Heat Crime: LGBTQ Politics for a Changing Climate

By many accounts, the corporate presence at last weekend's gay pride parade in New York City was greater than any other year in the parade's history. TD Bank, one of the parade's platinum sponsors, went so far as to distribute necklaces with the rainbow flag and a small TD logo emblazoned on the front, which many attendees wore as they marched or chanted or danced. For some, the omnipresent TD Bank logos bore a strange and special pain. TD Bank, after all, has provided the largest corporate loans for Transcanada's Keystone XL Pipeline, the infamous tar sands pipeline that has been proposed as a means of transporting toxic, climate ravaging tar sands oil from the fields of Alberta for refinement and distribution here in America. Former NASA scientist James Hansen has called the pipeline "game over for the climate" and articles on the pipeline can be found here, here and here. In this context, it was not simply poor taste to have the TD logo slathered all over everything at the pride parade - it was a direct betrayal of the parade's purpose. It was a betrayal because climate change is fundamentally an LGBTQ issue, and queer liberation demands action on climate change.

The link between climate change and the LGBTQ community is not intuitive. The details of an individual's sexual orientation seem at first to be as far removed from the concentration of atmospheric CO2 as the butterfly's wings from the hurricane. But butterflies can cause hurricanes, and understanding this connection is mandatory for those of us in the hurricane's path.


What does climate change look like? What will climate change look like in a few decades? One of the most hair-raising aspects of the climate crisis is its potential effect on global food prices - as temperature and rain patterns shift across the planet, we will no longer be able to rely on traditional agricultural practices to support our population. Climate change also looks like increased heat waves and increasingly violent storms along our coasts. LGBTQ people are more vulnerable to these impacts than the general population because of structural inequality - they face workplace discrimination, make less money than their heterosexual counterparts, and among the very poor LGBTQ people are disproportionately represented (it is estimated that between 20% and 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, despite only making up around 3% of youth as a whole). Consider this: if you are spending more of your income on food than the general population, then you are far more likely to suffer the consequences of economic instability. If you are homeless, you are more vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events like heat waves. And if you are afraid of homophobic or transphobic violence in the shelter system, you are less likely to evacuate during a storm, which places your life at risk. Add this up and climate change looks like a matter of real concern for queer communities.


Climate change also looks like increased health risks. As temperature zones shift, new vistas open up to pests and carriers of disease. This is why well-respected public health institutions such as the Lancet in the UK and the American Public Health Association are working hard to engage the public on the threat of climate change.
Increased disease risk is particularly troubling if you have a compromised immune system. HIV is still an ongoing crisis in the queer community - it is estimated that 1 in 5 gay men in the US are HIV positive, with new infections specifically targeting young black and African men. Any queer liberation movement worthy of the name must grapple with the ongoing impacts of AIDS and the often fatal social stigmatization that is its legacy, and this means addressing macro-level public health stressors like climate change.


There is another reason why climate change is a specifically queer issue, and while it may seem indirect, it may ultimately pose a greater threat to queer communities than any of the previously listed reasons. Climate change erodes social cohesion. Don't take my word for it - check out the U.S. Department of Defense's stance on climate change, or this assessment of how climate change drove instability in Syria, or Christian Parenti's excellent book on climate change and social conflict (in which he coins the phrase "the armed lifeboat" to describe the security state that grows out of a changing climate). When this happens, state authorities tend to consolidate power and crack down on civil liberties. And almost without exception, authoritarian societies scapegoat, vilify and attack the "other" within their borders. LGBTQ people around the world have a basic, existential motivation to avoid and work against this tendency - they are a perpetual minority within all state borders, and have been specifically targeted by fascist regimes from the Third Reich and Franco's Spain to more contemporary fascist movements like Greece's Golden Dawn. And while this may not seem relevant for LGBTQ people here in the United States, it is at least worth remembering that during the McCarthy era the drive toward a pernicious form of American nationalism went hand in hand with the persecution of queer people. To work against the kind of social disruptions that lead to restricted liberties is to work toward the safety and well being of LGBTQ people all over the world.


Some might argue that this is a facile position - that there isn't any impact mentioned here that is by definition unique to the LGBTQ population. According to this argument, you might say, all marginalized or oppressed communities have a heightened stake in taking action on climate change, whether we're talking about women, people of color, migrant workers, the economically disadvantaged, etc.

Well... yes. Yes, that's true.

The movement for LGBTQ rights now faces a potential moment to redirect its energy toward what LGBTQ liberation was in the beginning - a movement that speaks loudly and clearly for survival, for the fundamental dignity and rights of those at greatest risk within the queer community. And in doing so, the movement is also being given an opportunity to build solidarity across sexual identity lines to work with all those working for a more just society - as a friend quipped recently, a hurricane doesn't care about your sexual orientation. Few issues in the modern world represent a better opportunity for putting this rejuvenated perspective into practice than the climate movement.

There is another march happening in New York City, it turns out. The People's Climate March is happening on September 21st. You probably won't see sponsors like TD Bank giving out flags. But you will be joined by queer people who understand the climate movement to be fundamentally a movement of compassion, a movement that realizes the best traditions of LGBTQ organizing. Hope to see you there!