Staying Alive: Reconciling Nature, Culture and Gay Rights
As a backlash against LGBTQ rights escalates into an authoritarian crusade, acclaimed author and queer activist Taylor Brorby asks how we can still be fighting this battle? As a writer addressing the fossil fuel industry’s acceleration in the midst of climate chaos, Taylor is forced to choose between the existential crises of the assaults on nature and on LGBTQ people. It’s all connected, he says, as he seeks to reconcile nature, culture, diversity and belonging.
Taylor Brorby, a Fellow in Environmental Humanities and Environmental Justice at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah, is an award-winning, widely published writer and poet as well as a contributing editor at North American Review who also serves on the editorial boards of Terrain.org and Hub City Press. Taylor regularly speaks around the country on issues related to extractive economies, queerness, disability, and climate change, and is the author of Boys and Oil: Growing up gay in a fractured land; Crude: Poems; Coming Alive: Action and Civil Disobedience; and co-editor of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America.
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
- Producer: Teo Grossman
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast.
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Neil Harvey (Host): In this episode, acclaimed author and queer activist Taylor Brorby conjures dreams of belonging. In his journey to reconcile nature and culture, he’s forced to choose between his defense of nature and the protection of queer communities and rights.
I’m Neil Harvey. This is “Staying Alive: Reconciling Nature, Culture and Gay Rights.”
Psychologists have a term for a phenomenon they call an “extinction burst.” It manifests as a sudden spike in the frequency and intensity of a behavior when the reinforcement for that behavior is removed. Think of a child throwing a tantrum when a parent withholds screen time until homework is done. Usually, the behavior gets dramatically worse before it gets better, until eventually, without the positive reinforcement, the behavior becomes extinct.
Today, as human-induced climate disruption is ravaging the world, the fossil fuel industry has doubled down on what you might call an extinction burst because it knows the civilizational shift off fossil fuels is accelerating rapidly.
Simultaneously, epic social transformations are similarly producing cultural extinction bursts. One of those is the savage backlash against LGBTQ people.
It comes at exactly the moment when a record 84% of non-LGBTQ Americans support equal rights for the LGBTQ community. A 96% supermajority agree that LGBTQ people should have the freedom to live their life and not be discriminated against. A 91% supermajority says schools should be a safe and accepting place for all youth.
Writer and activist Taylor Brorby, who comes from generations of fossil fuel workers, has worked at the bleeding edges of both of these movements, and he believes they’re related.
He spoke on a panel at a Bioneers conference.
Taylor Brorby (TB): I come from the least visited state in the country – North Dakota. [CHEERS] If you haven’t been there recently, let me bring you in hot to what’s happening, because it’s the testing ground for the country’s worst ideas. [LAUGHTER] But I swear I’ve got some light I’m going to bring to you all.
But I grew up with the Badlands as my backbone and the Missouri River as the main artery of my life. And as you all know, I don’t need to tell this crowd what the Trevor Project reports about suicidal ideation in our various communities – 45% of queer youth last year had suicidal ideation. That number is higher amongst BIPOC queer youth. That number’s the highest amongst the transgender community, somewhere around 69% of what’s being reported.
Just the other day, my home state set the record by passing 10 anti-queer laws into being. A lot of work to do. You all know that.
I went home two weeks ago. I had my nails painted for the first time in 30 years. The last time was by Grandma Brorby who was a fierce little woman who looked cute on the outside but she’d cut you if you screwed up. And so it was great to go back home. I had my nails painted in transgender colors as a nice little middle finger to the state legislature of North Dakota, which continues to make my work possible. [LAUGHTER]
Host: But Taylor Brorby’s journey into activism did not begin with gay rights. It grew out of his deep connection to his beloved homeland – the landscapes of North Dakota that have suffered long-term destruction by extractive industries.
He chronicled his journey in his widely praised book, Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land.
TB: But I grew up in a landscape where I was gaslit by all the adults I grew up around because, if you haven’t heard, every lake in North Dakota is supposed to freeze, but I grew up swimming in a lake that never freezes in North Dakota. You can sit in it in January and its bathtub-warm with your stocking cap on, because its water is used to cool the coal-fired turbine engines of the power plant, where my mother worked the entirety of her career, that was fed coal from the mine where my grandpa Brorby spent the entirety of his career.
