In Florida, Queer Youth Battle Bigotry and Climate Change

In Florida, Queer Youth Battle Bigotry and Climate Change

Lani Daes

 

Words by Yessenia Funes

PHOTOGRAPHS BY TEXAS ISAIAH 

Right-wing monsters are tormenting young LGBTQIA+ people by writing and passing homophobic and anti-trans bills. In Florida, queer youth climate activists speak out.

Content warning: This story includes mentions of suicide and violence.

We all grow up hearing stories about some unimaginable, fantastical monster. In some cultures, the monsters hide underneath our beds, their claws grasping for our tiny toes as we sleep. In other cultures, the beasts hide in forests or along rivers where they disguise themselves as humans, waiting to deceive and then devour an unsuspecting child.

 

For the queer and trans babies of the world, the dusty crevices of their bedroom or the foggy darkness of the outdoors aren’t where the monsters hide. In fact, these may be some of the only sanctuaries where they can feel safe and at ease. Instead, the ones out to get them are ogres whose faces warp, droop, and sag with age as they attempt to stomp out the flames of a new world—one where trans is beautiful, where binaries dissolve, and where love can win. A world where queer youth survive and live to see the wrinkles on their skin, too.

 

The real monsters sit high atop their elected seats in Congress and state legislatures where they’ve waged an all-out war on LGBTQIA+ rights. What’s more, these villains aren’t satiated by the thought of only driving out queer and trans people. They want to see the whole planet burn—and the rest of us with it. Though the battles for climate justice and queer rights may appear disconnected, they are, indeed, two battles within the same war the right wing is waging. This is a war fueled by dark-money interests, specifically by a few select families (like the Koch brothers) who seek to retain minority power in a rapidly changing political and social landscape. 

 

So they fund politicians who will chip away at our civil rights and invest in fossil fuels despite the harm that follows. Why? Because all the money in the world could never be enough. Because the capitalist, racist, homophobic world they’ve helped create is all they’ve ever known—and they wouldn’t dare to usher in something different.

From left to right: Kaleb Hobson-Garcia, Charlotte Stuart-Tilley, Lani Daes, Amada Barrios

When our parents read us tales about magical wild things, they should’ve instead warned us of the world into which we were born. They should’ve prepared us for the real-life boogeymen coming for human rights. In Florida, a discriminatory law preventing classroom discussion of sexuality went into effect in July. Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by many opponents (though others prefer “Don’t Say Queer” to make it inclusive of trans folks), the law creates a nightmarish scenario for any of the state’s LGBTQIA+ public school students. It attempts to force educators to out their students—while keeping any queer educators in the closets themselves.

 

This imposed silence, this inability to live and speak freely about their existence, is detrimental to young queer people’s well-being. So are the bullying and isolation that are sure to follow as heteronormativity is imposed on queer youth and counseling services are lost, said Daniella Orias, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Florida Atlantic University. 

 

“[This bill is] continuing that narrative that they are othered, that they are something to be feared, something to be ashamed of,” Orias said. “It parlays into climate change because if these queer, trans, LGBTQ youth are out there fighting for their lives and their ability to just stay above water, how are they going to be able to fight these big-topic issues like climate change?”

 

And Florida youth aren’t the only ones; a disturbing number of states have introduced and passed anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation since 2022 began. Already, 23 states have introduced such bills with 13 states codifying them into laws. Texas is investigating parents who provide gender-affirming healthcare to their transgender children. The state wants to paint supportive parents as some sort of servants to the devil when what they’re doing may actually save their children’s lives.

These villains aren’t satiated by the thought of only driving out queer and trans people. They want to see the whole planet burn—and the rest of us with it.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that socially transitioning children—who wear gender-affirming clothes and use accurate pronouns—experienced lower rates of depression and anxiety than gender non-conforming children who hadn’t socially transitioned. This is just one peer-reviewed research paper among over a dozen that have confirmed that gender-affirming medical care improves the mental health of gender non-conforming people.

 

While legislators are busy writing laws that harm children, most have failed to pass any meaningful climate bills—and many in the states where these homophobic laws have passed are actively working against climate action. 

