Queer Survival as Ceremony

“[B]ut what if belonging isn’t a place at all, but a skill; a set of competencies that

we in modern life have lost or forgotten.” — Toko-pa Turner

In the fall of 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, the

same year I fell in love with a girl for the first time and realized I was queer. I was

in 8 th grade. A year later, the film Boys Don’t Cry came out, which was based on

the life and murder of Brandon Teena, a transman who lived in rural Nebraska.

It’s only years later that I can appreciate the psycho-spiritual effect these high-

profile events had on me and an entire generation of LGBTQ2+ millennials

(Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer or Questioning, and Two-Spirit). It

reinforced the narrative that queer and trans people weren’t safe in rural areas,

participating in rural life-ways. Everyone knew that to find acceptance and

community, you eventually migrated to the cities, you found your way to the gay

bars and clubs with their promise of connection. Although it’s changing now, rural

queer culture has historically been hard to identify.

When I decided to through-hike Vermont’s Long Trail with my girlfriend

when we graduated high school, I was privately haunted by the story of Rebecca

Wight and Claudia Brenner, Appalachian Trail hikers who were stalked and shot

at their campsite…while making love. Wight—who died—was also a biracial

woman of color. In all these cases—of Shepard, Teena, and Wight—their killers

had seemed to have a few things in common—they were white men enraged at

the revelation that their victims were queer or trans and they felt at liberty to

fatally harm them. I honor the gravity of inviting the stories of these young queer

ancestors into my reflection. It is worth emphasizing that these were some of the

first queer stories I ever heard—and certainly the first queer nature stories.

Stories like this impact us in ways that aren’t just psychic—they are mythic. The

moral of the stories appeared to be that being way out in the woods is dangerous

if you’re queer. I eventually realized that bad things that happened to queer

people in remote places are connected to an enduring toxic pioneer mentality

that saw anything and everything it encountered in the “wilderness” or on the

frontier as its own for the taking. When you encounter hate in the backcountry,

not just as a queer person but also as a black and/or indigenous person, for a

moment the frontier materializes, right between your body and the person who

sees you as ‘other.’

We live in a society where trans identity has recently been a matter of

public debate—in the form of whether trans people should be allowed to use the

bathroom of their choice. Patronizing attitudes toward gender-neutral pronouns

are common. We then also live in a society that has never been in greater need

of ways to affirm trans and queer identity in the very arena in which they have

been historically denied—in nature. This is part of what is behind the mission of

Queer Nature—the ‘organism’ that I have been co-visioning with my spouse

Pinar for over three years. Through Queer Nature, we create spaces for

QTBIPOC (queer or trans black and indigenous people of color) and white

queers to learn various place-based skills and survival skills—which range from

things like basket-weaving and spoon carving to wildlife tracking and first aid.

Even though it appears to be didactic, we interpret and enact this work as

transformational and ceremonial—potent emotions and acknowledgement of

spirit and soul are welcome and are part of the framing of the spaces.

When possible, we offer courses where the tuition is sliding scale or

subsidized with grants. This is because emotional, social, and financial barriers

prevent queer folks, QTBIPOC, and women from accessing spaces to learn land-

based skills. Historically learning these skills has been the provenance of

communities that aren’t welcoming to these populations or actively erase their

existence—e.g. rural hunting communities, the Scouting movement, or the

military. Though the latter two are changing, progress has been glacier-slow.

Furthermore, these communities are founded upon the piracy of knowledge from

First Nations people, a process we seek to interrupt. One of our most important

ongoing questions is how to teach ancestral skills in culturally humble ways while

on stolen land. Some of our de-colonial practices are naming whose land we are

on, and researching first names of rivers and mountains, or the first names of

keystone animal or plant species that show up in our curriculums. When teaching

a certain craft, we give examples of analogous technologies that derive from

European cultures, to disrupt the selective pedestalizing of First Nations cultures.

