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LGBTQ+ Voices in Energy Are Essential for Environmental Justice

Edison Energy and its LGBTQ employee resource group hosted an all-LGBTQ panel at the historic Stonewall Inn last week that focused on how to promote queer representation in the energy sector and, by extension, improve outcomes related to climate change and environmental justice.
Stacy Lentz, co-owner of the Stonewall Inn and CEO of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative, addresses the crowd at the Pride in Power event.

Left to right: Elana Knopp, Zachary Strauss, Avery Hammond, Jenna Patterson and Rashad Williams. Standing at the mic is Stacy Lentz, co-owner of the Stonewall Inn and CEO of the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative (SIGBI). 

Representation is an integral factor to bring about real change — especially as it affects marginalized communities. The power industry, which has historically employed an overly homogenous population of white men, could stand to learn a lot from an influx of diverse people and viewpoints. After all, equity of any type can only be achieved when everyone has a seat at the table and their voices are heeded, not just heard.

With this aim in mind, Edison Energy and its LGBTQ+ employee resource group hosted an all-LGBTQ+ panel at the historic Stonewall Inn last week that focused on how to promote queer representation in the energy sector and, by extension, improve outcomes related to climate change and environmental justice.

Continuing the fight

“The Stonewall is hallowed ground for many of us in the queer community,” said moderator Elana Knopp, the senior content writer at Edison Energy, at the beginning of the event. “It’s literally the epicenter of the gay pride movement." The historic Greenwich Village gay bar was the site of the Stonewall uprising in 1969 that sparked the gay rights movement in New York City and nationwide. 

Renewed efforts by the conservative right to force LGBTQ+, and especially transgender, people back into the closet have heightened the need for this recognition and employee resource groups like Pride in Power. Just as the community’s fight for equal rights faces a massive disinformation campaign from the right wing, so does the fight against climate change, said panelist Brandon Rothrock, an assistant program manager at TRC Companies and board member at OUT for Sustainability, which focuses on mobilizing the LGBTQ+ community for social and environmental action.

The parallel may appear uncanny, as the climate crisis reached emergency proportions in the same timeframe that the Human Rights Campaign declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. It’s the first time in 40 years that the campaign deemed an emergency necessary due to “discriminatory state laws that have created . . . dangerous environments for LGBTQ+ people across the country,” Knopp said. 

Marginalized groups face the brunt of climate change

“One thing that’s been well-documented at this point is that the impacts of climate change have been disproportionately affecting marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ+ people and people of color (POC),” said panelist Rashad Williams, the director of subscriber services at Groundswell, which focuses on expanding equitable access to clean energy. “And when you combine the two, you start seeing a compounding effect of those impacts.”

Those who are both LGBTQ+ and POC have double the unemployment rate of people who are not in those categories, he said. That rate is triple if they are also transgender. Therefore, they’re more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods, which makes them more likely to experience the negative health effects of pollution and climate change, and less likely to have health insurance.

Perhaps the starkest portrayal of these compounding effects is found among the Guna people, an Indigenous group in Panama who are being forced from their island homes on Gardi Sugdub by rising seas. Guna culture is traditionally gender fluid and matrifocal — customs they could lose as they are absorbed and influenced by the majority Catholic and patriarchal social structure in mainland Panama.

Queer-centered action

It’s important to note that the environmental justice movement owes its inception to the BIPOC community, “the same folks that led the Stonewall uprising,” Knopp said. “The environmental justice movement was basically founded on the principle that everyone deserves to breathe clean air and drink clean water and have access to clean neighborhoods.” 

Still, until recently the movement had not specifically focused on the queer community, she said.

The queer perspective is needed in the energy sector to ensure the switch to clean energy benefits everyone. Changes to infrastructure and access will only be as equitable as they are safe, said panelist Zachary Strauss, a policy analyst at Atlas Public Policy and the founder and president of Out in Energy, a community of LGBTQ+ people in the energy sector. Charging stations have to be in safe locations to be fully accessible, and electric buses won’t do the queer community any good if LGBTQ+ people have to risk their well-being to ride them. 

The energy sector still has a long way to go. Workers in the field report the least confidence in their employer’s recruitment and hiring of members from the LGBTQ+ community compared to other marginalized groups, according to a report commissioned by the National Association of State Energy Officials. Panelists noted a few methods energy companies can utilize to better recruit and retain LGBTQ+ individuals, including mentorships, ERGs like Pride in Power, opportunities to socialize during work hours, inclusive language, and utilizing pronouns that make transgender and non-binary people feel safe as their authentic selves in the workplace. 

Ultimately it starts from the top with a need for leadership to speak out and support the community by investing in the workforce, Strauss said. As well as “retention through affirmation” by ensuring people don’t have to hide who they are in the workplace.

Taking a stand when there are no guarantees 

The clean energy sector does appear to be more conducive to LGBTQ+ employment, but the industry as a whole continues to struggle with anti-queer prejudice. Last year’s Pride in Energy survey found a 40 percent increase in discrimination over 2021.

While allies can, and must, do their part to support LGBTQ+ voices and action, there is no guarantee that power companies will do what’s needed going forward — especially under the current climate in which corporations that have historically presented themselves as allies are backtracking. 

“It’s a little bit trickier making sure that your company takes a stand,” said Avery Hammond, Edison Energy’s senior clean energy analyst. “That’s a decision that’s not left up to most of us — none of us actually.”

This is why it’s more important than ever for allies and LGBTQ+ individuals to speak up, demand better, and reward companies that continue to fight the good fight. True environmental justice depends on it. 

Environmental justice is, after all, a matter of civil rights.

Image courtesy of Edison Energy

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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