Rainbow warriors: how queer movements can inspire climate activists

As LGBTQ+ history month draws to a close, we celebrate three queer movements that fought David-and-Goliath battles – and won. It’s more important than ever for environmentalists to learn from these phenomenal activists as we continue to fight against the climate emergency.

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In the last sixty years, the LGBTQ+ community has experienced a rapid shift in terms of the rights and privileges that some, but far from all, queer people now have.

Younger millennials like me who enjoy these hard-won privileges now struggle to imagine what our lives would have been like in recent decades, and we have phenomenal activists and their movements to thank for that.

I hope that one day, young people will be able to thank previous generations of climate activists before them for fighting for the lives of future generations in the same way that I now thank LGBTQ+ activists.

This LGBTQ+ history month, we look back on three incredible queer rights movements and their key figures, to reflect on what they have taught today’s environmental activists.

1. The tireless activism of Marsha P Johnson, a key figure in the Stonewall uprising

Marsha P Johnson was a black trans woman activist, sex worker and drag performer born in the US in 1945. Following the Stonewall riots, Johnson became a public figure in the gay liberation movement.

Johnson lived most of her life destitute and with severe mental illness. Yet none of those factors took away from her commitment to activism and the LGBTQ+ community. She is remembered in queer history as an unapologetic, pivotal LGBTQ+ figure, and a key instigator of the Stonewall uprising. Police officers raided the Stonewall Inn in an attempt to enforce a prohibition against selling alcohol to homosexuals, but were met with fierce resistance. 

Johnson co-organised direct actions and gay liberation marches, including the first ever gay pride. She was famously quoted by journalists as saying, “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”

The movement Johnson built was central to sparking the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. This led to Wisconsin being the first US state to outlaw LGBTQ+ discrimination in 1982. 

Black trans and non-binary activists like Johnson are still bearing the brunt of continued LGBTQ+ hate crime. Johnson’s story proves what the environmental movement knows all too well – that the most marginalised voices will always face such struggles more viscerally. 

Like Johnson, climate activists in the Global South and Indigenous Peoples fight to protect the planet because it’s a struggle for their very existence. The global climate movement must centre their voices to stay authentic and urgent.

2. Act Up’s bold and powerful direct actions inspired by the imagination of Tim Bailey

Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) is an international movement aiming to improve the lives of people suffering from AIDS. It started in New York in 1987 as a grassroots political group using research and direct action to further its aims.

The group used the motto “Silence=Death” to convey the unmistakable and urgent crisis that was killing the LGBTQ+ community. At a time when 10,000 New Yorkers had fallen sick with AIDS, Act Up mobilised many dying activists and allies to fight back.

Tim Bailey joined Act Up when he was first diagnosed in 1988. He left his career as a designer and carried out bold direct actions such as crashing news stations and staging die-ins. He eventually made a demonstration of his own funeral, which many Act Up members followed scattering the ashes of their lost friends on the lawn of the White House.

Act Up’s photogenic, headline-grabbing and deeply community-embedded activism forced their agenda into the mainstream. These and mass mobilisations – including a march on Washington DC of an estimated 750,000 people – were central to speeding the development and availability of life-saving drugs that now keep people with AIDS and HIV alive.

AIDS protest in front of the White House. ACT UP activists stage a die-in on the lawn in front of the Capitol building.

AIDS protest in front of the White House. ACT UP activists stage a die-in on the lawn in front of the Capitol building. (Photo by Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images)

3. The UK’s Section 28 protests when Booan Temple stormed the BBC news studio in 1988

On 23 May 1988, the evening when Section 28 – the draconian anti-LGBTQ+ law – came into force, lesbian activists frustrated at the lack of news coverage of their protests against the law took matters into their own hands. Activists including Booan Temple decided to storm the BBC Six O’ Clock news on the evening the law passed in parliament. 

Section 28 banned local authorities “promoting homosexaulity or publishing material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. LGBTQ+ support services were shut down by councils, and schools were forbidden to present homosexuality as acceptable.

At the time, 75% of the British population saw being LGBTQ+ as “always or mostly wrong”, leaving the LGBTQ+ community the seemingly impossible task of reversing a law supported by much of the population.

At the time of the AIDS epidemic, Section 28 truly kicked an already marginalised minority when it was down. 

But then came the resistance. Direct actions saw LGBTQ+ women chaining themselves to Buckingham Palace and abseiling down the gallery in the House of Lords. There were huge protests across cities such as London and Manchester, like the one pictured above.

Despite all of this, Section 28 was only repealed in 2003 across the UK. But the stage had been set for strategies and tactics to secure civil rights that inspire and endure within the environmental movement today.

These examples show clear parallels with today’s growing mass movement against climate change. Individuals like Marsha P Johnson, Booan Temple and Tim Bailey, and the powerful movements they helped build, are important reminders of the power of imaginative, determined actions that bring people together and deliver real change.

So as LGBTQ+ month draws to a close, let’s take some hope and vigour from the formidable activists who have fought, won and defied the impossible.

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