Anti-Trans, Anti-Climate

Right-wing attacks on body sovereignty are rooted in the same ideologies that perpetuate violence against the Earth.

ON A WEDNESDAY MORNING in May, Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis stood before a cheering crowd at the evangelical Cambridge Christian School in Tampa to announce the signing of some of the country’s most extreme anti-trans legislation. The proposed laws would ban gender-affirming care for minors, restrict even the discussion of personal pronouns in school, and penalize businesses for hosting drag shows. (Some of these laws have been temporarily blocked by the courts as potentially unconstitutional.)

“It’s kind of sad that we even have some of these discussions,” DeSantis told the crowd, standing at a podium with a sign that read “Let Kids Be Kids.” “We never did this through all of human history until like, what, two weeks ago? Now this is something? They’re having third-graders declare pronouns? We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida.”

In truth, human history is replete with cultures accepting of fluid gender categories. However, DeSantis, a presidential hopeful, has no use for such facts. In a distant second for the Republican presidential nomination, trailing far behind former president Donald Trump, DeSantis has positioned himself as an anti-“wokeness” candidate: “Florida is where woke goes to die,” he likes to repeat. Under his watch, the state has become increasingly hostile to any form of progressive politics. His agenda, the Florida Blueprint, is rife with conservative, extremist ideas that are reflected in the raft of new laws he has signed, including the Don’t Say Gay bill, abortion bans, anti-immigration policies, relaxed gun legislation, and the “sprawl bill” that is aimed at preventing citizens and organizations from challenging development decisions.

DeSantis is also staunchly dismissive of climate change and most environmental protections, though he won the governorship, in part, on the conservation ticket. (Florida, after all, does have a rich conservation history that serves its economy well. Its 11 national and 175 state parks, which include trails and historic sites spanning nearly 800,000 acres and hundreds of miles of beaches, draw millions of tourists each year). But since he became governor, DeSantis’s environmental record has been sketchy at best. He has disregarded the recommendations of his own Blue-Green Algae Task Force and broken his 2018 campaign promises to commit the land and resources needed for Everglades restoration and to oppose federal permits allowing drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. He has signed a long list of pro-industry bills, including ones that block cities and towns from adopting their own clean-energy goals, allowed exploratory oil drilling in the Apalachicola River Basin, and made it harder for residents to take legal action against the toxic burning practices of Florida’s sugar industry. In May, the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter condemned DeSantis’s leadership, saying that he “hasn’t lived up to his rhetoric on the environment” and had focused instead on “expensive, misleading ‘resilience’ projects rather than long-term solutions that address the actual causes of climate change.”

In current US politics, anti-trans laws and anti-environment policies are often correlated.

This all puts Florida in company with other states that are hostile to both trans and gay communities and to the environment. Montana’s legislature, for example, recently voted to expel its only openly trans lawmaker and passed a law that bars state agencies from considering climate change when permitting big projects, including power plants and coal mines, which require environmental reviews. South Dakota has passed laws banning gender-affirming care and surgeries, and it won’t put enough inspectors in the field to address ongoing waste-dumping in rivers.

In current US politics, anti-trans laws and anti-environment policies are often correlated. The deeper relationships between these hostilities can be complicated and hard to unravel. However, in his extremism and presidential ambitions, DeSantis and his “Great American Comeback” election campaign help demonstrate the underpinning structures that justice, climate, and environmental activists are all grappling with in today’s complex political arena.

I’m a trans person and environmental writer and activist, and these issues impact my everyday life. Living in the Pacific Northwest and experiencing increasing drought and wildfires nearly half the year, I’m always anxious about losing my home. I live on a small piece of land that I was lucky enough to rent to start a community project raising food for other trans people. To get here, however, means driving past driveways adorned with hateful signs that represent the kind of people passing laws to eradicate my community. I flicker between the dread of inhaling wildfire smoke and relying on a quickly drying well, and the fear of going into the grocery store and facing violence just for existing.

In a Grist essay titled “I do my best climate work as my true self: a trans man,” Jay Duffy, an attorney at the Clean Air Task Force, writes, “If we keep polluting into the air, the world will change to our detriment. If we respect and appreciate the gifts the planet has given us, we can live sustainably. Likewise, if we try to stifle gender expression and identity, we will create anguish.”

Growing up in rural towns and seeing the impact of climate destruction and violence against marginalized groups of people firsthand, I’ve often struggled to understand how people could overlook them. The history of this violence, however, clearly illustrates the calculated intention of these anti-trans and anti-climate policies.

THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES is one of violence, exploitation, and the violation of sovereignty — of individuals, of tribal nations, of lands and waters — for the sake of dominance. In Florida, that history starts with the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, when 350,000 Indigenous people flourished on the peninsula; continues through the violent expulsion of tribes, the creation of slave-dependent sugar plantations, and the rise of Jim Crow; and lives on in the voter suppression tactics pursued by the state to this day. It also lives on in the continuing violence against Black, Brown, and gender-nonconforming bodies — the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, which sparked the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, which targeted a LGBTQIA patrons on a “Latin Night” — being among the most tragic and well-known examples of this. Now, with the backing of national and local Republicans, DeSantis is ferociously, systematically establishing himself within this dehumanizing history. He is using age-old authoritarian tactics, imposing draconian laws that especially target minorities and that stifle free speech and create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.

