American speculative fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is already here—It’s just not very evenly distributed.” The same has been said about climate change. We know that climate impacts are unevenly distributed among different demographic groups, such as the poor, women, and Black, Indiginous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. But little research exists on the disparate and disproportionate ways that LGBTQ+ people are affected by climate disasters.
While race is still the biggest determinant of environmental injustice in places like the US, women, low-income communities, and LGBTQ+ people also experience disproportionate and multiple socioeconomic stressors and the unequal environmental burdens, and people who share more than one of these identities may be even more disproportionately burdened.
For example, LGBTQ+ people experience higher levels of air pollution compared with cisgender heterosexual people — due to discriminatory housing policies, “heteronormative NIMBYism,” or the exclusion of LGBTQ+ spaces in certain communities. LGBTQ+ people have higher rates of poverty, lower rates of homeownership, and higher rates of homelessness, with transgender individuals dosproportionately more likely to be unsheltered due to discrimination in shelter spaces. LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of mental health issues, often due to stressful experiences related to stigmatization, prejudice, and discrimination; studies have shown that air pollution can further exaberate these mental health issues.
Leo Goldsmith is one of a small but growing group of researchers working to understand the unique experiences and challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community in the wake of climate disasters. He is a Climate and Health Specialist for ICF and is contracted out to the US Global Change Research Program National Coordination Office in Washington DC.
Yarrow Global sat down with him to chat about his recent publication “Queer and present danger: understanding the disparate impacts of disasters on LGBTQ+ communities.”
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Yarrow Global: Tell me a bit about what you do, and how you came to research the intersection of LGBTQ+ issues and climate change?
Leo Goldsmith: So right now I work as a climate and health specialist with ICF in DC, and so I’m contracted out to the U.S. Global Change Research Program where I coordinate an interagency climate change and human health working group.My interest in this topic really grew while working with a professor during my degree at the Yale School of the Environment: Dr. Michael Mendez. He’s been a really great mentor and has really supported me in this research. The research actually started off as a final paper for his class. He was doing a course on environmental justice, and I really wanted to explore more about climate and health intersections. (As a member of the LGBTQ+ community) I didn’t really see myself fully represented within a lot of the climate and health literature. And so what I wanted to do was kind of explore whether or not there was any research out there, and if there was anybody thinking about this or researching this.
What I found is that internationally that has been the case. There’s actually a group of researchers in Australia who have come out with several papers on this subject. However, there has been nothing really in the U.S. context. They did kind of touch upon Hurricane Katrina, but that’s pretty much the extent of U.S. literature on that subject. The only other paper I could find was a report done by the USDA actually focused on indigenous women and LGBTQ+ individuals and the intersection between those groups and climate change, which was super cool to find.
YG: When you started doing research on the intersection of LGBTQ issues and climate change, what were some of the things you found?
LG: Through a literature review that we did for the paper, we found that the intersections between climate impacts and LGBTQ+ communities are multiple. The fourth National Climate Assessment has already stated that those who are the most vulnerable are going to be the most impacted by climate change, and that climate change is increasing the frequency and also the intensity of climate driven disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. LGBTQ+ members are overrepresented in communities that are already vulnerable and have already been found to be vulnerable and at higher risk for climate impacts, such as those who are living in poverty, those who are homeless, those who have a chronic illness, those who have a mental health burden, and those who are incarcerated.
One of the things that people don’t tend to think about is that LGBTQ+ communities are really diverse, not only in terms like sexual orientation and gender identity, but also class, race, age, ability etc. That vulnerability aspect is really, really key in understanding how climate change impacts LGBTQ+ individuals, but also the invisibility of LGBTQ+ communities within disaster research, within climate change research, and within disaster infrastructure and policies. And so even though LGBTQ+ communities are at a higher risk for being impacted by climate change, they are also not thought of in disaster infrastructure.
For example, during Hurricane Katrina, actually, there were two black trans women who were arrested for using the bathroom of their gender at an emergency temporary housing shelter in Houston. One of them was under 18. And so they went to a juvenile detention center and were able to get picked up by a family member. And the other person who was an adult was told that they would have to wait over six months in jail before they could actually get their case heard. And so the Human Rights Campaign with able to get them bailed out within six days but that kind of goes to show one of the ways there can be discrimination within temporary emergency shelters and also disaster relief services staff as well. There are things like not respecting pronouns, and there’s also higher levels of violence – verbal, physical and sexual – against LGBTQ+ individuals and specifically trans people within shelters as well. I could go on and on with more examples
YG: Where does this invisibility come from?
LG: So I think at least what we propose as one of the reasons why LGBTQ+ communities aren’t more represented in the space is really because people don’t see the diversity within the community. So in the media, there’s this idea of the white, gay, affluent man who has everything figured out and has no issues, and who can take care of themselves. That’s often the face of the LGBTQ+ community and all of the diversity behind that idea is not seen. People don’t tend to think that the community could be vulnerable to all of these impacts. A lot of people aren’t educated on the different types of discrimination that LGBTQ+ individuals face. Typically what I hear from a lot of people who I speak to is “Oh, I never thought about that.” It’s just that it’s not something that people have to think about.
YG: Was there anything kind of especially in the study like was there anything that surprised you about the study or were there any kind of takeaways that you perhaps didn’t recognize, or didn’t think we’re going to be the takeaways from the get go?
