By Alex Zahara
There is a class of environmental toxicants that are known for their ‘queer-making’ effects. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, or EDCs, produce a wide swath of health issues, including cancers, diabetes, and heart disease that disproportionately impact already marginalized communities (Murphy 2017). Recently, scientists have begun linking EDCs to supposed ‘sexual abnormalities’: stories of gay birds and trans frogs have sounded the alarm on possible impacts to human sex, gender, and sexuality.
EDCs comprise a number of industrially- produced chemical compounds (e.g. PCBs, PBDEs, atrazine) that act like hormones when they enter the bodies of humans and other animals. Hormones are chemical compounds important for a variety of bodily processes, from eating to sleeping to growth and sexual development. Because of how they act in bodies, EDCs have been found to cause changes to sex organs and may be associated with increased rates of same-sex pairing and mating strategies in animals.
The term ‘queer’–though originally a homophobic and transphobic slur– has been reclaimed by LGBTQ+ folks to describe aspects of gender, sex, and sexuality that have been historically discriminated against. ‘Queering’ refers to practices of questioning, historicizing and “making strange” often taken for granted categories associated with sex, gender, and sexuality. Research on ‘queering ecologies’, for example, has highlighted how scientists have historically ‘written away’ queerness in animals (as accidental, or caused by food deficiencies) or even romanticized straight sex. Queering brings attention to how dominant narratives about sex, gender, and sexuality, including those found in science, are cultural, value-laden, and often function to make difference seem “deviant”, invisible or harmful. Queering is an important method for discard studies as it focuses on how particular people and relationships are excluded or made normal (Driskill 2010; TallBear 2017).
The following is a bibliography on Queering Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs). Some key arguments in this literature include:
1. Scientific and media reports about EDCs often tap into fears about queerness, trans folk, and disability
This is not because queerness, transness or disability are a form of harm– harm experienced by these folks is caused by society and infrastructure– but rather because science is made by people who have particular ideas about what is good and right in the world. Sometimes, these ‘good’ and ‘right’ ideas are informed by homophobia, ableism, and sexism (Di Chiro 2010; Gibbons 2016; Chen 2011, 2012). News articles like ‘Otters’ penises are shrinking — and why yours might be too’, or those that warn of ‘male frogs acting like females’ often conflate human concerns about masculinity (i.e. that ‘boys should act like boys’) with effects of EDCs that harm animal life and survival (and these effects are many). Decades of scholarship in both the sciences and humanities has shown that being queer or trans does not prevent animals from reproducing and even flourishing (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson 2010; Roughgarden 2013). There is no obvious connection between queerness, ecological harm, or ‘species declines’– even if these factors are associated with EDCs. Disentangling harm from ideas rooted in homophobia, transphobia and ableism is important as it influences the scientific questions we ask, what counts as truth, the forms of activism we engage in, and the solutions we propose (Shotwell 2016, Lee and Mykytiuk 2018).
2. Many anti-EDC prevention campaigns assume folks are straight, white, rich, and married.
EDC prevention is often characterized by what Dayna Nadine Scott and Norah Mackendrick refer to as ‘precautionary consumption’, where women– who are are positioned by society as the caregivers of their household– are made responsible for protecting their families from EDCs through their purchases (i.e. by shopping) (Scott et al. 2017; Mackendrick 2018). Mothers are given the responsibility for knowing what products contain EDCs and then for avoiding those products by picking the ‘right’ toys for their kids to play with, the ‘right’ food their husbands to eat, or the ‘right’ makeup to wear (MacKendrick 2011, 2014). Not only does this model require money and know-how, it assumes a heterosexual, nuclear family with stereotypical male-female roles– all factors that marginalize women, ignore industry and government accountability, and exclude relationships relevant to many low-income, Black, Indigenous, people of colour, and queer folk (Murphy 2017). Those that don’t fit into the mold of being straight, white, rich, and married are further stigmatized by failing to meet standards of EDC protection and ‘good parenting’ that were not designed for them in the first place.
3. EDCs remind us that sex and sexuality are a process rather than a given state.
Queer, trans and two-spirited folks have long argued that ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ are not stagnant categories inherent to one’s genitals. Rather, they are characteristics that change over time based on a variety of social (historical, cultural, relational) and material (biological, physical, and physiological) factors (Birke 2000; Alaimo 2010). What this means is that it’s normal for your sexuality at age 8 to be different than your sexuality at ages 17, 25, 27, 64, or 100. Bodies change and gender expression (i.e. the clothes you wear, how you talk, act and feel) changes too. What’s important about EDCs is not that environments are now influencing sex and sexuality (they always have!) but rather that environments are doing so in novel ways we must care for, learn from, and be accountable to (Ah- King and Hayward 2014; Hayward 2014). Building societies and infrastructure that care for and support differences in sex, gender, and sexuality– within a society and over the course of a lifetime– continues to be a necessary way forward in creating more just worlds.
Bibliography on Queering EDCs:
Agard-Jones, Vanessa. (2014). Spray. Somatosphere.
Ah-King, Malin., & Hayward, Eva. (2013). Toxic sexes—Perverting pollution and queering hormone disruption. O-Zone: A Journal of Object Oriented Studies, 1. Republished on Technosphere Magazine.
