QT*POC liberation work and critical trans politics offers long legacies fighting for survival on a day-to-day basis. This is a critical contribution to fighting climate change, as climate change inherently threatens all of our survival. Additionally, QT*POC liberation work and critical trans politics recognize that confronting climate change, similar to confronting anti-trans* violence in the Prison Industrial Complex, is deeper than adapting to survive severe storms or, in the latter case, adapting our carceral system by enacting trans* inclusive hate crime laws or building trans-specific prisons. For both of these, it is necessary to fundamentally challenge the systems of oppression that continue to exploit the earth and our communities.

The climate movement must recognize that as QT*POCs, we carry solutions and alternatives within us.

As East Lost Angeles QTPOC activist Hugo Lugan writes,

“My family never organized around what folks would call ‘environmental justice.’ […] Every part of my identity as a queer indigenous person is rooted in this experience. The values of my family have always taught me that everything that surrounds us has a purpose, has life, and is deserving of respect. […]I was taught that being queer was a gift and that it offered a deeper understanding of our interrelatedness. It is here that my drive to organize for clean water, soil, and air is rooted. This is what survival looks like. It is what has shaped every part of my queer identity.”

From our self-determination to our liberation work, QT*POCs embody and practice climate justice. We know we are a frontline community to the climate crisis, and that no one but us will make and voice these connections. Past movements and struggles remind us we must fight the dangerous erasure of our community from this movement. Once again, we will rise to be centered along other frontline communities in these dialogues; we will work to resist climate change; and we will build alternatives critical to our survival.

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