What makes nature most beautiful is its fluid ephemerality. A butterfly emerging from its cocoon; a river carving a bend in the landscape; a polar bear returning to the Arctic sea ice; a clownfish changing sex from male to female…
In the face of adversity, between the threshold of what once was and what is to come, nature is both at its most powerful and its most vulnerable. This balance is maintained by the biological diversity of our planet—systems that depend on one another for survival. Our existence on Earth is determined by much more than hunting and gathering, mating and reproducing, living and dying, however. By reducing a species’ value to its role within a trophic level, we eliminate its potential—its agency—to thrive. Only when you can appreciate the richness and vibrancy that arises from life beyond the binary can you see the world in every color of the rainbow.
It’s Only Natural
You may be wondering, What about the theory of evolution by natural selection? “Survival of the fittest?” Though perhaps not the application Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace imagined, centuries of scientific discovery have taught us that same-sex animal behavior is advantageous for reproduction and evolution. Forays into animal homosexuality research are documented as far back as the 1700s and 1800s, but only a handful survived society’s scrutiny; the rest were consigned to dust or destroyed.
Fortunately, conservationists at The Natural History Museum (NHM) were determined to bring the taboo topic out of the closet and into public purview. In the spring of 2020, the NHM at Tring in England announced their plans to digitize the unpublished notebooks of zoologist Dr. George Murray Levick, the first person to witness the entire breeding cycle of Adélie penguins. After returning to Britain in 1913 from the three-year Terra Nova expedition in Cape Adare, Antarctica, Levick published some scientific observations while omitting others. After deciphering mysterious Greek passages and unearthing buried truths, the NHM was granted insight into a world that had, until now, been rendered invisible. Levick’s ‘Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin’ detailed several instances of non-procreative penguin sex and homosexual behavior. And although his accounts were completely valid, Levick feared becoming a social pariah for distributing work deemed too “indecent.”
A few thousand miles away in Australia, two male gentoo penguins (a close relative of the Adélie) were making history at Sea Life Sydney as the aquarium’s first same-sex couple. Amid the political war over gay marriage rights, Sphen and Magic found love, inspiring a nation to follow in their flippers. Today, the bonded pair are the proud fathers of two young penguins abandoned as eggs: Lara (Sphengic), born in October 2018 and Clancy (CC), born in November 2020. And this is just the tip of the iceberg! Scientists have discovered more than 1,500 species of wildlife that engage in some form of same-sex sexual behavior.
Bonobos are among the few species in which all adult members of one sex engage in habitual same-sex sexual interactions at similar or even greater frequencies as heterosexual interactions to reduce social tension, prevent aggression or form social bonds. Various lines of evidence indicate that female Japanese macaques are best characterized as bisexual because of their preferences for same-sex consortships, even in the presence of a suitable male partner. Like heterosexual courting behavior, female homosexual courting is temporary but exclusive and is always observed during the species’ fall-winter mating season.
In a recently established Laysan albatross colony on Oahu, Hawaii, one-third of breeding pairs consist of two female parents. Female–female pairs fledge fewer offspring than male–female pairs, but these pairings have proved to be a better alternative than not breeding at all. This innovative behavior has become increasingly crucial to the species’ survival as their nesting sites will likely be submerged by rising sea levels due to climate change in this century.
Queering the Climate Crisis
In moments when I find myself consumed by existential dread over the future of our planet, going outside can often quell the eco-anxiety. Wildlife and wild lands help me reorient and remember that the climate crisis cannot be solved by detaching oneself from the environment and the people who depend on its equilibrium. Nature nurtures a deep sense of belonging in me. As a Queer woman, it is where I feel safe, alive and free. But just as the outdoors can cultivate kinship for some, it can alienate others.
‘The Great Outdoors’ should be enjoyed equally by all people. Still, access to natural resources and inclusivity in green spaces has historically and systematically been determined by race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Environmental injustices disproportionately affect underserved communities, including Black people, Indigenous peoples, People of Color (BIPOC); the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ+) community; women; Disabled folks and people from low-income backgrounds. People who share more than one of these identities are even more vulnerable to experiencing the most severe impacts of climate change. Despite this increased risk, the voices of marginalized populations often go unheard, and many are excluded from the policy-making decisions that influence their future.
