Polywog

February 4, 2008

this is it.


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. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the early 2000’s, activists who defended forests also deconstructed gender and sexuality, freeing something in themselves while at the same time defending their wild and free surroundings.

Between 1985 and 2005, forest defense was primary form of environmental direct action. Forest defense usually includes tree sits and road blocks, and sometimes 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 on public land while environmental lawyers fight for injunctions and protections in court. The Willamette National Forest is a central location in the history of forest defense. 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 an infamously male dominated activism to a notably feminist informed activism. As feminist forest defenders spoke out against male-dominance, they challenged individual men along with the patriarchal underpinnings of the environmental and eco-anarchist subcultures. 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 integrated coalition with men, these activists created deeply lived theories and political strategies that 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 while challenging sexism and sexual harassment. This separatism worked in conjunction and solidarity with an all-gender group, allowing women and many queer activists to simultaneously work with, yet apart from, male allies. While not uncontested, this strategy transformed and strengthened their community rather than fracturing it.

Campaigns set in pending timber sale areas acted as sites in which activists could embody liberatory theory while directly stopping the destruction of forests. Liberatory theory imbued the culture of environmental direct action with an integrated social and environmental ethic. Rejecting the old notion that environmental politics preclude social justice, activists celebrated forest defense for its unique potential to provide a physical and cultural space, almost a blank slate, in which they could experiment with anti-oppression and anti-authoritarianism. Some of their projects would not have been possible in mainstream society and mainstream spaces. As forest defense became a site for multi-issue praxis, activists queered forest defense in two primary ways: symbolically/ideologically and linguistically. Used alongside such pragmatic items as wrenches, truck rope and harnesses, theory and language also became tools among forest defenders.

During the first major campaign in the Willamette National Forest, Warner Creek, few people explicitly integrated social justice with environmental activism. According to several early activists’ reflections on the Warner Creek resistance, queers, anti-capitalists, feminists, proponents of physical force and property destruction, and even anarchists were in the minority. The eco-radical community was heavily influenced by the right wing nature conservation politics. Early activists, for instance, linked their struggles to anti-immigration and population control. One activist remembers the first time gender politics came to a head at a 1995 Round River Rendezvous, an annual camp-out for Earth First!ers. At this meeting, queer activists got together and realized the potential for solidarity, while women confronted patriarchal men on sexism and sexual assault within their activist networks. Prior to this, few conversations on sexism and heterosexism had surfaced. Whether parallel or causal, this was also the year in which forest defender Judi Bari’s call for environmental activist/worker alliances became popularized. This marked the beginning of a turn away from forest defense as a single–issue politic and toward an ethic of united social and environmental responsibility.

During the second major campaign in 1996, the Fall Creek forest defense community fractured over social injustice. Persistent sexist and violent encounters pervaded the lives of women and queer forest defenders. Many men used demeaning language, devalued their opinions, and relegated them to the most tedious and difficult tasks like hauling water, sorting food, cooking and cleaning, meanwhile hoarding “heroic” skills, notably 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 did not stand in solidarity with the survivors and their allies.

When the opportunity arose to prevent the timber sale named Straw Devil just a few miles down the highway from Fall Creek, women and queers had already forged a significant resistance to sexism and heterosexism. In solidarity with male allies, they created accountability processes for past perpetrators and formed a new organization that wrote feminism and social justice into its foundation. This is how the umbrella organization, Cascadia Rising, was born. Cascadia Forest Defenders, the Eugene-based group that 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 Cascadia 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 processes to deal with issues of oppression within activism. These changes made the old patriarchal eco-warrior type unwelcome, while making space for women, queers, transgender, and people of color activists to participate without fear of belittlement or violence.

A radical queer, environmental ethic emerged among forest defenders as queer activists exposed the sexist and heterosexist aspects of the traditional narrative in forest defense. Activists first located symbolic/ideological roots of the narrative and then altered language to forge a radical intervention.

Traditional discourses around forest defense have perpetuated a symbolic connection between women and nature that is deeply etched into Western culture. For instance, men often assigned feminine names to trees, then hoarded the task of defending them with a heroic, warrior style bravado. Earth First!’s motto, “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth,” similarly reinforced a gendered relationship between nature and defender. In the traditional narrative of forest defense, nature is passive, feminine, and victimized; men are brave, masculine, and warrior-like. This narrative is both sexist and heterosexist: it carves out limited, circumscribed roles and gender expressions for both men and women, and affects how activists participate within forest defense (women haul water while men climb trees, for instance), how they understand themselves within the forest activist community, in relationship to nature, and in relationship to their gender and sexual identities.

