6. Queer Ecology with Jo

A conversation with queer ecology educator, Jo

In my second novel, Conserve and Control, I imagined a futuristic museum with exhibits on queer ecology. Three years later I found out that our Queer Animals zine was being featured in just such an exhibit in Switzerland. During a beautiful, noisy queer festival, I met up with Jo who teaches at the exhibit to talk all things queer ecology. We also explored species loneliness, colonialism and finding connection.

Also available on Spotify. RSS feed here.

Jo is a queer, PoC person currently living and studying in Basel, Switzerland. They have worked in different exhibitions in Switzerland, one of which is the queer ecology exhibition in the natural history museum in Berne, where they give workshops to kids and teens. Gently floating down the Rhine or having a joyful dinner with friends and loved ones is Jo’s ideal way to pass time.

Show notes

Queere Tiere by Sookee

Jo’s shoutouts:

Inaya! https://inaya-basel.ch/de/index.html

INAYA is a Basel-based structure for refugee women and genderqueer people. INAYA wants to show solidarity directly. A priority is a redistribution of needed money from those who have enough to those who have too little. In this way, basic needs should be covered safely and in the long term. Existing support structures do not exist or are difficult to access for refugee women and genderqueer people. 

Trans Safety Emergency Fund: https://transsafety.fund/

Emergency Support for Trans People. The Trans Safety Emergency Fund (TSEF) provides uncomplicated, direct help for Housing, Health & Education.

Sp!t: https://spit.noblogs.org/

The Sp!t is a queerfeminist space, collaboration and platform for art, activism, learning, exchange, film and life itself


Kes Otter Lieffe:
Hi, I’m Kes Otter Lieffe and welcome to Margins and Murmurations, the podcast. If you enjoy this podcast please share it with your friends. As I don’t have social media this is the best way for people to find out about me. If you’d like to know more about my work, you can check out otterlieffe.com. And you can support this podcast at patreon.com/otterlieffe

In my second novel, Conserve and Control, I imagined a futuristic museum with exhibits on queer ecology. Three years later I found out that our Queer Animals zine was being featured in just such an exhibit in Switzerland. During a beautiful, noisy queer festival, I met up with Jo who teaches at the exhibit to talk all things queer ecology. We also explored species loneliness, colonialism and finding connection.

Jo is a queer, PoC person currently living and studying in Basel, Switzerland. They have worked in different exhibitions in Switzerland, one of which is the queer ecology exhibition in the natural history museum in Berne, where they give workshops to kids and teens. Gently floating down the Rhine or having a joyful dinner with friends and loved ones is Jo’s ideal way to pass time.

So here we are in some deserted corner of the Rote Fabrik where I’m not sure we’re allowed to be, but here we are. And yeah, tell us something about queer ecology!

Yeah, well, I basically I started doing workshops in museums first. And a friend of mine worked on the queer ecology workshop for the museum in Berne. And it kind of asked if I would be interested in helping as well. And that’s, well, I don’t think it’s the first first time that I’ve heard of like, the idea of queer ecology, but it’s the first time that I really got into like, the basics of it, I would say, there was this famous Sookee song, I don’t know if you know it.

K: Mmmm. Queere Tiere? Yes!

J: That, of course, I knew, and I had some basic ideas of like, well, animals, obviously are not like monogamous, or heterosexual or anything. And then in, like, as preparation to start doing the workshops, I went to the museum and I saw your zine as well, among other things, and that’s the first time I really like, kind of educated myself a little bit more or more in depth. And yeah, I was really, I think, at some points in my life, I’ve watched a lot of nature documentaries, like all the planet Earth, and I don’t know what and it really started struck me that to tell a compelling story, they would like really personify the animals, but in a way that is so normative, which is really funny, if you think about like animal behaviour, or how plants behave, and then put that in terms of like, Oh, now the mama is going to do this or that. And I think some of that, if all, I had already an idea that this could not be true, right? But with the museum exhibition, I was like, okay, like, there’s a lot, a lot of variety within the animal kingdom, as well as with plants. But more so the exhibition is focused on animals, right? Yes. And then I started doing the workshops. And it’s really interesting how the kids will intuitively get the idea of animals being all kinds of queer, bi, whatever, like trans, whatever you want to call it. And it really helps them make the connection from like, oh, yeah, there’s like, I don’t know, diversity among all animal species, as well as humans. And I think particularly with younger teens or kids, it’s really a useful way of framing it, because they are so excited by animals, right?

