When Indigenous climate activist Big Wind Carpenter packed their bags for this year’s climate summit in Egypt, they had to leave behind some of their favorite wardrobe items: ribbon skirts and makeup. As a two-spirit person, Carpenter moves fluidly between genders. “I do believe that my queer identity plays into the intersectionality of why I fight for the water, for the land,” said Carpenter, the Indigenous conservation associate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, which is focused on protecting public lands in Wyoming.
However, that identity had to remain hidden while in Egypt for COP27. As a queer person, Carpenter was taking a risk traveling from the U.S. to the North African country, which has a record of torturing and abusing LGBTQIA+ people and imprisoning activists and protesters. The country’s vague and sweeping moral code allows for the incarceration of individuals believed to be engaged in promiscuous behavior—especially queer folks. This reality is why some LGBTQIA+ climate activists chose to skip this year’s climate negotiations despite the urgent need for their voices to be represented in these spaces.
Many others still went. For them, representation was worth the risk.
“As a water protector and a person who has spent the last several years on the frontlines starting with Standing Rock and then continuing onto others, including Line 3, I think it’s safe to say that I’m willing to take risks for our environment because I’m a frontliner—and that’s no different here,” said Carpenter, who has used civil disobedience and faced arrest during fossil fuel pipeline protests.
None of this is to say that Carpenter wasn’t scared about traveling to Egypt. They were. How could they not be? One misstep and their freedom could be taken away. The climate crisis, however, presents an equally devastating threat to that freedom. They’ve seen firsthand what the oil and gas industry—the main contributors to the climate crisis—can do to Indigenous ancestral lands in the U.S. They weren’t willing to sit back and wait for what atrocities will come next. They needed to be at COP27 to speak up.
“Of course, I’m scared, but I feel like with everything that our future comes with, it’s going to come with great sacrifice,” they said. “I’m familiar with taking risks. That’s not new to me.”
After all, the prospect of humanity’s future is why officials gathered in Egypt in the first place. COP27 wrapped up Sunday, but the deal world leaders negotiated is missing one key component: the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. The agreement did include a promise to fund loss and damage, which requires that wealthy nations responsible for creating climate change financially assist lower-income nations with the impacts they face. Climate activists around the world had low hopes for the climate conference given the disappointments of years past, but global heating is already influencing weather patterns—from intense monsoon rains in Pakistan to destructive floods in Nigeria. The climate crisis is already killing people.
For activists like Carpenter, the stakes are too high to have sat out this year’s event. While there, Carpenter interrupted a speech by President Joe Biden, a protest that cost them their access to the formal United Nations space. They did manage to speak to several officials before that happened—including U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi.
That’s the value of having queer folks present in these spaces. Let’s be real: queer activists aren’t afraid to say what’s on their minds. Every day is an act of protest. They live unapologetically because they must to survive in this hate-filled world. They bring that same energy to their climate activism.
Bruno Rodriguez is a bisexual climate activist who traveled to Egypt from Argentina. There, he organizes with Youth for Climate Argentina, the local Fridays for Future chapter, where many of his climate activist peers are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. He went to Egypt to represent his people in Argentina and ensure their voices were heard. He wants to see the debt of countries in the Global South forgiven as a form of climate reparations. The way he sees it, the Global North is the one that owes countries like his given the exploitation of materials for the gain of rich nations.
“It is also a third-world emancipation perspective to say we are accreditors, that they owe us.”
“In order for [the Global South] to fulfill our financial commitments, we have to deepen several economic activities, which are intense in the use of natural resources,” he said. “We have to pay with our lands, our communities, our ecosystems. That creates an ecological debt contracted by the North with our people that exceeds the magnitude of the financial debt that we have with them. It is, of course, a decolonial claim that we are pushing forward—the cancellation of external financial debt—but it is also a third-world emancipation perspective to say we are accreditors, that they owe us.”
While in Egypt, however, Rodriguez has felt an uneasiness. Something as simple as hugging a friend feels dangerous. He doesn’t want authorities to get the wrong impression and then discover his sexuality. He found himself thinking a lot about his community back home— especially trans folks—and the ways climate disasters exacerbate the inequalities they face. He felt solidarity with local LGBTQIA+ Egyptians who can only thrive in the shadows given their country’s repressive regime. He felt a range of emotions, some at times contradicting one another. It’s critical to hold these climate summits in Global South countries—even those whose human rights record is questionable.
“We have to incorporate into our daily political exercise an international solidarity with the people in here who are suffering from this lack of recognition of basic human rights and also not have a colonial or Western-dominated perspective on how human rights should be applied to this country and the tensions that that has with the culture itself,” Rodriguez said. “We have to navigate those contradictions always with the perspective of defending human rights and the LGBTQ community but also recognizing some of the colonial power dynamics that come from a West-dominated vision of human rights.”
After all, queer people aren’t safe anywhere. In the U.S., at least 23 states have introduced anti-LGBTQIA+ bills. The criminalization of protest isn’t unique to Egypt, either. Countries like the U.S. and U.K. have been exploring ways to limit protest methods, especially those governments find disruptive. The urgency around the climate crisis and the public’s ability to speak out about it is growing across the globe. The queer and trans community needs to be a part of these conversations. That becomes more difficult when the conversations take place in countries that fail to recognize the existence of these communities.
The Egyptian government may hope to use fear as a tool to silence, but instead, the cries for freedom ring louder than ever before. The climate crisis remains—and LGBTQIA+ people won’t quit their efforts to protect the most vulnerable from what’s coming. Just as they attended COP27, they will be at future conferences. And best believe that they’ll come back more ferocious than ever before.