The tactics used to eradicate trans people and exploit Florida’s natural environment, for instance, are reminiscent of those used when pushing Indigenous people out of their land. This is particularly true with DeSantis’s focus on children and families. Just as the federal government forcibly removed tens of thousands of Native American children from their homes in an effort to “assimilate” them, DeSantis is targeting trans children under the guise of protecting the family, driving out from the state people who wish to protect themselves from criminalization or who wish to respect their child’s autonomy through standard gender-affirming medical practices.

“A lot of the anti-trans legislation uses the same tactics used against Indigenous people, including targeting children,” says Luhui Whitebear, assistant professor of language, culture, and society at Oregon State University. Whitebear observes that such methods were tested first on — and may still be used against — Native people, who endured “the abduction of children, boarding schools, taking [of] ceremonial rights.” She emphasizes that, “the bills being passed in Florida are particularly alarming because they remove children from people.”

“A lot of the anti-trans legislation uses the same tactics used against Indigenous people, including targeting children.”

Critics of one the new anti-trans laws, Senate Bill 254, which restricts access to gender affirming care, call it the “abduction bill,” saying it allows children to be “legally kidnapped” by the government or disagreeing parents if the child is “subjected to or threatened with being subjected to sex-reassignment prescriptions or procedures.” These prescriptions and procedures include puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and gender-affirming surgeries — all things that cisgender children have access to if need be.

While past state policies served to impinge on the sovereignty of Native nations, current anti-trans policies push against the sovereignty of individuals and of families. Indigenous dispossession under US policies of genocide and the targeting of identity are, of course, not of the same order when it comes to the magnitude of harm done, but both are symptoms of a similar mindset, a disrespect for sovereignty. Historically, tribes were forcibly removed from Florida to make way for colonial settlements. Today, people fearful for their children’s and their own safety are fleeing from the state as it further entrenches itself within a dominant, intolerant culture.

Arianna Inurritegui-Lint, the founder of Arianna’s Center, a service and advocacy organization with the mission of supporting and empowering transgender women of color in Florida and Puerto Rico, has felt this fear. She came to the US to seek gender-affirming care, and for the first time since arriving feels less safe than she did when living in Peru. “My trauma comes back,” Inurritegui-Lint says. “This doesn’t just affect me, but my business and the women I support.”

DeSantis is targeting other communities as well. He recently approved one of the strictest abortion laws in the country, prohibiting the procedure after six weeks and infringing upon the body-sovereignty of women. In what Black leaders have described as “policy violence,” he has signed legislation banning state colleges from using state or federal funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; prohibited instruction in critical race theory at universities; and required instruction to middle schoolers that some enslaved people received some benefit from slavery. And he’s enacted regulations tamping down on peaceful protest and free speech.

All of these acts curtailing the rights of communities and of individuals — alongside his acts curtailing the rights of nature — are acts of a dominant culture exerting itself. Each of them has been a move away from pluralism and individual freedoms. Such demonstrations of power are the hallmarks of an advancing authoritarianism, and DeSantis is right in the mix. “Whether he’s an authoritarian at heart or just a cynical opportunist, what matters is how DeSantis behaves,” Brian Klaas, a professor of global politics at University College London, recently wrote in The Atlantic. “And as governor, he has repeatedly used the powers of his office in authoritarian ways.”

THE AUTHORITARIAN DOMINATION exhibited in DeSantis’s politics cannot be separated from environmental destruction. Dominion, or supremacy, requires the existence of a “lesser” or “other,” human or otherwise. Anne Coulter, a conservative commentator, expressed the anti-environmental view of extreme US conservatism bluntly in an interview in 2020 on the Fox News show Hannity & Colmes: “God gave us the Earth,” she said. “We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’”

a protest sign

DeSantis has approved one of the strictest abortion laws in the country, prohibited instruction in critical race theory at universities, and required middle-schoolers be taught that some enslaved people received some benefit from slavery. Photo by Carl Seibert/ZUMA Press Wire.

One can argue that it is this kind of worldview, which endorses a rapacious taking from the Earth as a (Christian) God-given right of a supposedly chosen (read: White) people, has led to the environmental and climate breakdown we are in the midst of right now. And it continues to be reflected in the rhetoric of some politicians today.

Earlier this year, a Florida Republican lawmaker made a public apology for comparing trans people to mutants, a version of the argument that members of the LGBTQ+ community are somehow unnatural. “We have people that live among us today on planet Earth that are happy to display themselves as if they were mutants from another planet,” the lawmaker, Webster Barnaby, said during a state hearing on bathroom bills. “This is the planet Earth, where God created men male and women female.”