K: Right yeah.

J: So yeah, if you say, who has watched Finding Nemo, they were like, Oh, yes. Can I tell you about this thing? And you’re like, yes. So if it will be biologically accurate, then actually, the father would become the mother with over the course of a year, I think. Yeah, that, that is my connection to queer ecology.

K: What kind of questions do they ask you?

J: I mean, in the beginning, it’s really interesting, because we start by going to the exhibition, and then usually, we task them with finding one interesting fact or something that interests them in the exhibition and bring it back to the workshop. And with, especially with younger kids, it’s always animal based, like, older kids or teens will say, like, oh, I learned what asexual or something but young kids are always like, I saw a snail I saw a Komodo dragon. Yeah. And they have in the beginning before the workshop starts. That’s what I find really interesting. Sometimes they ask me if we are going to get to know a queer animal.

K: Mmm okay.

J: Like, okay, and then I asked back like, yeah, what, what do you think? Do you think that there is one queer animal? And they’re like, Yeah, I think I know something about penguins or something. They’re gay, right? You’re like, Yeah, I mean.

K: The famous penguins!

J: The famous gay penguins, always having their pride parade. No. So that’s basically what what gets them into the workshop, like, seeing that these animals that they because I think a lot of kids relate to animals in quite a deep sense, right? They have a favourite animal. They think some animals are really stupid others are really interesting, and they just want to know everything about their favourite.

K: I think I’m still in that stage.

J: Yeah! Right? But I think it’s like, you get encouraged to really I don’t know relate to an animal when you get older. It’s like, weird in normative society, but the kids are still really within that head space. So then when you switch to like, Okay, but what does that mean for humans? Or how can we look at gender within humans? Then you get the questions of like, ah but can you really like? Because they don’t know the vocabulary, right? They say something like, can you really change sexes? Or can you change gender? And you’re like, well, we saw with animals that that is totally within the realm of possibilities. And why should it be different with humans? And there the questions are much more like, they can be very personal, because sometimes I add myself to the class of like, I’m non binary, and then they ask about my pronouns, or if it’s difficult to come out and stuff like that. And sometimes it’s more general. And I think what is really interesting is that they quite quickly, sometimes catch on to certain normative forces within their life. So oftentimes, when they experience something, that will be the topic, like, for example, girls that are told that their skirts are too short, they will bring that in and connect that to gender and normativity.

K: Right. Wow.

J: So sometimes, you then really get far away from animals in some sense, but it’s always about normativity. Right? And I think.

K: I love that they’re making those connections.

J: Yeah, it’s really, I mean, in a way, it’s really interesting how fast it can go. And then with other classes, it’s really sometimes very difficult to get them to acknowledge that there is, like, some negative aspects in normative gender expectations. But I think it’s really also a defence mechanism. And I think it’s really about showing them that there are all the questions are open to them, like they can ask me anything. And I’ve noticed that, like, with talking with teens, especially if you show them you’re vulnerable, they will really react to that in a way that I didn’t expect that I was like told, like, oh, teens, they can be so mean. And if I say oh, that really hurts my feeling how you ask that or that you didn’t listen, while I was talking or something? They will be like, Oh, wow, this authority figure because that’s what they perceive me as is saying something that I don’t expect, because I doubt that their teacher is like, Oh, that hurts my feelings. Right?

K: Right.

J: So I think it’s also about approaching them with a lot of openness and softness in a way. And yeah, I think it helps them get their guards down to talk about animals and like cute dolphins. Those are? Yeah, I don’t know. Yeah, but in a way, what I was thinking about is maybe also how that emotionality can still be very important, like the emotionality that they feel towards animals that maybe that brings them into a headspace where it’s easier for them to talk about other things.