 

“The overlap between racial justice, environmental justice, and queer and trans justice is super apparent,” said Lakey Love, cofounder of the Florida Coalition for Transgender Liberation, which organizes around trans rights, and chapter manager for the Florida chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a public health advocacy group.

 

Across the U.S., many politicians who are ignoring climate change are also coming for human rights—be they related to LGBTQIA+ people, women, immigrants, or Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. In Alabama, where a number of anti-transgender bills passed earlier this year, Sen. Tommy Tuberville has not only advocated for nationwide legislation banning trans kids from sports, he has also blamed God for climate change. In Kansas, Sen. Roger Marshall would rather see kids go hungry during school lunch than see federal language around LGBTQIA+ discrimination. Marshall has also consistently voted against environmental protections.

 

What other word is there to describe such people than “monster”?

 

These lawmakers, however, aren’t even the most violent force out there. Backing them are bodies like the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a dangerous organization that invites corporate lobbyists and elected officials to network and devise harmful political strategies. This organization is enabling much of the anti-trans legislation that has been sweeping the nation. ALEC has also been a vocal opponent of climate policy, working closely with fossil fuel companies. In 2021, the organization even campaigned around laws that would complicate efforts to divest from the oil and gas sector.

 

ALEC isn’t working alone, though. It’s one player in a web of dark-money players that bolster the worst types of politicians. Behind these organizations are conservative, Christian, right-wing families that would prefer to see democracy die than abandon their outdated worldviews.

 

“All of this comes from the same place as the pushback against clean energy, renewable energy,” Love said.

There has yet to be a wide-scale national joint force between climate and LGBTQIA+ advocates to tackle this crisis together. Though environmentalist spaces are slowly recognizing the need for queer perspectives, there’s an urgency to slaying this beast. Climate change is in its infancy, yet one study suggests it’s already killing millions a year due to the extreme temperatures it’s creating. We can expect to see hundreds of thousands of more deaths as populations face malnutrition and disease. 

 

Meanwhile, queer people are dying violently, too: LGBTQIA+ youth are more likely to commit suicide than straight youth. Every year, dozens of trans and gender non-conforming people are killed in the U.S. They’re four times more likely to face violence than their cisgender peers. The reality is no better when you look globally: in 2021, at least 375 trans people were killed across the world.

 

The homophobic legislation sweeping the nation will lead to more deaths, especially among queer youth. Suicide is already the second-leading cause of death among kids ages 10 to 24. LGBTQIA+ youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. “This is a cultural war that is going to end up with dead youth bodies,” Love said. 

 

And climate change just makes this worse. Queer people are more likely to experience houselessness with 8% of transgender adults experiencing houselessness in the past year, per 2020 numbers. They are also more likely to be incarcerated. The streets or a prison cell are the last places you want to be when a climate-fueled disaster unfolds. These populations—the unhoused and the incarcerated—are among the most vulnerable. There are rarely protections or disaster plans in place for them. Even something as simple as air conditioning is a luxury for many incarcerated people. Evacuation isn’t an option for someone who’s unhoused with nowhere to go.

 

But isn’t that what the monsters wanted all along? Hasn’t this always been their plan? To erase, eradicate, and exterminate queer people? Drive them to extinction? Remember the AIDS epidemic? How many lives were lost due to deliberate government inaction and homophobia?

Clockwise from top left: Kris Ibarra, Autumn Love, Amada Barrios, Fa C Yamini

Queer people will come out victorious in this battle, but the climate movement can’t win the greater war without them.

As a result of this hungry beast that has become the conservative right, the public is suffering through devastating storms, floods, and fires all while witnessing human rights abuses sanctioned by the state. This is especially true in Florida, where sea level rise is swallowing the coast. By 2040, sea levels in Miami are expected to rise about a foot from 2000 levels. By 2120, sea levels may spring three feet higher. In a worst-case scenario, the seas may swell by over a monstrous 10 feet.

