Lessons of Resilience from Queer Movements for Liberation

Queer Ecologies Mixer, Bioneers 2019. Left to Right: Vanessa Raditz, Orion Camero, Kyle Lemle, Delilah Frielder, Yanin Kramsky. Photo by Brooke Anderson

Vanessa Raditz (they/them) is one of the guiding voices of Queer Ecojustice Project and the producer of the film Fire and Flood. In this conversation with Maya Carlson of Bioneers, they offer insights into the many forms of queer resilience as well as the importance of visibilizing the vulnerabilities queer and trans folks face while also uplifting the resistance, regeneration and power of LGBTQ+ people in movements for justice, care and liberation. 

MAYA CARLSON: Can you tell me who you are, where your feet are grounded, and how you describe yourself?

Vanessa Raditz

VANESSA RADITZ: My name is Vanessa Raditz, and I currently live in Athens, Georgia, which is in Muskogee Creek territory, and within the range of Cherokee territory as well. I am originally from Silver Spring, Maryland, the suburbs outside in D.C. in Piscataway territory. And I lived out in Ohlone territory in the East Bay for about six years. 

I am a graduate student in a PhD program at the University of Georgia in the geography department. For my PhD research I look at queer resilience, particularly using visual methods to visibilize the vulnerability and resilience practices of queer and trans people, particularly marginalized queer and trans people, including those with disabilities, people of color, and folks who’ve been incarcerated or otherwise marginalized in the present systems. That work comes out of reflection, study, and community over the past four years with the Queer Ecojustice Project, which started in the Bay Area. We wanted to weave a narrative that understands how the extractive economy is also a gendered economy, and how ecological liberation requires liberation and sovereignty of the gendered body. 

MAYA:  What does Queer Ecojustice mean to you and how does the the Queer Ecojustice Project put that into practice? 

VANESSA: Ecojustice is a framework that brings together environmental justice, food justice, and climate justice. They are all related and inextricably bound by processes of racial subjugation, capitalism, nations and borders. Part of what Queer Ecojustice does is articulate how heteronormativity and cis patriarchy are also entangled with these other structures.

On a practical level, many of the queer and trans people who are in environmental justice organizations are leading incredible campaigns right now but don’t necessarily have a narrative for why their identities as queer and trans people are relevant in the struggle. Grounding our movements in that understanding is especially important for younger generations who are coming in bold and unapologetic about their identities. There’s an immense power in reclaiming that we are part of the natural system. 

Queer Ecojustice names the indivisible levels of vulnerability to climate change. I think about the facts that 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ+ and one in two black trans people will be incarcerated over their lives. Incarcerated populations aren’t evacuated in natural disasters. They’re used as the unpaid and underpaid labor to deal with the catastrophes and are generally subjugated to incredibly harsh measures in carceral institutions that are only exacerbated in these moments when the public can’t be there for visitation and surveillance. The Queer Ecojustice Project also threads together the healing justice world, which is very queer and trans-led, and the food justice world, which has so many amazing queer farmers within it. All of these groups are in a concerted movement together. We’re not dying, we are fighting and building. We have a vast network of people who are doing the work in very different ways.

MAYA: What’s the relationship between Queer Ecojustice and Bioneers? 

VANESSA: I initially came to Bioneers through the youth program. I was a sophomore in college, and the chair of our student environmental club. Bioneers is where I was introduced to biomimicry and the magical world of fungi. It was the first environmental space in my life that had such an insistence on prioritizing indigenous voices and women’s leadership. I started doing environmental work in Kenya with Wangari Mathai so I think I was primed to receive some of the messages of Bioneers. Being in a conference space and seeing the way that indigenous leadership was prioritized had an enormous impact on my life. 

Bioneers has always been very queer to me. There is power in naming it with spaces like the Queer Mixer or programming in the Youth Unity Tent. Queer Ecojustice Project isn’t bringing the queers to Bioneers, we’re creating space to name and uplift all the folks that are already in our movements doing this work. 

This is especially important considering that we have youth who, because of this historical moment in which they are growing up, are able to articulate at very young ages that, “This is my identity; this is how I want you to call me; this is the restroom I should be able to use; these are the spaces that need to be provided for me.” Part of what Queer Ecojustice Project is doing at Bioneers is saying, “That’s right! We are affirming you and we’re going to provide those things for you. This is the space you deserve. You’re absolutely right, you deserve this space, let’s make it happen!” 

MAYA: Going back to Queer Ecojustice, would you say this framework both addresses the vulnerabilities and structures of oppression that queer and trans folks face while also reclaiming that narrative by centralizing queer resilience and resistance? 

VANESSA: Part of queer resilience right now is that resilience as a term is very fishy. It can be a trickster word. It’s used by nations and corporations in ways that go against some of the goals of ecojustice movements. Part of “queering” is questioning that co-optation. Indigenous Peoples have been on the frontlines of this global extractive economy and have continued to create driving cultures of not just survival but also regenerative reclaiming of beauty and sacredness. 

It’s important to ground Queer Ecojustice in that history and the history of LGBTQ+ movements, recognizing that the separation from our bodies is part of that colonial encounter. The history of the LGBTQ+ movement has resisted apathy from a government and a world that is not in support of queer and trans liberation. 