LG: I would have to say probably the health impacts were most surprising. That wasn’t something that I thought I would find. In the field of climate and health it can be difficult to attribute climate to health outcomes. I found a lot of unique health disparities within LGBTQ+ communities that absolutely have a connection to climate change in other populations – we just need the studies to determine whether there actually is attribution with LGBTQ+ communities. I thought most of the kinds of issues that we would have been writing about would have been more like policy type issues, such as either being excluded from nondiscrimination policies or not accommodating chosen family etc. We also wrote about faith based communities and LGBTQ+ individuals not really trusting faith based communities, even though they make up something like 75% of FEMA’s disaster response arm.
But the health impacts were something that I didn’t really foresee. For example, LGBTQ+ communities are more likely to have cardiovascular disease and a wide range of respiratory illnesses, and climate related disasters can then exacerbate those health impacts. There’s no research on things like, for example how transgender women will use padding and how that interacts with extreme heat or the effects of wildfire smoke on transgender men who wear binders and how that affects their health or mental health. Or else how if people don’t have their hormones when they’re trying to flee from a disaster, how that impacts their health, physical and mental. So that was the main thing that I was very surprised about. Because going into that paper, I had very little knowledge of what LGBTQ+ health disparities were and seeing that it was not only economic and social, but also so many health issues interacting with climate impacts was surprising and interesting.
YG: Are there any ways that people or organizations are fighting back against the invisibility of the community and lack of demographic data, or even finding innovative ways to deal specifically with climate change and LGBTQ+ issues?
LG: There is an organization actually that I’m a board member of called Out for Sustainability. They were founded in Seattle and they initially started off with things like encouraging sustainability in LGBTQ+ communities – things like planting trees and Earth Day. In the past year or so they changed their mission statement to specifically focus on climate resilience and environmental justice within LGBTQ communities. The organization is coming out soon with a docu series called Fire and Flood that has interviews with around 30 or so LGBTQ+ victims of disasters during the Tubbs fire in 2017, and also Hurricane Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico. And then we’re hoping to kind of do our strategic planning and plan for doing workshops for disaster managers and experts and also workshops for LGBTQ+ communities and community centers to get trained in disaster preparedness and response, with educational materials and much more.
The federal agencies have also taken an interest in us. On August 24th, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration put on a webinar as part of a webinar series for a whole year called Overlooked and Overburdened. And the first webinar in that series is focused on LGBTQ communities and extreme heat. FEMA recently had a webinar that came out of their Pride Federal Employee Research Group that focused on our paper “A queer and present danger,” and also included some others on that panel, such as a queer and trans pastor from California that helped with disaster response during the Tubbs fire and also a psychologist who works for the Department of Health and Human Services, a center that deals with emergency preparedness and response.
YG: For people who haven’t thought about the unique experiences of LGBTQ+ people and climate change and are interested in learning more, what do you suggest?
Leo: I would say even if you don’t know much about climate change or environmental justice or queer theory, just get familiar first with LGBTQ+ community definitions. You know, the language, the history and also just learning about different people’s experiences in general. It could literally be just watching TV with good representation or reading a book with good representation. I think that especially if you’re already interested in climate change and environmental justice, it’s very easy to kind of start connecting the idea of spectrums and breaking down binaries, for example of the binary between human and nature. It’s very similar to breaking down the the binaries between man and woman or straight and gay and all of that.
I think that one of the main things that really makes it a barrier is that people just don’t understand what it is that queer and trans people have to go through in their daily lives. Every day I see in the news just another anti-LGBTQ+bill that has gotten passed, such as the one that just passed in Florida and Texas. And just thinking about the ways that they’re making LGBTQ individuals invisible and forced to go back into the closet and what that kind of mental strain on people, particularly school-aged children is. And then also think about the ways that climate change is putting such a mental strain on people. Then add on disasters, COVID-19, and the fact that LGBTQ+ people also are more at risk for things like higher air pollution, too. There is a study that was found that same sex couples live in neighborhoods that are census tracts that have higher levels of air pollution. And so you’re continually facing all of these different stressors. That connection needs to be made further.
“Queer and Present Danger: Understanding the Disparate Impacts of Disasters on LGBTQ+ Communities” – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/disa.12509
“How Environmental and Climate Injustice Affects the LGBTQI+ Community” – How Environmental and Climate Injustice Affects the LGBTQI+ Community – Center for American Progress
“Queering Environmental Justice: Unequal Environmental Health Burden on the LGBTQ+ Community” – https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/10.2105/AJPH.2021.306406
“Queer Domicide: LGBT Displacement and Home Loss in Natural Disaster Impact, Response, and Recovery” – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262607121_Queer_Domicide_LGBT_Displacement_and_Home_Loss_in_Natural_Disaster_Impact_Response_and_Recovery
“Citizen Climate Lobby Podcast Episode 74: What Are LGBTQ+ Responses to Climate Change?” – https://citizensclimatelobby.org/blog/podcast/episode-74-what-are-lgbtq-responses-to-climate-change/
Feature Image: Aerial views of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy to the New Jersey coast taken during a search and rescue mission by 1-150 Assault Helicopter Battalion, New Jersey Army National Guard, Oct. 30, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Mark C. Olsen/Released)