K: Yeah, I felt like it’s a different entry point. It’s so interesting that they’re making the connection to their own lives and things maybe even beyond the subject, but like connecting it to normativity. And things like this. It feels like a way in, it’s an access point for them to be talking about those things. And it’s a little bit abstract, because we’re not gay penguins. But then we like them. And so we can talk about this thing that’s a little bit outside of our experience, maybe. And then we’re like connecting it to things that are in our experience. And then you’re there like also connecting it to your experience and connecting with the kids. And I feel like there’s something in that it just opens this very rich conversation that if you’re like, let’s have a workshop about sexuality and gender, it might be a bit more, too much pressure or something for some people, because I imagine some of these kids are queer as well. And they’re like, Okay, great, I found a way to talk about this. That’s a little bit not about me. And it’s not too personal, not too vulnerable. But also, it’s really resonating. I’m seeing myself in this picture somehow.

J: Yeah, and I think that’s where I noticed that like, getting knowledge out about queer ecology is very important, because I will notice some kids that are like, they know every animal in the exhibition already. And they also know why they could be in a queer exhibition. So they will be like, Oh, yes, I know why Nemo will like it’s actually trans or whatever. And I think that like, that’s just another way to relate. Like, if your parents read you about animals that are queer, right? And you see yourselves in them that’s so important, and it’s a way to like not directly. Yeah, like directly saying, I’m queer myself, but like, these animals are so I’m seeing some experiences reflected in that. And that’s also like why I think the terms are useful to us like saying Nemo is trans are saying I don’t know that albatross are like lesbian sometimes. And on the other hand, I always kind of put a special just emphasis on the fact that these are words that we created, because they have a lot of questions about labels, like how do you choose a label? Or how do you I don’t know, change? Can you change labels? And you’re like, Yeah, of course, you can do whatever you want with those labels, because we invented them. And that I think, also helps them to understand like, okay, labels are our own invention. So in a way, we are free to use them as we want. And it’s not about learning the labels, they, I don’t expect them to go out of the workshop and be like, I know what pansexual is, I know what asexual is, I don’t know, I expect them to kind of know that there is a diversity of human experiences, and that they can use those labels if they want, they don’t have to. And if they’re really confused about the labels, they can just ask people, and I think it’s so much just about asking, and within that also in like, admitting that you don’t know things like because that’s what I feel like a lot of teens, especially they cannot tell you like, I don’t know, what queer is, you have to turn it around and be like, so if I don’t know what queer is, how would you explain it? And then they start, like, gathering all these facts and knowledges and yeah, that’s really cute. And then also with the animals, they can make easier connections, friends, so they, yeah, kind of gauge that more rapidly. And also, it’s a fun way to, like, if you want to talk about anything sexual, it’s easier to do that with animals than with humans. And that’s so interesting that if you’re like, you start kind of like telling them Oh, yeah, that this is how or dolphins have sex for pleasure as well. And you know, then it’s easier to talk about sex and sexuality in general. That it’s also interesting. Yeah,

K: Makes a lot of sense. I feel like that is what’s also happening on the other side, when people learn about, get their sex education from a BBC documentary. And they’re like, this is what sex is for is making baby tigers or something. And that’s a different story that’s being told in a very specific way. It’s like this is what sex is for, this is how it works. And this is why you do it, which looks remarkably like a sex education, or mainstream sex education, workshop or something. And so it’s, it’s like a different story that also has different results.