 

And yet, young people across the state whose lives are only getting started wake up every morning and dare to dream of a safe world. They embrace their queerness despite the hate. They decide to confront this behemoth head on. They don’t attack with violence or hate. No, their weapon of choice is love—they reach out with their heart beating bloody in their hand, begging their leaders to wake up to the slaughter.

 

Queer people will come out victorious in this battle, but the climate movement can’t win the greater war without them. More and more youth are gravitating toward climate issues because they recognize the severity of the problem. They want a future—but they won’t settle for one where they merely exist. They demand a world where they can live unapologetically, afforded the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness like every other American.

 

So they stand on the frontlines with red war paint on their cheeks, ready to face the monsters. Not the ones that slither in darkness—but the ones that flash their fangs in the light of day. The ones that hiss on our screens and bellow through the halls of the Capitol.

 

These are the stories of the youth who are resisting. Much remains to be written.

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Charlotte Stuart-Tilley

Charlotte Stuart-Tilley came out the same month they held their first climate protest. They were only 13 then. Now 17, Stuart-Tilley still has a baby face: wide blue eyes, round pink cheeks, and a flash of periwinkle braces when she laughs. Stuart-Tilley’s swag is unapologetically queer: bleached short hair and a pierced septum. 

 

“I had my first girlfriend in second grade,” she shared. “We kept it a secret, and we got married in a gazebo behind her house.”

 

They currently identify as a nonbinary, gender-queer lesbian—and climate activist. Inspired by Swedish climate icon Greta Thunberg, Stuart-Tilley decided to organize their hometown’s first climate strike in January 2019. Already an anxious person, Stuart-Tilley saw her anxiety worsen as she learned dramatic greenhouse gas reduction was needed by 2030 to avoid the worst. So she took to the streets.

 

Striking gave her a sense of control. Their parents were divorcing, and their mom was transitioning. Her first strike outside the historic Capitol building in Tallahassee, Florida, garnered over 100 attendees throughout the day. 

 

Their demand? A local climate emergency declaration. They know a state-level declaration is unlikely with the current government, so Stuart-Tilley would settle for the city or county to take a stand. More than two years later, they’re still waiting.

 

In the meantime, the teen wants to avoid burnout, so she can’t do as much organizing around the “Don’t Say Queer” bill as she’d like. For now, her loved ones are safe. She’s home schooled, and her siblings attend a progressive private school. That doesn’t calm her fears, though. She thinks back to that fake wedding from second grade—and the children across the state who won’t be able to safely explore their own innocent curiosities. 

 

“Queer people are not the enemy,” Stuart-Tilley said. “This bill is trying to encourage kids to feel like crap, but kids should be the priority of whatever we do.”

River Petley

Growing up, River Petley never saw himself as a girl. As early as first grade, he’d get rejected trying to play with the boys. The girls didn’t want him, either. “I was kind of just isolated,” Petley shared. In high school, he finally realized why.  

 

Petley wasn’t a girl. He was a boy. The 21-year-old now identifies as a gay and trans man—and one who cares about the climate crisis. 

 

Raised in a conservative Christian household, Petley would hear his parents say that anyone who wasn’t straight and cis was going to hell and that climate change wasn’t real. They voted for Governor Ron DeSantis, the monster who signed the “Don’t Say Queer” bill and who has avoided the words “climate change.” 

 

“There is no coincidence that the same people who have no respect for LGBT rights also don’t have respect for the environment,” Petley said. 

 

He tried to convince his family to eat less meat or ride public transit, but they weren’t too supportive. They saw the climate crisis as “nature doing its normal thing,” Petley said. He’d attend protests in secret, hitching rides with friends or taking the bus by himself.

 

He also kept his gender transition hidden, starting hormone therapy as the world began to come out of COVID-19 lockdown in November 2020. Once his parents realized, they told him to stop or leave home. He chose the latter.

 

His situation is not unique: Petley is one among nearly 10,000 LGBTQIA+ youth who have faced housing instability in the last year. Still, Petley is a survivor. That might not have been the case if the “Don’t Say Queer” bill passed when he was a child. He said he might have resorted to suicide then, but he’s grateful for the queer community he’s found in college. 

