Queer ecology: Reimagining “nature” and sexual politics

Queer ecology allows us to reconstruct and reimagine environmental justice.

Art by Shania O'Brien

Andre Gides’ Corydon tells the story of a young shepherd that falls in love with another shephard, engaging in same-sex passions and musing about the mysteries of sex with women. The name Corydon was used as a stock name for a shepherd in Ancient Greek poems such as Virgil’s Eclogues. However, while Virgil’s Corydon was a shepherd who longed for another boy, Gides’ Corydon is a sophisticated individual deciphering same-sex passion, natural innocence and opposite-sex eroticism as a learned social order. He comes to the realisation that “a friend… is of better counsel to an adolescent boy than a mistress.” 

Corydon was influential in shaping the later field of queer ecology, a practice which seeks to disrupt heterosexual articulations of ‘nature,’ to reimagine evolutionary processes and ecological interactions, and broaden environmental politics in light of queer theory. Drawing upon the work of ecofeminism and environmental justice, it seeks to draw important connections between the material and cultural dimensions of environmental issues.

The distinction between what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ has long been used as ammunition in battles waged against queer bodies. The rise of evolutionary thought in the nineteenth century centred on the primacy of sexual reproduction for species survival and development. Consider Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection in The Descent of Man, which observes that certain traits in animals have evolved as a result of mating competition. This has served to legitimise procreative heterosexual acts as the only true form of ‘natural’ sex, denaturalising all other forms of sex unless they can be explained within the overall operation of reproduction. Sex came to be understood not as a set of acts, but as expressions of an innate biological condition.

By this logic, if the ability of a species to survive in nature is tied to its reproductive fitness, then “healthy” environments are those in which heterosexuality flourishes. Accordingly, homosexual degeneracy has been explained away using pollution or environmental contamination, factors which are believed to interfere with reproductive capacities. Some ecologists have insisted that female homoerotic activity amongst seagulls is evidence of habitat changes, or that sexual pairing of male ibises is a result of mercury poisoning (in reality, there are probably just a lot of gay birds). Such reasoning is guided by heteronormative biases⁠—the fact that heterosexuality is more common does not take away from the diverse social relations of sexuality occurring in animal species.

Evolutionary thought has, however, moved away from these ideas. Recent work has attempted to reclaim the “naturalness” of queer bodies and liberalise sexual minorities. For sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, the fact that non-heterosexual sex is congenial allows it to be morally neutral and therefore part of the narrative of evolution, rather than its aberration. Research also documenting the vast range of homosexual behaviour in non-human animals also presents possibilities for radically rethinking nature as queer. Bruce Bagemihl’s 750-page volume Biological Exuberance presents an extensive compilation of species in which same-sex acts have been scientifically observed. These appeals to nature have been powerful, especially when science is purported to “reveal” nature’s truth. 

However, such assertions of the “natural”—whether heterosexual or homosexual —essentialises sexuality to material conditions; a product of some innate biological trait rather than an expression of agency. Queer ecologists challenge these biopolitical regimes, arguing that sex is always indivisibly material and social. David Bell coined the term queernatureculture to criticise binaries between what is natural and what is cultural, and to emphasise the ambiguity of queer sex acts. Animals are cultural beings, enmeshed in social organisations with agency over their sexual lives. By uncovering these complex realities, we open up a space to rethink nature and sexual politics.

Spaces of nature have been organised to promote and prohibit certain sexual behaviour. Emerging discourses around urban development in the late nineteenth century articulated that the ‘effeminate homosexual’ and ‘lesbian gender invert’ were not only against nature but symptoms of a moral and even “physical” decline of the American population, attributed to urban sociality and pollution. The natural world was therefore transformed into a space in which heterosexual masculinity could be recultivated, free from the influences of urban degeneration. 

The American wilderness became heavily dominated by communities of men – cowboys, prospectors, rachers. Boy Scouts and mountaineering expeditions provided opportunities to simulate more conventional paths to “manhood,” solidifying a connection between conquering wilderness and one’s expression of heteromasculinity. In The History of Men, Michael S Kimmel tells readers that due to material conditions of urban life, “men have been running away – off to the frontier, the mountains, the forests, the high seas, the battlegrounds, outer space” to retrieve an “essential part of themselves, their identity, their manhood.” 

But these visions of a ‘heteromasculine wilderness’ could not be farther from the truth. According to sexologist Alfred Kinsey, in the nineteenth century there was more sexual activity between men in the remote wilderness than there was in cities. Various worksites in the Pacific Northwest such as logging camps and fishing grounds included complex networks of sexual activity among men, and some men would even leave the city in search of them. At the same time, queer women experienced a complete invisibility in dominant wilderness discourses. 

More recently, the framing of queer culture as exclusively urban has erased the ongoing presence of queer bodies in rural communities and has contributed to the assumption that country spaces are inherently hostile to anything other than monogamous heterosexuality. While many gay men and women leave small towns for urban centres, many do not — queer couples reside in 99.3% of all American counties. 

The emerging practice of queer ecology has reclaimed natural spaces as sites of resistance and exploration for sexually diverse people. In Sarah Orne Jewett’s writing, particularly in her novel Deephaven, natural environments are sites of both romantic friendship and eroticism between women. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain contrasts two sheep herders’ frayed heterosexual relationships in the 1963 Wyoming to their deeply romantic “high altitude fucking” in the wilderness. 

A queer interpretation of ecology blurs boundaries of identities and liberates queer people in their connection and belonging to the natural world. The natural world defies current heteronormative politics, enabling humans to redefine cultural understandings of “natural” and “queer” environmental spaces as we have with sex and gender. It also serves as an important basis for coalition building, since both queer and environmental justice perspectives observe nature and the environment as not neutral or ahistorical. Rather, we can look to how the language of nature can mask human and environmental destruction. 

Ultimately, an understanding of environmental sexual politics, alongside existing discourse on race, gender and class envisages a possible future of common liberation.