A study of light, color, dimension, and perspective.
In the early ’90s, few artists were connecting the dots between queer erasure and ecocide—but ANOHNI was. Four years after her first contribution to Atmos, the transdisciplinary artist reflects on her pioneering work in queer ecology, trans ferality, and moving beyond binary notions of nature.
I officially “transitioned” a few years ago, but I’m exactly the same as I ever was. I have always felt myself to be profoundly transgendered. I’m just no longer trying to squeeze into some worlds that I don’t belong to. I’ve relieved myself of that task. The truth is, it was always there with me, my love of nature and my identification with the feminine. It was something that I think really came to me when I was around 14 because of the circle of people I was adopted by. As a teenager in California, I was adopted by a community of pagans that used to read Starhawk and do circles in the Santa Cruz mountains. I’d already given up on Catholicism, which had really plagued me as a child. And then, these new ideas sort of opened me up.
I had certain mentors as a teenager who told me, “Oh, the Earth is definitely your mother. This is a feminine world, and the sky is a feminine pantheon.” I’ve come to imagine that it’s just one thing. It’s not a binary. It’s all feminine. The feminine gives birth to masculine aspects to help perpetuate herself. For me, the masculine is a subset of the feminine. It is forged from feminine materials, and it is encompassed by the feminine, just as stars are encompassed by the darkness. I don’t really believe in the whole idea of opposites. In my mind, the feminine is a whole. It’s not just half of a whole; it’s actually the whole. She doesn’t really have another half. The universe is purely feminine.
That’s almost the exact opposite of the way that the Christians and the Abrahamic religions position it. I imagine that at a certain point, men wanted to wield more power. The fact that they were made out of women’s bodies really upset them. They felt like they were drowning in menstrual blood. They were getting claustrophobic. So they compensated by pasting the face of masculinity on everything. Even an earlier generation of feminists and older women and artists who I’ve talked to, they worried about saying it’s a feminine world because it seemed like taking too much. I talk to senior artists who are my mentors: they’re Buddhist, and they believe that God has no gender or that the spiritual plane is beyond the genders. But that’s not my vision. I think it’s highly gendered, just not in a binary sense. I think that femininity is a whole circle. It’s not half a circle. And all of life is within that circle.
The patriarchal mindset never made any sense to me. In its current iteration, it’s like a kamikaze of death. They are desperate to cut themselves out of the womb. And I think they’d sooner annihilate their own consciousness than succumb to their powerlessness in the face of the feminine. It threatens the way people have organized their religious perceptions of reality. The idea of a feminine world is so terribly frightening—that endless spectral creativity. Patriarchal systems would rather lock us up in a prison somewhere, here or in one of their prescribed afterlives. This dread of feminine spiritual power and paradigms has created a suicidal, a genocidal, a neocidal crisis in our species.
Maybe, at a certain point, it was of benefit to the whole society or the community that the masculine aspect did step forward like this. You know, they had certain jobs that they were allocated, and it behooved us all that they did our dirty work. We relied on the male aspect. I mean, in many ways, we’ve been infantilized by the willingness of the male aspect to take on the bloody, brutal aspects of creation. It’s all very well for us to pick berries and husk wheat while the men are out killing animals, and then we just suck on the cubes of meat, blissfully unburdened by the killing. They have grown resentful, and over time, they have enslaved us. It signals the collapse of a pastoral pact that we’ve probably had with men for a very long time. I think it led to a broken set of developments.
When I was younger, it was women—mostly lesbians—whom I saw holding space for environmentalism. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was the women’s communities, especially the separatist women’s communities, that were doing goddess worship. There were factions of gay guys, like the Radical Faeries, who were trying to find their way in. But in terms of queer ecology, we looked to women’s communities for leadership and innovation in that area. And certainly, I was influenced by women who were dreaming in that way.
When I got to New York, I wasn’t aware of a conversation about the intersection of queerness and ecology in the urban gay world. The focus was AIDS when I got to New York. It was all hands on deck. The women were helping the gay guys. There was a sort of unity of purpose, and women were really turning it out for the gay guys during the worst part of that. I was always out on a limb trying to talk about this stuff. People didn’t believe in me or understand what I was doing in the clubs when I was doing those kinds of shows like Miracle Now, talking about queerness and ecocide.
I think I was just in-between eras. It was the late-’80s, early-’90s, and there was a new wave of students with their ears open to the information about climate awareness. The Kyoto Protocol and first COP were then, in the ’90s. We were being asked to consider this stuff, at least in some progressive colleges. But most people were preoccupied with other stuff. It still seemed abstract to most people. My experience of queerness in that moment was partly what made me more capable of grasping an impending apocalyptic reality. I was always looking at the micro and macro, with AIDS and ecocide. The impacts of both were bubonic. They were an inhale and an exhale for me.
I do feel like there’s a whole generation of children who have come up from the Earth who are holding space for something that was quite a lonely mantle for me for a long time.
