Towards a genealogy of queer farming and urban agriculture
LGBT history over the past 40 years has largely been an effort at bringing to light the roles and contributions of queer people to various movements, projects, innovations, and disciplines that were often ignored if not intentionally erased. For example, our understanding of the Civil Rights movement is certainly broadened and complicated by knowing more about Bayard Rustin who had a central role in the organizing the 1963 march on Washington. Who might provide such perspective in the context of food systems and local agriculture? A figure at the margins of planning sharing some of the field’s roots in nineteenth century anarchism, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was a utopian thinker and poet who founded the Sheffield Socialist League which counted the renowned garden-city planner Raymond Unwin among its members.
Edward Carpenter and his lover George Merril. Source: http://www.friendsofedwardcarpenter.co.uk/
Much like his friend Patrick Geddes, Carpenter was a prolific polymath who studied and wrote in or about most of the existing disciplines in the Victorian era. He advocated a peaceful “revolution in human life” envisioning “nongovernmental societies” with communal ownership of land and capital, sexual freedom and equality, and back-to-the-land “plain living” (Rowbotham 6). In 1882, Carpenter bought 7 acres of land about 8 miles outside of Sheffield in order to cultivate a simple life of market-gardening with his partner George Merrill. He hoped to provide a model for cooperative market gardening that would avoid the wasteful excesses and pollution of industrial enterprise (Rowbotham 77).
Carpenter & Merril’s market garden at Millthorpe. Source: edwardcarpenter.net.
He also wrote against the grain of emerging sexological discourse drawing on medieval communalism and Hellenic paganism to establish “a connection between new sexual relations, the emancipation of women, and the creation of a free society” (Rowbotham 209). As he continued to publish and travel to speaking engagements, the reputation of his utopian farm grew; Millthorpe served as an inspiration for several generations of activists, academics, artists, reformers and intellectuals who visited there as a rite of passage. I wonder if increased awareness of historical figures like Carpenter have potential to impact urban agricultural practices, local food production, or food security. If we look at the exclusion of queer people from society at large in terms of Marx’s metabolic rifts–which can be ecological, social, and individual–perhaps acknowledging lgbt peoples’ roles in the food system could provide a way to mend individual and social rifts in the context of food ecologies. I think this might have potential similar to the way Joan Roughgarden’s theorizing about multiple animal genders and sexual behaviors has provided theoretical tools for understanding transgender expression and same-sex desire as integral parts of evolution rather than mistakes or dead ends.
Queer Visibility in the Food Production System
Jonah Mossberg’s documentary Out Here: A Documentary Film about the Hearts and Hard Work of Queer Farmers in the U.S. aims to “inspire a flagrant national discussion about gender and sexuality as they are related to our food system.” It has been screened at various food and social justice events and will be a part of the November 2014 Growing Power conference in Milwaukie. One of the Urban farms profiled is Mill Creek Farm in West Philadelphia. In addition to growing food for local distribution, they serve as an educational center offering tours, workshops, youth internships, and job training programs. They work in cooperation with an adjacent community garden “to facilitate intergenerational exchange between young people and elders.”
The website is not marked as queer in any discernible way. This is understandable given their focus on the community at large and youth food security, but it raises the question of where and how queer visibility is important or relevant to local food systems. Johanna Rosen who runs Mill Creek Farm explained to Vanessa Barrington of Grist that “I don’t make my work about me or being gay… But I feel like urban farmers are queering the food system. Just by bringing fresh food to this neighborhood we’re mixing it up.” In Rosen’s formulation, there is something already inherently queer about urban agriculture in a philosophical/political sense in that it offers an alternate system of production based on cooperative coalitions rather than market forces.
This raises some hard to answer questions: Is there value in making sexuality a part of the food systems dialogue? Is it an unnecessary distraction or an opportunity for coalition building? Maybe these questions need better framing…
To connect this issue to the previous post we might ask: Is there a way that greater LGBT visibility in the local food production movement might address LGBT food insecurity? How might the greater vulnerability of bisexual-identified people be related to the issue of visibility?
In my Urban Ag class, which as predicted was one of my two faves last semester, each student was asked to present on an article, book chapter, film, or other resource related to the course topic. They were all fascinating and informative and I may follow up on some of them here. But for now, I’ll share mine. It was prompted by the instructor discussing food access and justice issues in relation to race, class, gender, and sexuality. She outlined how those markers make a difference in terms of how people interact with food systems, but when she got to sexuality she was stumped about what issues might pertain. So I thought, that sounds like a research question tailor made for Doug: My dissertation work centered around queer bodies and performance. This presentation was a nice chance to bridge from my past career to my new one! Not all of these topics relate directly to urban agriculture, but they all have to do with food systems issues and as such are part of the equation.
In the Williams Institute report on LGBT food insecurity (February 2014), Gary Gates points out that information is difficult to come by because the USDA does not include sexual orientation or gender identity information that would allow for a direct measure. His report is based on analysis of three national population-based surveys that include data on food insecurity and SNAP participation. Key findings:
- More than 1 in 4 LGBT adults (29%), approximately 2.4 million people, experienced a time in the last year when they did not have enough money to feed themselves or their family.
- More than one 1 in 5 LGB adults aged 18-44 (21%), approximately 1.1 million people, participated in the SNAP program through receipt of food stamps in the past year.
- An estimated 28% of bisexual women and bisexuals aged 18-24 report SNAP participation. More than a third (34%) of bisexuals with a high school education or less, one in five White bisexuals (21%), nearly half of African-American bisexuals (47%) and 39% of multiracial bisexuals report participating in SNAP.
- Only one of the surveys asked about gender identity, so there is very little data on food insecurity in the trans community.
I thought the findings about bisexual-identified folks were especially interesting. I wonder if that has more to do with class factors; i.e., do more working class people tend to identify as bi rather than gay? Maybe a combination of that and marginalization from the mainstream gay and lesbian communities. The lack of data for the trans community is troubling and points to an area of much needed research, especially given what we do know about poverty and homelessness among young trans people.
Note: Although I gave a quick 10-minute summary presentation of this in my Urban Agriculture class, the text seemed too much for one blog post. So I’ve split it into three posts.