***

As dusk started to fall on our fire-making workshop, the air around the fire

pit began to fill with the spicy aroma of smoldering cedar wood. Various folks,

many of them pierced and tattooed twenty and thirty-somethings, huddled in the

proximity carving or practicing operating wooden bow-drill kits that my spouse

and I had been coaching them on how to build throughout the day. One of the

participants, a queer graphic designer who lived in Denver, was on the verge of

making a coal—that magical moment where the wood dust created by friction

heats up to the point of ignition. They stopped to catch their breath and we all

were transfixed by the chaotic tendrils of milky smoke drifting from a small pile of

dark dust next to their fireboard. The smoking heap of dust soon glimmered with

orange—proof that it was forming into a coal, and the tension in the air was

palpable. The student gingerly poured the coal into a nest of papery cottonwood

bark and began blowing on it to conjure the next step in the pyrotechnic

algorithm: flame. When the flame finally sprouted from the bundle of tinder, the

student grinned widely. No one could have told them how satisfying that

experience would be!

The mythos of making fire is so rich and self-evident that it’s hard to put

into words. Fire’s symbolism is complex—associated in its domesticated guises

with hearth and community, creation and birth, but also with control and

civilization. As an LGBTQ2+ community, we carry wounds associated with every

one of these facets. One way we have been disempowered is through the deep-

seated narratives, perpetuated by religions, nations, and medical theories, that

our ways of being—whether erotic or somatic—are unnatural or at best aberrant.

Learning how to make fire as queer folks is not just about learning a vital survival

skill, but about incarnating these symbols of home, creation, and control in queer

space, which naturally re-stories them and invests them with new meaning and

subversive power.

In queer space, learning ancestral survival skills—like how to make fire

without matches or how to blend into the forest and evade detection—are

initiatory ceremonies in and of themselves because when we engage in them, we

enact both communally and individually the axiom that we can survive. Unlike

how these skills have been framed in Western popular culture, we don’t learn

them because we are afraid of the so-called wilderness and need to conquer and

control it, but because we don’t want to rely on the human world for our sense of

sovereignty. We want to build relationship with our other-than-human kin, with

wood grain, with stone and rivers, with songbirds and herbs. We want to bind up

our own liberation with that of theirs. We want to have nature’s back, and we

have the sense they’ll have our back in return. That’s always how we’ve

survived—by finding each other in community, and standing together—like

antelope or prairie dogs, we get the power of the herd. In the various contexts

I’ve been a part of where survival skills are taught, I’ve rarely seen more

teamwork than in the groups that bless Queer Nature classes with their

presence. People who come to our workshops often aren’t interested in doing it

all themselves. We’ve all gotten plenty of practice with ‘going it alone.’ We know

better than to romanticize the lone cowboy or commando.

The bedrock of our pedagogy is the skill of awareness. Based on our

experiences of living in our bodies and studying the arts of survival as well as the

arts of council, we have learned that the most important survival skill is what we

do with our attention—which often looks like listening with multiple senses.

Listening is also a medicine for trauma—so what magic might happen when we,

with our various layered identities, engage in a practice of listening and being-

listened-to by the more-than-human world? We hope it will lead to belonging—a

dynamic state of being embedded in webs of accountability and intimacy with

other species and the earth. For many of us, belonging is an act of resistance.

Note: Originally published in Circles on the Mountain Issue #24 (2019)

Incorporation within White Supremacy & Settler Colonialism

As rites of passage guides, we know that the hardest challenge of the ceremony is not the severance, threshold or liminal space, but rather what comes after: incorporation. Incorporation means to bring into the body or to embody what one learned for their people during their initiatory fast on the land. What does incorporation mean living within a system that chooses which bodies get to thrive and targets others? What does incorporation mean with the history of a nation built of chattel slavery of black bodies and the genocide of First Nation peoples? How does one embody their vision with the implications that their skin color, ability and gender has? 

Last August of 2018, we ran our inaugural Queer Mountain Quest (QMQ) through Rite of Passage Journeys with an incredible team dreaming into its creation for over two years. The co-guide team was Roz Katonah (they/them), Anna Schulman (she/her) and me (they/them). So Sinopoulos-Lloyd (they/them) was the QMQ fundraising director as well as the basecamp ceremonialist. This was a two-week backpacking trip on Snohomish, Klallam and Quileute territories for 13-18 year old two-spirit, nonbinary, trans and queer youth. 