I wasn’t connected to heterosexual environmentalism. I was an urban queer with all the specific shit that goes down with that, with that disenfranchisement. I didn’t have access to a broader heterosexual thoroughfare. There’s a reason I was living in New York City: because we were still taking refuge in big cities. We weren’t safe in other parts of the country—and are perhaps soon to become unsafe again. So I didn’t have access to heterosexual forums of conversation, to academic conversations, or to science conversations.
I was just dealing with it from the point of view of my own intuition and my witchcraft. Just reading the newspaper and connecting the dots. The only difference between me and everyone else is I couldn’t put it down and pretend it wasn’t happening. But it was a lonely feeling. You would see articles in the New York Times, and you would be the only one to read them. Other people, they wouldn’t mention it. It felt like the visceral backdrop of my life from an early age. I think, in a way, that a lot of children growing up today feel that way now. I felt that way as a teenager in the ’80s and into the ’90s.
And it’s so fleeting and ethereal, points of view in the line of time. Dreaming here, dreaming there. You think you’re the first one on the top of a mountain, but there were probably many people there before you. The footsteps just dissipated. But now, I do feel like there’s a whole generation of children who have come up from the Earth who are holding space for something that was quite a lonely mantle for me for a long time.
Part of my job, the job of my body, was to be a bridge for certain stories to walk across my back from one era to another era. And I realize that now. That’s what I’ve done. That’s been my work. And I used to think, “Oh, I chose that.” But actually, it was assigned to me by fate. It was assigned to me by all the gay men who were my mentors and who were dying. They put it on me. It was assigned to me the day I met Marsha P. Johnson and kissed her hand, six days before they found her body in the Hudson River. It was just assigned to me by fate and by my own temperament. I was called a screamer, a hysteric, theatrical, overdramatic, and told that I took myself too seriously, all because as a queer-bodied person, I could feel it. I felt it.
And then I went to Toronto to a trans festival in 2007 or 2008 and met Indigenous queer people. One young woman I talked to was crying. “I can feel the forest dying. It’s still green so none of these people can see that it’s dying, but I can feel it’s dying.” A young woman said that to me. And I was like, “That’s me. I hear me.” She was the first person I ever met who described the experience as something she felt in her own body. She was losing it. She was like, “I can feel it dying.” I was talking to her and an older Native American person joined us. I asked, “What do we do when it’s like this?” And he said, “You need to put your hands on the ground and just center. Put your hands on the ground.” That was what he said to me. “Just put your hands on the ground and listen.”
In New York City, one person I was friends with who also cared about this stuff was Chloe Dzubilo. She could see what was happening. Deep down, everyone knew. In the ’80s, my Irish grandmother who had only a fifth-grade education used to joke that she would have to knit jumpers for the birds because they were forgetting to migrate. The corporations doubled down with their denial. Some normal people cared, but they didn’t feel they could hold space for it. That’s always been my curse. Because I always thought, “Oh, I’m an ox. Give me the full shock. Give me the full current. I can hold space for the full current of it. I can hold my eyes open and see it and hold space for it. Let me hold that space.” It was just my nature, in a weird way. I think it came from being the one who took the blows for being feminine and gay as a kid. Almost a trauma response of having nowhere to hide can be that you recklessly tell the truth.
And I did it also out of desperation. I needed to forge hope. By the mid ’90s with Miracle Now, I was so desperate for hope. I was really trying to figure out how to feel some hope. And that was what my play Miracle Now was: a ceremony about radical acceptance. It was me saying, “I’m powerless over this. I can’t change this.” And so what does it mean? I have to accept the horrific collapse of nature, the loss of everything that is beloved to me: every aspect of her unfurling beauty, the kaleidoscope of her majesty, everything that I care about, everything that I want to stay with for eternity, her creation and creativity. I’m just playing in the sandbox of her creation. And I don’t want the lonely version of that. I don’t want to live in a world without friendship and without family. And animals are family. They’re deeply family. They’re what protect us from the loneliness, the alienation that the male archetype seems to experience, that separation. It’s the abundance of the filigree of nature that protects us from terrible loneliness.
And so when I had to reckon with this great vanishing, like a huge collapse of the biosphere, that was what Miracle Now was. Well, okay. If everything goes, then what will remain? The provocation of Miracle Now was that nature stores within herself the spectral knowledge of everything that has transpired, everything that she has ever been a part of, and that she will carry it forward. All of this knowledge of creation will be imbued in her next iteration. Miracle Now involved the birth of a child, a divine hermaphrodite. That child signaled the new birth of a new world. In Miracle Now, our precious world was not saved. I tried to dream about the birth of a new world that was imbued with the knowledge of the Earth that I have known.
I’ve never understood how queerness could be seen as unnatural. My queerness, or my transness was the ultimate expression of a kind of feral aspect, a natural aspect. Nothing could be more natural than queerness or transness because what else would manifest against the express wishes of the society that gave birth to it? A parent or a society or a church could want nothing less than a faggot or a trans person. And yet that child grows forcibly like a weed and just refuses not to exist, against the counsel of everything it’s learned. It’s the sheer force of nature.
