Community calls for justice—social, environmental, racial—have reignited conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion across the country. With marginalized groups once again at the forefront of these calls, public servants and local government organizations must consider approaches for repair and resolution. Lessons from queer ecology can demonstrate how inclusion is as much something we do as it is a way of thinking.
Rigid binary categories—native/non-native, civilized/untamed, pristine/contaminated, white/people of color, male/female—disregard how balanced ecosystems and social systems function. Using these narrow dual structures not only loses the intrinsic value for individuals, but false constraints can create unnecessary problems. Reality exists on a spectrum and the extent to which a community can be inclusive depends upon the extent to which our differences can be acknowledged and accounted for. Considering the interdependent relationship between nature and culture, examples from queer ecology can demonstrate how binary thinking disrupts and is disrupted when the peculiar parts of ourselves, our systems, and their relationships are overlooked.
What began in the early 1500s as a word to describe something strange or unusual, the word queer earned its claim to infamy as a derogatory word for homosexuals in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, homosexual behavior in both humans and animals was considered unnatural and deviant, an affront to the preservation and evolution of species. Then around the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, there began significant efforts around reclaiming the word.1 This reclamation was and continues to be the process of taking the disparaging power away from oppressors who use queer derogatorily by instead infusing queerness with a sense of pride and dignity. While there are still many in the LGBTQIA+ community that take offense to the term queer as an identifier, it is growing to be generally embraced by the LGBTQIA+ community and queer theory continues to adapt new meaning and applications.
An example of this adaptation is queer ecology, a transdisciplinary approach based in ecological study and queer theory that challenges the confines of socially constructed binaries. Getting back to the original meaning of the word, queer ecology acknowledges and celebrates the unusual and rejects bifurcated ideas like native/non-native, civilized/untamed, pristine/contaminated, white/people of color, male/female. These false dichotomies were created by the colonial heterosexual patriarchy to suppress and erase stories of marginalized groups, and popularize a narrative informed by “a rhetoric of wilderness conquest, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, and the belief that humans can either control or destroy nature with technology.”2
Lee Pivnik is the founder of the first Institute of Queer Ecology, and they say, “Queer ecology frees other species from the script of the history in which they’ve been written about, mainly in a white/European, straight, male, context, and gives everything from other species to the people that are working in this practice the agency to tell stories themselves.” Queerness in ecology embodies the in-between, the gray area, plurality, and it represents the elements of nature and reality that don’t fit into neat boxes. It goes far beyond sexuality and gender and represents how odd reality is.
As an example, 16 miles away from Denver is the former Rocky Flats nuclear complex; today it is part of an area known as the Rocky Flats Wildlife Refuge. After decades of work at the former weapons manufacturing facility, the cleanup efforts were declared completed in 2005, and it is now being developed for recreation activities.3 This decision has been highly debated. Controversy aside, the fact that this was once a weapons plant, and now functions as a wildlife refuge strikes as rather queer. Rocky Flats is a natural area, and it is contaminated; these are not mutually exclusive conditions of its past or present existence. However, discussions about the cleanup “advocated the binary equating of ‘nature’ with ‘clean,’ and ‘waste’ with ‘contaminated’ and therefore ‘not natural.’”4 Rocky Flats is only one example of a climate wrong that needs to be righted, but a zero-sum perspective on what it can or can’t be prevents us from challenging it and taking responsibility for its complex existence and continued management.
Like binaries, silos are reductive and leave little room for complex thinking and approaches. The struggle against silos is a common plight for local governments, and the narrow and siloed ways our institutions function effectively trains people to use narrow and siloed thinking. For example, there is a compelling argument circling the restoration ecology and pest management world about native and non-native/invasive species. A lot of the traditional work and policies emphasize returning an ecosystem to a historical state by way of maintaining native species and eradicating non-native species.5
This binary thinking led to the human actions that degraded the idealized natural landscapes of the past, and the reductionist approach can move the landscape even further away from the desired historic state; interventions to exterminate invaders can cause unintended harm to the whole. The focus on going back to the way something was and preserving native groups and land areas ignores the ever-changing and transient nature of the world today. Similar to the many diasporas of peoples due to slavery and colonization, non-native plants don’t ask to relocate, nor do they pick themselves up and take themselves elsewhere. They are carried in the droppings of birds, on the feet of travelers, and even deliberately by people who want them for their home garden.