So, the scary history of North Dakota, of course, begins with the genocide of Native Americans, and that of course wasn’t enough, because we need hydroelectric power in the state, so we dammed the Missouri River in intentional ways to flood sacred agricultural land. In the eastern part of North Dakota, we’re growing one crop that most people love – sugar. In the south-central part of North Dakota, where I come from, we strip the land of coal. To the west, we have hydraulic fracking. The northern third tier of the state, had it seceded in the 1950s during the Cold War, it would have been the third most powerful nuclear nation on the planet.
My home power plant where my mother worked, what paid for my saxophone lessons, is now the world’s test site for carbon capture and storage. Where we’re going to liquify carbon dioxide emissions and pump them 6,000 feet underground where it will stay forever. And this will impact every state from Maine to where we are in California by unleashing a pipeline revolution.
So when these 48” in diameter chrome pipelines break, as we know all pipelines do – I got arrested over one called the Dakota Access Pipeline in Iowa [APPLAUSE] – thanks. It’s sometimes nice to bite the hand that fed you. You know?
When these pipelines break, and if there’s wind, then you get a thing called a carbonic acid cloud, which prevents engines from operating, EMTs are not coming to help you. These pipelines will traverse the entirety of the continent, sending this liquid product to my home, to be shoved back down 6,000 feet under the earth’s surface, which is also the level where we’re fracking in North Dakota too.
Somehow in that rural little landscape, four generations of fossil fuel people produced a very gay, crunchy granola environmentalist here. [LAUGHTER] And so anything’s possible. You can go to the moon if you grow up gay in North Dakota.
Host: As a young person, if Taylor Brorby felt the grownups gaslit him about the flagrant environmental destruction all around him, being gay was also taboo.
TB: If you haven’t heard, just to bring you on the harbor tour of North Dakota and its worst ideas, and then we’re going to get in, because I fall into that 45% of queer youth. Maybe some of you in this room do. And what’s such a pleasure for me is I grew up in a tiny town of 600, going to school with the same 22 other students – 16 boys and six other girls. So even if you were unfortunately straight, the dating options were limited in my class. But what’s been so nice and surreal for me is that I never thought I would be standing in front of you publicly talking about being gay because I worked so hard to try to hide that very real part of who I was. And my big sister, if she were here, even when I lower my voice, my sister goes: “You sound like a drag queen who’s been smoking for 20 years.” [LAUGHTER] So even when I’m back in North Dakota, I’m like, [VOICE DROPS] “Hi, how are you.” It’s like as the day is long. You know.
Host: That sense of vanishing isolation is part of what moved Taylor Brorby to write Boys and Oil.
He spoke with us at a Bioneers conference…
TB: So, if you follow the 100th meridian which divides the country from the arid west and the water-rich east where you don’t need to irrigate, for instance, to do agriculture. It runs through North Dakota. If you follow that line from North Dakota to Texas, then over to where I currently live in Salt Lake and up to Seattle, you’ll get something like a 15-state region, and there is no memoir about growing up gay in that region. There now is at least one – my book. And I hope a large number follow, because what I worry about – if you grow up without even a story that says you’re not alone, how do you know you’re not a freak or that, well, no one like me lives here.
You know, when I was writing my book, I was imagining this tiny town no one’s been to in Montana called Broadus, Montana, and I thought there’s some gay boy there who needs to be able to go to a library and pull off a book. I get quite emotional about this because I was that kid. There was no book that reflected– who I was was okay. And queer youth experience such a high rate of suicidal ideation. And I wanted to write a true book where the gay kid stays alive.
I mean, that’s how low the bar is in America right now for people like me. We’re being legislated against, and I just wanted a book to be out there that showed a life, and a life that kept going.
Host: Taylor says that when he was growing up, there was a default assumption that everyone was straight. Being gay in a place where supposedly no one was gay marked a harrowing descent into invisibility and self-denial. It also became a survival exercise to dream his way out of a nightmare – to imagine a different way of being and belonging. Once again, the landscape was there to hold him.
