Today was the third installment of the nature-culture reading group I’ve been attending at the Robarts Center for Canadian Studies, coordinated by the wildly entertaining and engaging Jody Berland. We focused on the anthology Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire co-edited by Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands (my PhD advisor, better known now as Cate Sandilands) and Bruce Erickson, a former student of Cate’s and Assistant Professor of Geography at York. (Previous installments of the group have been centered around the work of Rod Giblett, with whom I remain unfamiliar, and Bruno Latour, whose sweeping gestures of erasure of seemingly all previous social theory continue to irk me, despite my generally ambivalent interest in actor-network theory.)
I was happy to have a chance to engage more deeply with this volume which came out while I was in the middle of my application process for PhD. Today was also a bit of an ‘origin moment’ as Cate relayed a story regarding the 2005 piece “Unnatural Passions? Notes Toward a Queer Ecology” which was my first point of contact with her work. (Apparently its recent translation into Portuguese has prompted a deluge of interest from Brazilian drag queens!) In this piece, which was an early version of what would eventually become the introduction to the anthology, she discusses the ‘double movement’ whereby “Homosexuality was simultaneously naturalized and considered ‘unnatural,’ something deviant from a primary, normative heterosexuality” (n.p., digital edition). This move is important for an understanding of queer ecologies as it shows that not only did the regulatory practices of scientific and medicalizing logics which shaped sexuality, but so too did heteronormativity shape science, particularly (or at least significantly) ecology. She writes, “In the first place, then, we have a situation in which sexuality was biologized into naturalized normative categories, and in which developing evolutionary and ecological thinking was influenced by a strongly heterosexist paradigm” (n.p.). Such a process turns out to be quite impactful for both “the politics of wilderness preservation and urban greening” (n.p.). Can you see where this is going?
For me, what is particularly remarkable and challenging about this piece is Mortimer-Sandiland’s insistence on the fact that “The linkage of homosexuality and cities…was clearly a product of ideology, but that ideology has had an enormous material impact on both queers and natural spaces” (n.p.). This obviously raises significant questions for my project of queer(ing) urban ecologies. What does it mean for my project to foreground the urban? Might this be what Butler calls a ‘constitutive exclusion’ of the rural? How might I deal with what Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson, following Scott Herring, call ‘metronormativity’ (2010:28; see also Ch. 2 Judith Halberstam 2005)?
Firstly, it means that the urbanization of sexuality and the sexuality of urbanization must constantly be reworked to trouble the notion that it is only through the putatively ‘liberative’ spatialization of queerness that ‘community’ is formed. (Gays as the vanguard of gentrification would suggest otherwise) Restated: I’ve got to challenge the notion that the ‘visibility’ of queers (or, more likely of white, gay professionals) is somehow a sure sign of ‘progress’ with respect to either queer politics or environmental politics. Since I am very interested in thinking the urban with Lefebvre, I have to consider that this also means that I must think of the aspects of urbanization as an historical mode of the production of space that may demand subjugation and continued violence against queers as a condition of its ‘success’. The city, it appears, continues to intensify a commodification of queer identity and, relatedly, the spatial dominance of a commodified gay identity. How might I think about queer approaches to a radically open and radically democratic process of urbanization which no longer takes for granted the affinity of the city and the queer?
Let queer urban ecologies be a moment to consider how projects of ‘urban greening’ might actually become occasions for a radical challenge to phallocentric, heteronormative, capitalistic forms of urban (public) green space. Let it also be a call to consider, as Gordon Brent-Ingram does in the anthology, how the language and method of ecology might help to stage resistance to dominant forms of urbanization, which are broadly threatening to any forms of desire or non-reproductive erotic drive which do not match with the supposedly inherent (or at least apparently inherent to capitalism) accumulation strategies necessary to drive ‘sustainable growth’ (2010:254-282).
It’s a ramble, it’s a start.
Halberstam, Judith. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgendered Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: NYU Press.
Ingram, Gordon Brent. “Fragments, Edges, and Matricies: Re-theorizing the Formation of a So-called Gay Ghetto through Queering Landscape Ecology”. Pp. 254-282 in Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, eds. 2010. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona and Bruce Erickson, eds. 2010. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.