WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
The discovery of an anti-trans group’s involvement in an Indigenous-led land defense battle highlights the dangers of binary thinking. The Frontline reminds us why the climate movement must center the voices of queer, trans, nonbinary, and two-spirit people.
In Nevada, a number of tribal communities have come together in order to stop a proposed lithium mine. The mine—meant to extract resources essential to the development of batteries used in electric vehicles—would sit on land many tribal members consider ancestral and sacred. However, an internal struggle has appeared, highlighting the dangerous ways settler-colonial mindsets continue to seep into environmental and climate battles.
Deep Green Resistance, a controversial environmental organization that advocates for the end of civilization and against the rights of trans women, has been funding activism efforts with Protect Thacker Pass, a group working to conserve Thacker Pass, the land area at risk. As a result, the People of Red Mountain, a tribal group made up of Fort McDermitt Tribe members whose lawsuit against the mine was being led by attorney Will Falk (who has worked with Deep Green Resistance), have cut ties with Falk and Deep Green Resistance allies who had previously been working closely with Indigenous communities to stop the mining project. Now, the People of Red Mountain are left looking for a new lawyer. Reporting by Jael Holzman for E&E News exposed the situation in January.
Welcome to The Frontline, where there’s no room for transphobia. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Queer, trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and two-spirit folks must be front and center of environmental defense. The movement won’t succeed if it takes an active stance against their rights and lived experiences. This is true for Thacker Pass—and beyond.
Long before colonization, two-spirit people were here. They encompass an Indigenous identity that many of us may struggle to understand. Two-spirit people hold two spirits, but they’re not always trans or nonbinary. Their identity often lines up with their cultural roles—which historically have been as healers, mediators, and caretakers. Colonization has erased much of that history from modern Indigenous memory, explained Luhui Whitebear, a professor at Oregon State University who is the director of Kaku-Ixt Mana Ina Haws, the university’s Indigenous-based center.
“Some people use ‘two spirit’ to describe their trans and nonbinary identities,” Whitebear said. “Some people use it to describe their sexual orientation. It’s either or both, one or the other, all of them. It just depends on the person. That’s one of the cool things about that identity label: It’s up to the individual who holds it.”
And the climate justice movement has lots to learn from two-spirit people and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community. After all, the ecological crises humanity faces ultimately boils down to an imbalance in our world, Whitebear said. Finding that balance again—the balance that existed before colonization and industrialization—is key to addressing the climate crisis. How do we survive as a species without taking too much from the Earth? How do we bring communities the energy they need without harming nature?
“If you think about the way that two-spirit people helped maintain balance within communities, it helps elevate the significance of that identity,” Whitebear said. “The impact of colonization and the way that two-spirit roles and responsibilities have been pushed out of our communities has imbalanced everything. Keeping those identities within our communities and reclaiming them and helping bring back those specific roles and responsibilities helps restore balance in general.”
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they actively brought in new teachings to replace the stories of generations past. When these colonizers created boarding schools and sent young Indigenous children away from their families, they sought to dismantle the cultures many Indigenous communities had created—ones that uplifted women and queer people.
“Part of that colonization process wasn’t just the horrible genocide and gendercide and murder of people,” Whitebear said. “It was also really trying to disrupt the entire frameworks Indigenous communities had in place. One way to do that was to just write people out completely.”
Today, there is a generation of Indigenous people in the U.S. who were never taught the stories of two-spirit people—a generation of Indigenous people who were never given the language to understand two-spirit people because colonization forced them off their lands and into boarding schools.
“Those environmentalists with transphobic perspectives do not belong there. There’s no space for them when it comes to land defending, water protecting, and standing for our unci maka, for Mother Earth.”
Many past and present Indigenous-led water protector and land defender movements have ignored queer identities in their work, said Candi Brings Plenty, a queer Indigenous nonbinary two-spirit person who is the founder and executive director of Two Spirit Nation, an Indigenous group born during Standing Rock that is dedicated to elevating the voices of LGBTQIA+ water protectors and land defenders. However, there’s been a shift to address this missing component—from setting up gender-neutral bathrooms during the Standing Rock mobilization against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016 to the leadership of two-spirit people in the fight against the Line 3 oil pipeline in 2021.
“We needed to bring awareness and visibility that we have always been here,” Brings Plenty said. “My work is about educating not only non-Indigenous people and environmentalists, but also our own tribal political leaders and folks who haven’t been around safe spaces and learned their own cultures. A lot of these movements are calling in folks, and they are also spaces for people who are re-learning or learning for the first time their Indigenous culture.”
The way Brings Plenty sees it, Indigenous people can’t heal without grappling with the erasure of two-spirit and queer folks. When outsiders enter Indigenous spaces and bring their colonial transphobic perspectives, they set back the healing work that many Indigenous activists have been focused on over the years. Whitebear’s own research on this has found that centering two-spirit and queer Indigenous voices creates a sense of healing in activist communities.
“To attack trans folks, two-spirit people, and nonbinary people is coming with another type of weapon to perpetuate the destruction of sacred places,” Brings Plenty said. “Those environmentalists with transphobic perspectives do not belong there. There’s no space for them when it comes to land defending, water protecting, and standing for our unci maka, for Mother Earth.”
Dangerous anti-trans narratives that look to cement who is a woman and who is not also continue to reinforce a binary worldview that ignores the nuance required to address climate change. These dangers become abundantly clear when you look at how Deep Green Resistance approaches its work against the proposed lithium mine in Thacker Pass.
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Max Wilbert, another environmentalist organizing with Protect Thacker Pass and linked to Deep Green Resistance, made clear in a previous Atmos interview that he doesn’t believe technology, batteries, or clean energy will save us from climate catastrophe. He said cars aren’t necessary for human survival despite the fact that we live in a society where rural communities, the elderly, and disabled people rely on vehicles to survive. Meanwhile, other environmental groups in Nevada fighting lithium mines haven’t taken such an extreme stance.
“Our messaging and our stance is that we probably do need some amount of lithium to avoid catastrophic climate change, but we have got to do it the right way,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Great Basin director who is not involved in the Thacker Pass campaign. “Their messaging was like, We don’t need lithium, we don’t need cars, we don’t need civilization.”
This black-and-white way of approaching the issue leaves out a spectrum of experiences and needs by some of society’s most vulnerable. And while electrifying cars won’t solve the climate crisis, it would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect many Black and Brown communities from the air pollution they face due to their proximity to highways and roads. Wilbert also has made his stances on trans people abundantly clear in this 2019 commentary where he and the founders of Deep Green Resistance mock the lived experiences of trans women. Binary thinking—of any kind—can deter us from progressing toward climate justice.
When Donnelly learned of Deep Green Resistance’s transphobic stances, he decided to stay away. He’s still grappling with what he calls “a massive failure of our collective conscious” that no one in Nevada’s environmental community called out Deep Green Resistance. Intersectionality has become a focal point for environmental organizing in the state, and yet they all remained silent—until Holzman’s reporting for E&E News.
“There’s been a lot of soul searching in the last few days,” Donnelly said. “I struggled with it because I’m still not sure if it was my role to call it out if it wasn’t a campaign I was involved in, but it was allowed to fester for a whole year. What message did that send to the world?”
While the People of Red Mountain look for a new attorney, the other Indigenous groups suing the Bureau of Land Management over the project’s consultation process are moving forward. Rick Eichstaedt is an attorney representing the Burns Paiute Tribe and confirmed the plaintiffs are working to appeal a ruling last year that denied the tribes’ request to stop any preliminary construction. Eichstaedt doesn’t expect the larger case around tribal consultation to go before a judge until the summer.
Falk, the attorney previously representing the People of Red Mountain, still represents the Reno Sparks Indian Colony. He said he and his peers are willing to work with anyone who opposes the mine, including trans people. He doesn’t see any connection trans rights has with his efforts to stop the mine. “I’m not sure how being willing to work with anyone squares with accusations of being transphobic,” he said.
Wilbert echoed Falk’s words in an emailed statement to Atmos where he shared he’s willing to work with anyone regardless of political disagreements.
Unfortunately, Deep Green Resistance’s narrative that trans women are not women is a violent one—one that upholds centuries of colonialism and genocide. It’s a hateful narrative that has no home in efforts to create a better planet. Trans women are women—and we need all women to combat the climate crisis. The climate movement requires the activation of everyone, but it’s doomed to fail if it’s exclusionary. It can’t succeed without the wisdom and guidance of women, two-spirit people, trans people, and nonbinary people.
We can’t address the enormity of climate change—an emergency that requires restructuring our societies, lifestyles, and power structures—without addressing its root cause: colonization. And to decolonize the mind is to deconstruct the binaries colonization has imposed on us all. The gender binary can’t live on in the pursuit of climate justice. It has destroyed enough lives.