Ahuja, Neel. (2015). Intimate atmospheres: Queer theory in a time of extinctions. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 21(2-3), 365-385.
Alaimo, Stacey (2010). Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Indiana University Press.
Birke, Lynda. (2000). Sitting on the fence: Biology, feminism and gender-bending environments. Women’s Studies International Forum, 23(5), 587-599.
Chen, Mel. Y. (2011). Toxic animacies, Inanimate Affections. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 17(2-3), pp.265-286.
Chen, Mel Y. (2012). Animacies: Biopolitics, racial mattering, and queer affect. Duke University Press. Specifically:
- Chen, Mel. Y. (2012). ‘Chapter 5: Lead’s Racial Matter.’ in Animacies. Pp. 159-188.
- Chen, Mel. Y. (2012). ‘Chapter 6: Following Mercurial Affect.’ in Animacies. Pp. 189-222.
Davis, Heather. (2015). Toxic progeny: The plastisphere and other queer futures. PhiloSOPHIA, 5(2), 231-250.
Di Chiro, Giovanna. (2010). Polluted politics? Confronting toxic discourse, sex panic, and eco-normativity. In Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson (eds.) Queer ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Indiana University Press. Pp.199-230.
Driskill, Qwo-Li (2010), Doubleweaving Two-Spirit Critiques: Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies. GLQ: Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16: 69-92.
Earles, Elise, and Alex Zahara, with KJ Shepherd (2018). “Categories aren’t these things that are just there”: An interview with the CLEAR Lab’s Queer Science Reading Group. Lady Science, July 16.
Gibbons, Sarah. (2016). Disablement, Diversity, Deviation: Disability in an Age of Environmental Risk. PhD Dissertation: University of Waterloo.
Hayward, Eva. (2014). Transxenoestrogenesis. Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(1-2), 255-258.
Johnston, Emily C. (2015) Poisoned Subjects- Testimonial Justice in Toxic Life Narrative. PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan.
Kier, Bailey. (2010). Interdependent ecological transsex: Notes on re/production,“transgender” fish, and the management of populations, species, and resources. Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 20(3), 299-319.
Lee, Robyn, and Roxanne Mykitiuk. (2018). Surviving difference: Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, intergenerational justice and the future of human reproduction. Feminist Theory, DOI: 1464700118764080.
MacKendrick, Norah (2011) The Individualization of Risk as Responsibility and Citizenship: A Case Study of Chemical Body Burdens. PhD thesis, University of Toronto, Canada.
Mackendrick, Norah (2014) More work for mother: Chemical body burdens as a maternal responsibility’. Gender and Society, 28(5): 705–728.
Mackendrick, Norah (2018). Better Safe Than Sorry: How Consumers Navigate Exposure to Everyday Toxics. University of California Press.
Martin, Emily. (1991). The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 16(3), 485-501.
Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona, and Bruce Erickson (eds.) Queer ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Indiana University Press.
Murphy, Michelle. (2013). Distributed reproduction, chemical violence, and latency. Scholar and Feminist Online, 11(3).
Murphy, Michelle. (2017). Alterlife and decolonial chemical relations. Cultural Anthropology, 32(4), 494-503.
O’Laughlin, Lauren. (2016) Interrogating ecofeminisms: Reading endocrine disruptor panics as assemblages. Green Theory and Praxis, 9(6): 25-38.
Oppermann, Serpil. (2016). Toxic bodies and alien agencies: Ecocritical perspectives on ecological others. In Jyotsna G. Singh and David D. Kim (eds). The Postcolonial World. Routledge. Pp. 432-444.
Pollock, Anne. (2016). Queering Endocrine Disruption. In Katherine Behar (ed.) Object-Oriented Feminism. University of Minnesota Press. pp. 183-99.
Roughgarden, Joan. (2013). Evolution’s rainbow: Diversity, gender, and sexuality in nature and people. University of California Press.
Sandilands, Catriona. (2003). Eco Homo: Queering the Ecological Body Politic, Social Philosophy Today, 19, 17-39.
Scott, Dayna Nadine (2009). “Gender-benders”: Sex and law in the constitution of polluted bodies. Feminist Legal Studies, 17(3), 241-265.
Scott, Dayna Nadine (2012). Pollution and the body boundary: exploring scale, gender and remedy. In Janice Richardson and Ericka Rackley (eds.) Feminist Perspectives on Tort Law. Routledge. Pp. 65-89.
Scott, Dayna Nadine, Haw, Jennie., & Lee, Robyn. (2017). ‘Wannabe Toxic-Free?’From precautionary consumption to corporeal citizenship. Environmental Politics, 26(2), 322-342.
Shotwell, Alexis. (2016). ‘Shimmering Presences: Frog, Toad, and Toxic Interdependencies.’ Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. University of Minnesota Press.
TallBear, Kim. (2018). Making Love and Relations Beyond Settler Sex and Family. In Adele E. Clark and Donna Haraway (eds.) Making Kin Not Population. Prickly Paradigm Press. Pp. 135-166.
List Updated May 2019
Alex Zahara is a PhD Candidate in Geography at Memorial University in Newfoundland. His research examines controversies surrounding wildfire and risk management practices in northern Canada. He has published about EDCs in journals Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry and Environmental Science and Technology, and is the organizer of the Queer Science reading group.