The greening of the LGBT community

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Hilton Whitt has a saying, “The only good trash is talkin’ trash.”

He’s thinking of putting the slogan on an organic T-shirt. “But,” said the 34-year-old Los Angelino, “maybe it’s too long for a slogan.”

Whitt recycles, meticulously tends a patio garden, buys from green-friendly companies and votes for pro-environment candidates. A survey of U.S. citizens suggests that Whitt, a member of a gay Sierra Club chapter, is like many others in a community that tends to display greener attitudes than the heterosexual community. The LGBT community, in growing numbers, is concerned not only with changing the climate of prejudice, but also global climate change.

“Trends we’ve witnessed over the past few years consistently highlight the awareness and commitment that LGBT people tend to show environmental practices,” said Bob Witeck of Witeck-Combs Communications consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

In late 2010, Witeck-Combs and the Harris Interactive research firm polled 2,352 adults on environmental decisions, opinions and identities. The survey included 347 people who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual and/or transgender, and it took place as tar balls washed ashore on the Gulf Coast from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and as a federal fight over mountaintop coal mining escalated.

The survey found that 55 percent of LGBT citizens agreed they “personally care a great deal about the current state and future of the environment.” Thirty-three percent of heterosexuals agreed with that statement.

Forty percent of LGBT people said they encourage others to be more environmentally friendly compared with 24 percent of heterosexuals.

Additionally, the survey found that while the percentage of heterosexuals who described themselves as “environmentally conscious” declined, the number of LGBT people attached to that label increased – from 38 percent in 2009 to 47 percent in 2010.

“Right now, environmental campaigns and policies are under fierce political attack, and the same fierce anti-science attitudes we find among some Americans appear to be favored by anti-gay groups, too,” Witeck said. “Intuitively, I think gay people tend to invest more stock in basic science knowledge and welcome more clarity on Earth and climate science, not less, because we believe that human progress depends on it – including our own acceptance and self-knowledge.”

Other findings in the survey:

  • 27 percent of LGBT people and 19 percent of heterosexuals agreed with the statement “I am a conservationist.”
  • 33 percent of LGBT people and 17 percent of heterosexuals agreed with the statement “I am green.”
  • 48 percent of LGBT people and 25 percent of heterosexuals say environmental issues are “very important” in making consumer choices.
  • 45 percent of LGBT people and 27 percent of heterosexuals say environmental issues are “very important” when voting for political candidates.

Witeck said of the survey, “Across the board, the (gay) community gravitates toward the concept of stewardship and commitment to a ‘green’ future for all Americans.”

The modern environmental movement matured in tandem with the modern gay civil rights movement. Consider: the first gay Pride celebration took place in June 1970 and the first Earth Day took place just months before, on April 22, 1970. Gay environmental activists who recall that era remember a political alignment – gay-friendly politicians tended also to be eco-friendly. In the decades that followed, LGBT organizations and environmental groups partnered on progressive causes, marches, demonstrations and legislation.

“The stars are aligned for common interests,” said New Yorker Paul Gallo, a veteran gay rights activist and environmental activist who founded Climate Camp, a gay green group in Manhattan. “I think if you are for gay rights, you are probably for greening the planet. It’s all about justice and doing the right thing, man.”

In 2003, when the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Sierra Club joined a progressive coalition opposing a pre-emptive war against Iraq, both groups came under fire from some – most notably conservative gay columnist Andrew Sullivan – for straying from task.

NGLTF responded, “NGLTF has long believed that a ‘gay voice’ in such national dialogue is important; that our community need not to be limited to a GLBT-only sphere. … After all, we’re fighting for equality in society as a whole, and not just to remain in a GLBT-only world.”

Such an approach still is promoted at NGLTF, as well as other LGBT groups, including the direct-action group GetEqual.

As its members push for civil rights legislation or the repeal of anti-gay measures, GetEqual gets active, with sit-ins and other non-violent demonstrations that have resulted in a number of arrests this past year.

“Actively working toward environmental sustainability is part of the ethos of GetEqual,” said managing director Heather Cronk. “In fact, part of the pledge of non-violence that we require all action-takers to sign on to includes a pledge to pay close attention to and to minimize any impact on the environment that our actions might have.”

Cronk said sometimes GetEqual takes another step – “strategizing about actions and tactics, we constantly monitor the impact we could have on the environment and often nix good actions because they were bad environmental choices.”

The organization also has partnerships with environmental groups, including the grassroots environmental group 350.org, a group with volunteers in nearly 200 countries and the ability to mobilize mass campaigns.

“We think it’s important to have allies across all parts of the progressive movement – certainly climate justice, but also immigration reform, choice groups, organized labor and many others,” Cronk said. “All of us are stronger when we’re working together.”

Working together last year, Hilton Whitt and other gay environmentalists in California joined in the coalition pressing for Proposition 21, a ballot measure to raise money for state parks by establishing an $18 surcharge for vehicle registrations.

“I worked on Prop 21 for the parks, and in 2008 I worked against Prop 8 because someday I’ll want to get married,” Whitt said.

Prop 21 failed in the 2010 election with a 57 percent “no” vote, but LGBT groups such as Gay and Lesbian Sierrans campaigned hard for the initiative.

Russ Hartman, chair of the San Francisco Bay chapter of the GLS, said the group collected 500 signatures to put the proposition on the ballot.

“The LGBT community is very supportive of green issues,” he said, adding, “Many of our members regularly volunteer with many other conservation-related organizations.”

Seven GLS chapters – six of them in California and one in Colorado – exist in affiliation with the national Sierra Club. The San Francisco chapter was the first, formed in 1986 to provide outdoor opportunities for LGBT people.

Twenty-five years ago, there were “very few organizations that openly welcomed LGBT folks, and virtually no outdoor organizations that were established exclusively for LGBT members,” Hartman said.

Today, he continued, “there is an LGBT organization for almost every outdoor activity one can name.”

Many of those organizations will observe Earth Day on April 22.

The Gay and Lesbian Sierrans in San Francisco will celebrate with a camp-out in Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The next morning, the Sierrans will help National Park Service staff in a habitat restoration project at the Presidio, a military outpost for more than 200 years and now a U.S. park with serpentine grasslands, wildflowers and more than 200 species of birds.

Said Hartman, “LGBT people often value a sense of community more than other people, and so they are more likely to take an interest in their own natural community.”

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