It’s maybe a little different now because there are tiny pockets or enclaves where people, and children, are welcomed. But for many, many years, especially when I was growing up, there was no welcome kit. There was no welcome committee. You were born, and you manifested despite the desire of the society and the family and the church and the community that you be extinguished. So what could be any more natural than such a powerful instinct, that desire to manifest as oneself despite threat of imminent harm? It’s really mystical. In almost all cultures now, the trans aspect emerges despite society’s desire for it not to. There’s no learning that. You know, you look at an effeminate five-year-old—there’s no learning that. There’s no reason that child does that. She’s bending and contorting, desperately trying not to be who she is. She’s trying so deeply to suppress her nature, but she can’t win. She’s going to be herself no matter how hard she tries, no matter the price she will pay for it.
So it’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful example of nature that you can have really. That’s why I’ve always been trying to beg for a revitalized alliance between queer and trans people and environmentalism and ecology. Because it’s so critical to everything. It’s our mandate. It’s our biological mandate that we discuss that we’re connected to nature. It’s our mandate as queer bodies that we talk about nature. Because we are nature.
We’ve been mandated by our circumstances to have to explore that bitter terrain, that lonelier experience of not being a part of a pedestrian societal binary. And we’ve had to sit in that dark night of the soul and talk to the spirits about who we might be outside of the circle of the heterosexual family. And if we’re lucky, that’s within the circle of a community. But ground zero is all by yourself. Especially historically. You were a witch. And maybe there’s a circle for you witches, but generally you’re out there by yourself.
And yet, it’s the seat of the two-spirit in many Indigenous communities to embody the connective tissue between everyone, to connect everyone. To embody the whole. In 2006, 2007, when people would ask me about my gender, or my Americanness, I’d say, “As a trans person, I have more in common with another trans person in Afghanistan or Iraq than I do with an American soldier.” You know, I have more in common as a trans person or a queer person with a queer person in these occupied countries, because we have a framework for a common experience, even though we may come from different cultures. There is most often still a powerful alliance, even if it’s just a moment. You go to that circle, and you get that sweet relief of being a part of a community, part of a family. It’s consolation—deep and meaningful consolation.
I saw seven dolphins the other day. They went by me. I was sitting on the beach, and there were nets out in the ocean. You could see the nets, and then seven dolphins just swam by. I started shrieking. I just started screaming, “Oh, my goddess. Oh, my goddess. I can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you’re still here.” I was shrieking with joy, and the feeling was family. They also were there teaching me that I had a right to still be an animal, even in my brokenness, that I hadn’t forfeited my privilege of being a part of creation. I hadn’t forfeited the privilege of the knowledge that I was entitled to be a part of creation, of her creation, of her paradise. That’s the first thing that goes out the window with all of the torture and horror of ecocide and neocide. Shame and guilt can be so annihilating.
For me, paradise is communion with the rest of creation. And hell is the notion that I am somehow separated from it.
A lot of us queer and trans people were raised by wolves. I mean, we really were. We raised ourselves. We weren’t parented. And a lot of my chosen family, they’ve died. Chloe, my transmother, my trans grandmother Julia Yasuda, my sister Page Reynolds. That was my main trans family. All three of them are gone. Two committed suicide, and one died of a drug overdose. I have other dear trans friends—and my beloved children. But some of my closest peers and elders, they’re gone. It’s life. Resilience. They’re still alive. Who knows? Everyone’s going to be gone. That’s the one thing we all know. It’s the one guarantee. It’s crazy, but it’s true.
We’re porous like ocean water. I don’t really believe in originality. It’s never really been part of my process, the idea of being original, the idea that we’re forging something new, because it seems so obvious that everything great is ancient, everything most beautiful. When people die, do they become more isolated or do they become us? The evidence of our senses would be that they become us. Us in the broader sense. The whole of creation.
I asked Nola Taylor from the Martu, an aboriginal Indigenous community in the Western Australian desert, “Where do we go when we die?” She just said, “Back to country.” She didn’t seem to believe in a world separate from this world. There is no dying. You just go back to country. There is no un-space. In Christian mythology, the contract of the binary insists on an un-space to meet the space. But in non-binary dreaming, there doesn’t have to be an opposite to everything. If you take away that binary, there’s just everything. For me, paradise is communion with the rest of creation. And hell is the notion that I am somehow separated from it.
ARTWORK FEATURING ANOHNI, JOHANNA CONSTANTINE, LOLA NAISSE, ALEXANDRA PERLOF, AND JULIA YASUDA, COURTESY OF REBIS MUSIC ARCHIVE
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “Miracle Now.” Explore more from ANOHNI in Paradise Lost, which first appeared in Atmos Volume 01: Neo-Natural.