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The story of Trees for Queens, “the first gay liberationist environmentalist group.”

Emma C. Banks

April 22nd, 2024

In the days following the Stonewall uprising, a tree rose in Kew Gardens, Queens. Well, actually, several trees rose—and the timing, as it turns out, was no coincidence. New York City queers of 1969 were politically activated and eager to defend their territory against homophobic incursions. Plus, they were horny. 

The tree planting project commenced after a number of vigilante attacks had left the park nearly naked. Under the cover of darkness, neighborhood men entered the area with chainsaws and flashlights, hacking down trees, surrounding queers, and telling them to get out. It was a simple strategy of harassment that the police conveniently ignored. It was also, however, not one that gay men were willing to accept. Instead of leaving, they stepped in to rehabilitate the landscape—one tree at a time.

 This is, roughly speaking, the origin story of Trees for Queens: “the first gay liberationist environmentalist group” in the United States, according to environmental planner and landscape ecologist Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram.

 On July 1, 1969, the New York Times reported on the incident, listing the (arboreal) victims as follows: “15 dogwood trees, 11 London planes, a number of wild-cherry trees and other greenery.” At that point, the self-described vigilante “committee” had cost the city $15,000 in damages. And when the Trees for Queens group began its rehabilitation, there was no follow-up reporting by the Times. A letter to the editor, however, re-printed by The Ladder in their October 1969 issue, put the issue to rest:

“Vigilantes who obviously don’t know how to handle their own sexual insecurities should think more about constructive ways to expend their energies. The excuse of protecting their wives and children is absurd. Homosexuals are not in the park looking for wives and children. Besides, I am sure that a woman would rather share a park with some homosexuals instead of thirty or forty vigilantes, running around with walkie-talkies and flashlights, scaring people.” 

This kind of scant coverage from the Times—the above letter notwithstanding—was typical of the time period, and today, the work of Trees for Queens has largely been lost to history. But its challenge to heterosexism endures. Fifty years later, in the midst of an ongoing climate crisis and an increasingly hostile political landscape, the question Trees for Queens raised is of ever greater and more urgent importance: whose Earth is it anyway?

Back in 1969, homosexuality was still considered a deviant, unnatural alternative to “normal” sexuality. It would be classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association for another four years, until it was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973. 

The idea that homosexuality was somehow an “unnatural” impulse, however, took much longer to dispel. Queerness continued to be seen as a departure from normalcy—like an error or a disease. In the following decades, the AIDS crisis confirmed the suspicion of some members of the religious right, who believed that gay men were being punished for their deviant sexuality. Then, in the 1990s, queer theorists clapped back by rejecting the future outright—a biological, hetero project. Queers, some said, belonged to the here and now.

Meanwhile, environmentalists were eagerly employing heteronormative rhetoric in an attempt to encourage more eco-friendly behavior. Advertisements lauded the purity of unspoiled nature; men were encouraged to pursue masculine endeavors in the great outdoors. In the 1970s and ‘80s, some headed the call—by joining the back-to-the-land movement en masse. (Of course, as is well documented, lesbians orchestrated their own back-to-the-land movement, too.) Urban centers were portrayed as hotbeds of homosexuality, while rural landscapes were the sacred territory of cisgender, heterosexual men. In stark contrast to the fleeting, casual intimacy of a queer pastime like cruising, environmental advocates called for a stewardship that was defined by longevity and restraint.

Today, climate activism still sometimes relies on future-focused language to motivate consumers to waste less. While queer theory today is, for the most part, no longer echoing Lee Edelman’s No Future call of the 1990s, the fact remains that many forms of kinship are erased when the language of biological reproduction is enlisted as the main advocate for the health and safety of future generations. Doom and gloom environmentalism remains a serious endeavor; meanwhile, queer organizing is dismissed as simply about public sex, irrelevant to the larger cause.  

“Nothing exists in a silo,” says activist Isaias Hernandez (who recently spoke on Feeld’s environmental roundtable). In a queer ecology explainer on his platform, Queer Brown Vegan, Hernandez broke down the cisgender, heterosexist assumptions that frequently define—and limit—environmental thought. Beyond the overly simplistic refrain of “some animals are gay, too!”, queer ecology seeks to shift understandings of nature and biology, de-center human perspectives, and strike down heteronormative ideals.

“I think it begins with dismantling the nature-culture binary,” Hernandez said when we spoke over the phone this summer. “Queer ecology is saying that queerness is an expansionary culture. It adds value to multi-dimensional systems that have often been constrained due to heterosexist norms. What ends up happening is that people believe that when we talk about queering the ecosystem, we're thinking about putting a rainbow on a system. We're not asking for a rainbow. We're asking for justice and equity and inclusion.”

When Trees for Queens began their rehabilitation project, they clearly had the future in mind. Trees outlive humans (as long as, of course, they’re not chopped down) and so it follows that the foliage was planted not only to protect one generation of cruisers, but many. If the future is for everyone—human and non-human—then so is the here and now. 

After word got out about the vigilante attacks, queer groups mobilized. On August 10, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis (AKA, the two oldest gay rights groups in history) organized a rally in the park, fueled by a simple slogan: “Homosexuals Have Rights—And So Do Trees.” It was lauded as “the birth of gay power” by the Los Angeles Advocate, who cheered them on from 3,000 miles away. It was also, in retrospect, a perfect example of what it looks like to put queer ecological thought into action—an example we can still learn from today.

For Trees for Queens, there was no us-versus-them mentality when it came to nature, culture, or kinship. In their efforts to create a safe environment for cruising, the group revealed a vital link between two seemingly disparate movements. Queer liberationists would not be successful if they declined to advocate for the environment, and likewise, climate justice could not be realized unless all living things were accounted for—queers included.

Illustration by Paulina Almira.