According to the 2023 study, “Queering Climate Change: Exploring the Influence of LGBTQ+ Identity on Climate Change Belief and Risk Perceptions,” “LGBTQ+ individuals experience greater rates of homelessness, mental health challenges and social and family violence. Structural inequalities like poverty and stigma (homophobia and transphobia) are also prevalent and negatively impact these rates. Climate change will exacerbate these inequalities, making it an LGBTQ+ issue of concern.”
In the first three months of 2022, nearly 250 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were filed. Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment breeds discrimination, which can have catastrophic consequences during a natural disaster or extreme weather event that requires shared resources and collective shelter. This issue was first realized during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when Trans and Intersex people faced barriers to accessing evacuation shelters and restrooms. Members of the LGBTQ+ community also contended with challenges in post-Katrina New Orleans that their heterosexual counterparts were spared. In the aftermath of the disaster, government agencies denied LGBTQ+ families aid, citing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between one woman and one man, and recognized a family unit as two parents of the opposite sex with biological children. The federal law had far-reaching implications for the Queer community, with reverberations that spanned the forcible separation of families to homelessness.
The U.S. Census Bureau of 2022 reports that roughly 22% of LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. live in poverty (11 points higher than the national rate). The National Coalition for the Homeless reveals that LGBTQ+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ+ youth. Further, nearly half (44%) of Indigenous LGBTQ+ youth have experienced homelessness or housing instability at some point in their life. Economic projections estimate poverty rates to rise substantially in the face of climate change, with environmental factors exacerbating existing social issues. Droughts, heatwaves and floods pose the greatest threat to impoverished people. This data is personified in the 2022 Marshall wildfire that swept through Louisville, Colorado, destroying 1,084 structures and displacing hundreds of individuals and families.
Fighting for Environmental Equality
Pride Month is celebrated each June in recognition of the Stonewall Inn uprising of June 28, 1969, which catalyzed LGBTQ+ civil rights worldwide. Drag performers Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were prominent figures in the Gay Liberation Movement. In addition to their fight for social justice at Stonewall, they opened the first LGBTQ+ youth shelter in North America, making them the first Trans women of color to lead an organization in the United States.
The 1960s civil rights movement gave rise to the environmental justice movement. In 1961 World Wildlife Fund was established at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) headquarters in Morges, Switzerland; in 1962, biologist Rachel Carson published Silent Spring exposing how DDT and other pesticides are detrimental to ecosystems; in 1963, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, and in 1964, the Wilderness Act was passed, preserving millions of acres of land as national forest, national park and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory.
While not always recognized for their contributions, the LGBTQ+ community has long been on the frontlines of conservation. Evidence shows that LGBTQ+ individuals express higher agreement with climate change beliefs and identify climate change as a greater threat when compared to their cis-gendered heterosexual counterparts. Additionally, a growing body of literature suggests that LGBTQ+ people share a unique culture that shapes public opinion and political engagement in positive and transformative ways.
In fact, the green stripe in the original pride flag represents nature. Unfurled at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade in June 1978 by Harvey Milk (the first openly Gay man elected to public office), the flag celebrates diversity in all forms. “This stripe emphasizes that being Queer is in nature’s design,” writes Zoe Kanga, Yale University student and author of the EARTHDAY.ORG article “How Climate Change Affects the LGBTQ+ Community.” “Caring about climate change is a radical part of the Queer identity. We must remember that injustice against any minority, including the environment, threatens all other marginalized communities.”
LGBTQ+ Conservationists Changing the World
The importance of including intersectionality in our conversations about the LGBTQ+ community and the climate crisis cannot be understated. Social justice and environmental justice are inexorably connected. If we are to save the planet, we must first empower its people.
‘Intersectional Environmentalism’ was made popular through social media platforms during the early stages of COVID-19. The concept of Intersectionality was developed in 2016 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of Law at Columbia University and UCLA. Crenshaw enacted the phenomenon to bring justice to Black women through the intersection of gender and race. Fueled by a desire to diversify the environmental movement, Black activist Leah Thomas took to Instagram with a novel application of Crenshaw’s ideals. In just a few short months, Thomas attracted support from conservationists, political leaders and academics, facilitating her founding the nonprofit Intersectional Environmentalist. Thomas shares: “It is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the Earth are interconnected.”
