UT School of Architecture

LGBT Issues & Urban Ag (Pt. 3)

by Doug Norman . 0 Comments

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.