The term “queer ecology” refers to a loose, interdisciplinary constellation of practices that aim, in different ways, to disrupt prevailing heterosexist discursive and institutional articulations of sexuality and nature, and also to reimagine evolutionary processes, ecological interactions, and environmental politics in light of queer theory. Drawing from traditions as diverse as evolutionary biology, LGBTTIQQ2SA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, queer, questioning, two-spirited, and allies) movements, and queer geography and history, feminist science studies, ecofeminism, and environmental justice, queer ecology currently highlights the complexity of contemporary biopolitics, draws important connections between the material and cultural dimensions of environmental issues, and insists on an articulatory practice in which sex and nature are understood in light of multiple trajectories of power and matter.
In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault lays the groundwork for much contemporary queer ecological scholarship in his observation that, beginning in the nineteenth century, modern regimes of biopower came to conceive of sex as a specific object of scientific knowledge, organized through, on the one hand, a “biology of reproduction” that considered human sexual behavior in relation to the physiologies of plant and animal reproduction, and on the other, a “medicine of sex” that conceived of human sexuality in terms of desire and identity (1978, 54). Although Foucault rightly notes the tenuous early connections between the two discourses, the establishment of sex as a matter of biopolitical truth could not help but be connected to ideas of nature, and especially to racialized, sexualized, and other anxieties over hygiene and degeneracy. In this context, the figure of the homosexual came to haunt the margins of emerging discourses in urban development, environmental health, and even wilderness preservation: the effeminate homosexual and the lesbian gender invert were not only seen increasingly as against nature but also sometimes considered symptoms of the toxic underside of industrial, urban, and increasingly cosmopolitan modernity.
In this context, a prehistory of queer ecology must include the attempts of such authors as André Gide and Radclyffe Hall to turn these discourses on their heads (famously, of course, Oscar Wilde embraced his position “against” nature). Specifically, the placement of sexual desire and orientation in the purview of evolutionary concern gave rise not only to the articulation of homosexuality with degeneracy but also to the possibility that a variety of sexual practices and identities could be understood as “natural” and, therefore, morally neutral; indeed, early sexologist Havelock Ellis wrote, in 1905, that “one might be tempted to expect that homosexual practices would be encouraged whenever it was necessary to keep down the population” (9). Drawing on the rich historical inclusion of same-sex (male) eroticism in pastoral literatures, Gide’s Corydon (published in four parts from 1911 to 1920) thus pursued the idea that the homosexual activities of boy-shepherds represented a more authentic and innocent sexuality than the heterosexual conventions they needed to learn in order to enter into adult relations of (enforced) heterosexuality (Shuttleton 2000). Similarly, Hall’s Well of Loneliness (1928) painted a tragic portrait of a lesbian gender invert who was, if anything, by nature nobler and more moral than any of the other characters in the book (a portrayal that caused the book to be banned in Britain, see Mortimer-Sandilands 2008b). Although both texts were thoroughly steeped in the class, racialized, and gender politics of the era and are problematic for a host of reasons associated with neopastoral literatures more broadly (Corydon is deeply misogynist; The Well is profoundly nationalist; both deploy nature as an agent of conservatism), they and others played an important role in setting the conceptual stage for more recent attempts to queer nature and ecology. Indeed, despite their considerable political differences, one can place in productive conversation with Gide and Hall such phenomena as the post-Stonewall emergence of gay and lesbian-feminist anti-urbanisms (Herring 2007; Kleiner 2003; Sandilands 2002) and the more recent articulation of (some) discourses on urban cruising and public sex with organicist renderings of eroticism, freedom, and opposition to heteronormative productions of/restrictions on urban public space (Gandy 2012; Ingram 2010).
