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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Queer Brown Vegan

Air Date: Week of

Isaias Hernandez is the environmentalist and media creative behind the platform Queer Brown Vegan. He has an environmental science degree from UC Berkeley and lives in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Courtesy of Isaias Hernandez)

Isaias Hernandez is an environmental activist and social media creative who uses the handle @QueerBrownVegan on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. His topics include environmental racism, mushroom foraging, and queer ecology. He joined Living on Earth’s Paloma Beltran during Pride Month to talk about intersectionality, “rainbow-washing”, and more.


CURWOOD: Isaias Hernandez is an environmental activist and social media creative living in Los Angeles who goes by the moniker Queer Brown Vegan. His topics include environmental racism and food justice as well as more lighthearted content, like his mushroom foraging. As a queer Latino in the eco space, Isaias is the kind of public figure he didn’t see many examples of as a kid. Now he uses his platforms on Instagram, Tik Tok and YouTube to make environmental education more accessible and help people feel more at home in a world that is remarkably queer. Nature, he notes, does not always insist on sharp gender divides, with diversity that includes such examples as bisexual bonobos, lesbian albatrosses, and fish that change sex. Isaias Hernandez joined Living on Earth’s Paloma Beltran during Pride Month to talk about queer ecology and more.

HERNANDEZ: Queer ecology offers us a critical lens to understand relationships beyond the narrative of the binary. So when we look at fungi, flora and fauna, these species are not constrained by the human society standards that we follow, right? So I think that the important thing to understand with queer ecology is that it allows us to challenge the norms of what is natural versus unnatural, and deconstruct those power structures that we have in our society that is very obsessed with labeling people and contributing to the otherizations of queer and trans identities, when we know that queer and trans people and two-spirit individuals have always existed and have been documented throughout history. So in many indigenous cultures, there are certain people who never identified with the male or woman role. And so these cultures are very rich in their understanding of the celebration of these gender diversities. Unfortunately, due to settler colonialism and religious ideologies, we start to see this disconnection and this disapproval of these identities. And so I think, to me, it's really important to know that when you learn about queer relationships, you're not just talking about gay penguins and bisexual flowers; instead, the ways in which academia approaches it validates the fact that animals have a very unique relationship with polyamory, or asexual reproduction, and that these are not so much "unnatural" incidents, but natural processes. When we talk about these species engaging in queer behaviors, it's not so much that queer and trans people are saying, like, "Look, if this is normal, then we are normal," it's allowing us to say, like, we as people are nature. We have allowed ourselves to be constrained by cis heteronormative views, and a lot of humans today here in America have become heavily severed from our relationship to what we are as nature, which is why we see a lot of conversations of humans in nature, not so much humans are nature.

BELTRAN: And you've also said that homophobia and transphobia runs rampant in the environmental movement. How have you seen that in practice?

HERNANDEZ: Historically, one, the environmental movement has excluded many Black indigenous people of color. The second thing is that these conservationists, a lot of them have failed to include intersectionality in their understandings of why these landscapes are degrading. To look at the larger corporatized and monopolized industries that have really contributed to the degradation. So in my experience in dealing with the environmental movement, typically, cis heteronormative men that have large power dynamics that also flex not just homophobia, transphobia, but sexism, misogyny, these are not isolated responses. In my experiences of being challenged and interrogated, it's often come with people who are threatened by my ability to challenge them. They believe that talking about your identity is irrelevant to nature. And so I think bringing out my queer identity is very important to me in this movement, because it shines light on the greater issue, is that when I opened textbooks in history, I never knew who was LGBT. I didn't learn about LGBT environmentalists. And that, to me, showcases like, how far behind we are.

BELTRAN: So what are some ways that the environmental movement might become more inclusive?

HERNANDEZ: If we don't recognize and celebrate diversity in the world around us, we risk losing it all. And as younger generations rally around intersectionality, there's a chance to lay a foundation of new story. And I think for me, that is one way that we really protect queer and trans communities, is that, I'm not asking you to run around with the rainbow flag, I'm asking you, Are your stories inclusive? Are the people that you hire coming from diverse perspectives? Diversity is a threat to uniformity, and uniformity, in the monocultural world that we live in today, allows us to believe this is the only way that works, which is why I think it's hard for a lot of us to let go of that, to say, How do we strengthen our movements?

BELTRAN: And you have an environmental science degree from UC Berkeley. But you've talked about some ways in which environmental education can be exclusionary—it can exclude people. How do you think public spaces like social media can help bridge that gap?

HERNANDEZ: Academic institutions have a role to not just teach us to ask those better questions, but to equip us with the solutions and how to implement them. We shouldn't have waited this long to learn about the concepts around environmental justice, right? I learned it in high school myself, but we should not be adults learning about this, or we should not be learning about the racist history of the conservation movement, in which many of the famous conservationists labeled indigenous communities as "dirty," even though we hail them as our heroes. We could celebrate some of the accomplishments but also recognize what they said was very harmful, and they were never held accountable for it. Environmental education needs to be holistic based on cultural based experiences. Right now, academic institutions don't really offer that. And so I think that social media has really provided a way to provide grassroots education for younger generations. That's a supplement, right? I don't think my platform is the end-all be-all. I think it's a level one education for people who want to be exposed to it, that people want to fall in love with the subject area. Then later, they can take on the classes.