The majority of the youth found the QMQ through Queer Nature’s social media accounts where we bring in decolonial and anti-racist discourse in the fields of nature-connection, place-based skills, and rites of passage. The youth who came were white or white-passing teens from all over Turtle Island including so-called Canada. They chose to come due to feeling seen and represented by the guide team as well as by a desire to walk in right relationship with the history of colonial violence on the wild and urban landscapes. 

To the guides’ surprise, several youth were the ones to initiate inquiring to know more about the First Nations of the place after our land acknowledgments. What I have come to know working with trans and queer youth—including at the School of Lost Borders’ inaugural Queer Youth Quest in 2017—is that the younger generation will always be a delightful and edgy surprise initiating intergenerational co-learning containers. These inquiries lit our fire as we realized that what we were preparing for as a guide team was being co-created before our eyes. 

We delved deep into being in right relationship to ourselves, each other, our more-than-human kin as well as whose land we were on. There is so much depth of possibility for the land to hold these inquiries. If our conversations around diversity, equity, inclusion as well as decolonization remain intraspecies (humancentric), I frankly am concerned. Only in collaboration with the land will we be able to fully explore the depth of trauma and wounding we must go into to truly explore power, privilege and oppression. This is something that we continue to flesh out in the Ecology of Power & Privilege curriculum in collaboration with Youth Passageways. Kruti Parekh (she/her), Darcy Ottey (she/her) and I are deeply exploring decentering humancentric spaces and bringing our more-than-human kin as potential allies and accomplices in our anti-oppression journey towards co-liberation. Of course, we must also be confronted with the discomfort of our own areas of privilege with interspecies reflection by our BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) community members especially within the rite of passage communities. There is a balance between intraspecies and interspecies conversations that has the potential of remediating the impact of colonial and ecocidal violence. 

Photo from the Queer Mountain Quest

Photo from the Queer Mountain Quest

This is why the QMQ guide team decided to discuss white supremacy during our incorporation. It is necessary to do so for our youth in the current political climate we are in. By the epic coastline, we lit candles and made an altar where we read co-liberatory poems by Audre Lorde, a black lesbian abolitionist. As we sat to have our discussion on incorporation, we began by reading “A Letter to White Queers, A Letter to Myself”, a poem by a nonbinary white poet, Andrea Gibson (they/them). The poem was a reminder that the queer community needs to be intersectional and remember to actively fight anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity as white or white-passing folks in the LGBTQ2IA+ community. We opened a council to integrate the gravity of the longest part of the ceremony: incorporation. This dialogue shook the youth as a reminder of what world they are walking back into with their necessary gifts that are a healing balm and regenerative disruptive force to the dominant ecocidal culture. 

In forming the QMQ guide team, we decided to center and co-empower guides who hold intersectional identities within our queer community. When one holds multiple locations of oppression (class, ability, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), they are more impacted members within our communities. An example is our trans black community members have a disproportionately higher likelihood of transphobic murder compared to those being trans and white. Or being a darker-skinned and indigenous-featured Latinx person with citizenship gets profiled significantly more than a lighter-skinned Latinx mestizo without citizenship. Who in our communities are being impacted by oppression on an institutional level? In order for co-liberation to be actualized, we need to center the most impacted in our communities. We need to find ways to move aside and be behind someone as a gesture of support with their consent. 

As the darkest member of the Wilderness Guides Council, I hardly ever see black and/or indigenous guides of color without white-passing privilege. It is an isolating experience as an indigenous guide, especially with the word “wilderness” reverberating genocide and the invisibilization of our existences. The concept of wilderness is a foundational concept that perpetuates racism. John Muir, the father of National Parks, was explicitly racist against First Nation folks as well as black communities and promoted the eradication of Ahwahnechee tribal members to preserve the “pristine wilderness” of Yosemite. Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire, was avidly disturbed by indigenous-migrants and was an early advocate for a militarized border on the lands he loved. 

I wonder as “wilderness” guides, how can we each walk in right relationship while engaging in the complexities of white supremacy within the lands we guide on? For First Nations, land and people are the same. Therefore, land can never be an apolitical place. Leadership is a reproduction of culture. If that is the case, I wonder what culture are we reproducing as guides? Who will you make sure takes your guide seat? How can we all create opportunities for those who do not look like us and are systematically targeted to take the guide seat? How do we make sure that there are more black and brown faces in our wilderness guides networks without tokenizing? 

