A Legacy of Activism

Commemorating World Pride, NRDC staff reflect on the LGBTQ+ community’s contributions to the fight for people and planet.

David Cirillo with friend Amy Lupica in Washington, D.C., following the 2017 national Equality March for Unity and Pride

As we celebrate this year’s Pride Month, we at NRDC are lifting up the voices of our LGBTQ+ colleagues, individuals who courageously stepped forward to share how their identities contribute to their work for the environment and climate. Their personal journeys of self-discovery and strength give us a roadmap to follow in our greater movement toward a just, equitable world for all.

These stories illuminate individuals who are accustomed to challenging existing structures of power. They teach us how to create space for humans who are marginalized just because they do not fit neatly into subjective categories; and through their work, they are fighting to make safe, healthy spaces for everyone. These lessons, from those who are striving to build resilience and compassion for themselves and others, are here for the benefit of many. And they deserve our utmost attention.

NOTE: A version of this story was originally published on NRDC's Medium account.

David Cirillo

Litigation Assistant, Litigation
Washington, D.C.

Every winter as a child, I couldn’t go outside without scarves covering my face due to my asthma. It runs in the family. My mother has had it for most of her life, which is partly why she is motivated to work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, dedicated to a mission that has inspired my own work.

Much like the scarves I used to protect myself, I wore a mask with my queerness until around high school, when I engaged in acceptance and activism surrounding my identity.

In college, I had the opportunity and privilege to embark on funded research across the world. When I was in Istanbul after the Gezi Park riots, I talked to LGBTQ+ Turks who, having gained acceptance among urban youth for their participation in the environmental and government protests, still lived in perilous conditions due to their societal ostracization.

This tragic pattern of environmental injustice affects so many vulnerable communities, including the LGBTQ+ community in the United States and across the world. Unfortunately, the stress of climate displacement could make conditions for them even more dangerous.

While working at Human Rights Campaign, I researched climate change as a threat multiplier for LGBTQ+ refugees, one of the most at-risk refugee populations in the world. I’m proud to be queer and to continue this work at NRDC, where I can fight for equity among queer populations and all others in conjunction with my environmental passions—quelling existing divides while mitigating future ones.

Darby, who leads the Nashville Food Waste Initiative, at the Compost Company’s facility just outside Nashville

Darby Hoover

Senior Resource Specialist, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
San Francisco

When I decided to go to college in California, one of my hopes was to find a place where I could explore my evolving identity as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. I did find that community, and since this was the 1980s, a big part of the conversation then was how we should each individually come out, to as many people as possible, as a way to create more awareness and acceptance. I became part of our college LGBTQ+ speakers’ bureau, whose members would speak in dorms or classes or fraternities on campus (as well as at local high schools) about our experiences and identities.

I learned then about how powerful it can be simply to tell our own stories and forge connections with people as a way to create positive societal change.

At the same time, I was working at the campus recycling center and learning about waste and environmental issues. When I graduated, I was torn—which of these areas did I want to focus on as a career? Where would my activism be of greatest use? I realized two things: If we didn’t work to save the planet, there wouldn’t be any place to conduct other activism; and environmental and social issues are absolutely intertwined.

In my career as an environmental activist, I have tried to forge those connections where possible, and in particular to confront the mentality of “throwing away”—whether that refers to materials or to people.

Jason K. Babbie

Deputy, Insight & Integrations, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program
New York

My journey to find and accept my vocation and comfort in my sexuality showed me why we need a diverse environmental movement.

Growing up, I knew I was different. But in the homogeneous suburb where I was raised, and in the nightly dinner conversations about the family company, the future laid before me was one in which I was to become a successful (and straight) businessman.

In high school, I unleashed my budding environmentalism and successfully organized to institute environmentally responsible policies there. Still, it wasn’t until college that my worldview broadened and I learned that I could do what I loved; that I could make a career of improving our planet and conditions in our communities. So I came home from college and came out as an environmentalist—and later, as gay.