Moreover, not all non-native introductions are all bad, and there are countless examples of non-native species filling ecosystem needs.6 The cherished honeybee, for instance, originally had its native range across Asia, Africa, and Europe, and were imported to North America in the 1600s. Today, their important role in agriculture and the economy as pollinators has made them one of the most intensely managed insect species in the world.7 The Zebra Mussels of the Great Lakes are more controversial, since their rapid growth has driven resource competition with other mussels and their invasive presence has been linked to disease among birds. However, Zebra Mussels have also offered natural filtration for the murky and polluted lakes, improving the water quality and visibility to allow the local salmon populations to more easily feed and thrive.8 Lastly, while the European Green Crab is considered a pest in California because they damage shellfish stocks,9 across the coast in Massachusetts these crustaceans have played a major role in restoring salt marshes previously degraded from overfishing.10
There are plenty of alien species that cause undeniable harm to the ecosystems they enter, but not all. In the restoration ecology world, beneficial non-native species can create what are called novel ecosystems. While this term is not strictly defined, Daniel Simberloff describes the novel ecosystem as a goal that “does not attempt to recreate the past; rather, the goal is to re-establish the historical trajectory of an ecosystem before anthropogenic influences derailed it.”11
Rella Abernathy, the city of Boulder’s applied ecological programs coordinator, says, “There are no easy answers, and the hardest question is what we can feasibly achieve with restoration. We need to show humility and patience and observe the ecology of the land and listen to the views and ideas of others.” As climate change continues, the displacement of plants, animals, and humans will only grow worse. Clutching onto the idea of what/who is native and what/who is not can be elitist, xenophobic, and may limit our ability to work toward meaningful solutions as we address the challenges of forced migration.
Creating Inclusion in Boulder
Now is a serious and demanding time to be in government. People are unhappy, they are not feeling seen, and systematic inequities are driving more division and strife. As public servants, we are being challenged on intimate levels to reflect and respond to these issues. The city of Boulder’s recently passed racial equity plan lays out bold commitments to lean in, do the work, and rise to the call for more diversity, equity, and inclusion.
For example, one team is looking at how boards and commissions are structured and demographically represented. Older versions of the city’s ordinance on boards and commissions sought better female representation on the commonly male-dominated bodies by requiring council to “appoint members to city boards and commissions, who are city electors representing both sexes.” What was originally considered a progressive move was revisited in 2019 because of its exclusion of people with identities outside the male/female binary. Since then, the amended ordinance requires council to “appoint members to city boards and commissions, who are city residents not all of one gender identity.”12 As a result, the back-end member management system includes three gender categories of male, female, and alternate. While adding a third catch-all category still leaves something to be desired, it is definitely a step in the right direction.
Land use is another area in Boulder where values and policy seem in conflict. Boulderites value their unobstructed views of the mountains, being global leaders in climate action initiatives, and creating a welcoming, inclusive, and diverse community. While the city touts a progressive and aggressive environmental agenda, some of the land-use policies effectively stifle critical density for equitable sustainability solutions to thrive. “A citywide height limit on new construction (ca. 55 feet) to maintain scenic views of the foothills and Flatirons prevented the city from growing upwards. The height limit, the green belt that limited outward expansion of housing, and the fact that a significant portion of the city is zoned exclusively for single-family residential development, all indirectly contribute to the high cost of housing in Boulder.”13 While the racial equity plan does not intend to reverse these policies, council, staff, and the community at large will need to contend with the contradictory nature of values and policy as we continue advancing the equity agenda.
