by Stephen Miller
- Capitol Hill Times Magazine -
Fifty-eight years ago, when Helen and Scott Nearing wrote “Living the Good Life,” a book that is often attributed with catapulting the back-to-the-land movement into daily American life, homosexuality in the U.S. was still mostly swept under the rug. The counter culture movement of the late 1960s simultaneously brought both civil and environmental campaigns to mainstream notoriety with attention given to free love and off-the-grid living. In the following years, each movement progressed in its own way, often leaping off of drastically negative events – the 1980s AIDS epidemic that in many ways brought the personal struggles of a community to the minds of a broader society, and the meltdown at Three Mile Island, which inflamed the passions of environmentalists nationwide.
Today the LGBTQ community, a powerful force in the media and inexhaustibly active voice in political discussions, stands on the brink of entering full-fledged citizenship. Meanwhile, environmental groups weakly swim upstream against a small but overwhelmingly loud opposition that stubbornly denies the existence of vetted scientific findings. What can the green movement learn from its gay brothers-in-arms?
“It’s clear now, but I don’t think people always thought about marriage equality as what the gold standard was going to be for achieving equality,” said Louise Chernin, president of the Greater Seattle Business Association, the chamber of commerce for the region’s LGBTQ community. Today, just over a month from the November elections, legalized same-sex marriage seems to serve as the penultimate achievement for a group that often refers to its inability to marry as proof of second-class citizenship. But there was a time when foremost on the homosexual agenda, if such a thing exists, was the freedom to be who you were wherever you were.
Times have changed, especially in cities like Seattle, San Francisco and New York, which have built reputations for fostering gay communities. In more tangible legal victories, six states and Washington, D.C. have allowed same-sex marriage, and marriage equality bills in MD NJ and Wash. have passed, but been delayed due to blocking ballot measures and vetoes.
Though only a little over 16 percent of Americans live in states that either have the freedom to marry or honor out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples, as reported by marriage equality activist group Freedom to Marry, recent progress within jurisdictions including Washington show that the gay community’s efforts have been gaining ground.
In February of 2012, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, bringing to a boil a debate that had been raging here since at least 2006.
Though the bill, which would have taken affect June 7, was blocked by a referendum set for Nov. 6, recent Public Policy Polling surveys reporting 51 percent of Washington residents support legalization show that it teeters on the verge of being enacted. On a federal level, a CNN/ORC International Survey released in June showed that 54 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriages should be legally recognized, and President Obama announced his support in May.
All this is to say that America’s gay and lesbian population – somewhere in the ballpark of 5 million people, with numbers varied depending on several factors – has placed itself at the forefront of American culture, strengthening its identity and successfully pushing for sweeping policy reforms, while those who support a more environmentally sustainable society – for what it’s worth, there are 4,232,205 monthly “National Geographic” subscribers in the U.S. alone – have spent the last decade defending the hockey stick graph. And the groups are not so disparate as one may think.
“They’re really natural fits because they’re both about appreciating the diversity of ourselves and our natural world,” said Gerod Rody, president and founder of Out for Sustainability, a volunteer-run community activism Seattle nonprofit that melds the green and gay rights movements. He put it in terms of the monoculture vs. permaculture debate:
“Monoculture is very destructive, not sustainable. It literally destroys the soil because it’s not diverse. Permaculture tries to understand the natural systems and work with them rather than against them. Society is more of a permaculture environment. This whole notion of ‘Gender is one way, orientation should only be one way,’ it’s all basically this monoculture perspective on society and it’s just so destructive.”
Indeed, the movements share much of the same demographic. A Harris Poll of U.S. adults over age 18 conducted in November of 2010 found that “LGBT adults are more likely to express concern for the environment, describe themselves in green terms… and say environmental issues are important to their voting and purchasing decisions.” At the same time, the poll found that Americans overall were less likely to express green attitudes or engage in environmentally friendly activities.
In large part, America’s increasing unwillingness to fall in line with the sustainable movement’s marching call is caused by another of the two groups’ similarities: an opposition among Republican voters.
Fifty-eight percent of Democrats surveyed for a recent Pew Research Center poll believed that global warming was caused by human activity, while 27 percent of Republicans agreed, with that number dropping from the year before. When asked about same-sex marriage, 70 percent of Democrats were in favor of legalization and 23 percent of Republicans concurred. The gay community has experience fielding opposition from the country’s conservative sect, which often cites religious arguments in both debates.
Also, both groups began to get their footing in the late 1960s, riding the flower powered progressive wave that encompassed the free love and back to nature movements. But around the 1980s, following a decade that saw the implementation of the Air Quality, Water Quality and Wilderness Protection Acts, as well as the formation of Environmental Protection Agency and Greenpeace, the environmental movement seemed to lose pace with the gay community’s progress.
