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SSHRC-funded book challenges notions about 'normal' sex and the environment

SSHRC-funded book challenges notions about 'normal' sex and the environment

Much of what informs environmental thinking springs from a view that equates nature with sexually straight and queer with unnatural. The editors of a new book Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, turn those notions upside down.

Co-editors Bruce Erickson (PhD 09’) and York environmental studies Professor Catriona Sandilands, Canada Research Chair in Sustainability & Culture, wanted to challenge the current thinking about what is considered sexually “normal” in nature and how nature is used to create normative sexualities. To do so, they gathered a group of mainly senior scholars who’d done work close to the intersection of sexuality studies and environmental studies in research areas such as queer geography, eco-feminism, environmental justice and gender and sexuality studies.

The result is a book that looks at three broad topics – “Against Nature? Queer Sex, Queer Animality”, “Green, Pink, and Public: Queering Environmental Politics” and “Desiring Nature? Queer Attachments” – with contributors from literary studies, landscape ecology, geography, science studies, history, philosophy, sociology and women’s studies, including leading researchers from the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

Erickson, who studied with Sandilands and is now a post-doctoral fellow in environmental history at Nipissing University, says part of the reason for Queer Ecologies was to explore the connection between environmentalism and discourses of homosexuality. “The birth of modern environmentalism and the birth of modern understandings of homosexuality and queerness came about at the same time through very similar actors and so we wanted to think about that a little bit more and see how those connections are actually a lot more deeply ingrained than simply being a kind of accidental event,” says Erickson.

Queer Ecologies asks contemporary environmental thinkers and activists to consider how their practices and assumptions about nature are located in homophobic and heterosexist perspectives, and to ask the queer communities to engage in more ecological discourse and action, says Mortimer-Sandilands. “It’s important to make nature and environmental issues part of a more robust queer platform. It’s not just about achieving equality in an ecologically disastrous world. It’s also about thinking about the interrelationship between sexual resistances and environmental justice, for example.”

Left: Catriona Sandilands and Bruce Erickson

There are several historical connections between sexual and environmental politics, says Sandilands, author of The Good-Natured Feminist: Ecofeminism and the Quest for Democracy.

“First, species, race and population were all hotly contested concepts in the late-19th and early-20th centuries; these debates influenced emerging understandings of both ecology and sexuality, which also influenced each other. Second, large-scale industrialization and urbanization both created new spaces in which new sexual cultures could thrive, and also contributed to larger social anxieties about hygiene, degeneracy and what was considered an 'effeminization' of white national virility. Out of these processes arose both modern understandings of sexuality and gender and modern institutions of nature conservation, most notably national parks.”

With these historical connections, it is important to understand that the modern environmental movement has sexual origins, and also that sexual politics have embedded understandings of nature and environment, she says. “In addition, political resistances to dominant sex/nature categories also have a history: from Radclyffe Hall’s literary defence of gender inversion to Oscar Wilde’s refusal of ‘natural authenticity’ to the Radical Faeries to the Lesbian National Parks & Services. It's a fascinating history.”

As a result, Queer Ecologies includes essays on both the “historical links between sex and nature and on more contemporary issues, such as the current popular fascination with the sexuality of animals, conflicts about public sex in designated nature areas, heterosexual panic in anti-toxics activism, population and development politics, and resistances by the queer communities to all of the above in art, literature and politics,” says Sandilands.

Erickson’s essay takes issue with the iconic nature of the canoe. “My starting point for the essay is Pierre Berton’s comment that a Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe. I try to trace back this national feeling through these very normative ideas of heterosexuality and how the assumption by those that take up Berton’s statement as being such an interesting and witty way of understanding Canada reify a kind of heterosexist image of the nation.” He also looks at the politics of colonialism that have allowed the canoe to become a symbol of the nation.

Sandilands turns her gaze to two authors, Jan Zita Grover and Derek Jarman, and how they responded politically and with dignity to the massive losses brought about by AIDS, and how they offer a model for thinking intelligently about the daily losses that are part of the environmental crisis. Too often environmental loss becomes tourism. Everyone runs out to see the natural wonder before it’s gone.

“But that approach is part of the problem, ethically and politically, we can't just ‘move on’ to other natures, and some of the approaches to loss and memory explored in the massive artistic and literary response to AIDS are very instructive to help us think about the consequences of what we are losing environmentally,” she says.

The book came about through a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada grant Sandilands received related to her work as Canada Research Chair, which included funds for a workshop which inaugurated the Queer Ecologies project.

Sandilands' next book, This Is For You: Walks with Jane Rule (UBC Press), is forthcoming.

Queer Ecologies was published last week; a launch will take place in the fall.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.