Photos by Annie Flanagan
CHICAGO ― Precious Brady-Davis’ sterile, fluorescent-lit office in the densest part of America’s third-biggest city is a far cry from the grassy backyard in Omaha where she started her story. After four hours of recounting her life one afternoon in late April, from her troubled childhood in Nebraska to becoming a nationally recognized activist and speaker, it started to feel a bit like a courthouse deposition. She paused for a moment, growing quiet and pensive, before suddenly reemerging with the confident grin of a stage performer.
She gestured toward a framed photograph of her and her husband with former President Barack Obama, marveling at the surreality of her own life story.
“This is me,” she said.
Brady-Davis, 33, is perhaps the most visible transgender woman of color in the climate movement today. She’s part of a new generation of environmentalists unmoored from the Patagonia-clad treehugger archetype and radicalized by global warming’s exacerbation of society’s worst inequities. As once-disparate social movements are awakening to climate change’s ubiquity, Brady-Davis, a top press secretary for the Sierra Club, is drawing on her roots as a queer African American from a pious family in a deep-red, rural state to build bridges over troubled and rising waters.
Her path from drag performer in Chicago to prominent LGBTQ activist to her central role at one of the country’s oldest and most influential environmental groups mirrors a nascent shift in the climate movement toward tactics long employed in civil rights struggles. It also highlights how much the effects of global warming on historically vulnerable communities remain underappreciated.
“Whether it’s a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body, a trans woman’s right to walk down the street without being murdered, or protecting clean water and air from pollutants, it’s all public health issues,” Brady-Davis said. “To not have a more well-rounded view of justice is just perilous.”
Brady-Davis’ life was difficult from the start. She was born in 1985 in Omaha to a mother who suffered from mental health issues. Child service records note finding her as a toddler waddling unsupervised in the streets and wandering into neighbors’ yards. At 6, her maternal grandfather, Andre Davis, and his second wife, Linda, adopted her.
The family included five children ― the grandparents’ two kids, plus Brady-Davis and her two siblings. Andre worked nights as a disco and funk DJ and spent days recording radio commercials for artists such as Brandy, Salt-N-Pepa and Da Brat. Linda, who worked a telemarketing job, was their primary caregiver.
The family attended a nondenominational church, and the fiery, Pentecostal-style sermons in which entranced worshippers spoke in tongues excited Brady-Davis. The church provided the community and structure she had always longed for. She led Sunday school classes, made crafts and performed in puppet shows. More than anything, the music transfixed her, and she joined the choir.
Brady-Davis understood from an early age that something was different about her gender and sexual identity. She loved to play with dolls, and occasionally wore her sister’s high heels around the house. She longed to be a little girl ― specifically, a little white girl.
“I didn’t want to be a little black girl or a little black boy,” she said. “I identified early on that race was tied to economic privilege.”
As early as fourth grade, the bullying began.
“People would say, ‘Are you gay? Are you gay?’” Brady-Davis recalled. “I didn’t even know what gay meant. I did know my grandmother would say, ‘Stop swishing.’ I didn’t know what that meant. I had no clue, but she was referring to how I moved my butt.”
Soon, the social pressures began mounting. She wanted to take up music, but her grandparents couldn’t afford to rent instruments. Then, on Christmas Eve that year, her sister accused her grandfather of touching her inappropriately. He denied it, and while the allegations never amounted to legal charges, the incident shattered her grandparents’ marriage and rocked the family forever. Brady-Davis’ grandfather left. Her older brother got into drugs and wound up in jail.
Brady-Davis says she was a “broken” child. “I saw all the men in my life, one by one, be shipped off.”
“I didn’t want to be a little black girl or a little black boy. I identified early on that race was tied to economic privilege.”
Her older sister married a Marine officer in training, who, after suffering an injury, came back and took it upon himself to shape Brady-Davis into a “man’s man,” pressuring her to exhibit machismo that felt disturbingly unnatural.
“There was an authoritarian grasp he tried to put on my life,” she said. “He tried to rid me of my feminine tendencies.”
She attended a home-based Christian middle school and devoted herself to the teachings, hoping to someday become a pastor. But Brady-Davis realized she was attracted to men, which seemed like a textbook case of sin in her religion.