Trailblazing acts of bravery like this give me hope that humanity inches closer to solving the climate crisis with each new generation. I am grateful to America’s LGBTQ+ youth for educating me about conservation heroes like Rachel Carson, who erased her Lesbian identity to assimilate into a field dominated by heterosexual males. “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson,” patronized an executive of the American Cyanamid Company, “we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the Earth.” Some of the attacks were even more personal. Monsanto and other moguls in the chemical industry questioned Carson’s integrity and sanity because of her sex and gender.
Despite the scientific community’s best efforts to extinguish her fervor, Carson remained steadfast in her mission to defend nature and, in doing so, galvanized an army of Queer eco-activists to preserve her legacy for decades to come. Here are just a few of those LGBTQ+ conservationists:
Danielle Khan da Silva
“I’m trying to transpose women into their rightful place as protectors and caretakers. I’m trying to heal the pain of those in cages by placing them in healing hands and bringing in the energy of what it feels like to be wild. Everything is interconnected—from protecting wildlife and their habitats to protecting women and children and seeking justice for all,” Silva expressed in an interview for PBS about her initiative, Storytelling for Change.
Pattie Gonia / Wyn Wiley
Pattie (she/they) is an intersectional environmentalist and drag queen who advocates for inclusivity in the outdoors through education and community outreach. Pattie co-founded The Outdoorist Oath and is the proud creator of the Pattie Gonia Community, which is now more than 450,000 people strong. Over the past three years, Pattie and her community have fundraised over a half-million dollars for LGBTQ+, BIPOC and environmental non-profits.
In an interview for Yale Climate Connections, Pattie’s out-of-drag-self, Wyn (he/they), expressed: “I think that Mother Nature is the best designer on this planet. So much of my drag fashion is inspired by nature—is inspired by birds or butterflies or even natural patterns. I also really love queering normal outdoorsy tropes and doing variations on things like, what can I do to take this tent and turn it into a dress? Or how can I work with this incredible sustainable designer to make a dress that really represents this environmental issue or climate issue? So, for example, that could be anything from creating a dress out of different pieces of plastic and micro-plastics all the way to making a dress that literally turns into a fully functional tent.” He relayed, “I really think that nature, if we’re letting it do its thing, shows us that binaries don’t exist. There is never just an either/or. And I think for a Queer person to see that in nature—when I saw that in nature—my life changed.”
Christine Eleanor Wilkinson, Ph.D.
Christine (she/they) is a Queer carnivore ecologist and postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley and the California Academy of Sciences. Her research interests include human-wildlife conflict, movement ecology and using participatory methods for more effective, equitable and inclusive conservation outcomes. In 2020, Christine co-founded Black Mammalogists Week to illuminate Black contributions to the field of mammalogy and provide opportunities for current and aspiring BIPOC mammalogists.
As a 2023 National Geographic Explorer grantee, Christine examines human-hyena conflict in Kenya and works to integrate various community perspectives to establish lasting and socially-just environmental change. In episode 21 of the podcast Overheard at National Geographic, she discusses what it means to be a member of the National Geographic Queer and Allies Explorer group: “A lot of us who may have come from disadvantaged backgrounds or backgrounds where we weren’t accepted by our families because of some part of our identity, queer or otherwise, basically built our relationships with nature because we were escaping that, and we ended up becoming these protectors of the Earth…” In her spare time, Christine highlights same-sex relationships and “gender-bending” in the animal kingdom in her social media video series Queer is Natural.
Pinar (they/them) is a Trans Indigenous conservationist from Colorado with Huanca (Aboriginal Peruvian), Turkish and Chinese ancestry. They co-founded Queer Nature, which facilitates nature-based workshops and multi-day immersions for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC community members to explore the outdoors safely and inclusively. The educational programming includes wildlife tracking, survival skills and Indigenous history.