In modern history, the link between supremacy and the control of what is “pure” or “natural” is unfortunately well illustrated by Nazi Germany.

This attitude, which includes defining what is natural or unnatural based on particular cultural or religious values, is ultimately rooted in supremacy, and it is not unique to the United States, nor is it new. In modern history, the link between supremacy and the control of what is “pure” or “natural” is unfortunately well illustrated by Nazi Germany, which also sought to conflate the two, defining purity as natural and nature as pure.

When Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, he enacted policies to rid Germany of Lebensunwertes Leben, or “lives unworthy of living.” Targeting trans and gay communities was an early tactic used in the Holocaust. “The Nazi ideal had been based on white, cishet (that is, cisgender and heterosexual) masculinity masquerading as genetic superiority,” Brandy Schillace writes in Scientific American. “Any who strayed were considered as depraved, immoral, and worthy of total eradication. What began as a project of ‘protecting’ German youth and raising healthy families had become, under Hitler, a mechanism for genocide.”

At the time, the Nazi Party campaigned for increased environmental protection and care for the planet, eventually establishing a Green Wing that allowed the Nazis to use environmental language as a mask for environmental racism and genocide. Peter Staudenmaier’s Fascist Ecology notes the relationship between “the triumph of industrial capitalism and national unification” in Nazi Germany as “volkisch thinkers preached a return to the land, to the simplicity and wholeness of a life attuned to nature’s purity.” Staudenmaier suggests that this outlook, popular among young people in Germany, of natural, back-to-the-land living, created a mindset that “predisposed them to fascist zealotry.”

In the US, the authoritarianism of the extreme right has yet to coalesce around any green ideals. But the Green Wing of the Nazi Party does help demonstrate how nationalistic zeal can be co-opted, and how what is “natural,” “pure,” or “unworthy” can be shaped inside a culture of supremacy. When anti-trans policies target people as “unnatural,” they are part of this tradition. (Such ideas of purity are present within certain sections of the US environmental movement as well. For instance, the radical group, Deep Green Resistance, has been called out for its transphobic views and for promoting the idea of a similarly pure environment that only the privileged can enjoy.)

As of this writing, DeSantis appears to have little chance of becoming the presidential nominee for the Republican Party. Of course, his fate will depend much on what happens to Donald Trump, who is facing criminal prosecution on dozens of federal indictments. Still, it is worth noting that DeSantis’s extremism hasn’t been completely detrimental to his campaign. In fact, GOP leaders around the country are taking notice, and many are adopting his tactics.

MY HOME IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST is in a high wildfire-risk zone. Since 2020, I have had to evacuate at least once every year. As a trans person, my options are more limited than others. During the 2020 wildfires, many farmers parked their trailers and set up temporary animal housing in the parking lot of the local Hobby Lobby — a company that is outwardly anti-trans.

someone flying an inclusive banner in a forest

Transgender Americans are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. They are also more involved in environmental movements. Photo illustration by Karen Kemp; forest image: Benson Kua; Person with flag: Brendan McDermid.

My experience isn’t the only way that anti-climate policy can take a disproportionate toll on trans communities. Transgender Americans experience poverty at a rate more than double that of the US population and trans people are three times as likely to go hungry as cis people. That statistic only increases for trans people of color. This means we are more likely to be climate vulnerable given that low-income individuals are less able to prepare for or recover from extreme weather events like floods, wildfires, and heatwaves, all of which are becoming more frequent and more severe each year. LGBTQ+ people are also more than twice as likely to be unhoused, putting them at particular risk. When displaced due to hurricanes, fires, and other climate-related disasters, trans people can also face heightened safety risks.

I know that my role in this struggle is to bring trans people together and celebrate our joy, while also continuing with my climate activism.

The growing traction of DeSantis’s anti-trans and anti-climate ideologies, therefore, represent a dual assault on trans individuals — they threaten our mental and physical health, our safety, our property, and our very lives. In addition to the personal toll they take on people, they also represent a real loss to the environmental movement. Research has shown that LGBTQ+ Americans are more likely to express that they personally care greatly about the environment, and are also more likely to join environmental movements. Rarely have I met a trans person who wasn’t also an active environmentalist. But environmental concerns can take a backseat when we have to live in fear, when our very right to exist is under threat.

When trans people come to my farm, when they help tend the land and have a moment of peace in the forest, I see our work and our joy as an active resistance against efforts by politicians like DeSantis to erase us. As Duffy states, “Trans people have overcome immeasurable struggle to share their genuine selves with the world whether their identity is obvious or not. This is something to be celebrated.”

I know that my role in this struggle is to bring trans people together and celebrate our joy, while also continuing with my climate activism. My hope is that the larger environmental movement acknowledges how attacks on body sovereignty are rooted in the same ideologies that perpetuate violence against Earth. The fight against such authoritarianism can only happen by showing up for targeted communities, prioritizing safety, and celebrating the diverse, wild, breathtaking world we live in.

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