J: Storytelling is an interesting point, because the every exhibition tells a story, right, and the one in Berne is divided to the animal and the human section, which is one thing I would really check want to change. Because it’s useful for relating to different things like, you can tell kids, look animals are queer as well. So it shouldn’t be weird or abnormal with humans. But at the same time, it really leaves this binary open, like humans and animals and nature and society, basically. And I think what I would have liked to see is really like also, because in the human side, they focus strongly on the like societal, which is okay, I think, but at the same time, it’s also like, you don’t look at the societal part with animals, you don’t talk about how they live in communities, or, like what you were talking about what the, what if I remember correctly with the vampire bats that live in communities and do mutual aid, like, you can find aspects of community in animals as well as the biological aspects, which are obviously there in humans as well. And I think that would have gotten to a deeper level even like, what do we how do we want to relate to the world as humans? And how do we relate to animals? And how do we relate to queer animals specifically? And how is it that queerness was something that was for a long time, like kept secret, even though it was observed in animals from, like hundreds of years ago, right? And how does that mirror our societal treatment of queerness? Right? Because there’s a reason that we need to call these animals queer or lesbian or trans or gay, because that’s, they were treated in a similar way than humans, right? Queer humans, obviously. So that’s one thing like you can really not see that in the exhibition, they don’t explain why it’s like empowering or important to call animals queer, and why it’s not only about saying, okay, these are normal animals, then queers are also normal, because that’s not what I want the exhibition to be about. I want it to be about the, like, just immense diversity among like human experiences, animal experience, how we relate to them, how we can build communities, even though we are all of us are so different, right, with animals included. And I think that is something that, like, if that exhibition would ever exist, I would love to do a workshop there, let’s say like that.

K: Yeah, what else does the ideal exhibition having and I also felt like we’re talking about the separation of plants and animals in the exhibition, and actually, quite a fundamental part of queerness, and queer ecology is like complexity and interconnection. So like dividing these, like different sections of it already feels a bit weird to like, not be making all those connections. So what else, like you’re designing your ideal exhibition on queer ecology? And what else would you have in it?

J: I mean, I think I would also have a lot of more influences from, for example, I mean, they had community influences, like from the queer community, but I would much more also work with other marginalised groups, like imprisoned people or people of colour, and draw those similarities out as well. And I think like, for example, mutual aid is so such an important like, like, it’s always like, oh, yeah, we can’t give out too much free food or money, I don’t know, then people will get lazy, whatever. And if you have parallels in the animal kingdom, like, yeah, mutual aid is something that some animal species choose to do. And that is a viable option. Like maybe that would help us I think, like seeing animals, plants, nature in general, as a starting point for what can we do better instead of just like, exhibit, exhibit them with them and be like, yeah, here’s a bat, here’s a dolphin, here’s a, I don’t know, bonobo or something. But rather reflect upon our experience. And in that sense, I mean, I always love exhibitions to be interactive. And that’s something that they really try to do. And I see that the resources are always limited. And if people go to an exhibition, they expect to be there, I don’t know, maybe one, two hours and then go home. Right? So maybe you would have to approach that wholly different. Like maybe you say, this is not an exhibition as much as it is an experience where we expect you to kind of partake, of course, in whatever way you’re comfortable with. But then you really have to kind of grapple with the questions of like, what can we learn from animals, from plants? What, what what does it reflect? How does it reflect upon us as a society that, yeah, we don’t really have mutual aid programmes that are state sanctioned, I’ll say, Yeah, I think that would be an ideal exhibition for more like more interactive and more really reflective on how we can learn from from nature.

K: Yeah, Sign me up. I’m there, it sounds amazing. I’m all over it..

J: We can do it next year if we have some time.

K: Yes, great! I can imagine that recognition must be a big part, there, as well of like, where this information comes from, like how it’s sourced, like, Yeah, from communities I imagine also. I just felt like it’s an important thing also, like with the work that I’m doing on queer ecology, just like a recognition that this wasn’t just invented in Europe, or Switzerland or somewhere, yesterday. And this is just like, ancient indigenous knowledge as well. And like, and yeah, I can imagine it’s quite easy for people to kind of co-opt information or to like, take it from their communities that are affected, and then kind of turn it into like, commercial products and stuff. So this is what not what we were do in our perfect exhibition that we’re going to design together after this podcast. I feel like that’s an important element as well.

