Faeries in the Forest: Queering Environmental Activism

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the early 2000’s, activists who defended forests also deconstructed gender and sexuality, freeing something in themselves while defending their wild and free surroundings. They transformed a once starkly heteronormative activism into one which loudly undermined gender convention.

Between 1985 and 2005, forest defense was a primary form of environmental direct action in the Pacific Northwest. Forest defense usually includes tree sits, road blocks, and sometimes protests, tree spiking, sit-ins, and lock downs. 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 throughout this time, the three centered in the Willamette National Forest reveal the larger trajectory of cultural changes within forest activism.

In pending timber sales, old growth forests glistened with the balance of an ancient ecosystem, the raw health of a place filled with dying and being born. Activists came to these spaces to learn, to create, and to embody liberatory theory. Rejecting the old notion that environmental justice precludes social justice, activists celebrated forest defense for providing physical spaces in which they could experiment with anti-oppression, anti-authoritarianism, and queering space. Some of their projects would not have been possible in urban spaces, or spaces in which people with passion, time, and a willingness to challenge and be challenge were not concentrated into such close and isolated quarters. At the site of forest defense, then, theory intersected with practice and social justice with environmental justice. Used along side such pragmatic items as wrenches, truck rope, and harnesses, theory became another tool toward liberation.

During the first major campaign in the Willamette National Forest, Warner Creek, few people explicitly integrated social justice with environmental activism. The community was heavily influenced by parochial nature conservation politics. “But it was no accident,” one activist reflects, “that four women occupied the lockdowns at the climax of the campaign.” Women carried the brunt of the work while men occupied the camera’s gaze and narrated the event as if they were standing on no one’s backs. Although by the time the Warner Creek campaign came to a head it was largely shaded with a leftist, anarchistic tone, it was still a distinctly single issue struggle: any other political goals, especially feminism and queer empowerment, fell by the wayside.

During the Fall Creek campaign, beginning in 1996, the forest defense community fractured over social injustice. 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 at large 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, but saw this as an opportunity to organize to spatially organize a campaign to undermine male-dominance, male violence, and unwanted male leadership. 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. Every individual or group that allied with Cascadia Rising understood that anti-oppression was central to this new culture of activism.

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. The linked separation between the two camps acted as an everyday reminder of how patriarchy pervaded their community, and how desperately the forest activist community needed a commitment to social justice. While not uncontested, this strategy transformed and strengthened their community rather than fracturing it.

Queer activists played an integral role in radicalizing forest defense during the Straw Devil years: they exposed the sexism and heterosexism in forest defense and its deeper cultural roots, and they altered language to forge a radical intervention.

Traditional discourses in forest defense have been based on the feminization of nature, a notion 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!, a radical environmentalist group with which forest defense is often associated, claims the motto, “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth,” where nature is passive, feminine, and victimized; men, her defenders, are brave, masculine, and warrior-like. This sexist and heterosexist narrative carves out circumscribed roles and gender expressions for both men and women, affecting how activists participate within forest defense as well as how they understand themselves in relationship to nature.

Queer forest defenders understood how nature/culture, male/female, and reason/erotic dualisms fed their oppression and imbued heterosexism into forest defense. Forest defense is most often viewed as an active, rational force (culture) entering a passive sexual being (nature) in order to save “her.” But many forest defenders agree with ecofeminist philosophers who’ve claimed that the eroticization of women and nature “serves the mutual detriment of both” (Warren). 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. 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). Armed with a sex positivity forged in urban queer spaces, forest defenders were able to tangle and complicate the nature/culture, erotic/reason dualisms that had heretofore invisibly shaped much of environmentalist thinking and therefore activism. Queer praxis in forest defense, then, destabilizes the erotic in nature and extends the intuitive, the irrational, and the passionate into culture.

One of the ways forest defenders realized this was through 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” only 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 them, 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. 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 binaries by themselves.

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,” certainly queered gender, but also imbued 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.

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, “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 could 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 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 persona and stepping into the narrative exactly where he’s expected.

Gender neutral pronouns evade common language problems that reinforce sexism and heterosexism, but some people chose not to participate in the language project. 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 for trans and gender queer people. The person is potentially using the word without understanding the real struggles that transgender people face in their everyday lives.

Many have tried to balance this tension by suggesting forest activists honor every individual’s chosen pronoun. For example at a typical meeting where people are introducing themselves, one person will suggest doing a “go around,” and others wiggle their fingers in an upward direction, or agree verbally as they shift their attention to the circle. Each person says co’s name and preferred pronoun, often “co” or “she or co” or “anything and everything.” Often, if it is the beginning of a meeting, a person might say what co wants to add to the meeting’s agenda, or might comment on co’s pride at the work they’d done or co’s excitement for the events to come.

In this scene there is an unresolved tension between whether pronouns are individualistic and subjective—meant for the subject to decide and each speaker to remember, along with a person’s name and other particulars—or whether “co” is a communal word, used consistently by the speaker with little regard to individual preferences. Even while each speaker claimed an individual pronoun preference, I, as the story teller, chose to use co as a universal pronoun. The function of the pronoun is left in a dialectic tension as forest defenders use it, however contradictorily, in both ways simultaneously.

These dialogues continue to create dynamic and creative explorations of gender, identity, and forest defense. The use of gender neutral pronouns radicalizes 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, anarchistic free states like those in forest defense greatly shifts the possibilities for radical experimentation and embodiment of theory. A radical queer praxis influences how we organize as human beings, and how we live in solidarity with the non-human world.

  1. Natty,

    Yes! Yes! This passage DOES work. Here you have clarified what you have been trying to express for so long. Your writing has progressed incredibly in the past year. You knew this passage in your heart when I met you, but you didn’t have the tools necessary to put it together in such a clear, and tangible manner. I think you have it exactly right, no need to change it at all.

    Reading your passage, I kept thinking, “yes, yes, I understand, yes that does make sense, yes it is a way to improve upon language. Of diagnosing and understanding what reinforces sexism, patriarchy, and dissolving it.”

    Your talk is coming together very well, I’m proud of you.

    And, you are, in a way doing the work that needs to be done to break down sexism, patriarchy, and prejudice for us all.


    Comment by eug — March 2, 2008

  2. Natty,

    I think this really does work. I know its going to be an amazing presentation! And you absolutely said it best when you noted that “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.”

    I also think its critical to employ this praxis in everyday conversation–but I suspect that this may be met with a lot of resistance.

    I wanted to thank you so much for your comment. I’ve been looking for writings on binaries, and those were some amazing suggestions. I must say, I particularly connected with this concerned you expressed:

    how do i relate to academia, wade through these poor tools (dialogue, dialectic, dialogic, ontology, epistemology: words that keep coming up for me as i try to break out of their very constructs), and find other, non-alienating ways of thinking?

    I’m having a lot of difficulty dealing with this as well. I have two nieces, who are both the light of my life. One of them is 12 years old and I want to talk to her about these issues that we’re discussing in our blogs, but I feel absolutely confined by the language that is supposed to be liberating.

    We should chat about this in person one day? I think it would be interesting.



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