Early in my career, I was not comfortable being a gay environmental advocate in the halls of power. My gayness was not welcomed by those straight, white men, or so I felt. So I assimilated, or “butched up,” by learning sports stats for conversation. Thankfully, I quickly stopped doing that and learned to just be myself with them. But that experience showed me, ever so slightly, what it’s like to be an outsider in the power structure. It gave me resolve to ensure disenfranchised people are true participants in the decisions and processes that impact them.

The environmental movement needs the experiences of more types of people—particularly those that haven’t been welcome at the table—to help design the solutions that shape our communities, country, and planet. Our world will be all the better for it.

Kate McKenney and her son holding two red efts, or juvenile eastern newts

Kate McKenney

Insights & Data Strategy Director, Communications
New York

My son and I recently took a rainy hike to a waterfall a few miles from our house in Massachusetts. The entire world was iridescent green and dotted with bright-red efts. There were hundreds of them everywhere we looked. We chatted with them as we ambled down the trail, wishing them well on their journey to a vernal pool or stream nearby. As we walked, I remembered the crazy thing about newts is that they have the ability to regenerate fully functional limbs, organs, nervous systems, and even the lenses of their eyes. They can literally make a new heart if theirs gets injured! Scientists have been trying to sort out what part of the newt’s genetic makeup triggers this regeneration, but it’s a tall order: The genome of the newt is 10 times larger than the human genome. The animals are like tiny jewels, so susceptible to predators in their bright-red skin but with so much internal power and complexity.

My wife and I spend as much time as possible outside with our children, showing them the vulnerability and strength of the world around us. We know that our family can also be vulnerable—in our case, to political whims and homophobia. Our kids may face complexities due to the fact that they have two moms. We’re hoping that through their experiences in the outdoors, they will gain the resilience and regenerative power that they observe in nature.

Clement Chan

Senior Salesforce Administrator, Communications
New York

I was born and raised in Malaysia. Ever since I came to terms with being gay, I’ve lived as a double minority: As the grandson of Chinese immigrants, I was an ethnic minority, and my sexuality is much maligned and prejudiced against by society and government at large.

Five years ago, I moved to New York City to be with my husband. It was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make: Do I leave behind the friends and family I’ve known for more than 20 years, or do I start a new life with my husband in this metropolis where being gay is not just tolerated but accepted by nearly everyone you meet? Should I uproot my life that was familiar and comfortable, or go through the rituals that every new immigrant does? I’d need to endure homesickness, to learn the nuances of American English (compared to British English) and how Fahrenheit translates to Celsius, all while acquiring new job skills to survive in this foreign place.

Love won over.

It took me a few years before I became comfortable with holding hands and kissing my husband in public—to unlearn that fear of being gay-bashed. Being gay taught me that you have to speak up for injustices. I’m thankful to be working for NRDC, where we help to give a voice to communities affected by environmental disasters and unsound governmental policies. I feel empowered to help further NRDC’s mission, alongside diverse coworkers who are also part of the LGBTQ community. It helps to see colleagues who look like you, and who have a similar shared experience by virtue of being queer.

Leanne Naramore

Social Media Content Strategist, Communications
New York

One of the reasons I love working at NRDC is that this organization recognizes the intersectionality of racism, climate change, sexism, sexuality, gender identity—everything. Climate change, rollbacks to environmental protections, pipelines that risk communities’ safety, contaminated water, air pollution, food waste—every issue that we work on has hard and fast impacts on marginalized groups.

Being queer in America and across the world still often means increased risk to one’s physical safety and financial security. Young queer people who are facing family rejection, bullying at school, discrimination at work, whatever it may be—they’re already dealing with enough trash. If they’re also up against the health consequences and financial costs of drinking contaminated water, breathing polluted air, eating pesticide-ridden food, or being forced to relocate due to an extreme weather event worsened by climate change, it’s going to make life even more challenging in every way. That’s cruel. We should all be working to lessen the suffering of other people however we can while we’re on the planet. Fighting to save our environment is one of the most important and obvious places to start!

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