BELTRAN: And on social media, you emphasize the importance of intersectionality. Your username, Queer Brown Vegan, combines three aspects of your identity. Why is it important to you to put yourself out there as a member of all three of these groups?

HERNANDEZ: My username Queer Brown Vegan is funny, it's either met with laughter and love, or people telling me that they're triggered by me and they feel uncomfortable. But anyways, I think the main thing is that Queer Brown Vegan, you know, it's kind of like a semblance to myself, right? One is, as a brown, Latino environmentalist, I am proud to be a Latino. Only around six to seven percent of people who earn an environmental science degree are Latinos. So for me, it's very important for my culture and identity to be representative and to know that we've always been environmentalists. The second thing is about queerness, is that, you know, as someone who came out at 17, right, like, I had to hide my sexual identity in labs, in academic settings. So outside with my friends, they all knew, but within my professors and labs, I kept that away, because I saw that as inferior, or I would hear professors say homophobic and transphobic remarks. And so for me, I had to stay silent, because I said, Well, I don't want to jeopardize my academic opportunities. But then I realized more and more, it's like, why am I comforting people who have the most comfort to make people feel uncomfortable and to oppress people? And so I had to really challenge those dynamics to say, I'm not here saying that I'm trying to wave my rainbow flag at your lab or your institution, I'm just here to say, I need you to respect me as a human being. And the vegan part, just like an, I think an add-on, is that later on, I feel like my beliefs to embrace human and non-human animal liberation through a different lens, that's just part of me. But I think for the Queer Brown Vegan, it really kind of speaks to how intersectional Gen Z is, but also how much we have to offer. I feel like a lot of younger generations get discredited, and we get disempowered, but we actually are much more powerful in the ways that we speak truth to our power.

BELTRAN: And you said that the name Queer Brown Vegan has triggered reactions in people. What have been people's objections to the name?

HERNANDEZ: I think some of the expressions I've gotten is, one, you're not a real environmentalist. The second thing is just people saying, like, That is extremely disrespectful to me. And I'm like, No, no, no, what you just said to me is disrespectful. My name isn't being plastered on your face. It's not being hung on your wall. It's not in your home. So you have the ability to exit if you don't agree. I don't have the ability nor privilege to leave my identity. I don't get to opt out of my queerness. That carries on with me for the rest of my life.

BELTRAN: So right now we're in Pride Month—happy Pride! And it's wonderful to celebrate the queer community and its activism. But in one of your videos, you warn against the idea of rainbow washing. What is that? What does that look like?

HERNANDEZ: I'm happy that it's Pride Month, but I'm also concerned. So the reason why I say that I'm concerned is that rainbow washing is the act when corporations, institutions and organizations celebrate this identity of queer and trans cultures. However, many of these corporations have been linked to having either, A, anti-LGBT donors or anti-LGBT owners of the company, and B, are sourcing and mass-producing Pride merch from different countries that are directly from slave labor. And there's no transparency from the merchandise industry, where those supplies are coming from. So in theory, if I'm celebrating Pride, I'm not just celebrating here in America, I'm celebrating also for my siblings, who are outside in different countries where anti-LGBT laws are way worse. So for me, I think that we have to understand that for LGBT communities that we don't fall victims to the same institutions and corporations that would have us locked up. So now that we're seeing these like large celebrations, I think it's important to ask, like, who's making your Pride merch, and if you know who's making your Pride merch, were they paid an ethical wage? So it's not to say that I'm trying to ruin people's happiness here, I'm saying that, yeah, we can celebrate, you can reuse the old materials, you can go thrift it if you want. But being mindful that our liberation did not just start in America and end in America. We have to connect ourselves to global movements that are also working to liberate themselves. And I think that it's become a bit of a corporatized month.

The term “rainbow-washing”, sometimes known as “pinkwashing,” refers to corporations selling rainbow-themed merchandise or otherwise promoting Pride without taking significant action to support LGBTQ+ people, or while supporting policies or receiving money from groups that harm queer communities. (Photo: Thomas Hawk, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

BELTRAN: What sort of connections have you made with your audience?

HERNANDEZ: I don't know how to explain it, but I think a lot of people are always so comfortable to tell me a lot of personal things in my DMs about what they're going through with climate anxiety. A lot of them have fear for the future, whether that's moms that are reaching out asking for like products for their kids, or that they don't know how to talk about it to their husband or their children, or whether that's young people telling me that they need help in their undergrad career, because they don't see anyone that looks like them. I think my space has always been like a couch. It's like a lounge. It's like there's no expectations for you to show up a certain way. I will take you in and like you can hang out. And then when you're ready, you can leave, there's no pressure. So I've always really built my space to be reflective of how I navigated the world, is that it was very tough for me. And I know how tough the system is that we live in today. And so I want to provide that comforting experience for people that they can feel home, that they can feel this sense of identity within themselves or a value being shared. And that they can empower themselves through media and education and to know that they aren't powerless, that they have more than enough information, that they can show these to their professors and challenge them. I think that's the main goal of my work, giving people that space to embrace their thought, because I know how it feels to, to be disempowered and to think you're never good enough for these spaces.

CURWOOD: That’s “Queer Brown Vegan” media creative Isaias Hernandez, speaking with Living on Earth’s Paloma Beltran.



Learn more about Isaias Hernandez and his Queer Brown Vegan platform here

Inside Higher Ed | ”On the Stubborn Whiteness of Environmentalism”

Built In | “Rainbow Washing: What It Is and How to Avoid It”


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