“In some respects, sustainability is at the early stage of the gay community’s evolution,” Rody said. Many within the environmental movement are still talking about it on a macro level, looking to save the planet. What they need to drive home, he said, is immediate, micro importance.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic spread through the country in the 1980s, devastating the lives of hundreds of thousands, it also left behind hundreds of thousands of terribly anguished, personal stories, making possible both the rise and tragic fall of community heroes like Rep. Cal Anderson, and exposing the undeniable human pain endured by a faction of the country.
“Now I would say that the right wing is not trying to deny that gay people exist any more,” Rody said. “They’re not saying that you should stop being gay, just that you should be celibate. That’s a big shift.” The goal of Out for Sustainability and other environmental groups is to coax disbelievers to the point where they disagree on specific policy counts, but don’t deny that climate change is real.
In 1978, when Harvey Milk urged gay Americans to come out in order to “…break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake,” he was echoing what would become the most powerful tool in the equal rights’ arsenal.
“Showing the raw, human realty is really important,” Rody explained. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity there… to say that this matters, and it matters because it affects my family and the people who I care about in a very real way.”
When LGBTQ characters initially hit the mainstream media, they were largely portrayed as beautiful, idyllic versions of an exaggerated stereotype. That is a mistake the sustainability world is making now, Rody argued. “Sharing your failures is really powerful. If you show it as normal then it becomes relatable.”
Failures are often shared, and successful groups have used those failures to help define a collective voice. “The gay community is known for loyalty and really supporting those that support equality,” Chernin said.
That loyalty has also helped LGBTQ-owned businesses thrive and become an integral part of the larger movement. The gay community tries “to shop at gay owned or gay supported businesses. They try to make sure that dollar stays circulating in the community, gets reinvested,” she said. “It becomes much more viral when it is incorporated into your business model.”
The impact has been seen recently throughout Seattle, as businesses up and down the block hold events, dedicate sales, and release special products aimed at overcoming the Nov. 6 referendum. And the same is true of the other side. “When a corporation does not support equality, they, in a pretty visible way, lose the support of the gay community,” Chernin said.
Take the case of fast food chain Chick-fil-A, whose owner was recently quoted as saying gay marriage invites “God’s judgment on our nation.” The fallout included nationwide protests and boycotts, and even caused parents at a Salt Lake City elementary school to attempt to block a school sponsorship with a local franchise.
“In the language of our time, monetization is one way to value something,” Rody said.
In a large show of support, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos recently donated $2.5 million to the marriage equality effort in Washington. Moves like this will usually draw skeptics who question corporate donors’ motives, and especially in the sustainable market, throw accusations of green washing. However, as Rody explained, “If green washing is your first step, it’s a bad one, but you are at least trying. If you’re willing to lie about it you’re definitely paying attention.” It’s a lesson for the green movement, often too quick to jump on the backs of those it sees as imposters, when it should be answering the pledge phones.
“We have one goal that runs through every single thing, no matter what tools, tactics, tasks we have – equality,” Chernin said.
Finally, for the sustainable movement to succeed, it must overcome the stigma placed on it by its opposition. “It can’t feel more expensive or more difficult or more complicated to do something and ever expect the whole world to adopt it,” Chernin said. Success lies in the movement’s ability to place its values at the core of its identity, make its goal a part of who its members are, and find other groups that share those values.
“I don’t personally identify with lesbians because we don’t really have anything in common besides that fact that we both go to the same parade,” Rody said. “The environmental community can learn from that, because there’s a temptation to rally with the people you know to fight for what you care about, and what the LGBTQ community has had to learn is that you have to rally with people you don’t understand – who you don’t know – to get things done.”
On the surface, the gay rights argument that marriage should be a human right seems more personal, more immediate. But environmentalists could just as easily argue that clean air and untainted water are fundamental human rights that have an immediate, individual impact.
In 2011, a Gallop survey found that about a third of America believed that 25 percent of the population was gay or lesbian. In actuality the number is less than 2 percent. “My first reaction to that, aside from a little chuckle, is that it’s actually a sign of the success of the movement for LGBT rights,” Stuart Gaffney, a spokesman for the group Marriage Equality USA, told The Atlantic Monthly in May.
Though there are certainly examples of the sustainabity movement’s successes – increases in organic-labeled products on store shelves and sales of hybrid vehicles, to name a couple – creating the perception that the environmental agenda is 12 times more pertinent than in realty is not among them.
As Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens wrote in 2010, “So global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time. Which means that pretty soon we’re going to need another apocalyptic scare to take its place.”
Marriage equality activists are fighting for a change that will affect a minor fraction of this country’s population, yet they have successfully captured the national spotlight. Environmental activists are struggling for the benefit of 7 billion of the world’s inhabitants, but have been marginalized to the fringe of the conversation. If they want to be the center of attention, they’ll need to tell better stories.