Women’s and queers’ active roles in forest defense undermined the stereotyped gendered divisions of labor and challenged the association of femininity to weakness and masculinity to strength. Queers brought a diversity and multiplicity of experience and expression that challenged the traditional, dualistic model. Queer presence threatened the link between forest defense and hegemonic masculinity. It corrupted the heterosexual narrative of the “eco-warrior” saving a helpless, hyper-feminine mother earth. Destabilizing this narrative allowed for a forest defender to be of any gender, while the forest was loosened from its symbolic, feminine throne.

Queer forest defenders eroded the distinction that nature is opposite culture. Forest defense is most often viewed as an active, rational force (culture) entering a passive sexual being (nature) in order to save “her.” In the last few decades, ecofeminists have developed a discipline articulating how the eroticization of women and nature serves the detriment of both. Rather than embracing the eroticization of nature or simply reversing the dichotomy by claiming that nature is not at all informed by the erotic, queer forest defenders have undermined the polarization between nature and culture. Nature, while erotic, also has autonomy and rational choice (the opposite of erotic). Similarly, culture becomes equal parts reason and erotic. Ecofeminist author Greta Gaard writes that “A queer ecofeminist perspective would argue that liberating the erotic requires reconceptualizing humans as equal participants in culture and nature, able to explore the eroticism of reason and the unique rationality of the erotic” (Gaard, 132). Queers threaten the idea that humans are separate from nature, or that culture is order and nature is some erotic, anarchic other. Queer praxis in forest defense, then, destabilizes the erotic in nature and extends the intuitive, the irrational, the passionate into culture.

A tangible example of this kind of philosophical intervention is the inclusion of a sex positive attitude common among queer communities especially in urban areas. An intentionally positive and embracing view of gender and sexuality balances with a non-hierarchical respect for non-human life. In a sense, this attitude helps us see nature and humans as more similar to each other.

Forest defenders in Cascadia radicalized queer identity while queering radical activism. They realized connections between nature, queer theory, and anarchism, beginning a dialectic of queer, ecological, and anti-authoritarian theory and practice, a praxis which involves a radical reinterpretation of gender, sexuality, nature, and culture.

Dismantling gender, to many activists, was part of a larger anarchist project. Ideologically, queers created an understanding among forest defenders that queerness was a threat to the hegemonic gender order, which is a basic building block for society. That queerness refuses to follow a hegemonic order and does not design itself according to any religion, government, or institution lends it to anarchist and ecoradical projects.

One of their most radical projects was the popularization of gender neutral pronouns. Activists in the Fall Creek and Straw Devil campaigns adopted a gender neutral pronoun which operated differently than gender neutral pronouns found in other queer communities. Rather than referring only to gender queer people, adding a third, more androgynous option in between “he” and “she,” this pronoun replaced all pronouns for all people of all genders, explicitly undermining the binary construction of gender. Everyone was “co,” which is short for either comrade or companion. Straw Devil’s “Women’s and Trans” area drew many more women and queers into the campaign than would have felt safe or invited to join otherwise. The space allowed many people to experiment with gender queer identities, feeling out the contours and breaking free from traditional gender expectations.

Gender neutral pronouns allowed people to experiment with their identities without having to immediately define themselves as gender queer, transgender, butch, femme, girl, or boy. The gender neutral pronoun, becoming increasingly common among a certain contingent of radical activist subcultures, allowed communities that actively included trans and gender queer people to bypass a language that otherizes trans and gender queer people, while, to an extent, queering people who would not otherwise transgress traditional gender performances. In mainstream society, gender queer and trans people have to “out” themselves, often adopting one of any number of “preferred pronouns,” that their friends, families, and acquaintances often awkwardly forget. Trans and gender queer experiences often remain otherized simply because most people cannot break their minds from the binary gender system in which they have been raised. Forest defenders largely agreed that if everyone in their community adopted the use of this new language, gender queer and trans people would no longer carry the responsibility and burden of undermining the oppressive binary gender system by themselves. Instead of queering one portion of society, gender neutral pronouns, in a sense, queer everyone.

Even in the all-gender part of Straw Devil, which worked alongside the women’s and trans’ only space, this practice was radically empowering and commonly used. The intention behind “co,” rather than “he” or “she,” and “co’s” instead of “his” or “hers,” was perhaps less about queering gender than about imbuing the community with a general sense of equality. With such a strong legacy of male dominance in forest defense, the presence of women can sometimes be overemphasized, made “special.” One is first recognized as female, perhaps even congratulated for being so, and secondly recognized as a forest defender. The use of gender neutral pronouns intervened in this pattern, linguistically enforcing that one should first be recognized as a person, as someone in the woods ready to be a part of a project. Gender neutral pronouns discourage people from making assumptions about individuals based on a few visual references. It is very rare that a woman will be judged first for her actions and objectives and then for her sex, gender, and perceived identities. The use of gender neutral pronouns activates this possibility.

