LGBTQ+ and Climate Change; the Connection to the Environmental Justice Movement

Author: Erin Maher




Happy Pride Month from all of us at The Climate App! If you weren’t aware, June is celebrated internationally as LBGTQ+ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender and queer) Pride Month. This month is a joyful celebration of the community as well as a protest against worldwide discrimination and injustices.


As a bisexual woman with a background in climate science and a distinct interest in environmental justice, one way I am celebrating this month is by discussing the ways in which the LGBTQ+ community is disproportionately vulnerable to climate change.


Pride is a protest, and I believe that an important part of protesting and resisting injustice is education. This is why I decided to educate myself about environmental justice and how it connects to LGBTQ+ activism. Join us on this journey and we can make a change together.


Defining Intersectionality and Environmental Justice


Before getting into the specifics of the LGBTQ+ community’s vulnerability, I want to define a few important terms.


Intersectionality


First and foremost, let’s talk about the idea of intersectionality. The dictionary defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” In simpler terms, intersectionality explains the ways that different identities interact, leading to differing levels of discrimination and access to resources.


Intersectionality plays an important part in our conversation, as gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, and more can compound risks faced by the LGBTQ+ community. To achieve fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, including LGBTQ+ communities, the intersectional nature of environmental health and environmental injustice issues must be considered.


Environmental Justice


This idea of intersectionality is fundamental to environmental justice. According to Dr Dorceta Taylor, a professor at Yale University, “environmental justice is really concerned with documenting and understanding the disproportionate and unequal environmental burdens that certain communities face.” Basically, marginalised groups are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.


Environmental justice activists push for these inequities to be addressed in climate action and policy. For example, with respect to the development of toxic waste sites, the environmental justice movement advocates for the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations to protect all people regardless of race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or other identity.

It is necessary to define environmental justice as the disproportionate risks faced by the LGBTQ+ community are an environmental justice issue. This fact will be discussed more in depth later in this post, in relation to laws, regulations, and policies, as well as the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals.



Systemic Risks to the LGBTQ+ Community


In general, systems in our current society are built in line with heteronormative frameworks, including those relating to environmental issues. This means that heterosexuality is assumed as the norm, which can have important consequences for LGBTQ+ populations. By adhering to this status quo, many people are left behind or left out of decision making spaces and policy initiatives solely due to their identities.


This is a huge problem in general and specifically in the context of climate change and climate justice. Because of this systemic discrimination, LGBTQ+ individuals often have less access to resources and support that allow them to build resilience and respond to disasters. Environmental protection laws, regulations, and policies may leave out minority groups, decreasing access to quality environmental health and fair treatment and meaningful involvement.


This is especially true for communities of color, trans* and non-binary individuals, and indigenous populations. On top of heteronormative ideas, our society and laws mostly adhere to a gender binary and include embedded racist ideologies (check out our recent blog on climate change and anti-racism to learn more). As discussed above, intersectionality is integral to the environmental justice movement. It is not possible to have truly fair treatment and meaningful interactions with all without an intersectional understanding of justice.


The discrimination entrenched in heteronormative society can extend into all spheres of an LGBTQ+ individual’s life, including housing, income and economic opportunity, healthcare, and environmental health on both national and local scales.


Let’s take economic opportunity and income as an example. Many, if not most, LGBTQ+ individuals report having experienced discrimination in terms of employment opportunities. With fewer job opportunities and specifically high income job opportunities, these individuals will have less resources to rely upon to adapt to or mitigate the risks from climate change.


Specifically, for example, with less income, people may live in lower income neighborhoods that are more likely to be near environmental hazards with higher rates of air pollution. These hazards can cause health problems, which are not always sufficiently treated in the healthcare system, due to systemic discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals. Again, these risks are compounded by other identities, such as gender, race, national origin or income, reinforcing the role of intersectionality in the environmental justice movement.


Social Risks to the LGBTQ+ Community


On top of systemic discrimination, LGBTQ+ populations face prejudice from our fellow members of society in global, national, and local contexts. This prejudice can take many forms, from misgendering people to homophobic comments to outright violence. Dealing with the underlying stress of discrimination is incredibly draining, especially when it is coupled with experiences with racism, xenophobia, or other harmful prejudices.


While some of this societal discrimination can be connected to systemic treatment of the LGBTQ+ community, it is important to consider them separately in the context of climate change vulnerability and environmental justice. One reason for this is the impact it has on the mental health of LGBTQ+ individuals. This stigmatization can lead to depression, anxiety and heightened stress levels, which are all risk factors for negative health outcomes. When exposed to environmental hazards on top of this, LGBTQ+ individuals are particularly vulnerable.


We know that, around the world, health outcomes depend on access to quality health care, personal risk factors, environmental risk factors, and more. As a group, these factors can be referred to as "social determinants of health." Research shows that all of these social determinants of health must be considered together to ensure fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in the healthcare system. This idea is rooted in intersectionality, and is directly connected to the heightened vulnerability of LGBTQ+ individuals to environmental hazards.


