If there’s one reason so many queer folks love nature, it’s that animals aren’t judge-y: A raccoon doesn’t care who you’re attracted to, a garter snake isn’t going to question your gender, and a bird of paradise isn't going to raise an eyebrow to how you’re dressed.
In fact, many animals are super queer by human standards, whether they’re male flamingos that court other males, strutting and waving their heads from side to side, or parrotfish that can switch genders. That’s because animals haven’t been raised in the same social structures that we, as humans, have.
“As a queer, mixed-race indigenous person who has struggled with the experience of belonging, I was drawn to the natural world,” says Pinar Ateş Sinopoulos-Lloyd, co-founder of Queer Nature, a project dedicated to increasing ecological literacy in the LGBTQ community. “I don’t feel like I’m categorized as one thing or another because animals in the nonhuman world don’t have the same judgment.”
Sinopoulos-Lloyd’s experience is echoed by many people who identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer), and who have lived much of their lives feeling “othered” by a society that centers people who are white, straight, and cisgender (their assigned sex at birth matches their gender identity). Among the trees and other animals, LGBTQ people frequently feel relief, and a sense of belonging.
“As someone who identifies as [gender] nonbinary, it’s such a relief to not have to worry about how I’m coming across,” says writer and photographer Lee Jaszlics. “A squirrel doesn’t care.”
But while queer people find comfort in nature—as many people do, regardless of how they identify—not all outdoor spaces offer the sanctuary they seek. Nature reserves and wildlife refuges tend to be located in remote areas that lack diversity. And although no organization tracks sexual orientation and gender-identity statistics among birders, the birding community lacks diversity, too.
“It’s definitely dominated by white men,” says John Rowden, director of community conservation at Audubon and longtime birder, who’s white himself. “It’s a little bit shocking to me that we,” as birders, “don’t have better representation.”
The group dynamic that results can sometimes be off-putting to queer birders. “Birding trips with straight men have been very difficult,” says Chase Mendenhall, a cisgender gay man and curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Straight spaces often feel hyper-competitive and masculinized, he says, which can suck the fun out of birding and “make more queer people [feel] left out of the team.”
For those who are nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, or persons of color—identities clearly visible to others—the outdoors can occasionally feel unsafe. Sinopoulos-Lloyd sometimes detects aggression from others on the trail: “In a lot of birding spaces, I feel really unwelcome.”
A Safe Space
Starting in the 1990s, queer birders began responding to discrimination and safety concerns by creating spaces of their own. In 1994, the Gay Birders’ Club was founded in the UK, and a year later, a similar group, called GAGGLE, was established in Atlanta, Georgia.
Around that time, Jennifer Rycenga, who’s now a professor of religious studies at San Jose State University, was searching for a gay-leaning birding group in San Francisco. She had little luck finding anything local, but came across GAGGLE, run by avid birder Mal Hodges. She and Hodges began talking, and soon came to realize the need for a safe birding space was continental in scale. So in 2002, they launched Queer Birders of North America (QBNA).
“The idea of assembling an LGBT group, regionally and nationally, grew naturally enough from the circumstances of the time,” she wrote in Birder’s Guide magazine in 2016. “The last place that I wanted to find out that someone didn’t approve of my way of loving and living was one mile into a five-mile hike.”
At first, QBNA members connected only by email. But a few years later, they started meeting up for biannual and then annual birding trips. That’s when the group really took off. “It’s created a space where you can say whatever you want about your own life while birding,” Rycenga says now. And so members feel a unique sense of security and of belonging, cultivated through shared identity.
“My husband and I are together because of the group,” says Michael Retter, a moderator for QBNA, which is hosting its next meetup this August in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s important that my partner share my passions.”
The Trail Ahead
Today, some two decades after the first gay-birding groups formed, outdoor spaces are significantly more diverse, accepting, and safe. “Now I’m perfectly comfortable talking about my wife,” Rycenga says. That progress is something that queer people celebrate. But they also emphasize there’s still work to be done.
For many in the LGBTQ community, violence and discrimination remain the status quo; queer youth are twice as likely to be assaulted than their peers, and half of all people who are transgender will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
Safety concerns are most apparent in countries—such as India, a renowned birding destination—that have yet to adopt progressive policies. But even in the United States some LGBTQ birders still choose to avoid particular regions. “I’m black, gay, and non-Christian,” says Chris Cooper, a board member for NYC Audubon. “I have all these friends who talk about great birding spots in Texas, and I say, ‘Well, I’m not going there!’”
But avoiding birding hotspots for fear of real or perceived discrimination sacrifices one of the universal joys of the hobby: heading to where the birds are. And as groups such as Audubon have come to learn, passively welcoming people to field trips and nature reserves does not meaningfully expand the tent of bird enthusiasts and advocates.
“People who are historically accustomed to being excluded (or worse) must hear and know, explicitly, that we are welcoming, that we want to learn from them, and that they will be safe with us,” said Deeohn Ferris, vice president for equity, diversity and inclusion at Audubon, in an email to Audubon staff last week. “It’s important to act on our intentions and to speak them out loud.”
This spring, Jason St. Sauver, education director at Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center in Denton, Nebraska, did just that, organizing Let’s Go Birding Together! field trips that spread to Audubon centers across the country during the month of June. “There’s a comfort to it that’s really nice,” he says of the field trips, and “an extra level of affinity.”
But real progress will be measured not just by the number of queer people birding together, Rowden says, but in the diversity of all birders, all year long.
“Certainly, the strategy of deliberately focusing on and creating those safe places is important for any demographic that might not see themselves represented in birding, but ultimately we would like that [representation] infused into all of what we do,” Rowden says. “We want everyone to see themselves represented in the birding community.”