 

He’s focused on his studies for now—and the upcoming elections. 

 

“We hold the power in order to get our voices out there and change the legislators that we put in office,” he said.

Amelia León

Amelia León has spent one too many weekends yanking invasive species out of the dirt with their bare hands. The 25-year-old is an executive board member of local tree equity group TREEmendous Miami. At least once a month, the organization schedules volunteer days where participants either remove invasive species or plant native trees in Virginia Key Beach, a historically Black beach in Miami.

 

León is dedicated to ensuring that TREEmendous’s work doesn’t exclude Miami’s Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. They’re a Cuban gender-fluid drag artist who prides themself in centering their identity in their work. After all, their queerness follows them in whatever space they’re in.

 

“We need people who have diverse labels—people of color, people who are queer, people who are disabled—to have these trees because they’re the ones who need them the most,” León said. “We need to be focusing our energy on serving these people rather than continuing to serve people who don’t really need it as much.”

 

And, indeed, that is where their energy is focused. When León isn’t advocating for people’s right to trees, they’re organizing events for queer survivors of sexual violence in Florida. As the public relations director of the queer survivors of sexual violence group Reflect Collective, León helps plan Miami’s annual Queer Fest, which raises funds for local suvivors. 

 

The pandemic prevented the event from happening for the past two years, but it returned in 2022. Energy usage and waste are all a part of the event’s planning. “Serving these survivors in and of itself is already a step forward in climate change because they’re the ones who are going to be really affected by this,” León emphasized.

 

Most importantly, Queer Fest offers a space for healing and art. “It’s kind of like a sanctuary,” León said. The cast is mostly queer BIPOC survivors themselves. León performed this year as Bad Papi, the drag king persona they adopted in 2019. And they don’t keep this work separate from their environmental advocacy. In fact, their expertise in both these areas—climate justice and queer rights—allows León to take an intersectional approach in all that they do.

 

“Everything that I do for each kind of feeds off of each other,” they said. “Climate change isn’t just a one-dimensional issue. It’s a multidimensional issue.”

Kaleb Hobson-Garcia

In 2017, Kaleb Hobson-Garcia visited New Orleans with his mom. It was the first time his mother returned to her hometown since the early aughts—before Hurricane Katrina wiped away her childhood home. The mother-son duo met a neighbor who had memorialized with a plaque how high the water had risen when Katrina struck: 14 feet.

 

Hobson-Garcia, now 20, was only 15 then, but he understood the gravity of that moment. His mom could never show him the home that held her earliest memories. He began to think about his own kids one day: will sea level rise allow them to ever explore his childhood home?

 

“There was that immediate connection of a loss of legacy,” he said. “We’re getting these experiences taken away from us.”

 

By the time the pair went to New Orleans, Hobson-Garcia had been three years into his transition. He’s a bisexual trans man, but many folks in his mother’s hometown only ever knew of her having a daughter. Still, his mom always introduced him as her son without any unnecessary explanation.

 

His parents’ unwavering support has fueled his success: Hobson-Garcia now studies environmental science at Florida State University. He’s thinking deeply about where he wants to go next. Politics? Or would he prefer a lab? He’s already spoken at local climate rallies and lobbied at the Capitol. Lately, he’s been making more time to fight the “Don’t Say Queer” law.

 

“It’s ludicrous to me that if I would have my kids go to school, they wouldn’t even be able to say, My dad is transgender,” Hobson-Garcia said.

 

He wants to devote his energy to the climate crisis, but his queer community needs him. How can anyone focus on climate change when human rights are crumbling? Hobson-Garcia wants to see leaders assist queer youth organizations instead of oil and plastics. Until then, the everlasting power of love keeps him going.

 

“It is this urgency that all these things we love are under attack, parts of our identity are under attack,” Hobson-Garcia said. “Instead of people going home and ignoring it, I see more and more people showing up and embracing each other.”

RESEARCH ASSISTANCE Andrea Polanco LOCATION San Luis Mission Park PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS Jae House, Kelsie Phenae SPECIAL THANKS Digital Photo Printing & Studio


This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “The Innocent and the Monstrous.”


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