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August 11, 2022

LGBTQIA+ Folxs Need a Voice in the Protection of Our Planet – What is Stifling Our Voices?

Mattie Forte

Mattie Forte is an out Non-Binary Science Instructor at the Marine Science Institute of Redwood City, California. They completed this project as a part of their graduate work with Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

“I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up, and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine.” – Harvey Milk 

As an out non-binary environmentalist, both in my academic experiences and professionally, I have often felt alone. To my knowledge, I am often the only queer or transgender person in the room when it comes to conservation. I was the first person to come out as transgender at the local non-profit in which I work, one of only two trans people in my bachelor’s program, and the first person my graduate program is aware of to have undergone gender-affirming surgery during their studies. I have found that only when I come out in my professional and academic communities that I begin to find other LGBTQIA+1 individuals in the field. Even then, they are often few and far between and much younger than me. I am only 27 years old. Yet, I often find myself becoming a role model for young queer people in this field. Time and again, it seems I am one of the few role models they may have, if not their only one. I wonder why this continues to be the case and what we can do to improve the representation of and accessibility for queer youth in the environmental movement. What can we do to prevent our queer youth from feeling alone in the room as environment advocates?

Expanding diversity in the conservation field is an ongoing issue, and one especially underrepresented is folxs2 in the LGBTQIA+ community. In order to expand diversity, we need to establish the existing barriers to involvement in the conservation biology and environmental advocacy communities. What is keeping queer folxs out of, or feeling the need to stay closeted within the field of conservation biology? One known barrier to entry into academic settings has been identified in the American Physical Society’s (APS) report, LGBT Climate in Physics, where approximately half of the surveyed transgender physicists and physics students reported experiencing exclusionary and harassing treatment. Are there similar barriers in the environmental sciences as there are in the physics community? In the industry setting, a 2013 survey of STEM workers established that more than 40% of LGBTQ+ respondents who work in STEM fields are not out to their colleagues. Are queer folxs in the environmental fields just as closeted? Even if queer folxs are present in the conservation field but closeted, this is not indicative of true representation, inclusivity, or diversity. If LGBTQIA+ people feel the need to remain closeted, there is still no true contribution to representation. Without acceptance and visibility, a barrier is created that prevents queer youth from being able to see themselves in the space and field of conservation biology. 

It may be an easy justification that the lack of representation of LGBTQIA+ folxs in conservation is just that they, as a group, are not as interested in environmental concerns. This is simply not true; existing research such as this report about the LGBTQIA community shows that when surveyed, the queer community has a stronger concern for environmental issues than the cisgender heterosexual population. In fact, 40% of LGBTQIA+ adults agreed with the statement that they “encourage others to be more environmentally friendly,” in contrast to heterosexuals who agreed with the statement 24% of the time. However, while we may feel some comfort in these statistics, the truth of the matter is that higher reported concerns and response rates to surveys about environmental issues are not the same as tangible and equitable involvement in the conservation movement.

I am curious about where and when the barriers to involvement in conservation for  LGBTQIA+ folxs begin. Do barriers to further involvement start with student involvement in environmental education programming? I wonder if this is due to the direct relationship environmental education has in instilling concern for the environmental movement. This is where my call to action comes in. I am conducting an inquiry to assess the Willingness to Participate (WTP) for students that are in the Gender and Sexuality Minorities (GSM) spectrum in environmental education programs. 

Our natural world is vast and immensely diverse, and there is also an immense diversity among folxs on this planet. In order to be truly effective, the conservation and environmental field needs to represent this diversity of lived experiences. After all, the environment includes everyone, and we will do our best in actually protecting it when everyone has a voice in our efforts. 

If you or someone you know are LGBTQIA+, and have participated in an environmental education program, please participate in this assessment or pass it along. With your participation, we can use this information to address barriers to entry in the conservation field!

I would like to thank Staci Everheart, Ryne Kinley, Sophie Plant-Darling, Ulises Huete, and Hilary Dees for helping with writing reviews. This work was conducted as a part of graduate work through Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Special thanks to Katie Feilen and Kevin Matteson for their support and advice.

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