January 17, 2008

Faeries in the Forest: Queering Environmental Activism

Queers marked the first years of the 21st century with a vanguard praxis that reverberated throughout the forest and its network of defenders. They transformed a once starkly heteronormative activism into one which loudly undermined gender convention. Coming from an anti-assimilationist perspective, queer activists fashioned a radical transformation of the attitudes and politics embedded in forest defense. Many forest defenders began to understand activism, sexuality, ecology, anarchism, and feminism as politically, emotionally, and theoretically linked commitments. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the early 2000’s, activists who defended forests also deconstructed gender and sexuality, freeing something in themselves as they defended the wild and free surrounding them.

A primary form of environmental direct action between 1985 and 2005 was forest defense. Forest defense usually includes tree sits and road blocks, and sometimes includes protests, tree spiking, sit-ins, lock downs, and other forms of direct action. In Oregon, forest defenders often stall logging companies from entering illegal or dubiously legal logging sites while environmental lawyers fight for injunctions and protections in court. This paper focuses on a central location in the history of forest defense, the Willamette National Forest. This forest hosted three major campaigns: the Warner Creek campaign of the mid 1990s; the Fall Creek campaign which began in 1998; and the 2003-2004 campaign, Straw Devil. Although there were many other campaigns in other places throughout this time—notably Earth First!’s and Julia Butterfly’s actions in the California Redwoods, Eagle Creek near Portland, Oregon, Watch Mountain in Washington, and Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia—the three campaigns centered in the Willamette Forest reveal the larger trajectory of cultural changes within forest activism.

This chapter, “Faeries in the Forest: Queering Environmental Activism,” is the last chapter of a larger paper which documents the history, theory, and praxis of forest defense in the Willamette Valley. “Apex: Locating Cascadia Forest Defense in Feminism, Anarchism, and Queer Theory,” addresses the full trajectory of gender politics over the course of the Warner Creek, Fall Creek, and Straw Devil campaigns. It documents gender politics in forest defense between 1985 and 2005, as forest defense shifted from being notably male dominated to being notably feminist. As feminist forest defenders spoke out against the male-dominance in the movement, they challenged individual men as well as the patriarchal underpinnings of the environmental and eco-anarchist movements. Through a process of articulating patriarchy within their activist groups; separating from men into autonomous women- and transgender-only spaces; challenging men to take up feminist politics; and then reintegrating to work in coalition with men, these activists created deeply lived theories and political strategies which managed to affirm their goals as anarchists and feminists while successfully stopping timber sales.

Importantly, women’s and transgender activists used separatism to create safe and empowering spaces, challenging sexism and sexual harassment. This separatism worked in conjunction and solidarity with an all-gender group, allowing women to simultaneously work with, yet apart from, male allies. This noteworthy strategy transformed and strengthened their community rather than fracturing it.

Forest defense was a site on which many theories were embodied on the ground, contested, and used as tools along with such useful items as wrenches, truck rope and harnesses. Historical analysis combined with ecofeminist, feminist, anarchist, and queer theory elucidates an important theme for feminist and movement history: the failure of single-issue politics. Environmental activism cannot preclude or undermine social activism. Rather, forest defense provides a physical and cultural space to experiment with anti-oppression and anti-authoritarianism in ways that mainstream society and mainstream spaces cannot as readily afford.

During the second major campaign in the Willamette National Forest, Fall Creek, the forest defense community fractured over social injustice. Persistent sexist and violent encounters pervaded women’s lives as forest defenders. Patriarchal men used demeaning language, devalued their opinions, relegated them the drudgery tasks like hauling water, sorting food, etc. while men hoarded “heroic” skills including building and occupying tree sits. Beyond the daily grind of sexism that permeated these isolated enclaves of “anti-authoritarian” and “anarchist” people in the forest, there were at least three incidences of sexual assault. While not all men were sexist or perpetrated sexist violence against women, the community on the whole could not agree to stand in solidarity with women.

When the opportunity arose to prevent the timber sale named Straw Devil, women had already forged a significant resistance against sexism in forest defense, and in solidarity with male allies created accountability processes for past perpetrators and formed a new organization which wrote feminism and social justice into its foundation. The umbrella organization, Cascadia Rising, was born, and Cascadia Forest Defenders, the Eugene based group which organized and initiated the three campaigns, was central to its formation. Cascadia Rising grew to include several organizations throughout the bioregion and initiated Cascadia Summer, a 2003 summer of forest defense throughout Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. Every individual or group that allied with Cascaida Rising understood that anti-oppression was central to this new culture of activism. Most groups had their own anti-oppression statement and semi-formal accountability process to deal with issues of oppression within activism. These changes pushed out many of the eco-warrior type, while making space for women, queers, transgender activists, and people of color to participate without fear of belittlement or violence.

Ps. If anyone out there reading this wants to talk to me about this project–whether to contribute your own knowledge and experience, contest the details, offer alternate views, etc., I am very open to dialogue. Email me at Blackberryblossoms@gmail.com


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