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)