TB: It’s a lonely existence. You know? A few years ago, I had some Facebook post where a guy I grew up with had said, oh, I thought you were so happy. We were so happy as children. You seemed to be so happy. And I think what’s so heartbreaking about that is a lot of queer youth, I imagine, depending on where they’re growing up, they’re acting to just try to get by or fit in, or say get me to high school and to graduation, and then I can go someplace else where it might be a little easier for me. And so, there’s a certain loneliness there.
And so, my babysitters became like the Square Butte Creek, you know, or like the fish I would go fishing for with the beavers and things like this, because I get emotional thinking about it, but, you know, who I was growing up was very difficult for other people to handle just because of interests, because they didn’t quite compute. I wanted to take painting classes, or actually cared about piano. And I was grateful I grew up in a landscape that was big enough to hold what I felt, you know, because no one where I grew up went to therapy. There’s not a therapist in the town. And so, my therapy was wandering the hills and going fishing, and doing that, which is some solace, I guess.
Host: The solace of the ancient majesty and riotous diversity of the landscape nourished Taylor’s imagination and his soul. Yet at the same time, the burdens of history lived heavy in the land. The ghosts of generations of settlers, whose child he was, haunted him with a psychological disconnect.
TB: It was such an incredible place to grow up, especially as I age, because I realize my very county seems to be the origin story for every narrative of empire this country tells itself, you know, the genocide of Native Americans, the damming of the Missouri River, not only for hydroelectric power but to take away sacred agricultural land of the Mandan Peoples. I grew up a half hour upstream from where George Armstrong Custer last lived before he went west and had the worst day of his life. You know? And where Sitting Bull surrendered his rifle. You know? I mean, it was a phenomenal place, both in the human stories but in the grand geological scale of time I knew great ice sheets had shaped the land I loved roaming in. And it’s where I go back to in my mind whenever I struggle with writing. And my senses seem to flow. It is such a wellspring for my creativity.
But I grew up with men, as I say in my memoir, who call Oliver County God’s country, but they make their money by destroying it. And I thought if you really love something, why would you have this big thing called a dreg line that literally rips away the precious soil? So there’s a huge psychological disconnect, because I think, as a child, I trusted what adults were supposedly telling me, but found at every turn they were gaslighting me. And I thought, I don’t want to have to grow into an adult that has to exist in sort of this psychic break of a state, you know, of saying this is the way I have to earn my living by destroying my home.
And I think that’s why I’ve done the work that I do, is because I have to believe the people who are so hell bent on destroying my home, even members of my own family, do not see the prairie the way I see it, and that—that’s the tall order of writing, that I am naïve enough to believe if I write the perfect page to describe my prairie, this will stop. So that’s sort of the task I’ve set out for myself.
Host: When we return, Taylor Brorby is forced to choose between the existential crises of the assaults on nature and on LGBTQ people, while he seeks to reconcile nature, culture, diversity and belonging…
I’m Neil Harvey. You’re listening to The Bioneers…
Host: Taylor Brorby reached an existential fork in the road. He was forced to choose between the environmental crisis and a crisis of identity.
On the one hand, the fossil fuel industry was threatening the actual extinction of human beings and the collapse of the very web of life that sustains humans and all life.
On the other hand, the cultural extinction burst against LGBTQ people began to escalate into an authoritarian crusade.
Yet that cultural extinction burst was also empowered and amplified by a cynical political agenda. A divide-and-conquer strategy served powerful economic interests, in tandem with a Republican Party using anti-democratic schemes in pursuit of raw power for minority rule.
North Dakota has been in the vanguard of state governments that, by mid-2023, had introduced over 520 anti-LGBTQ bills nationally. Schools and teachers have been forbidden to teach about sexual orientation and gender identity. Books with LGBTQ themes or by gay authors were being banned from libraries – the very kinds of books that had saved Taylor Brorby’s life.
TB: I mean, right now I feel like I live in a country where a huge portion of the population doesn’t want the person that I am to exist. I know intellectually that’s not true; however, it’s hard to believe that when you see whole state legislatures, which are supposed to be representing their constituents, passing legislation in horrific ways. You know? It’s one thing to say, well, not all North Dakotans feel this way, but when the state is very, very red and passing very horrific laws into existence, it’s hard to feel safe in that whole entire state.
It’s very frustrating to live in this sort of media culture that doesn’t hold our politicians to account, so that people know it is the tyranny of the minority who are enacting this over many millions of people’s lives.
