Environmental Pollution, Trans Activism and Art
by: Wibke Straube
What does trans activism have to do with the environment and questions around nature and ecology? I hear this question often when I talk about my research. For me, the questions about the environment and transness are connected on many levels. On a theoretical level, the word ’natural’ has been used to devalue trans and LGBT people. And on a more practical level, this connection becomes very urgent when we think, for example, of disaster management in natural catastrophes and how trans people are not yet included in disaster management protocols.
Transness and Nature
Transness is an experience and a form of being and becoming in the world where the rigid categorical boundaries of sex and gender are crossed. North American trans scholar and historian Susan Stryker describes transness in her book Transgender History (2008) as a movement away from an “unchosen starting place”. This movement of a person across these naturalised boundaries is often stigmatised, and in a historical context, it is also understood as ’unnatural.’ Transness – like homosexuality which historically is not understood as separate from homosexuality until the early 1920s when the German sexologist and physician Magnus Hirschfeld, a supporter of trans people in his time, suggested the term 'transsexualism' – has a long history of being weighed against the idea of naturalness.
The idea that people who cross gender boundaries are “unnatural” is not only stigmatising, but also upholds a Eurocentric idea of heterosexuality and cisgender as being normal, healthy and natural. Argentinian, decolonial feminist philosopher Maria Lugones (2017) writes about how the hegenomic categories of (binary) gender and race were manifested in the European colonies. They were used as tools to declassify the indigenous population as abnormal and deviant and to justify oppression and genocide. This means that the idea of what is natural and normal gender expression is embedded in Eurocentric norms and represses all other formations of gender and sexuality outside of these norms as unatural and pathological.
In the Western medical history, from the late 19th century until recently, transexuality and homosexuality were understood as mental disorders. Historically, this was also understood as hereditary. The state and its juridical and health insitutions thus had an interest in preventing LGBT people from reproduction in order to avoid a “pollution” of future generations. The compulsory sterilisation of trans people as social deviants began in the early 20th century. Until today, this practice continues in many European countries. This medical approach is critiqued for being deeply connected to eugenicist and race hygienic ideas of health, wellbeing, purity, whiteness and ultimately, a logic of “naturalness”. The Finnish philosopher and gender scholar Julian Honkasalo (2018) has termed this as passive eugenics. Compulsory or forced sterilisation was a practice that historically affected many parts of the population throughout the 20th century. It targeted not only queer and trans people but also people suffering from depression, disabled people, sex workers, ethnic and racial minorities, and indigenous people such as the Sámi, for instance. While this seems to be more connected to questions of nation-building and the welfare state it is also closely linked to the politics of purity vs pollution, natural ways of living vs unnatural “behaviour”.
In my research, I focus on discussions of ideas of nature and transness, questions of “pollution”, “purity” and “naturalness” by exploring how these themes emerge in artistic work. I do interviews with artists and enagage with their artwork that explore toxicity and pollution as well as the problematic of trans and queer bodies as impure and unnatural. The artists, mostly Nordic-based artists, I have studied so far reject the idea of naturalness – they seem to avoid a liberal, assimilation politics of “we are normal like you”. Instead while condemning environmental pollution as environmental degradation they, at the same time, reappropriate the idea of contamination and the “unnatural” body in order to develop rebellious forms of life, imagining a new world and a new body that is not appealing to existing cisgender norms, but that is reappropriated as the Other, as impure, and ultimately, as toxic. The artworks include performance art, video installations, e.g. by the Finnish artist Teo Ala-Ruoana and the Austrian-based artist Mary Maggic.
Natural Disasters and Environmental Pollution
How do environmental problems impact trans people in particular? I will give two concrete examples: environmental pollution and natural disaster management. My first example is pollution. It is known that environmental pollution, such as hazardous air pollution, impacts some populations more than others – mostly those who are socially more marginalised. Race/ethnicity and socio-economic status, along with sexual orientation, ability and gender identity are key factors here. Apart from work conditions, housing is often suboptimal for trans people. Trans people who have less income are forced to live in low-cost buildings that often expose them to contamination, such as toxic building materials, unsafe drinking water or hazardous air pollution. This makes trans people and LGBT people in general, globally more vulnerable to environmental pollution and adds to the already existing lower health of trans people due to cultural factors, e.g. violence, discrimination and minority stress.
According to Leo Goldsmith’s and Michelle L. Bell’s recent study (2022), chronic diseases such respiratory diseases, cardiovacular illness and cancer, all associated with environmental exposure, occur in higher rates in trans and LGBT population (Goldsmith & Bell 2022). Their study also displays how housing, economic status and healthcare access affect trans people dispropotionately and reduces the ability to respond to environmental pollution appropriately by seeking medical care.
My other example concerns natural disaster response in the case of floods, hurricanes, earthquakes or forest fires. As the study by McKinnon et al. (2017) shows, trans people are often not included in disaster response protocols, which has an impact on post-disaster resettlements based on family units – understood as married, heterosexual, cis couples with biological children – leaving other family formations vulnerable to detachment and random placement as well as for many other experiences in natural catastrophes, such as safety in shelters, washroom and toilet access. The study also highlights how disaster areas are known for an increased violence and stigma against LGBT populations. After Hurricane Katrina, US right-wing religious groups even disseminated narratives of devine retribution in response to promoting queer licentiousness.
These are just a few examples of how the topics of environment and transness overlap. Me and other members of the Trans*Creative project are currently exploring some of these topics and are working on articles and further blog posts for the future!
Goldsmith, Leo & Michelle L. Bell 2022. “Queering Environmental Justice: Unequal Environmental Health Burden on the LGBTQ+ Community.” AJPH 112 (1): 179 – 87.
Honkasalo, Julian 2018. “Unfit for Parenthood? Compulsory Sterilization and Transgender Reproductive Justice in Finland.” Journal of International Women's Studies, 20(1): 40-52.
Lugones, Maria 2007. “Heterosexualism and the Colonial/Modern Gender System.” Hypatia 22 (1): 186-209.
McKinnon, Scott, Andrew Gorman-Murray & Dale Dominey-Howes 2017. “Disasters, queer narratives, and the news: how are LGBTI disaster experiences reported by the mainstream and LGBTI media?” Journal of Homosexuality 64 (1): 122–144.
Stryker, Susan 2008. Transgender History. Berkeley: Seal Press.