The first thing that I notice as I enter the 519 Community Centre on Church St. – unofficial headquarters of Toronto’s queer community – is the men. Tonight, on a frosty December evening, the recently formed group Ecoqueers is hosting its first major public event, a panel presentation called “Greening A Queer Planet: Where Pink is Green,” and I am surprised – understandably so, I think – to see a significant number of men in the audience of an environmentalist event.
After all, mainstream representations of contemporary gay life don’t exactly give the impression that gay men lead the most ecologically sound lives. Gay men, the story goes, shop. Urban gay men live in chic condominium apartments, buy a lot of hair and body care products, have great taste in cars, clothes and interior design, and own the very latest music and cutting-edge techno-gadgets. They’re supposed to be just like the lead character on the popular NBC television series Will and Grace, who sports designer threads, lives in a fabulously furnished New York condo, and takes leisurely vacations on tropical isles. Even his jobless best gay friend knows what he should be wearing and where he should be living, even if he can’t afford to.
It’s just not TV that tells this tale. From Toronto’s fab magazine to London’s Attitude, pages of the pink press are filled with seemingly endless articles and advice columns about which fashion labels are hot (and not), how to dress your home spaces, your car and your body. In short, to be gay and male, the story goes, is to fully indulge capitalist consumption. - Queer communities have certainly used pink dollars to flex considerable muscle in advancing particular gay rights. As Alan Sinfield, author of Gay and After (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1998, page 189), acknowledges, “Les/bi/gay commodification and its corollaries are undermining some of the traditional oppressions that we associate with capitalism.” But, he adds, these gains come at a considerable price.
Tony Kushner warns that “it’s entirely conceivable that we will one day live miserably in a thoroughly ravaged world in which lesbians and gay men can marry and serve openly in the army and that’s it.” - “What is the most visible representation we have of Queer Culture?” asks Andrea Ridgely, one of the founding members of Ecoqueers and an organizer of the “Greening” panel. “It’s the gay white male. They seem to be in charge of the community, and if you’re not a gay, white male, you feel left out.” Many of the young queers she works with at Supporting Our Youth – the community development agency that launched Ecoqueers in 1999 – often feel like they don’t have a place in the community because they are neither white nor affluent. “They don’t match the icon, so they don’t feel that they belong.” It’s this exclusion, she reckons, that has contributed to the more acute interest in politics among queers of colour, lesbians and bisexual women.
Indeed, more women than men still participate in environmental groups, pursue degrees in environmental studies and prioritize green issues. In many queer communities, including Toronto’s, lesbians and bisexual women more often take leadership roles in more activist organizations. Many university students will tell similar stories of tensions between women in Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transexual clubs who want the organizations to take on a more political-activist role, and gay boys who prefer to see the clubs stick to a social role.
The panel at tonight’s meeting tries to bridge some of these divisions. Although the audience clearly isn’t representative of Toronto’s multicultural landscape, a considerable number of people of colour are in the audience, and almost equal numbers of men and women. Invited speakers include representatives from more mainstream environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and a moderator whose contributions echo typically apolitical conservationist ideas. But also presenting are several community activists who push conversations about sex and ecology into more innovative terrain.
Mark Haslam, a South Asian journalist, tries to rally the mostly youngish crowd against gay commodification, and Florence Heung, a young Asian-Canadian woman, reminds the audience that issues of “race” and racism are inextricably tied to environmental and gay/bi/lesbian struggles. -The most popular speaker is Mirha-Soleil Ross, a transsexual sex worker who produces a weekly radio program, Animal Voices. She wants to see Ecoqueers challenge anti-ecological ideas and activities in the gay mainstream, but it’s she who proposes the most direct challenges. It’s time to stop pitting AIDS activists against animal rights activists, she says, and recounts evidence that shows that animal testing has not, and does not promise to, help find any vaccines or remedies for HIV. She challenges the local queer community to reflect seriously upon its political choices.
After years of trying to conceal her dedication to animal rights while participating in the queer community, Ross says, “I do now have to question why I would not attend transphobic, homophobic, misogynist or racist animal liberation gatherings if there were any … (but continue to support) queer, transgendered, anti-racist, anti--sexist, environmental and anti-fascist events where meat – animals who were produced, murdered and dismembered in a Western industrial fashion – was a cause for joyous celebration?”
In its early life, Ecoqueers is trying to combine all kinds of interests – to be a space for those folks looking for nature walks, camping trips and gardening tips, but also for those folks wanting to challenge more critically the objectives of gay liberation and terms of gay discourse. - That’s precisely what Ridgley has found Ecoqueers to be, a place where green queers can organize together. “What I’ve found with our meetings is that we are attracting a lot of people interested in the environment who have no other connection with the queer community in Toronto, because they didn’t feel that there was anything for them.”
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