We don’t have time to continue to battle for me to have access for me to being married in every state in this country. We already had a civil war over states’ rights, you know, and things like this. And so now, it’s not that those issues aren’t important, it’s that they should and have been previously settled issues. And we’re living in such an environmental pickle right now where we need many rapid solutions to help our literal species exist on the planet if that’s what we want, and there’s not enough time to do it all.
And we’re in this time where the issues we face are so desperately important in terms of literal existence, that now I have sort of pivoted from having done a lot of work against the fracking industry and coal mining, to say my job is to now keep queer youth alive. That feels like that shouldn’t have to be anyone’s job. Queer youth should be growing up in a world that’s rich and varied and shows them the magicalness of growing into adulthood. But we are in it right now with libraries being censored, with anti-trans legislation sweeping the country, it’s sort of like, look over here at this shiny thing while my left hand does the destroying of other things that are desperately important to life.
Host: Taylor Brorby left North Dakota for Salt Lake City where he joined the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center. There he has pursued his writing, and he speaks regularly around the U.S. about extractive economies, queerness, disability and climate change.
He’s been poignantly surprised by the reception to his book Boys and Oil. It comes at a time when men and the concept of masculinity are in crisis. According to the 2023 State of American Men report, 44% of men have had suicidal thoughts, and 60% say, “No one knows me really well.” The report found that “Younger men face higher rates of depressive symptoms, suicidal thoughts, and a sense of isolation.”
TB: Some of my favorite letters I’ve gotten since the book has come out have actually been from straight men who have been shaved down in a particular image their fathers thought they should be. You know? Linemen on the football team. This one letter really sticks with me. Mr. Brorby, I read your book. I’m unfortunately straight and happily married with three children. And my misfortune was that I was gifted a large body that my father wanted me to be a lineman on the football team. And I wanted to be an oil painter. And he said, you know, I’m 45 with a broken body, and I no longer paint. And I thought, that’s so sad.
You know? I mean, we talk about toxic masculinity and living in that culture, and then when you hear from people who are the victims of that, who we might see on the street and go, oh, their life is pretty easy; they’re white straight men who fit in, and all of this. And then you hear these sort of stories. They really crack open the nut of the issues that we’re living in.
And I just wanted a little—a book where, you know, little Bobby kept the pistol in the gun safe. And little Susie didn’t put the noose around her neck. That felt like a huge responsibility.
Going out now and having that book in the world, and you hear—You know, it’s only been out for a year, and regularly I will have queer youth come up to me and say, “Your book kept me alive.” And I thought, wow, within the last year you had thought the other option was an option. I mean, we are in a real moment as a society.
So I’m aware of that. You know? It’s sort of beware of what you wish for, you might get it. And then the bar becomes higher. These queer youth want some assurance that life is worth living.
The prairie teaches you that nature thrives in diversity. The prairie is nothing if not an intermingled system of varied and various roots. But I keep thinking about the stories that need to come out from these places, you know that, for instance, Black people have been in North Dakota as long as people who look like me. [APPLAUSE] Exactly. And I can’t write a memoir about being Black in North Dakota, and I need those stories. Stories are how we build empathy. It’s how I grow for myself to be a better ally and a better caretaker of my own inner landscape, as well, as it’s not only caretaking of others, but also to be kind to ourselves, because the world tries to whittle us into something that we cannot be.
I grew up in this incredible symphony of sound that nature gave me when the sounds of the human world were belittling me and beating me into submission. It was this variety of redwing blackbird and of pheasant clucks, and that the prairie, when it’s breezy, literally whispers. And so I learned growing up to listen.
And I think whatever those landscapes are, they’re whispering to us and they’re telling us what we need to buoy ourselves and to buoy each other. There’s a certain gentleness that the land reveals to us if we listen well and listen often..
Now, I know I wasn’t alone in that small place where I felt the only thing keeping me alive and that I felt important was that I was fortunate to grow up in a landscape big enough to hold what I felt; that we didn’t go to therapy; that my therapy was brought to me by the Square Butte Creek and the beautiful cirrus clouds that feathered the sky, was in relationship with sage grouse that heaved their yolk-yellow breasts into the air; it was by hearing beavers slap their tail in the water.
And so, as Mary Oliver says, no matter who you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over again, announcing your place in the family of things.