J: Yeah, yeah, totally. I think especially with plants, so for example, half Mexican, and I know that there was a lot of knowledge among indigenous communities in Mexico, about all these plants and their abilities to heal to help people. And that’s something that, well, it’s not been totally extinct, the knowledge about it, but it has been so much more difficult to put that out there because of the colonialist system that was imposed and like the genocide of indigenous people. And I think stuff like that. It’s like if you focus on that as well. Like, what knowledge has been extinct by us? How can we get it back? How can we, as a community work together to bring that knowledge back. I mean, that would be really great within an exhibition. And as well, it’s a way to relate to plants and the world around us, basically, that is no longer here. And that a lot of people feel this, this pain about and cannot, or I can only talk for myself, I mean, I feel a lot of pain about not being able to access that in a way that I could have, if it weren’t for colonialism, basically. And I think it’s something that really always makes me very sad to know that like, these plants all around me, I cannot relate to them, basically, and I crave some kind of connection to them. But all I know is that they’re beautiful, or that they make me really happy. But I don’t really know a lot more about that. And I think also in Switzerland, there are a lot of herbs and stuff that was used, right? So it wouldn’t even be like, you don’t have to go far basically to find these connections, which are so important. And yeah, also a way to create queer or indigenous or people of colour communities.

K: A hundred percent. How do you personally, because that pain and that craving and lack, yeah, really sits very strongly with me. How do you personally deal with that? Do you find ways to find those connections, yeah those moments?

J: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think for a long time, I just pushed it down, basically. And it’s especially interesting because my mother, she moved from Mexico City, this huge, huge city, to the countryside in Switzerland. And then she had a child, which was me. And she, like, she needs nature. And like, since she was a child, she knew I don’t want to live in the city, I want to go to the countryside. And she did. And now I mean, she goes to swimming in the lakes all year round. She basically lives in the forest. So they have a huge garden. And I think for a part of me couldn’t accept that, like I was the exact opposite. I grew up in the countryside. So it was like, I need to be in the city. Because as a queer person, there was a lot of hurtful things that happened in the countryside, which I couldn’t bear anymore, basically. And so it’s only been recently that I am starting to really allow myself to have, let’s say, more a spiritual connection to nature, rather than just being like, yeah, I need to go outside a bit. But really like getting in the water and feeling that energy that the water has, and just letting myself go totally sink into the water really, or for example. Like just staring at a weeping willow for five minutes and being like, wow, this is like magical. So I think I’m starting to kind of re refocus my energy around nature and how I relate to plants and animals. But it’s, it’s been a long way because of different forces in my life or in general like also, like, usually people are like, don’t stand there for five minutes when you’re on a walk to continue walking, right. And I think allowing myself to have these moments of like just looking at a bug or a tree or the water for a few minutes that is already so helpful.

K: Giving yourself the permission.

J: Yeah.

K: Any kind of takeaway message that you wish people knew about queer ecology, listening to a podcast that I this is interesting, what’s the thing that you want them to like, take away?

J: Yeah, like, just, if you if you start wondering about something like really just Google it, but then go further than Googling it, because that’s where the interesting information starts appearing, right? So if you’re thinking like, Oh, by this animal behaving in this way, Google will tell you something. And then the further in you go, the more interesting it gets, right. And also, like, always, the questions that pop up in your head are probably like, a whole month’s worth of research, because for example, we were wondering, like, how is gender even defined? Because then some mushrooms can have like, I don’t know, 20,000 different genders. And it’s so interesting that it’s such a basic definition And then we, we gave them this definition. So it means like, we did that, that they have 20,000 genders, right? At the same time, we’re like, no, there can only be two genders. So I think it’s a nice place, queer ecology, to start seeing all these things that make absolutely no sense about our normative expectations. And also the stories that we are told as children by, I don’t know nature, documentaries, as well as teachers, or yeah, adults in our lives. And I think it’s also such a joyful way to unlearn those things, because it’s just like, oh my god, this animal I really liked as a kid is actually lesbian, I don’t know. I think that is really a joyful way to unlearn some of the structures and kind of also practice a little bit of escapism sometimes, right, because it’s like, wow, this queer world exists out there. And even though our world is so focused on being, like normative good citizens in capitalism, we could some day get back to that world where yeah, queerness is just allowed to exist and flourish and be the magnificent thing it is.