PM Press Blog, Z. Zane McNeill

A Queer Ecological Framework for Environmental Justice in Appalachia

By Zane McNeil
NonProfit Quarterly

Historically, one of the most common arguments for the demonization of LGBTQ people is framing queerness as “against nature.” For example, in 2022, the Texas Republican party said being gay was an “abnormal lifestyle choice,” suggesting that civil rights law that protects LGBTQ people from discrimination should be revoked because of nonnormative sexuality. Similarly, the idea that being cisgender is “normal” while being transgender is not is often invoked to erode transgender rights and access to healthcare.

In this context, the concept of “queer ecologies” emerges as a potent force, seeking to revolutionize human engagement with and perception of the natural world. Through the lens of queer ecology, the exploitative spirit of the “against nature” narrative comes sharply into focus. This framework unveils the marginalization perpetuated by prevailing narratives, thereby empowering queer individuals to (re)connect with nature on their own terms. In fact, queer activists and scholars in Appalachia use this framework as a way to challenge embedded heterophobia and transphobia—and reimagine natural spaces as sites of resistance.

Appalachia is a region ripe for a queer ecological framework. A queer ecological approach to Appalachia would challenge the normative extractive economies and the entangled homophobia in the region. And organizers in the region are already doing work now to create queer ecological futures.

Why Queer Ecologies and Appalachia?

Appalachia is a region that outside interests have repeatedly used for its resources, both cultural and environmental. In tandem with capitalist extraction, it has been culturally marginalized as backward and self-sabotaging.

After the release of US Senator J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and the 2016 election of Donald Trump, this has only intensified, with many media pundits dubbing Appalachia as “Trumpalachia.” As described by historian Elizabeth Catte, “Appalachia ceased to be part of America but a destructive force unto its own.”

What Appalachia or Appalachian is depends on who you ask. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) defines the Appalachian region as consisting of 14 states from southern New York to northern Mississippi. According to ARC, 26.3 million people live in Appalachia, about 3 million of whom identify as LGBTQ—7 percent of youth living in a rural region in Appalachia also report a gender identity that does not fully align with the sex they were assigned at birth.

In the Queer Ecologies chapter “Intoxicated Subjects: Queer Bodies and Ecologies in ‘Trumpalachia,’” disability scholar Rebecca Eli Long asserts: