Silent Spring: Where have the queer voices gone?


Posted on April 22nd, 2016 by Elizabeth Boylan

An Earth Day Blog Post


There was a strange stillness…. It was a spring without voices.  On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and wood and marsh….

….A grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed…What has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America?[1]


When I was 17, I took the train in from Long Island to a gay pride parade in New York City, and it was like the rainforest: there was so much beauty, diversity, and richness in community and joy in difference that I could see.  People cried into megaphones, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” asserting the rights of LGBTQ people to exist, and to be acknowledged.  It was a call to action for queers to be present, and for recognition by non-queers: it spoke to the diversity inherent in humanity.

Diversity in society and in culture is analogous to biodiversity – the ways in which individual organisms relate with communities, their habitat, and their concentric and overlapping biotic systems is parallel to how humans interact with one another in an increasingly globalized world.

In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring.  Carson opens with a cautionary fable: she describes a world gone quiet, devoid of natural diversity, where people fall ill quickly and mysteriously, and towns and communities implode from the impact of death and loss.  Carson’s book was a thoughtful response and outcry against the ways in which the United States Department of Agriculture and Agribusiness’ uses of chemical pesticides for the purpose of controlling insect, fungal, and bacterial populations was having unintended consequences on myriad ecosystems in the United States.

The use of chemical pesticides had been touted as a ‘solution’ to dealing with pest populations of insects, fungi and bacteria by the United States Department of Agriculture.  These solutions, included substances such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), dichlorodiphenyldichloroethane (DDD), and benzene hexachloride (BHC).  As a solution, it is simple: spray chemicals, and the pests will die; however, this equation failed to recognize how complicated the algorithms of ecology are, and as such, was wholly unbalanced.

The unintended results of this solution were myriad: plants and animals produced for farms by human consumption were ultimately inedible and toxic to humans, due to biomagnification: the phenomena wherein contaminant concentrations increase in accumulation as it passes up the food chain through multiple trophic levels.[2]  Biomagnification also accounted for declines in bird populations, as the high concentrations of DDT in their bodies weakened the shells of their eggs, nullifying their viability. The presence of DDD and BHC in soil systems inhibited nitrogen-fixation by bacteria that have positive mutualistic relationships with plants. Upon using pesticides to eradicate fire-ants in the Southern U.S., farmers came to realize that the fire-ants had been consuming boll-weevils, which can decimate cotton crops[3]; The bacteria and fire-ant’s value were only conspicuous by their absence.

What was deemed to be the “problem” that the United States responded to with the widespread use of insecticides were the existence of pest insect, fungal and bacterial populations in certain agricultural sectors.  This maybe wasn’t so much a ‘problem’ but a symptom of a larger issue – – a system out of balance.  By attempting to selectively micromanage this facet – to “treat the symptom” as it were – the United States Department of Agriculture initiated a ripple effect that reverberated through the larger ecosystem.

By focusing on only one element of a system in seeking a solution, the Government lost the forest for the trees… or, the ecosystem for the insects. What was intended to help one small group, ultimately led to detrimental and lethal effects on multiple organisms and communities as a result of feedback loops not taken into account in the development of a solution.

In meditating on Carson’s parable, I’m thinking about the parallels that exist between the organisms harmed and silenced by agricultural interventions in the early and mid-20th century, and the queer communities and individuals threatened and silenced by recent court decisions and legislation in the United States.

On June 26th, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges “The Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State”.  This has been touted as a landmark decision, and people saw this as a “solution” to the issue of LGBTQ Rights in the United States.  A man could marry another man, and a woman could marry another woman, and their legal and contractual union had to be recognized by states.

The legitimizing and legalization of same-sex marriage by the federal government seems far too simple a solution to something that is not really a “problem,” but one element that is a symptom of a larger issue – a system out of balance.

The system out of balance is the way that federal and state laws and policies consistently value the rights and privileges of straight, heteronormative people over LGBTQ persons in the United States.  Homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and queerphobia loom large, and oppress, marginalize and silence people in the LGBTQ community.  These forces flatten and oppress voices, and the violence that accompanies these forces – – especially transphobic violence – – is deadly.

There are no federal employment protections for persons based on sexuality or gender identity.  Only 24 out of 50 states have state-wide employment non-discrimination laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of Sexual Orientation; only 21 of those also prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of Gender Identity.[4]  In the 3 months and 22 days of 2016 that have elapsed so far, 11 transgender people have been murdered[5][6].

While the Obergefell case was not poised to be a landmark decision for all LGBTQ Rights in the United States, many pundits and media outlets wanted to champion it as such – – as evidence that some solution had been rendered, and that some social progress had been achieved.  Winnowing issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and queerphobia in American society to an issue of whether same-sex couples are afforded the right to legally marry is reductive and dangerous in its oversimplification.  The issue affords only a singular protection only for persons who do choose to marry.  It ignores the homophobic, transphobic, biphobic, and queerphobic ideas and attitudes that are rampant in the United States, and the ways in which the cultural embrace and acceptance of these attitudes enable violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people every day.

In the nearly 10 months’ wake since the Obergefell decision, states including Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Missouri, and Mississippi have all considered legislation that would legalize discrimination against LGBTQ persons.  While many of these are disguised as State Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) or Religious Exemptions[7], several are not, and are based purely in phobias surrounding LGBTQ persons.  We have seen increases in violence against transgender individuals.  There has been a swath of “Bathroom bill” legislation, wherein transgender or gender nonconforming people are denied the right to use a bathroom based on their gender or their perceived gender being perceived as a threat.  Hate is toxic, and it has been magnified and focused against the larger LGBTQ community in the wake of the Obergefell decision.

Just as the use of pesticides as a solution to a perceived agricultural problems in the early- and mid-20th century ignited a chain reaction of unintended consequences, looking to the courts to regulate a single aspect of same-sex couples’ relationships seems to be causing reactions in feedback loops that are larger than the Supreme Court may have conceived would be affected when this solution was rendered.

This is not to put the Supreme Court at fault for all of the negative backlash that has occurred in State Governments or in popular culture as a result of the Obergefell decision. However, it does call into question how short-sighted it was for some groups[8] to so vehemently pursue the right for same-sex marriage.  It also calls into question the ways in which the LGBTQ community rallies, and seeks to exist among a larger ecosystem comprising queers and non-queers in the United States.

In contrast with the raucous spring I experienced years ago in New York City, the call for marriage equality was tame, quiet, and almost insidious.  The call for marriage equality wasn’t one that said “we represent the diversity of humanity” – – it was a weak plea for mercy towards a small subset of LGBTQ people saying: “we’re just like you”.  Those voices from that pride parade, and their ilk – – that cacophony of strong voices that defied gender roles, and sang against heteronormativity – – Those are the voices that are now conspicuous in their absence. They are absent as a result of a flattening and homogenizing of LGBTQ experience; they are absent as a result of violence, and as a result of a larger social and cultural devaluation of the diversity and breadth of the LGBTQ community.


[1] Pages 2-3, in Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1962

[2] Nowell, L.H., Capel, P.D., and Dileanis, P.D., 1999, Pesticides in stream sediment and aquatic biota–Distribution, trends, and governing factors: Boca Raton, Fla., Lewis Publishers, 1001 p.

[3] Carson, page 57.

[4] https://www.aclu.org/map/non-discrimination-laws-state-state-information-map

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unlawfully_killed_transgender_people

[6] This number is likely higher, due to a gross lack of reporting of transphobic violence

[7] For analysis of RFRA legislation by the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law’s Public Rights/Private Conscience Project, see: http://web.law.columbia.edu/gender-sexuality/public-rights-private-conscience-project/policy

[8] http://www.hrc.org/

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