Pinar was the 2020 recipient of Audubon National Society’s National Environmental Champion and R.I.S.E. Indigenous 2020 Art & Poetry Fellowship. They are a founding council member of Intersectional Environmentalist and Diversify Outdoors and an ambassador of Native Womens Wilderness. Pinar also facilitates and designs curriculums at Colorado College and the University of Colorado Boulder. You can follow along with their nature explorations on Instagram under the following handles: @indigequeers, @queerquechua and @queernature.
Isaias (he/him) is a Queer Environmentalist of Color who uses his social media platform @QueerBrownVegan to influence diverse audiences to care about conservation, veganism and zero-waste practices. In his educational guides, Isaias covers topics ranging from ecofeminism and grassroots activism to environmental racism and the mental health issues that stem from the climate crisis.
“Being a Queer environmentalist means that I value multi-species liberation and that I recognize that we live in a world of curiosity and connection that has no one answer on how to live.” Another excerpt from his website reads: “A glance at the vast history of life on Earth shows us that diversity is the foundation of life, and if we examine nature through a queer lens, we can think of our own issues more holistically. We gain an understanding of kinship and connection that crosses boundaries. As younger generations rally around intersectionality, there’s a chance to lay a foundation for new stories.”
Jamie (she/her) is a Colombian-American social, environmental and LGBTQ+ rights activist. Her identity as a Latina Jewish Lesbian is the driving force behind her advocacy work. She founded the international youth-led climate justice organization ZERO HOUR, which led the first Youth Climate March in Washington, DC and 25 other cities worldwide. Jamie is also the author of Youth to Power: Your Voice and How to Use It. Dedicated ‘to the Queer kids, we are unstoppable,’ and featuring a foreword by Greta Thunberg, her book serves as a manifesto for young activists and future changemakers.
Jamie shares her vision for a more sustainable and equitable future: “Everyone alive today gets to decide what life on Earth is like for the next 10,000 years. We, and we alone, decide if life on Earth as we know it will continue. By the time the Earth is handed over to the next generations, it will have been too late. So, every night, I go to bed with wishful dreams of that beautiful near-future post-climate-change world, and every day I wake up and work to make it happen. You, reading this right now, are one of the people alive today who has the power to shape life on Earth forever. So, what are you going to do with that?”
Travel with Pride: Celebrate Outside with Nat Hab & WWF
LGBTQ+ Americans are more than twice as likely to have a valid passport than non-LGBTQ+ Americans. Before the COVID pandemic, LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. averaged 6.8 trips per year and spent $63.1 billion annually on travel. The LGBTQ+ tourism market is expanding rapidly due to increased social and cultural acceptance, legal recognition of LGBTQ+ rights and greater visibility and representation of queer people in media and advertising. The market is predominantly characterized by a strong sense of community and advocacy, with many Queer travelers actively seeking out travel companies committed to diversity, inclusivity and social and environmental responsibility. This trend is substantiated by the latest industry analysis by Reports and Insights, which predicts the total value of the global LGBTQ+ tourism market will reach 568.5 billion dollars by 2030.
Travel organizations such as the International LGBTQ+ Travel Association (IGLTA), Proud Experiences and Out of Office offer a range of budget-friendly and luxury itineraries, catering to culturally immersive and environmentally sensitive experiences across the globe. These companies specialize in queer-friendly trips but are not alone in their mission to make seeing the world a safe and inclusive reality for everyone. Natural Habitat Adventures recognizes that just as biodiversity strengthens ecosystems, human diversity strengthens social systems. Our travel partner WWF reinforces this sentiment with the following statement:
“As we celebrate Pride Month, WWF-US speaks out against discrimination and violence directed at people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. While we have seen much progress in the 51 years since the Stonewall Uprising, we must continue to work towards equality for LGBTQ+ individuals in the United States and around the world. We urge everyone to take time this month to reflect on how we as individuals, as a country, and as a global society can contribute to a world in which all people can live their lives with a greater sense of safety and opportunity.”
Jamie Margolin’s call to action echoes in my mind as this story and Pride Month draw to an end. As a content creator for Nat Hab & WWF, I have the power to emotionally connect travelers with nature so that they might become ambassadors for conservation; and as a Queer person, I have the power to show the LGBTQ+ community that they belong in nature and nature is more beautiful for it. What do you intend to do with the power you hold?