Public high school brought some clarity. She started to experiment with her identity. She fell in with other free spirits.
“There weren’t any models of gender nonconformity,” she said. “The closest clique I could assimilate with were the punks.”
After a physical altercation with her grandfather during her sophomore year, she left her family and started living with foster parents. She transferred to another high school, where she “found a tribe in drama and theater.” After graduating, she went to a local community college and later transferred to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Summer In The City
College was the first time Brady-Davis felt she could be out as gay, particularly once she moved to Lincoln. At the University of Nebraska, she volunteered at the campus LGBTQ resource center, and ― tapping into her natural inclinations as a performer — signed up for a drag contest she heard about on National Coming Out Day.
She donned a blonde pixie wig, a dress and bejeweled high heels ― one of which snapped as she made her way onstage. She took it as a good luck omen. Her performance of Whitney Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” killed.
Brady-Davis soon became a regular in the Lincoln drag scene, known by her stage name, “Precious Jewel.” She soon outgrew Lincoln. She went on a two-week study abroad program in London and Paris one summer and came back a changed person.
“It felt eye-opening, I was introduced to the metropolis, the city,” she said. “I came back to Nebraska and I was like, ‘I cannot live here anymore.’”
So she transferred to Columbia College in Chicago, earning tuition money in a retail job and performing drag at night. It was in Boystown, the historic LGBTQ haven in northeastern Chicago, that she developed a following. That’s also where her political transformation began. The neighborhood drew LGBTQ teenagers by the droves. Too young to get into the bars where Brady-Davis performed, the teens, many of them homeless, gathered outside, hanging out and voguing in the streets. The trans teens begged her for selfies as she made her way between performances.
Where Brady-Davis saw downtrodden kids, longtime residents in the neighborhood saw a nuisance. One June night, Brady-Davis attended a community meeting local officials had set up to respond to residents’ complaints about the teens. The “racist, bigoted” remarks she heard from the mostly white gay folks at the meeting, many of them frequent attendees at her drag shows, left her floored.
“These are the people I’m performing for in this neighborhood?” she thought. “What do these people think of me? I don’t want to be part of that.”
‘It All Made Sense’
Brady-Davis took her first real desk job several months later, as a youth outreach coordinator for the Center on Halsted, a nonprofit that served the Boystown teens.
The work was rewarding, but something felt off. She presented as male and went by her given name as she worked with young trans girls. At this point, she identified as gender nonconforming, and some trans friends had offered her hormones. But it wasn’t until sitting with a young girl who proudly “walked through the halls of her high school as trans” that Brady-Davis asked a colleague if she could start meeting with clients as Precious. He encouraged her to do it.
“Those girls were holding up a mirror to myself, and it all made sense,” Brady-Davis said as we talked in her downtown Chicago office in late April. “I went home and said, ‘I’m going to transition.’”
She became the first transgender staffer at the center but found the organization had no policy in place for updating internal files to reflect a worker’s gender transition. Top-ranking managers refused to change her email. When a top manager left, Brady-Davis asked if another manager if he thought the center might promote her as his replacement.
“He said to me, ‘That will never happen,’” she said.
She resigned from the center and took over as the assistant director of diversity recruitment initiatives at her alma mater. The job gave her a national platform that made her a regular speaker on race and gender panels. But she felt conflicted urging queer and black students, many of them as poor as she had been, to take out loans to pay $27,000 a year in tuition.
“I didn’t want to be a part of burdening other students with debt,” she added. “I was still paying off mine.”
She went on the job hunt again, about eight months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The new administration’s efforts to roll back transgender protections nauseated her. But it was the assault on environmental regulations had hit a nerve, from the rejection of international climate rules to Trump’s cartoonish antagonism toward environmentalists.
“Whether it’s a woman’s right to choose, a trans woman’s right to walk down the street without being murdered, or protecting clean water and air from pollutants, it’s all public health issues. To not have a more well-rounded view of justice is just perilous.”
Brady-Davis had once interned for the Sierra Club back in Nebraska. She’d spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. She’d also struggled with health issues she only later saw as linked to environmental concerns.
“I had terrible asthma growing up,” she said. “For as long as I could remember, I had allergies and problems breathing. I always had this relationship with the earth.”