Right now in the Sonoran desert, there are children, adults and elders nonconsensually fasting in the desert praying that they will make it through the ordeal of crossing the border. There are black bodies being shot at in public by law enforcement without any justice. Native communities have the highest rates of suicide in this country. There are young generations of white youth who are being initiated into white supremacy. If we are bringing our gifts back for our people, we must include all bodies and center those systematically targeted. Incorporation in this fragmented world must include looking at our power, privilege and oppression and how it informs our roles as we live into the initiation our species is moving through.

Note: Originally published in Circles on the Mountain Issue #24 (2019)

Trans(Eco)Futurism and Dreampunk

Photo by Pınar

Photo by Pınar

Foreword: Some may say it’s unwise to say anything definitive about nature (or queerness, for that matter). here is the thing about that: Not to bite the hand that fed us…not to condone essentializing (especially by those who control the majority of the narratives)…but f*ck the part of postmodern thought that makes us afraid to take a stand… that makes us complacent. Truth is relative, but so are we, we *relate.* So we float, down this stream, alongside our truth. that’s how relativity and truth can exist at once. Truth exists within time and space. Here’s ours, now.

.

If warfare is also psychological & informational

and if it’s the new means by which we will be fucked with/

we will resist invasions and ambushes in the form of stories, spells, dreams that re-frame, re-inscribe, re-late (the root of the word relate means to bring or carry something back).

we will wage mythopoetic guerrilla warfare in reaction to widespread political terror and disenchantment.

we will tell our stories to dis-arm & seed-bomb with the green tendrils of our humanity 

we will imagine a future when dominant culture can no longer imagine one.

we will be #dreampunks.

supreme authority can not imagine its own de-centering or demise, except in the form of un-analyzed hatred and otherization of people. that is what passes for its “imagination.”

we, as trans and non-binary folx (& all marginalized folx) are used to living forward into the unknown.

we are used to maybe expecting our own untimely demise.

we have been there and done that. 

we have reimagined our bodies, we have experienced our desire or our joy as something sacred, to be transmitted not always through biological reproduction, but through other means.

.

apocalyptic times require movement between worlds. between institutions, cultures, genders. 

the wild ones know it — they (like the “eastern coyote”) hybridize when their habitats break down. they walk between species. (hybridization is distinct from assimilation)

apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις) actually means an uncovering, a revealing, not an ultimate end.

the center was always fed by the edges, that’s the secret they don’t want us to know. 

people argue about gender and bathrooms, and turn us into a tool for their own transformation. 

we become tools for them to think with [to paraphrase Peter Brown’s “men use women to think with”]

in the meantime, what do we think with? dream about? 

finding the space to dream is a radical act right now. 

and dreaming with the land (and informed by more-than-human relationships) is an endangered ancestral skill.

(just like grieving—the two are coupled)

too often now we forget our dreams because the images in mainstream media are stronger than our dreams.

that is not just psychological warfare, it is war against the soul.

.

You who walk on the edges—know that you are well equipped to be with mystery.

We tend mystery when dominant culture sees it as inconvenient. (They would build a wall to keep it out.)

Now, they would be healed by apprenticing to it—to the unknown, to fear of death, to fear of identity loss. Like the white supremacists who are grasping for identity™ while sneering at ours.

some say Western society is experiencing a failure of imagination. an inability to dream new futures.

funny because I don’t feel a loss of imagination at all. I feel an excess of it. Maybe that’s what happens though. Maybe when the cultures of control lose their future, pretty much everyone else disempowered by that system gains a future.

and anyways, the in-between ones and the Others and other-than-humans among us know how to live without a future. 

we have been through despair while they are digging their heels on the way into her inevitable vortex.

.

when we lost the thread of our futures, we wander with the more-than-human world, with the land. 

Then we remember that there are billions of futures in this world.

And only a tiny sliver of them are human.

Maybe that’s what they are scared of.