When I think of resilience, I first look through a lens of ecological resilience, and then through physical and psychological resilience. If I’m in a queer and trans space where people are talking about resilience, it’s almost always psychological resilience. You’ve been traumatized and thrown out of your home, you’re a homeless kid in the city trying to navigate these systems, what do you need to be resilient. That’s the conversation I so often hear in queer and trans spaces. 

If I’m in ecological spaces where people are talking about resilience, they’re talking about how we design rainwater catchment systems and how we create diversified polycultural food ecosystems that invite multi species, relationality. A lot of my thinking has been trying to bring those conversations together. 

Ultimately, the psychological resilience and the ecological resilience are melded through the body. That’s why I like working in food systems. Food is one of the first places where we can reweave those connections between body, Earth, mind, and spirit. 

In a conversation about resilience with an herbalist and healing justice advocate in the Bay Area for my film Fire and Flood, I was asked the question, “What do we want to be resilient towards?” Even if we just consider a 500-year colonization period in the Americas, what does resilience look like if we’re thinking about a 500-year future, and we think of resilience to that potential wound and not the wound of today?  If a hurricane comes and we are trying to be resilient from that hurricane, how are we trying to repair not just the world that we lost yesterday, but the world that was lost 500 years ago? 

MAYA: Taking into consideration ecological, psychological and physical resilience, what are different sites you profile in your film, Fire and Flood? 

VANESSA: I specifically profile Santa Rosa, following the Tubbs Fire of 2017, and Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. In both places, food systems, people, farmers, and other folks are involved, including healers, disability advocates as well as queer and trans nonprofit organizations. There are a lot of different people playing their role in that resilience ecosystem, recognizing the multiple aspects of resilience that are necessary to do that 500-year healing.

MAYA: What are the teachings and lessons we can all learn from queer resilience? 

VANESSA: Looking at LGBTQ+ history, one really important truth to hold is that we have always existed. Existence is resistance. It’s important in this moment that people understand that they can be who they are, even as crises continue. We’ve seen disaster after disaster, COVID-19 is nothing new, but the religious right and the political institutions that are connected to the religious right can declare that these disasters are the result of queer and trans people, and it’s God’s retribution against their immorality. This is a very old narrative. That is one level of oppression that we’re fighting against. The history of LGBTQ+ movements says no, we’re natural and we belong. 

The particular history of the AIDS crisis has a lot of lessons, especially for COVID-19. The government didn’t recognize the crisis and actively worked to suppress knowledge to inhibit scientists and to dismiss the deaths of people who were marginal to society – queer and trans people, people with disabilities, hemophiliacs, people that required blood transfusions were also part of the frontlines, and Haitians were actually part of the very first wave. There were always multiple parts of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) movement that were very invested in resisting the State and doing direct actions in public. At the same time, others in the movement were providing care for the sick, and creating spaces and acts to mourn the dead. ACT UP also leveraged the privilege that was predominately white and middle-class, to create real, structural wins for all people with HIV and AIDS. One oral history from a white gay ACT UP organizer expressed that if anyone else had taken the actions that white folks with privilege were carrying out, they would have been arrested. But he wasn’t. White folks with privilege were allowed to keep going for longer before police encounters. They had our own TV station. They had our own radio station. I could talk about ACT UP for a long time.

MAYA: You mentioned earlier that young folks who identify as LGBTQ+ are arriving into a very different world. To me, this includes the openness with which they can express their identities, the legacies from queer elders who have laid this groundwork for care webs, for holding each other and grieving, for vulnerability, and for new family networks. A question I have is how queer and trans young folks growing up today are going to continue evolving and building even more inclusive movements for upcoming generations? 

VANESSA:  Another important lesson is from Mab Segrest who wrote Memoirs of a Race Traitor and is one of the founders of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). She gave this really impassioned speech in the early 90s at the first Creating Change conference to ever come to the South. The title was “A Bridge, Not a Wedge”. How can queer identities be a bridge not a wedge? How is understanding our history of marginalization within society a way to connect and build coalitions with people of color, with indigenous communities, with folks who don’t share whatever our pansexual, demiromantic, X Y Z identity is, but are also oppressed under the extractive economy of gender racial capitalism? How do we continue to use our deep understandings of our bodies and attractions and desires to build stronger coalitions?

MAYA: When you think about upcoming generations in that 500-year vision, what are the hopes for what we can learn from these times and move forward? 

VANESSA: When you first ask that question, I go to a very dark place. I hope they have a chance. My hope for the young folks is that the older folks – myself included – and the people on whose shoulders I’m standing,  have been able to do enough in the time that we have to get the young people coming into the world right now a chance to continue this journey.  My biggest hope is that we’ve done enough, not necessarily to fix the situation completely, but at least to give the ones still working on this a fighting chance.

And again, in the spirit of Southerners on New Ground and their commitment to liberation in our lifetimes, I hope for them, no matter what the world is that they are growing up into, that they’re able to manifest microworlds of tastes of liberation within their lifetimes. I really believe strongly in the power of that refiguration and the way that the radical imaginary can deepen, and that we can deepen our trust in our imaginations when we are given the opportunity to taste little moments of the prefiguration of those dreams. That’s what I hope for them, the opportunity to smell and hear and lick a tiny bit of that queer ecological future.

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