When people are all referred to as co, it is not in denial of gender identities; rather, it is in recognition of the multiplicity of gender identities and the failure of a binary stratification to articulate that. The use of “co” calls into question the importance of gender as a prerequisite identification. It resists sexist and heterosexist assumptions simultaneously. For example, pretend that a person named Maple has just come to the forest and had co’s first climb training: co learns how to caterpillar co’s self up a rope that is hanging from high up in a tree. After the climb training, one person asks another person, “Hey, how did Maple’s climb training go?” The person responds, “Oh, it went alright. Co got scared and decided to come down, but we’re going to try again tomorrow.” If the climb trainer chose to use a gendered pronoun instead of a gender neutral pronoun, the listener coul make all sorts of assumptions about this person based on ingrained sexism and heterosexism. For instance, If “she” got scared, the listener would easily, perhaps inevitably, make assumptions about how women naturally get scared, women are not as good of climbers as men, or that women should not be climbing. If “she” did not get scared, perhaps the listener would think “good for her, she’s a tough woman.”

If co was replaced with a “he,” however, the conversation would be laced with a whole different set of assumptions. If “he” got scared, the listener may think he is less than manly, he is pussy, he is weak, he is gay, and of course, queers are too weak and frilly to be doing serious forest work. If “he” did not get scared, on the other hand, he would be maintaining the status quo, putting on his eco-warrior clothes and stepping into the narrative exactly where he’s expected.

Gender neutral pronouns evade common language problems that reinforce sexism and heterosexism. They also evade the otherizing that gender queer and trans folk so often face. The practice is contested both within the forest and outside of it. Within the forest, sometimes people choose not to participate in the language project, and others find their gender identities empowering and want to emphasize them. Outside of the forest, specifically among trans people, the use of gender neutral pronouns in the forest has been overwhelmingly seen as usurping or appropriating something that a different community has already owned. At a queer and trans panel in Eugene, Oregon, a community discussion unfolded between folks who advocated the spread of gender neutral pronouns to non gender queer people, and those who adamantly opposed it. Those who opposed it argued that when non-trans people use gender neutral pronouns, they erode the meaning and the weight that the word would have had. The person is potentially using the word without understanding the real struggles that trans people face in their everyday lives. These dialogues continue to create dynamic and creative explorations of gender, identity, and forest defense. The use of gender neutral pronouns radicalizes and personalizes queer activism and forest defense, but not without a healthy amount of controversy and critique.

Shifting queer praxis from urban landscapes, academic institutions, and reform or assimilationist projects to anti-assimiliationist, anarchist free states like those in forest defense greatly shifts the possibilities for radical experimentation and embodiment of theory. Moving queer theory from an anthropocentric perspective to a biocentric perspective shifts the possibilities for a radical queer praxis. A radical queer praxis influences the question of how we organize as human beings, and how we live in solidarity with the non-human world. As we radicalize nature and radicalize culture, we organize not through an authoritarian model but through ecologically-based models and anti-oppressive models. These links are integral to a radical feminist forest defense, integral to the project of defending the earth and ourselves.

 

Works Cited

Anonymous Interviews

Gaard, Greta. “Toward a Queer Ecofeminism.” Hypatia 12 (1997).

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2 Comments »

  1. Natty,

    This is the best writing I have ever seen you do. Not only does it bring to light some of the most cutting edge ideas necessary to break down the boundaries of culture and nature, it is easy to read and flows together in a way that someone who is new to the ideas you present could follow.

    I am in a crazy room right now with kids listening to Spanish cartoons, and adults making dinner, so I am going to cut my comment short for now. However I want to emphasize the importance of this paper to my life, and the amount that your study, your drive, your persistance has changed one person´s life. Mine.

    Thanks. Keep it up. Your trip is backed by awesome work.

    Comment by Eugene — February 8, 2008 @ 11:13 p02 | Reply

  2. I’m so happy that I finally got to read this! I’ve been eager to read it ever since the holiday party–and it certainly was worth the wait. I wish we delved into these issues in class more often…maybe we should?
    Good luck presenting this next month 🙂

    Pablo

    Comment by pabloarbolayjr — February 26, 2008 @ 11:13 p02 | Reply


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