But she hadn’t had any formal training in the environmental space ― which, when she saw an opening at the Sierra Club’s Chicago office, made the job appealing.
The Sierra Club hired her and soon promoted her to regional communications director. In December 2017, as then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt took a hacksaw to his agency’s regulatory regime, Brady-Davis and her team sent holiday cards detailing the threat of pollution from that deregulatory effort to 17,000 families in Pruitt’s native Oklahoma.
Elsewhere in Oklahoma, Brady-Davis studied the toxic effects of coal ash deregulation and started pitching it to reporters around the state. In winter 2017, she helped produce a video promoting a project in Minneapolis in which a mosque and a church partnered to build a community-owned solar farm to power both houses of worship and 26 neighboring homes.
Her status as a relative newcomer imbues Brady-Davis’s activism with an authenticity that some advocates find hard to project in a movement that often puts polar bears at the forefront of its messaging. It also means she has a fresh perspective on how to talk about climate change as a justice issue, one that isn’t siloed off from other concerns.
In her office just a few days after Earth Day, she noted that her husband, who works at an LGBTQ organization, had posted something on Facebook commemorating the holiday. While a post about the Trump administration banning trans people from the military or barring trans students from using their preferred bathroom often draws dozens of interactions, hardly anyone acknowledged the Earth Day post.
“They don’t realize it, and that is troubling,” Brady-Davis said. “People only see what’s happening in the LGBTQ community.”
The connections between climate change and gender are becoming clearer as the frequency and intensity of warming-fueled natural disasters increase. Women made up 70% of the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami since they were trapped in their homes while men were out in the open, according to the United Nations. Sexist hiring practices and work cultures make it more difficult for women to support themselves during droughts or after disasters. The U.N. estimates 80% of those displaced by climate change are women.
Little research examining climate change’s effect on queer communities exists. But 40% of the 1.6 million American youth who experience homelessness each year identify as LGBTQ, according to a 2012 study from the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute. And, historically, LGBTQ people have flocked to dense coastal cities that tend to be more culturally diverse and accepting, concentrating the communities in places vulnerable to rising seas and heightened pollution.
Those are just the physical risks. Queer people are nearly three times more likely to experience a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety than the average American, and LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Between 38% and 65% of transgender individuals suffer from suicidal ideation.
Natural disasters linked to climate change threaten to make that worse. The American Public Health Association estimates between 25% and 50% of people exposed to extreme weather are at risk from mental health effects, and up to 54% of adults and 45% of children suffer depression after a natural disaster. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, 49% of survivors developed an anxiety or mood disorder, 1 in 6 suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide or suicidal ideation more than doubled.
Yet framing the relationship between LGBTQ issues and climate change as one solely of vulnerabilities and victimization misses important political lessons.
“There’s a lot of people who made it through the AIDS crisis and decided to pivot to marriage equality and owning a condo in the white, yuppie gay neighborhood. The question for me is how do we surface the history that can actually reactivate the LGBT community to understand the crisis that we’re in?”
There’s a lot for the climate movement to borrow from the more militant early era of the fight for LGBTQ rights, said Sean Estelle, a gender-nonconforming climate activist in Chicago. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, emerged in the 1980s in response to the federal government’s inaction in the face of thousands of mostly gay men dying after contracting HIV. The movement pioneered die-in protests and amplified apocalyptic rhetoric to finally spur action from federal lawmakers who at times mocked AIDS victims and suggested the virus was a biblical punishment for the sin of same-sex attraction.
Those protest techniques are starting to appear in movements like Greenpeace and the Extinction Rebellion, an international effort urging civil disobedience to pressure lawmakers to act on climate change.
“There’s a lot of people who made it through the AIDS crisis and decided to pivot to marriage equality and owning a condo in the white, yuppie gay neighborhood,” Estelle said. “The question for me is how do we surface the history that can actually reactivate the LGBT community to understand the crisis that we’re in?”
For Brady-Davis, her personal history is another way of expanding that reach. “I have so much life experience: I was adopted, I was a foster kid, I grew up Pentecostal, I’m left-handed, I’m short, I’m biracial, I’m a girl from Nebraska,” she said. “Anywhere I go, I change the culture. I leave the place better than I found it, and I think that’s how we should treat the environment.”