Henri Matisse, Joy of Life, 1906
from your thirsty root
feed my soul as
if it were your fruit.”
– Robert Duncan[i]
Tangle of branches, thick trunks of ancient trees, smell of earth, birds
this is queer space. Homosexuality is at home in the complexity,
diversity, and uncontrolled energy of wildness. In a dark, old
forest, sex can also be wild. There are places to hide from
scrutiny, where names have no meaning or consequence. Landscaped
parks with their manicured lawns are historically created to
facilitate police surveillance. Queer desire is aligned with bright
green growing things and the intricate fecundity of death.
Within a week of
the Stonewall Rebellion, New York 1969, the first gay environmental
group was formed. The group, called “Trees for Queens,” aimed at
restoring a cruising area in Kew Gardens Park, Queens, New York,
where extensive tree cutting and violent vigilante attacks had
discouraged the presence of gay men.
“Trees for Queens”
envisioned the restoration of a landscape, as if in anticipation of
gay theorist Alexander Wilson’s exhortation: “We must build
landscapes that heal, connect and empower, that make intelligible
our relations with each other and with the natural world: places
that welcome and enclose, whose edges and breaks are never without
[iii] Even the name of this first gay environmental group
suggests with its double-entendre that trees are for Queens – growing on behalf of Queens, in support of
just as Queens are for trees, and so the wild world is animated,
sacred, and full of love for us. “Trees for Queens” still stands
as a fine example of what it might mean to queer nature. In the
intervening years, many gay and lesbian people have worked
tirelessly to save whales and defend old-growth forests. But queer
participation in the environmental movement has rarely challenged
the heterosexist imperative through which natural systems are seen
and conceived. What would it mean, to take homosexuality as premise
must bring a particular sensibility to the experience of nature.
Abhorred as unnatural, and alternately as bestial, castigated as
primitive, and described as the strange fruit of a civilization
grown too distant from the earth, we are attuned to the culture of nature. We know that nature is not a timeless essence,
separate from human experience. Alexander Wilson writes, “the
whole idea of nature as something separate from human experience is
a lie. Humans and nature construct one another.”[iv]
The natural world constructed by the modern sensibility is
separated, distanced, classified by taxonomizing systems. Nature is
observed from the outside, as a world of fact. It offers no omens.
It is devoid of human meaning and significance. A love for nature
means only a desire to watch it
unfolding, or perhaps to preserve
it from human intentions. As queers, we are called to experience
nature differently –
not just through eyes, but also through ears, nose, throat and skin.
Walt Whitman writes:
plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,
We are bedded in
the ground –
we are rocks,
We are oaks –
we grow in the openings side by side,
. . . We are also the coarse smut of beasts . . . .”[v]
is not something we observe, detachedly. It is home; it is a quality
of the heart.
different the wondrous world of queer nature from nature as it is
experienced by “the straight mind.” Monique Wittig
observes that the straight mind forms its idea of nature
around an ineluctable heterosexual fact.
obligatory social and sexual relationship between men and women is
the inescapable origin and end from which all phenomena are
interpreted. Not only is the world ordered by a drive to
reproduction and organized in breeding pairs. The whole non-human
world is experienced as other. Nature is innocent, violent,
illogical, helpless, endangered –
in short, female. Man pits himself against it, saves it, deciphers
it, fashions it to his needs.
instructed Noah to make an ark for himself, his sons, his wife, and
his son’s wives, and two of every sort of thing: fowls, cattle,
and every creeping thing of the earth, a male and female of each. A
great flood came, and all flesh died that lived upon the earth. Only
Noah and everything with him on the ark was saved.
to a local Coast Salish story of the flood, the people didn’t save
any animals. Instead they made a huge canoe, big enough to carry
every single child. The adults put the children in the canoe with
all the food they had, then said goodbye, and drowned. When the
water finally receded the children wound up on Mount Baker, and they
started over in the Fraser Valley with nothing but what they had
left in the canoe. When the children realized how many animals had
perished in the flood, some of them elected to change into animals.
The world was replenished by them.
interactions are an integral part of male Orca social life. Males of
all ages often spend the afternoons in sessions of courtship,
affectionate and sexual behaviors with one another. Some males have
favorite partners with whom they interact year after year, while
others interact with a variety of different partners.[viii]
could say that Noah had to preserve nature because he understood it
in heterosexual terms. Noah had no kinship with the animals on his
ark. His god had given him dominion over birds, fish and beasts,
saying “into your hand are they delivered” (Genesis 9:2). Noah
relied on the difference and distance between himself and the
animals to secure his power over them, and so he needed to rely on
breeding pairs to replenish the drowned earth. The Salish story
tells of a very different world, where relationships between
creatures are characterized by kinship and transformation.
Through homosexuality we are invited to live in a world
ordered by kinship and transformation. The capacity for
transformation, that brings us from expected modes of life to
something fabulous, also brings us into alignment with the
transforming world – its seasonal cycles, flowing rivers, dramas
of birth and rebirth. Queer means we challenge borders and erase
boundaries that prevent us from becoming one another. Sustaining
ourselves and each other, we fit into a complicated web of lifeforms.
We transform the established patterns, seek new habitats an abandon
some, live and thrive where it seems we cannot. The extraordinary
persistence of same-sex passions, throughout history and around the
world, is evidence not of reproduction, but of magic.
life deprives people of magic, just as it cleaves them from place.
Separated from the earth and one another, they lose the capacity for
storytelling, shape-shifting, tracking animals or talking to them.
Nature is seen on TV, through a car window, or confined to parks.
Wild is a resource and a refuge, never a home. Both the culture
which rewards exploitation of nature and the resistance culture of
the environmental movement are shaped by this view of nature as
other. Being gay allows us to dream and begin an intimate
relationship with the natural world. Queering nature may mean that
instead of preserving or protecting, observing or extracting
wildness, we can come home. Mythic, magic, medicinal knowledge of
the wild world is part of every human culture with a sense of home.
Coming home means recovering these powers in a community that
includes every form of life. Home is an idea of nature that admits a
place for human capacities and needs, and tells stories of human
loyalty and love for plants, animals and water. With homosexuality
as our premise and viewpoint, we cannot see human beings as
irrevocable enemies of wildness, any more than we can see the wild
world as a territory to conquer, or a series of resources to
extract. To queer nature is to claim a kinship with all life,
embracing the world’s diversity and interconnectedness. We are
wild and wild is us. ▼
Robert Duncan, 1964,
Gordon Brent Ingram, “Marginality and the Landscapes of Erotic
Alien(n)ations,” in Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie
Bouthillette and Yolanda Retter., eds., 1997.
Alexander Wilson, 1991, (17).
Alexander Wilson, 1991, (13).
Walt Whitman, Enfans d’Adam, Bowers, ed. (61).
Monique Wittig, 1992.
Bruce Bagemihl, Biological
Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.