As local government professionals, we have an ethical obligation to be inclusive in our policies, processes, and goals. It is our job to be in touch with our ever-changing communities and champion a world that reflects them. Globalization, geopolitics, climate change, and exponential growth over the last century has brought us into a world that hardly fits the antiquated terms and categories used to describe things today. Breaking away from the binary and siloed thinking can unveil a fascinating world filled with interconnected relationships and complexity in which each individual provides a unique contribution to the greater whole. This is important because as government professionals we play a major role in writing the narrative of human experience. “While certain narratives offer us an arguably more palatable history,” they can also construct the false notion that all Americans share the same past and understanding of the present.14
Furthermore, false claims and erasing things we don’t want to exist don’t make them go away. This is true for when we omit queer and BIPOC contributions from history, ban critical race theory in schools,15 or use a definition of wilderness that denies the land influence of indigenous populations.16 Examples in queer ecology demonstrate the limitations of binary thinking, and if the narrative is to include everyone, we must study the buried past, go beyond the binary, embrace the world for all its queerness, and commit to changing along with it.
TAYLOR REIMANN is assistant to the city council of Boulder, Colorado.
Endnotes and Resources
1 Perlman, M. (2019, January 22). How the word ‘queer’ was adopted by the LGBTQ community. Columbia Journalism Review. https://www.cjr.org/language_corner/queer.php.
2 Finney, C. (2014). In Black faces, white spaces: reimagining the relationship of African Americans to the great outdoors (p. 24-28). essay, The University of North Carolina Press.
3 Department of the Interior. (2019, February 27). About the Refuge - Rocky Flats. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Rocky_Flats/about.html.
4 Krupar, S. R. (2012). Transnatural ethics: revisiting the nuclear cleanup of Rocky Flats, CO, through the queer ecology of Nuclia Waste. Cultural Geographies, 19 (3), 303–327. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474011433756.
5 Gann, G. D., McDonald, T., Walder, B., Aronson, J., Nelson, C. R., Jonson, J., Hallett, J. G., Eisenberg, C., Guariguata, M. R., Liu, J., Hua, F., Echeverría, C., Gonzales, E., Shaw, N., Decleer, K., & Dixon, K. W. (2019). International principles and standards for the practice of ecological restoration. Second edition. Restoration Ecology, 27 (S1). https://doi.org/10.1111/rec.13035.
6 SCHLAEPFER, M. A. R. T. I. N. A., SAX, D. O. V. F., & OLDEN, J. U. L. I. A. N. D. (2010). The Potential Conservation Value of Non-Native Species. Conservation Biology, 25 (3), 428–437. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01646.x.
7 Carpenter, M. H., & Harpur, B. A. (2021). Genetic past, present, and future of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) in the United States of America. Apidologie, 52 (1), 63–79. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13592-020-00836-4.
8 Wolfe , J. F. (2015, May 4). 10 Invasive Species That Helped The Ecosystems They Inhabit. Listverse. https://listverse.com/2015/05/04/10-invasive-species-that-helped-the-ecosystems-they-inhabit/.
9 MacDonald, J. (2016, April 5). Invasive Species: Pro And Con. JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/invasive-species/.
10 Bertness, M., & Coverdale, T. (2013). An invasive species facilitates the recovery of salt marsh ecosystems on Cape Cod. Ecology, 94(9), 1937-1943. Retrieved July 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23597316.
11 Simberloff D. (2015). Non-native invasive species and novel ecosystems. F1000prime reports, 7, 47. https://doi.org/10.12703/P7-47.
12 City of Boulder. (2019). AN ORDINANCE AMENDING CHAPTER 2-3, “BOARDS AND COMMISSIONS,” B.R.C. 1981 https://library.municode.com/co/boulder/ordinances/municipal_code?nodeId=941601.
13 City of Boulder. (2021, February). Racial Equity Plan. https://www-static.bouldercolorado.gov/docs/2021_Racial_Equity_Plan___ADOPTED_2.16-1-202102171848.pdf?_ga=2.252786057.1875945537.1624304648-304236633.1564445180.
14 Finney, C. (2014). In Black faces, white spaces: reimagining the relationship of African Americans to the great outdoors (p. 24-28). essay, The University of North Carolina Press.
15 Florido, A. (2021, May 28). Teachers Say Laws Banning Critical Race Theory Are Putting A Chill On Their Lessons. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/05/28/1000537206/teachers-laws-banning-critical-race-theory-are-leading-to-self-censorship.
16 Fox, A. (2020, July 24). Sierra Club Grapples With Founder John Muir’s Racism. Smart News. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/sierra-club-grapples-founder-john-muirs-racism-180975404/.