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Queering Conservation: Addressing heteronormativity* in conservation practice


Queering Conservation: Addressing heteronormativity* in conservation practice

A guest post by radical nature connection educator, Kara Moses, exploring what a queer ecological approach might look like when applied to the world of conservation.
This is a blog by Kara Moses
Kara Moses is a freelance educator and facilitator of radical nature connection

Early this Spring, a small group of us – mostly queer identifying, plus a couple of straight allies – spent a couple of days together in the beautiful grounds of Gregynog Hall in mid Wales, to dive deep into an inquiry of what it would mean to queer conservation. This was building on a series of online discussions Common Cause Foundation convened and I facilitated, with a range of leading queer ecology and conservation thinkers and practitioners.  

After getting to know each other, we invited the more than human world into our relational space, guiding each other through blindfolded sensory encounters with plants, water, sound, soil and texture in the Gregynog garden. This expanded our community to include many species beyond the human and supported us to relax, connect and open towards the world and each other. 

Together we explored our understanding of the concept of queer ecology. We might describe queer ecology as a critical lens that challenges normative categories (and heteronormativity within ecology more broadly) and celebrates the diversity and complexities present in nature as it exists – in a continuous state of being and flux rather than fixed in rigid categories. It draws upon queer theory’s critique of gender- and sex-based hierarchies and applies this approach to ecological and evolutionary thinking. Queer ecology celebrates fluidity, diversity and complexity. It invites critical scrutiny of norms, binary distinctions, hierarchies, and power dynamics. By extension of this, it fundamentally rejects human exceptionalism and anthropocentrism, challenging human assumptions of and projections onto nature, especially ideas about which organisms, species, and individuals have value.

How does this relate to biodiversity conservation? Traditional conservation is often limited to single species focused, control-based and outcome-driven approaches that aim to maintain – to ‘conserve’ – stasis; it’s based upon the reductionist scientific worldview with its implicit heterosexist assumptions, rigid categories and problematic binaries (such human/nature, natural/unnatural, rational/emotional, mind/body, male/female, wilderness/civilisation etc). Complexities of the world, reduced to simplistic opposites where one has greater value. This mode of thinking has long been used to denigrate expressions of human diversity as ‘against nature’ or ‘unnatural’ and legitimise oppression of sexual and gender diversity in particular (as well as other forms of diversity), and doesn’t actually reflect the true nature of things.


Photo by James Ahlberg on Unsplash

Heteronormative conservation 

Heteronormativity shows up in conservation in many ways. For example, homosexuality in the nonhuman animal world is often dismissed, erased or, where acknowledged, portrayed as an aberration rather than a valid part of a species behaviour, culture and reproductive strategy – erasing the often important role same-sex relationships play in successful rearing  of the next generation, through focusing solely on heterosexual breeding pairs. The internal culture of many conservation organisations reflects wider dominant heteronormative culture, with leadership and decisions being dominated by white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men. 

Conservation inevitably operates on a power differential between human and nonhuman animals. Human intervention is guided by notions of value chosen by humans and that often centre species’ value to humans – whether this is economic, ecological, or aesthetic value, or even the importance of nature connectedness for human wellbeing. Within the patriarchal culture of the West and the binary view of nature/culture and male/female, culture is masculinised and rooted in rationality and objectivity. Intellect is valorised and feeling and intuition – seen to be animal (ie of nature) and female  – are devalued, and used to justify continued control and domination of nature, albeit under the guise of ‘nature conservation’, with ‘nature’ (as a separate entity) ostensibly being the beneficiary of such efforts.  

A queer ecological approach 

So how would a queer ecological approach differ? We agreed that the following co-created demarcation of this was good enough for us to move forward with the exploration as a group: 

A queer ecological approach:

  • recognises and celebrates queerness among nonhuman species, but goes beyond this 
  • embraces fluidity, change, complexity and exuberance
  • invites critical scrutiny of heterosexist norms, binary distinctions, rigid categories and hierarchy
  • decentres humans and critically reassesses power relations between humans and other beings

In understanding that conservation is (or supports) the preservation of stasis through methods of control and management, and queer ecology celebrates fluidity, change and non-hierarchical power relations between humans and other beings, we acknowledged that there is a fundamental conflict between the concept of conservation and queer ecology. Conservation is, in many ways, an outdated concept/term; there may be more helpful language and framings of practical applications of queer ecology to support multi-species flourishing. This requires further exploration,  but we came to an understanding both that conservation organisations and practices must change, and also that there is a need for new networks and organisations to develop which start from a very different perspective. 

Queer conservation in practice

What would queer conservation look like in practice? What practical recommendations might we make for conservation organisations?’  The meeting did not seek (still less achieve!) consensus on such implications. Nonetheless, some themes emerged that offered particularly fertile ground for further debate:

  • Recognising that the nature crisis is driven by the drive to maintain domination by those with power and privilege, act in solidarity with communities marginalised by this domination
  • Uplift queer perspectives and empower queer leadership within conservation organisations
  • Recognise and honour the agency, culture and feelings of nonhuman animals, plants, fungi and other forms of life
  • Embrace and celebrate fluidity and change – let go of the desire for stasis
  • Value non-rational faculties in operations and organisations
  • Acknowledge and support same-sex relationships and gender diversity within non-human communities, but do this in conjunction with other queer ecological approaches (ie any and all of the above)

Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

Beyond queer ecology

If a queer ecological approach extends beyond supporting sexual and gender diversity (in ‘nature’ and in conservation organisations), an important question arises, around whether these perspectives bring anything unique to debates around how we respond to the nature crisis. As one participant said, ‘queerness doesn’t have a monopoly on fluidity and spectrums’.  We discussed how helpful it is to centre queerness – intended as a liberatory lens for all. In doing so, we may exclude other marginalised groups (eg people of colour, working class people) – which is not in congruence with that liberatory lens.  Does it make sense to separate a queer approach from a decolonial, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, class equity approaches? The reality is these perspectives of course all intertwine. Indeed, the nature crisis itself driven by oppression.  Perhaps queer ecology is most helpful as part of an assemblage of anti-oppressive radical approaches that embraces all these communities. Many of the challenges that a queer perspective introduces are paralleled by thinking about the nature crisis from the standpoint of other forms of oppression (e.g. patriarchy, racism, ableism). 

Certainly in a UK context, anyone who isn’t very wealthy is largely excluded from the land by the power structures that oppress all of these communities. While queer ecology presents a way into these debates for people who identify as queer (we certainly appreciated this exploration within a largely queer space), we also recognised the limitations of a queer-only approach, and the obvious imperatives and opportunities to find common ground with other marginalised groups who are reimagining human-nature relationships and act in solidarity – we have much in common, and we are stronger together. 


*Heteronormativity – the assumption that everyone is ‘naturally’ heterosexual, and that heterosexuality is ‘normal’, ideal, and superior to homosexuality or bisexuality which by implication are unnatural and abnormal. It assumes the gender binary and that sexual, romantic and marital relations should only be between these two genders. 

Cover Photo by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash

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