Photo by So

Photo by So

:: On Why Nature-Connection Work Needs to Be Anti-Racist, Epistemological Piracy, and Eco-Fascism ::

Link to Related Article: Eco-fascism: The ideology marrying environmentalism and white supremacy thriving online

Nature-based education, forest schools, the rewilding movement (especially those that are white dominated, which is most), we want to call you and ourselves in! This work needs to be explicitly anti-racist and also aware of its cultural-historical context. We don’t hold all the answers as to how to do this, and this is something many folx have talked about before, but are committed to doing it together as a community. Thank you @joewhittlephotography for recently tagging us on a post by @wilderness_awaremess to engage about the vital importance of acknowledgment of indigenous lifeways & philosophies in the nature-connection / 8 shields / rewilding communities. There is currently a surge of interest in nature-based education and place-based skills in “the West” particularly among white middle+ class people and I’m seeing and hearing how harmful it is when we as mentors in this field frame our pedagogies and curriculums as “new.” They are often based in kincentric (relation-based) philosophies that are influenced by First Nations cosmologies and other indigenous cosmologies. This is true for “Western” society at large too—ecology, the study of the relationships between beings and elements of the natural world, is considered a “newer” field of science while indigenous peoples have been ecologists for thousands of years. Because of the juxtaposition of ongoing colonial processes that impact First Nations folx on this land, it is so important to continue to acknowledge that these ways of thinking that center relationship and reciprocity are in fact ancient, still living, and a great deal of energy goes into protecting and stewarding them in the face of a colonizing force that has tried to erase them. Too much harm has already been done by the coopting and repackaging of traditional ecological knowledge through processes of biopiracy (a great term to google), so we must strive for awareness in how we frame our work.

.

At Queer Nature we talk about dismantling anthropocentrism (human-centrism) and it’s associated supremacies through fostering interspecies relationship. Though, we aren’t strictly biocentric (centering the other-than-human) either in the sense of being anti-human and/or anti-civ* Rather, we are interested in questioning the dichotomy between these two—the dichotomy that separates “nature” and “culture” and therefore the same dichotomy that exists when white outdoorists ask “what does race have to do with my work?” Dennis Martinez, an ecologist indigenous to so-called Mexico, describes a “kincentric” model of environmental thought as a middle path between the extremes of biocentrism and anthropocentrism. Instead of choosing to either put humans above everything else or below everything else, Martinez describes a worldview held by his relatives and other First Nations people that centers relationship. It is clear that kin-centric or eco-centric views are catching on among folks who were not raised to think this way—but if we are utilizing these worldviews for our own transformation without engaging in accountability to our First Nations neighbors, we are not truly being kin-centric, but only selectively kin-centric. 

.

At QN, we also do align with so-called ‘biocentric’ ideologies on some levels because of how much impact human supremacy has had on non-humans. “A study published this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that if you look at the world’s mammals by weight, 96% of that biomass is humans and livestock; just 4 percent is wild animals.” (From the New York Times Magazine article “The Insect Apocalypse is here.”) Therefore we recognize that now there is a need to listen to non-humans (as well as humans) and uplift them, because they have been ecologically marginalized. The notion of ‘the earth’s’ desires, wishes, and concerns taking precedence over human ones is certainly alluring at times.

.

Because of these various places we sit, is long past due that we also acknowledge that biocentric ideologies considered by some as “radical” forms of environmentalism have been used and are being used to justify indigenous genocide and forms of “deep ecology” that are white supremacist, racist, classist, and ableist in nature. Recently (but also traceable back to Nazi ideology) biocentric ideologies have been shared in a growing vein of “eco-fascism” that takes many ideological points from some strands of deep ecology, such as the notion that humans are a cancer of the planet and the notion that population needs to be controlled. Not to mention strands of thinking in rewilding and “radical” conservation that blame indigenous peoples for species loss as a tactic for justifying oppression. Unfortunately it is all too easy to commandeer these views for use as excuses for racism and classism in very overt ways, which the current generation of social-media savvy eco-fascists are doing.  One of their claims is that non-white people are destroying the environment, and related, that there needs to be a white ethnostate that is centered around “conservation.” And that’s just scratching the surface.

.

So again, encouraging white/settler-identified nature-based educators and place-based skills instructors... to consider that this work should be anti-racist in mission and orientation and aware of our place in the family of things—not just ecologically, but ideologically as well. Cosmology IS ecology!

*expansion on anti-civ: though we have been influenced by some so-called “anti-civ” literature we are skeptical of anti-civ thought without a power/privilege/racial analysis