From these roots, beginning in the mid-1990s (e.g., Undercurrents 1994; Gaard 1997), a distinct body of queer ecological scholarship has emerged that has attempted to develop theoretical and activist connections between sexual and ecological politics, often drawing from ecofeminist and environmental justice perspectives and including concerted attention to the racialized, gendered, colonial, and species politics with which notions of sex and nature are articulated (especially as influenced by the writings of Donna Haraway, e.g., 1991b). As Rachel Stein writes, “by analyzing how discourses of nature have been used to enforce heteronormativity, to police sexuality, and to punish and exclude those persons who have been deemed sexually transgressive, we can begin to understand the deep, underlying commonalities between struggles against sexual oppression and other struggles for environmental justice” (2004, 7). This emphasis on the intersectional politics of sexuality, race, and ecology informs the work of Dayna Scott (2009) and Giovanna Di Chiro (2010), both of whom develop critical responses to the “gender-bending” impacts of endocrine-disrupting hormones in the environment (which particularly affect racialized and indigenous communities) while simultaneously disrupting heterosexist panics about the so-called feminization of organisms and populations of organisms, human and otherwise. Beth Berila (2004), Stacy Alaimo (2010a), and Mel Chen (2012) likewise examine the politics of contamination as toxic affects move in, through, and as gendered, sexualized, and racialized bodies: as Chen writes powerfully, toxic substances and discourses organize worlds in which some biopolitical subjects are enabled and their life optimized by medical and environmental interventions at the same time as other subjects are themselves considered toxic, expellable, and expendable. And Eli Clare (1999) treats the intersections of class and disability in his account of (among other things) the varied exclusions of an urban environmental politics and aesthetics that pays scant critical attention to the ways in which people work and move in natural environments, and also to bodies and landscapes that are abjected in the production and management of the pristine.
Sharing similar roots but on a slightly different trajectory, beginning in the late 1990s (although drawing on a longer line of inquiry, see Terry 2000), research in animal behavior by the likes of Bruce Bagemihl (1999) and Joan Roughgarden (2004) has drawn popular attention to the fact that a large array of animal species include elements of same-sex eroticism in their sexual repertoires; in so doing, this research has attempted to dislodge heterosexual reproduction from its singularly privileged place in evolutionary biology, to connect notions of sexual diversity with biological diversity (for a critique, see McWhorter 2010), and to open the door for a nonteleological reconsideration of animal/human sociality and pleasure (Alaimo 2010b; Johnson 2011). As homonormative popular culture has embraced so-called queer animals in the midst of a larger naturalization of same-sex marriage (especially “gay” male penguins, see Sturgeon 2010), and as images of polymorphously perverse animal and invertebrate sex have come to populate the ideosphere in the service of sexual pluralism (Green Porno 2009), several scholars suggest ways in which this queering of the more-than-human could proceed in more critical directions. Elizabeth Wilson (2002) and Myra Hird (2004, 2008) consider the ways in which nonhuman sexual and gender diversity both calls into question human exceptionalism and destabilizes notions of identity, authenticity, and technology on which modern categories of human sexual orientation rest; Karen Barad (2012), deploying a notion of queer performativity to strong posthumanist ends, explores the ways in which the material world can be understood as unfolding according to a process of relational co-constitution in which materialization itself can be understood queerly (see also Morton 2010); and several authors call upon the queer potentialities of Deleuze and Guattari’s thought in order to nudge queer and trans theory to think more ecologically, in other words, to consider sexual and gender becomings as complex biological, technological, and political assemblages rather than as either purely discursive or biologically determined processes (Parisi 2008; MacCormack 2009; Chisholm 2010; Hayward 2008 and, for a critique, Garrard 2010).
Recent scholarship has drawn from combinations of these theoretical trajectories (and beyond) to generate a proliferating array of queer ecological possibilities, including provocative considerations of cross-species and eco-sexualities as part of an ethico-political opening of love to include more-than-human corporealities (e.g., Kuzniar 2008; Sandilands 2004; Stephens and Sprinkle 2012); of the implications of queer theorist Lee Edelman’s critique of reproductive futurism for ecological politics (Giffney 2008;Anderson 2011; Seymour 2013); and of canonical literary texts, reread and restaged in light of queer ecological concerns (Estok 2011; Azzarello 2012). In addition, new forms of specifically ecoqueer activism, demonstrating interesting forms of coalitional politics in opposition to homonormative agendas, are also emerging in response to such concerns as violence, space, and food (Hogan 2010; Sbicca 2012). In both theoretical and activist milieux, however, questions remain about the specific meaning of the term “queer,” given its historically and politically unstable relations to LGBTTIQQ2SA communities and activisms; the current constellation of queer ecologies—including as it does both more conventional lgbt histories and communities and more recent challenges to these terms and political affinities—may be on the verge of something new.