Societal prejudice against LGBTQ+ individuals may also impact their ability to access resources and aid when facing natural disasters or other climate change impacts and environmental injustices. It has been widely documented that members of the LGBTQ+ community face difficulty accessing aid in humanitarian situations, such as the aftermath of hurricanes or other extreme events. This can be attributed in part to systemic barriers but also must also be connected to social stigma against these individuals. As the climate continues to change, extreme events will become more common. If current accessibility does not change, LGBTQ+ people will continue to be more vulnerable than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts.


These disparities in access, health outcomes, and protection are human rights violations. All people, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, income, national origin, or any other identity, should have access to the necessary support systems to adapt to and mitigate the risks associated with climate change and environmental hazards.


What Can We Do?


I am incredibly privileged to be able to learn about and discuss the disproportionate risks to the LGBTQ+ community due to climate change. This makes it even more important for me to consider what can be done to remediate this issue, especially for those who are not in the same privileged position that I am.


As I said earlier, Pride is not just a celebration, it is a protest, it began due to the brave actions of past generations of trans women and other LGBTQ+ individuals. Educating ourselves and taking action is to honor their legacies.


Amplify LGBTQ+ Voices


One of the first steps to take against these environmental injustices is to amplify LGBTQ+ voices, particularly those of native individuals, people of color, and trans* individuals. Listening to those who are experiencing discrimination and heightened vulnerability first-hand is absolutely necessary to understand the problem and to take action.


While social media isn’t the only way to find these amazing individuals, here are a few of my favorite LGBTQ+ environmentalist accounts on Instagram:

  • @QueerNature

  • @IntersectionalEnvironmentalist

  • @Queers4ClimateJustice

  • @QueerBrownVegan

  • @Nikkik_Smith

  • @PattieGonia

There are SO many other amazing individuals out there telling their stories and amplifying the voices of others. This is just a short list to get started online.


Reach out to Local Lawmakers


Another step you can take to make a change is to reach out to your local lawmakers and urge them to take action on environmental justice. It is a fact that not all groups are impacted by environmental hazards in the same way. Fair treatment and meaningful enforcement of environmental laws means including intersectional thinking in the decision making process. This means that toxic sites and other environmental hazards cannot be considered on their own, other systemic issues need to be remediated. All marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community, need to be included for it to truly be environmental justice. Make sure your local lawmakers are truly taking meaningful action.


Talk to Your Friends and Family


Have conversations with others about the way that different groups experience climate vulnerability. Sometimes it is hard to see these differences when you aren’t experiencing them. By reading posts like this, talking to different people, and continually learning, you are taking a step in the right direction. The more we know about inequalities facing marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ community, the more information we have to take action. Education is a huge part of activism and social change. We can't address issues that we do not understand. Knowledge truly is power in the environmental justice movement.


Make Sure to Celebrate the Positives


Finally, make sure to celebrate the joy, creativity and individuality within the LGBTQ+ community. Facing discrimination and heightened risks is incredibly daunting and exhausting. Whether you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community or an ally, make sure to take time to remember the positives. Find a way to celebrate past LGBTQ+ success and future generations that works for you. You could try attending your local parade, hanging out with friends, going for a hike or a number of other fun activities


The LGBTQ+ community is filled with brilliant, creative, brave people who inspire me every single day to be myself and to keep fighting for a more equitable world. The environmental justice movement would not be what it is without LGBTQ+ individuals and it must work to include the community in meaningful action and change.



Concluding Thoughts


I know that the idea of intersectionality and how it related to the environmental justice movement and LGBTQ+ representation can be daunting. When environmental injustices connect to other systemic issues and societal prejudices such as racism, gender inequality, income disparities, lack of access and opportunity, and more, the battle for change may seem incredibly difficult, if not impossible. I get it. There have been plenty of times I have felt pretty helpless in this fight.


However, I am also filled with an incredible amount of hope for multiple reasons. First and foremost, every single day I see incredible LGBTQ+ activists and allies doing amazing work to make meaningful and lasting change. There are so many people to learn from and to collaborate with, it is very exciting to me and I am consistently inspired to keep going. The photo above is of me and a group of friends at Dublin Pride this year. I can't even begin to count how many inspiring individuals attended the celebration this year.


While the intersectional nature of the problem of increased vulnerability of LGBTQ+ communities may seem overwhelming, I actually see it as a positive. Because so many issues are interconnected, we have a bigger network of activists, experts, and other passionate individuals to draw from. This also means that we can make meaningful change in multiple sectors in a collaborative way.


Finally, never be afraid to take a day to recover and rest. The movement needs you to take care of yourself first so we can keep working together in the long term. The fight is long and hard, no one can keep working indefinitely without a break, it just isn't possible. Respect your body and mind.


Keep learning, keep fighting, and keep being proud of who you are. I will forever be grateful to LGBTQ+ communities of the past and present and can't wait to see the accomplishments of future generations. Even though pride month comes to an end, celebrate your individuality and protest environmental injustice all year round.